Parshat Chukat

Torah Reading for the Week of June 22-28, 2014


“Whistle While You Work”
By Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D. ’10, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Music History


Japanese poet Matsuo Basho wrote, “The seed of all song is the farmer’s busy hum as he plants his rice.” Work songs are among the earliest and most basic types of music making. Whether they come from the lips of a solitary farmer or a team of builders, songs are an intuitive means of easing the burden of daily tasks and toils. In the case of collective labor, rhythmic and repetitive tunes help consolidate energies, coordinate movements, and give shape and purpose to the group. Work songs have been used to good advantage in cultures far and wide, ancient and modern, and seem to be as ubiquitous as work itself. It is, then, no shock to find songs accompanying labor in the Hebrew Bible.

Like much of the Bible’s musical references, work songs are somewhat hidden in the larger narrative. Rather than pausing to tell us that workers are singing, the text gives strong (though subtle) clues regarding the practice. One example comes from Parshat Chukat, a portion most known for its red heifer, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and the striking of a rock. Amidst this eventful narrative is a song offered by the Israelites upon the springing of water from a well. It is one of the oldest poems in the Hebrew Bible, and was likely a standard work song for well diggers. In the Hebrew, the verses display a regular pattern of strong accents suggestive of a driving rhythm.


Spring up, O well—sing to it—

The well which the chieftains dug,

Which the nobles of the people started

With maces, with their own staffs. (Num. 21:17b-18)


Given the universal nature of work songs, it is not unwarranted to imagine the Israelites singing in a manner analogous to chain gangs hammering railroad spikes or deckhands hoisting up sails. Of course, details of these and other songs of labor differ depending on place of origin and type of job, but they are nevertheless linked in fundamental ways. In all contexts, the music exhibits a constant pulse and melodic momentum—elements that unify group focus and regulate collective efforts. Frequently, too, the lyrics bolster feelings of cooperation by giving voice to shared values, hopes and concerns. In ancient Israel, laborers probably composed songs with like aims and sang them in a similarly synchronized way.

Work songs are still prevalent in the contemporary West, though they sometimes take on new forms. Driving a car with the stereo on has replaced the songs of oarsmen powering their vessel. Piped-in music at the supermarket is heard in place of the chants of hunter-gatherers. Construction workers hammer along to the radio instead of singing their own tunes. Yet, while these modern forms tend to foster a more passive, less communal experience, work songs old and new are motivated by a common principle: music reduces the strain and drudgery of everyday tasks.

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