Ask the Rabbi: Is non-Jewish music allowed for prayers?

Historically-speaking, many rabbis believed that the incorporation of non-Jewish religious tunes in prayer rituals was strictly forbidden, but is the same true of all non-Jewish music?

morning prayers (photo credit: IPPA)
morning prayers
(photo credit: IPPA)
In our previous column, we discussed the permissibility of laying wreaths at funerals and its relationship to the biblical prohibition of imitating non-Jewish behaviors (hukat hagoyim). We noted that the dominant strand of halachists only proscribed foreign rituals that are idolatrous in nature, or alternatively those with no apparent reason.
Such nonsensical practices were deemed illogical to adopt unless one desired to imitate foreign culture, and were further suspect for idolatrous origins.
This prohibition took on many manifestations.
The Talmud forbade certain hairstyles that were apparently tied to certain cult figures (Beit Yosef YD 178). Maimonides went further to claim that the Bible prohibited shaving with a razor because this was the custom of idolatrous priests (Hilchot Akum 12:7). Others sharply criticized this interpretation because it implied that God’s commandments were subjective to cultural norms, which vary in time and place.
Some decisors included giving children non-Jewish names within this prohibition (Maharam Schick YD 169). Others, however, noted that even in talmudic times Jews utilized names from their surrounding cultures (Maharshdam YD 199). Contending that this phenomenon stemmed from the use of the local dialect, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein permitted such names, even as he discouraged names with definite religious associations, such as Mary or Lucas (Igrot Moshe OC 5:10).
Some protested the use of the Gregorian calendar, which uses the alleged birthdate of Jesus as its beginning point, as well as months named after Roman gods (such as January for Janus). Rabbi Ovadia Yosef defended its prevalent use as stemming from pragmatic needs to use the international civil calendar (Yabia Omer YD 3:9). While further noting that Jesus was clearly born before the year 1, he nonetheless encouraged writers to annotate that this was a non-Jewish calendar (“leminyanam” in Hebrew). Writers in English frequently add CE (Common Era) to signal their use of the civil calendar, as opposed to the AD used in Christian annotation.
As Rabbi Michael Broyde has documented (JHCS 30), some figures, like Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, opposed celebrating the American Thanksgiving holiday because it was created by Christians and celebrated annually according to their calendar (Igrot Pahad Yitzhak p.109). Most figures, including Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, deemed it a civil holiday with no definitive religious affiliation (Nefesh Ha-Rav p. 231), even as some suggested occasionally skipping its observance to prevent it from becoming like an obligatory religious holiday (Igrot Moshe EH 2:13).
More problematic situations arise with the appropriation of rites with definitive non-Jewish associations. Some scholars asserted that Jewish law ultimately prohibited the use of a sacrificial altar (mizbeah), even though it was regularly used by the biblical forefathers, because it was a major apparatus for idol worship (Tosafot Avoda Zara 11a). Some have further contended that Jews do not worship with outspread arms, despite biblical precedent, because it remains too similar to foreign methods (Be’er Sheva 74).
The Sages similarly debated whether any rituals with definitive Jewish origins remained permissible if there were analogous practices among idolaters (Sanhedrin 52b). The Talmud further mentions a number of rituals, including elements of the daily sacrificial order, which were altered to distinguish them from non-Jewish practices (Tamid 30b). While many congregations adorn their synagogues on Shavuot with green foliage, the Vilna Gaon prohibited this custom because he deemed it too similar to church holiday decorations (Hochmat Adam 89:1).
These strictures became extremely prominent in 19th-century polemics against many synagogue innovations introduced by the Reform movement.
As a part of the modernization of the service, many Reform leaders moved the location of the bima (Torah reading platform) and added the musical accompaniment of an organ. These innovations were slammed by Orthodox opponents as prohibited mimicry of gentile worship (Melamed Leho’il OC 16). Some have criticized the adorning of “cantorial garb” as imitating non-Jewish clergy, even as this remains popular in many circles (Pit’hei Teshuvot 53:15).
Historically it seems clear that non-Jewish music has impacted Jewish song and rhyme, ranging from medieval Jewish poetry to hassidic tunes to the Maccabeats. Some authorities greatly opposed such influence, and banned the use of even secular tunes to sing prayers. Others took a more liberal approach, allowing one to incorporate these contemporary beats, especially if the origins were no longer known (Birkei Yosef OC 560:6).
Many believed that the incorporation of non- Jewish religious tunes was strictly forbidden (MB 53:82). Yet a 19th-century chief rabbi of Rome, Yisrael M. Hazan, permitted Jews to stand outside churches to learn choral music for Jewish services (Krech Shel Romi 1). While Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg excoriated him for this opinion (Tzitz Eliezer 13:12), it was largely defended by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, even as he raised concerns that worshipers would begin to think or sing the original inappropriate lyrics (Yehaveh Da’at 2:5). All affirm that any incorporated tune should remain appropriate to the content and context of the given prayer – something that, alas, many prayer leaders regularly forget.
The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.