Monday, September 12, 2011

Some 18th century references to the not-yet-controversial synagogue organ(s?) in Prague.

Here are some sources mentioning the Prague organ, that is, the organ used for kabbolas shabbos in the Meisels Synagogue in Prague, which was invoked as a precedent in the 19th century debate about organs in the synagogue.

The first is from Ezra Stiles, 18th century president of Yale, and a Hebraist. This passage from his diaries is from June of 1773 (published in 1902), and concerns some things that Rabbi Carigal, his guest from Hebron told him:

The second is from 1776, in Charles Burney's A General History of Music: From the Earliest Ages to the Present:

The third is from 1809, not long before the polemic over the organ would actually begin (1819). This is in Robert Adam's "The religious world displayed, or, a View of the Four Grand Systems of Religion, Judaism, Paganism, Christianity, and Mohammedism."

These are interesting, because R. Yechiel Goldhaber found that after 1719 there is no reference to the Prague organ, until the 1819 letter from the Prague Bet Din in which the existence of this organ was confirmed ( with the disclaimer that the music ceases a half hour before shabbos). Here are three sources later than 1719.

The early 18th century source he refers to is Schudt's Jüdische Merckwürdigkeiten. Actually, he doesn't provide all the references in this book. Here is one which he missed (Vol. IV pg. 155), although he refers to the same thing, namely a 1716 Yiddish newspaper called the Neue Zeitung which refers to one Reb Maier Mahler's building and playing of the organ, which had cost 400 gulden. According to this, this organ was in the Altneuschul:


  1. Reb Maier Mahler built the organ rather than the building, which is even more interesting. As far as I know, he mentioned elsewhere, unfortunately.

  2. … he isn't mentioned elsewhere…

  3. Why Meisels synagogue? Altneushul (Old-new Synagogue, late 13th century, main synagogue in Prague) had a organ too in the 18th century. The Noda BiYehuda used to sit close to it...

  4. My question is about the first sentence of the article, not the last one...

  5. The caveat is that I haven't really researched this, but I see that there are some doubters that the Altneuschul actually had an organ, while the Maisels shul undoubtedly did. Schudt would seem to give irrefutable proof that the Altneu did have one. I guess I was trying to hedge my bets.

    Lipman, this is probably his wife's grave (1740)

    Interesting. Her father and husband were both called Meir.

    Sorry about the confusion - I didn't word that sentence properly. I meant "building and the playing of the organ," not that he built the building!

  6. Is there really any serious claim (against all the evidence) the Altneu had an organ?

  7. I don't remember, but I think that the problem is that there aren't any first hand accounts as there are in Meisels (unless the excerpt quoted by Schudt is such an account). Rather the references are from people who assumed that "shul in Prague" = the Altneuschul. My understanding is that there isn't "all the evidence" but rather very slim evidence. Put altneuschul organ into Google Books, and the first few results give some info. There is contradictory information out there, including specific denials that the Altneu had an organ. I don't know how to be machria. In David Ellenson's "After Emancipation" he quotes Alexander Putik who points out that any organ had to be portable, since neither the Meisels nor the Altneuschul had a place for an organ. If so, maybe this accounts for the contradictory information. I will say though that 400 gulden sounds a little high for a portable organ!

  8. In David Ellenson's "A Disputed Precedent: The Prague Organ in Nineteenth-Century Central-European Legal Literature and Polemics"
    there is picture of a procession of Prague Jews from 1716 that includes a portable organ.

  9. "The third is from 1809, not long before the polemic over the organ would actually begin (1819)"

    Interesting that it took 30 years before the issue became a full blown controversy.

    By the way, I am sure you are aware that Hakham Yisrael Moshe Hazan of Alexandria was a big fan of the organ and expressed his admiration for Church Music.

    Also interesting to note that Karaites (at least the ones of Egyptian origin forbid any music in the Synagogue worship (because of the state of the Temple) and on Sabbath an added issue melacha, i.e. it would be a violation of כל מלאכת עבודה לא תעשו
    Which I think it ridiculous given the fact that we know that music was played in the Temple on Shabbat מזמור שיר ליום השבת טוב להודות ליהוה ולזמר לשמך עליון...עלי עשור ועלי נבל עלי הגיון בכינור

  10. "By the way, I am sure you are aware that Hakham Yisrael Moshe Hazan of Alexandria was a big fan of the organ and expressed his admiration for Church Music."

    I am, although I never really thought of him as from Alexandria.

    It didn't take 30 years. The organ in the Meisels shul goes back at least to 1679, when the reference to it is made in the siddur appended to Bass's Siftei Yeshenim.

    The controversy erupted partly because if the Reformers said "day" the opponents would have said "night" and partly because they were not proposing moderate use of it, like in the Prague shuls, but use of it on shabbos.

    Music was played in the Temple? How about tending to fires, slaughtering animals?

    Naturally the polemic over the organ included much about the fact that music was deemed appropriate for the Temple and nowhere else, except weddings. In fact, the Prague organ for kabbalas shabbos was justified on the grounds that it was a metaphor for a wedding and not a regular tefillah.

  11. I don't see any evidence that music was forbidden on shabbat outside the Temple, but then again neither do I see proof for it. However, to say that is melakha, is something that even Rabbanites never did afaik it's forbidden שמא תקנום

  12. Well, you know I don't really know of any way to really define melacha apart for tradition or intuition. Didn't the Karaites consider sex melacha? Do they still, perhaps?

    Don't forget that rabbinic tradition defines melacha as the labors required to build the mishkan (or, a cynic would say, the labors of life in Eretz Yisrael in the 2nd Temple period). Neither of these would involve playing a musical instrument although the rabbis banned it anyway. I would translate "שמא תקנום" as "not shabbosdik." However, it is definitely consistent with the tradition not to define it as melacha.

  13. Some Karaite did indeed consider sex on shabbat a melacha (that of sowing and plowing to be exact...), but if I remember correctly, most Karaite hakhamim eventually rejected that reason and cited rather the prohibition of attending Synagogue in a state of tum'ah.

    Perhaps, like cholent, the 'sex on shabbat is a mitzvah' may have come about להוציא מלבם של צדוקים...

  14. However, to say that is melakha, is something that even Rabbanites never did afaik it's forbidden שמא תקנום

    See Yitzhak Gilat's writings about melakhoth. He argues that in Second Temple Times, Jews agreed about what was forbidden on the Sabbath, but had not placed all the actions into neat categories. Only later, the rabbis categorized certain actions as "melakhoth" -- but still considered the other actions, such as playing musical instruments, forbidden, just as they always had been.



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