Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Sometime during the exile following the destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple (586 B.C.E.), a rift emerged between Israel’s hereditary priestly classes: the Levites and Kohanim. The Kohanim won the conflict of power, assuming religio-political dominance in post-exilic Jerusalem. The Levites were consequently reduced to subordinate roles in the restored Temple. Kohanim conducted sacrifices and administered the religion; Levites prepared the sacrifices, held custodial and clerical duties, and provided music for the Temple service. Whether the latter activity—singing and instrument playing—was really ancillary is debatable. According to some sources, the purpose and efficacy of cultic ceremonies relied entirely on the Levites’ musical presentation.
The writings of Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.–30 C.E.), a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, portray the high priest entering mystical awareness with the aid of music. Midrashic literature similarly shows the high priest reaching music-induced ecstasy. Attaining this elevated state was crucial for the high priest’s vocation, which rested on his perceived ability to access and make palpable the divine presence. The music he listened to was not just beautiful; it enabled him to channel and absorb spiritual energy from the heavenly source.
A passage from Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen, a thirteenth-century kabbalist, elaborates on this musical-magical-mystical phenomenon. Though a late source, its imagery is rooted in earlier material. The rabbi affirms the hierarchical structure of the priestly system, ascribing different levels of understanding (greater and lesser) to the high priest and the musicians. But he also highlights the imperativeness of music in facilitating mystical union, implying that without music the rite would not succeed: “[The high priest’s] power is awakened by the sweetness of the song and the pure prayer. So do the musicians direct their fingers, according to their elevation and understanding, on the key-holes [of wind instruments] and on strings, arousing the song and the melody to direct their hearts toward God. Thus the blessings are aroused and the divine presence resides in them, each one according to his performance and according to his understanding.”
Central to this passage is a progression from music to concentration to theurgy. The high priest first listens to the music, then enters a spiritual state, then achieves a theurgical aim: influencing the supernal structure to release its concentrated energy in the mortal world. According to Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen and others who have written on the subject, it is musical sound that grants the high priest access to divine power, which he harnesses and directs toward a desired end.
This scenario is an instructive study in music perception. Frequently, musical strains are felt as sacred portals connecting natural and supernatural realms. The energy music exerts on our minds and bodies is often beyond mundane description, thus lending itself to otherworldly explanations. Specific concepts and formulations vary from culture to culture and system to system; but the force of music rarely evades spiritual interpretation. This earned the Levites a permanent—albeit secondary—place in the Temple rite, and has guaranteed the inclusion of music in virtually all spiritual paths.
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