Parshat Bereshit

Torah Reading for Week of September 28 – October 2, 2010

“Music and Civilization”

by Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, ’10

The use of music as entertainment is a late and relatively rare phenomenon in human history. Rather than an end in itself, music most often serves as an aid to other, non-musical, objectives and events. Musical tones accompany ceremonies, rituals, and celebrations throughout the world. Songs and chants are frequently used to transmit messages, stories, values, and ideals. Music’s many utilitarian genres include work songs, lullabies, military marches, and national anthems. These observations point to the fact that music is much more than a peripheral concern. Since ancient times, music has been a constant and indispensable part of human life. Allusion to this is even made in Parshat Bereshit, the opening chapters of the Torah.

The first reference to music in the Bible appears in a compressed passage in Genesis listing the descendants of Cain and the growth of human civilization (Gen. 4:17-22). As in many ancient cultures, the Bible links the invention of music with a mythological personage. His name is Jubal, “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (v. 21).

This short verse is the only place Jubal appears in the biblical text; we have no other accounts of his personality or the music that he made. However, this paucity of information does not necessarily negate Jubal’s status or significance. On the contrary, it may be an indication that music—and perhaps the Jubal legend—was so well known in Israelite culture that further descriptions were not needed. As musicologist Alfred Sendrey explained, “The biblical authors took it for granted that the people were thoroughly familiar with musical matters, so that they considered it unnecessary to indulge in long descriptions and minute details” (Music in Ancient Israel, p. 60).

Jubal’s importance is also gleaned from the context in which he is found. In the same passage, we read that his brother, Jabal, was the first to raise cattle (v. 20), and his half-brother, Tubal-cain, “forged all implements of copper and iron” (v. 22). Mention of music’s invention alongside the origins of cattle raising and tool forging reveals an early recognition of the vital role of music in society. Indeed, the Torah seems to imply that herding, metal forging, and music making are the three fundamental professions upon which humanity depends.

Music in ancient Israel was almost entirely of a practical kind, or Gebrauchsmusik. It served a variety of daily purposes, like education and divine worship. And, from those days to the present, the collective memories, oral histories, wisdom, and sacred stories of the Jewish people have been contained and passed on in musical tones. Thus, while Jabal can be seen as the ancestor of food production and Tubal-Cain as the ancestor of technology, Jubal is in many ways the ancestor of knowledge.

It is tempting to group music among life’s superfluous or auxiliary elements. But doing so ignores the role of melody in conveying ideas and information, facilitating social bonding and cohesion, and a host of other functions. Historically and cross-culturally, music resides at the center rather than the fringes of human experience. This is why we find music placed prominently in the stories of Creation. Without Jubal, the Torah teaches, civilization would be incomplete.

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