QUESTION: The Mishnah teaches that when the Sanhedrin ceased to convene, the Chachamim prohibited song at celebrations, as the verse says, "They do not drink wine with song" (Yeshayah 24:9). The Gemara in Gitin (7a) cites a second verse from which it learns that the prohibition against song applies not only to musical instruments but to vocal song (with no musical accompaniment) as well.
The words of the Mishnah, and the verse which provides the source for the prohibition, imply that the prohibition against song applies only at a Beis ha'Mishteh, a party or celebration, or while drinking wine. The Gemara, however, teaches that "any ear that hears song shall be cut off," and that if there is song in a house "destruction is at its doorstep." The Gemara continues and says that even "the song of the weavers" (which accompanies them as they weave) is prohibited. These statements imply that there is a universal prohibition against song which applies even while one is not celebrating or dining. How are these contradictory implications to be reconciled?
(a) TOSFOS in Gitin (7a) quotes the Yerushalmi which states that a person should not arise in the morning and retire at night to the accompaniment of song. Tosfos infers from there that listening to song on a frequent and consistent basis is prohibited even while one is not dining. According to Tosfos, the Gemara which prohibits music in the home (and not only at a party) may refer to people who constantly listen to music. The song of the weavers was sung on a constant basis and for an extended period of time each day.
(RASHI (DH Batel Zimra) writes that when Rav Huna decreed that song is prohibited, he included even song in one's home in the prohibition. However, it does not seem that this decree endured.)
(b) The RAMBAM (Hilchos Ta'anis 5:14) implies that although song without musical accompaniment is prohibited only while one drinks wine (as Tosfos writes), nevertheless listening to the melodies of musical instruments is prohibited at all times. The Rambam apparently understands that the Gemara which prohibits listening to song even in one's home and not only while dining refers to song with musical instruments.
This prohibition (against listening to song with musical instruments at any time) apparently was enacted after the prohibition mentioned in the Mishnah. The RI'AZ (see (c) below) implies that this is the prohibition to which the Mishnah later (49a) refers when it says that "Irus," a type of musical instrument, became prohibited after the invasion and conquest of Vespasian.
(c) The RI'AZ, cited by the SHILTEI GIBORIM on the Rif in Berachos (chapter 5), rules even more stringently. He writes that the song of the weavers, and any song which is sung out of frivolity and is intended to lighten the heart, is always prohibited because it draws a person towards bad deeds and character traits. Song is permitted only when it serves a specific purpose and is not simply for entertainment.
The TOSFOS RID seems to understand that the prohibition of song even without musical instruments is not related to the Churban of the Beis ha'Mikdash. Even while the Beis ha'Mikdash is standing, frivolous song is prohibited. This is the explanation for the statements in the Gemara here which denounce the listening to song.
Why was it necessary for the Chachamim to prohibit song at parties when the Sanhedrin ceased to convene? It seems from the Yerushalmi (cited by HE'OROS B'MASECHES SOTAH) that as long as there was a Sanhedrin, the representatives of the Sanhedrin would oversee the celebrations and ensure that the people would not be drawn to sin. Although song was a objectionable practice, there was no need to officially prohibit it while the Sanhedrin convened, because the Sanhedrin would ensure that the people not be drawn to sin. After the Sanhedrin lost its authority and could not appoint overseers, it became necessary to enact a general prohibition against song so that people would not be drawn to sin during celebrations.
The Ri'az adds that the Chachamim later made an additional decree to prohibit "Irus," which refers to musical instruments such as tambourines and harps. If song was already prohibited even without musical instruments, what did this additional decree add? The Ri'az explains that song without instruments is permitted for a purpose, such as to soothe a baby and help it fall asleep, while song with instruments is prohibited even for such a purpose.
(d) The RAMBAM (in Teshuvos #224) cited by the TUR (OC 560) writes that singing even without musical accompaniment is prohibited at all times (in contrast to what the Rambam implies in his ruling in Mishneh Torah, as cited in (b) above). According to the Rambam, it is clear why the Chachamim in the Gemara here attribute such punishments to those who listen to song at any time.
The reasoning and source for the Rambam's ruling are not clear. It is possible that he follows the view of the Tosfos Rid who rules that song is prohibited at all times because of frivolity. However, the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah writes that the prohibition of song was enacted because of the requirement to mourn for the Beis ha'Mikdash. When the Rambam writes in his Teshuvah that song is prohibited, he likely means that it is prohibited due to mourning, based on the Mishnah here.
Why, though, does the Mishnah mention that song is prohibited specifically during celebrations if the prohibition applies at all times? The VILNA GA'ON (on the Rambam, Hilchos Ta'anis, ibid.) explains that the main objective of the Chachamim was to prohibit song at celebrations. The reason the Chachamim prohibited song at all times was to ensure that no singing would occur at celebrations.
Why was it necessary to prohibit the musical instrument called "Irus" at a later time if song without instrumentation was already prohibited? The Vilna Ga'on explains that the "Irus" was a primitive form of musical instrument which did not make a melody by itself (such as a bell or tambourine), and thus it was not included in the first prohibition.
HALACHAH: The SHULCHAN ARUCH (OC 560:3) cites the words of the Rambam in Hilchos Ta'anis ((b) above) who writes that song without instruments is prohibited only while one drinks wine, and song with instruments is prohibited at all times.
The REMA cites the opinion of TOSFOS and RASHI ((a) above) who are even more lenient and rule that both song with instruments and song without instruments is prohibited only while one drinks wine, or when one listens to song frequently and consistently.
The MISHNAH BERURAH (OC 560:13) cites the BACH who sides with the more stringent opinions that song is prohibited at all times, even without musical accompaniment (like (c) and (d) above). In SHA'AR HA'TZIYUN, however, he permits singing to lull a baby to sleep (like (c) above). RAV MOSHE FEINSTEIN zt'l (IGROS MOSHE OC 1:166) writes that although he considers the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch to be the primary Halachic opinion (and thus song without instruments is permitted when one is not dining and when one does not do it regularly), nevertheless a "Ba'al Nefesh" should be stringent and conduct himself in accordance with the ruling of the Mishnah Berurah.
(This discussion refers only to songs which contain no form of profanity or moral depravity. Obviously, songs which contain profanity or moral depravity are forbidden at all times, even when their words are merely spoken and not sung.)
The Poskim cite the RIF in Berachos (chapter 5, in the name of the Ge'onim) who rules that the prohibitions of song after the Churban of the Beis ha'Mikdash apply only to "songs of romance" and songs which describe beauty. Songs of praise to Hash-m and songs which describe Hash-m's kindness are permitted even during celebrations and while one drinks wine, and even with musical accompaniment. The Rema adds that one is also permitted to play songs for the sake of a Mitzvah, such as in order to bring joy to a Chasan and Kalah.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (101a) prohibits composing a song from a verse in the Torah. The Rif in Berachos (ibid.) cites this prohibition as the Halachah. Although the Shulchan Aruch does not record this Halachah, the MAGEN AVRAHAM (cited by the Mishnah Berurah 560:14) records this Halachah and writes that even at the Shabbos table one should not sing songs composed from verses, unless the songs are universally accepted songs that the Jewish people are accustomed to singing.