Magrepha – the liberal Jewish”big bang theory”

January 19, 2011

Some 200 years ago in July 1810 the first musical organ was introduced in the ”Jacobstempel” of Israel Jacobson (1768-1828) in Seesen (near Hannover), Germany. The prototype of Jewish “reform synagogues” in Germany was destroyed in 1938 by the Germans. The  first regular congregations adopted the organ in the following 1810s in Hamburg and Berlin. In Bavaria the first organ was introduced in Augsburg in 1865. Ever since the debate over “instrumental music” highlights a division in the Jewish community.

In English the German word Orgel is organ, but has many more and quite different meanings. An organ not just is a musical instrument, it also may be a newspaper, as the organ of a company or association. It might be a part of the (human or animal) body , but you can’t be so sure about that, since there also are hand -, mouth – or chest organs, which obviously are not. So whenever you are in doubt, it applies or not, ask at your local organ bank, or dealer if there is none. At least also in regions where there are no banks, there maybe is organ trade or possibly even organ donors, builders or players. So there obviously is a variety of organs and if you do not know the context in which the word is used it may be that you mix up the meaning .

Obviously that also was the case regarding the Hebrew word מגרפה (magrefa or magrepha) which often is translated as “organ” in the sense of a musical instrument, allegedly used in the Jewish temple of Jerusalem. That is what has been maintained by reformers of the synagogue service in the 19th and 20th century who wanted to introduce church organs. They referred to passages in the Talmud which note a gadget named “magrefa” allegedly considered by one interpreter to be a “musical instrument”. So the argument was that if even in the holy temple it was practice to play an organ, so of course there may be no reason to reject the organ as strange, alien, untypical instrument. The reform just would be to tie in with a much brighter past. So remarkably even the “Jewish Encyclopedia” in 1911 stated: “The Temple organ very likely was the “magrefa” mentioned in the Talmud as one of the instruments of the sanctuary. It is described by Samuel as consisting of ten pipes, each pipe having ten holes; a total of 100 notes was thus obtainable.”

However there is some confusion. The mentioned magrefa had been a tool described as a kind of shovel, while the Hebrew word today is widely used for a rake, but there are of many transitional forms, depending on the intended purpose. Actually the Mishna refers to Kohanim in the Bet Mikdash in Jerusalem who were offering of the incence. At the area between the mizbe’ach (“altar”) and the ulam (“lobby”) – what according to another Mishna is some 11 m distance – they picked up the magrefa and throw it down to earth. The noise so it is said had been so loud that no one in Jerusalem was able to hear what someone has told him. That is the basic information. Later that statement was commented in the Gemara by Shmuel, a first generation Amora in Babylon, who lived some 150 years after Mered Bar Kokbba. His statement refers to the loudness and so he says that the magrefa had 100 sounds, later comments suggested it could emit a thousand sounds. Obviously there is the rub. If you understand the portrayel of a person who of course had been no eye-witness in the way that there were hundred or thousand different tones, possibly even selectable, the idea of an organ as music instrument is more or less obligatory. You only may ask yourself why it always was thrown at a stone floor in order to play it …

Ancient Jewish shovels from the Bar Kochba cave of letters, discovered by Yigal Yadin in 1960

Another way to understand Shmuels account on hundred tones of course is to refer his statement to the alleged loudness of the magrepha when it was thrown to the floor in the temple as it is stated in the Mishna (another version even refers to Jericho). In question was to explain the extraordinary loudness of an obviously rather small gadget in the size of one cubit (some 20 inches or 50 cm). His approach explained the volume of the bang with seemingly 100 simultaneously noises. The text  however only has קולה what of course is no plural. He would say the sound was a hundred times louder than one would expect. Later comments extended it to a thousand times. It is therefore a mere exaggeration, or let’s say a metaphor or comparison. Also today we would put it that way to express “there was such a deafening noise, so that you were unable to hear yourself speak”. Nothing more to explain than that was the intention of the Mishna and Shmuel.

The magrefa we are talking about was a tool, a shovel or dustpan which was made of wood, plate or sheet iron. Some versions had a number of tines on one end, as we know it from a fork. That’s why the current understanding of the word in Hebrew is a garden rake. The magrefa in question is specified as a tool of one cubit size. The magrefa usually was used for brushing away the ashes from the altar, but as the Mishna states the priests also threw it to the stone floor and the result was a loud noice. Neither the dropping nor the bang however were mishaps as one might assume but a deliberate acoustic signal, which addressed three different purposes and people:

כוהן שהוא שומע את קולה, יודע שאחיו הכוהנים נכנסים להשתחוות; והוא רץ ובא.

  ובן לוי שהוא שומע את קולה, יודע שאחיו הלויים נכנסין לדבר בשיר; והוא רץ ובא.

  וראש המעמד היה מעמיד את הטמאים בשערי המזרח.


(Tamid 5.6: A Kohen who heard the noise knew that his fellow Kohen were going in to prostrate themselves and would come running; when a Levi heard the noise he knew that his fellow Levi were going to start chanting and would come running; and the head of the warden would assemble the ritually impure in the eastern gate.)

Well, without getting bogged down too much to further details of the service in the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem, it is clear that the dropping of the magrefa was an intended acoustic signal in the temple, calling the intention to the beginning of the ceremony and advising all to be at the proper place, the priests, the Levites and the warden master who walked out the impure from the inner zone. The puzzling question is why the dropping of a tin or iron shovel was used for that purpose instead of a bell, drum, shofar, trumpet or a vuvuzela, etc. The answer would be that all of these were  music instruments and therefore not qualified for giving a signal. It would be questionable whether a modern temple could use sirens for it, as we know it from ambulances.

However that be, the idea that the magrefa would be a organ like musically instrument and was used that way in the temple service in Jerusalem for a couple of reasons is kind of absurd:

1. The magrefa usually is described as a tool. Sometimes it appears to be a kind of shovel, sometimes it seems to be a kind of rake, with spiky jags for instance to harvest olives.

2. If the magrefa would had been a real musical instrument, why it was “played” by throwing it at a stone floor? Would it have been possible to produce different sounds or even playing a kind of melody or tune when dropping it? Or would the priest would have to pick it up and throw it to the floor again and again.

3. Apart from the practical point of view, which seems to be too vigorous and too silly for a respectful person in a holy place, to play instruments in the temple however was the task of the Levites, but the magrepha was dropped by a Kohen.

4. The noise of the dropped magrefa within the context of the text of the Mishna leaves no doubt that it involves an acoustic signal. A signal intelligibly to all needs to be unambiguous and decisive. A sequence of hundred or more different noises of course would be just the opposite.

5. The accounts for the noise by the dropped magrefa simply express the loudness of an iron tool which fell on a stone floor. Just take an iron shovel without wooden or plastic parts on it and give it a shot. The sound pressure at the collision on a stone floor is similar to a jack hammer in a yard distance (ca. 100 dB).

6. The lively description that no one in whole Jerusalem could hear anything else when he magrefa was dropped to the floor of course only is a comparison to convey an idea of the din.

7. As the magrefa in the temple was no musical instrument and of course no organ, the narration that people could hear the sound even in Jericho likewise is no indication of the magrefa as forerunner of the telephone.

So the conclusion is that the study of the meaning as well as proper use of a magrefa (מגרפה) must be learned what also is the lession to be learned from the video:

Vor rund 200 Jahren wurde in Seesen, zwischen Hannover und Goettingen von Israel Jacobson die erste Synagogenorgel eingeführt. In den Folgejahren fanden sich nur wenige einzelne Nachahmer, doch bereits einige Jahrzehnte später war es eins der zumindest vordergründigen Konfliktfelder, die die jüdische Gemeinschaft in Deutschland spaltete und nachhaltig schwächte. Die Befürworter einer “Synagogenreform” argumentierten, die Orgel in der Reformsynagoge sei keine bloße Anbiederung an das Christentum, sondern seinen Ursprung gar im jüdischen Tempel von Jerusalem habe, wäre demnach originär jüdisch und älter als jedes denkbare christliche Vorbild. Das klang sicher selbstbewusst wie verlockend, basierte aber auf  der wohl absichtlichen Missdeutung einer Passage aus der Mischna in welcher davon berichtet wird, dass im Tempeldienst ein als “magrepha” bezeichnetes Werkzeug auf dem Boden geworfen, um einen Signalton zu geben.

Spätere Kommentatoren erklärten den lauten Krach mit hundert, ja sogar mit tausend Tönen, was nun eben … als Orgel umgedeutet wurde, ohne freilich erklären zu können, warum man das Instrument dadurch spielte indem man es auf einen Steinboden warf. Tatsächlich umschrieb der talmudische Text damit nur die hundertfache oder tausendfache Stärke des Lärms, den man in ganz Jerusalem, ja sogar “bis nach Jericho” noch habe hören können – aus letzterem schließt trotzdem niemand, dass das Gerät, bei dem es sich um eine wohl gusseiserne Schaufel für die Kohlen des Brandopfers handelte, etwa ein Voläufer des modernen Telefons gewesen sei.