Musical instruments and avoda zara: Can I use a Tibetan singing bowl for meditation if it's also used in pagan services? - Matan - The Sadie Rennert

Musical instruments and avoda zara: Can I use a Tibetan singing bowl for meditation if it’s also used in pagan services? Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Adar 5783 | March 2023

Topic : Avoda zara , Shayla ,


If an instrument is used for avoda zara (foreign worship) is it forbidden? Are all such instruments forbidden or only the actual ones used, for example, singing bowls used in Eastern religions or special drums in Africa or Native American flutes?
I saw that Shulchan Aruch said one can’t listen to musical instruments used for avoda zara.
If I were to buy a new instrument or make one such as those used in rituals of avoda zara can I use it as a normal instrument? I was looking for music or instruments that will aid my own meditation and I was encouraged to try a singing bowl and a certain Asian flute. I was thinking of buying one on an inexpensive mass retail website.

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The short answer is that buying such instruments on such a site is generally permitted because, on several levels, they’re not specifically designated for avoda zara (worship of false gods). Nevertheless, there are a few things to be careful about.

Musical instruments and avoda zara:

You referred to Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 142:15, “It is prohibited to listen to instruments of idol worshippers or look at the beauty of idols, because one is enjoying the sight.”

This halakha stems from the prohibition against deriving pleasure from avoda zara, along with anything used to serve or beautify avoda zara, and anything that was offered or consecrated to it.[1] Therefore, musical instruments consecrated to avoda zara are clearly prohibited.

What’s the status of the music that comes from these instruments?

The idea that music is also prohibited is based on a gemara that rules that, even though it is intangible, one derives benefit when enjoying sights, smells, and sounds, therefore there is a rabbinic prohibition against deriving such personal enjoyment from the Temple service.[2]

Rabbeinu Yerucham learns from here that one may not listen to music from instruments of avoda zara.[3]  Rav Hillel Ben Naphtali Herz indicates both listening to music from musical instruments consecrated to these false gods, and music or singing that is a form of worship or accompanies the worship are prohibited.[4]

Nevertheless, “accessories” that were crafted to serve avoda zara are only prohibited once they are used for that purpose.[5] Since you are planning on buying something new this is not an issue. Even if you were to buy an instrument that was used to play music for avoda zara, there is an opinion that selling the instrument removes any prohibition or consecration.[6]

As we will see, it’s possible there would be a problem with a musical instrument that was developed to serve false gods and is still used exclusively for that purpose, but it’s unclear if such a thing exists. Certainly, what you are talking about is something that is often used for meditation, and even if it was originally developed for avoda zara (which does not seem to be the case), it is now divorced from such roots.[7]

Foreign tunes
If using musical instruments that served avoda zara is prohibited, are tunes prohibited as well? Rema rules that a chazzan who sings foreign songs is told not to do so and can be removed from the job if he continues.[8] What are these tunes? When is the chazzan singing them?

Some explain that the melodies are those used in services of avoda zara and the chazzan incorporates the tunes into the prayers he leads. Based on Sefer Chassidim, Magen Avraham explains that it’s inappropriate to include tunes used to serve avoda zara to serve the Holy One, even if it’s not strictly prohibited.[9] Bach explains that this only applies when the tune is unique to a house of avoda zara, but it’s permitted  if the tune is also played in other settings.[10]

Other poskim, such as Tzitz Eliezer, explain that this refers to melodies from songs that are bawdy or inappropriate. He rules that such tunes are not valid vessels for prayers (and general listening) because they are imbued with impurity; those who hear them will think of the original context, which can lead to inappropriate thoughts.[11]

Rav Ovadia Yosef disagrees on the context.[12] He explains that Sefer Chassidim and Rema aren’t referring to which tunes are used for the prayers, but rather to a chazzan who sings bawdy songs outside of shul. The tune itself may be a conduit for prayers. He compares it to the gemara that teaches that in the future the theaters and circuses of Edom (Rome) will be used to teach Torah. He interprets this to mean that places that currently house lewd behavior will be sanctified in the future when they are used for Torah study. [13] If a physical space employed for such purposes can be cleansed of impurity and sanctified if it is dedicated to spiritual purposes, all the more so a metaphysical tune can be elevated through a change of words and intention.

Rav Ovadia Yosef also bases his understanding on common practice, since it’s well known that chazzanim employ tunes composed by non-Jews, even those used in church.[14] While there may be an issue with tunes that were originally composed in service of avoda zara, just as there are those who prohibit using a temple originally built for that purpose, avoda zara is a grave sin and shouldn’t be equated with lewd behavior. Lewd or bawdy behavior is prohibited, but is not problematic enough to imbue the tunes with irredeemable impurity. Therefore, it’s permissible to use the tune for a sanctified purpose when this is done with proper intention – a desire to praise God. He rejects the concern that the tune could be distracting, since he says such a person would be distracted anyway.

Rav Yaakov Epstein examines these opinions and more and offers a middle ground. While he prefers tunes that are expressly composed for Jewish prayers, he says that foreign tunes can be sung if those hearing them are unaware of the original composition.[15] Another middle ground is offered by Rav David Stav who warns against songs with inappropriate lyrics, but allows tunes that don’t bring negative ideas to mind.[16]

Therefore, if you look for inspiration and tunes for your instrument and meditation you should be careful to avoid songs that were composed for avoda zara. Other tunes may be used both for your meditation, and possibly in your avodat Hashem, although the latter is more complicated, as we shall see.

Other possible issues:

Avoda zara imagery:

Without going into too much detail, I advise you to make sure that there are no avoda zara images carved or pictured on the item, as that can be a problem. Although some images may  not be problematic depending on what they are and how they are made, it is better to avoid the problem altogether.[17]

Chukot HaGoyim/Darkei Ha’Emori:

The Torah instructs us not to adopt certain practices from other nations, both customs related to idol worship, but also general cultural norms. Poskim disagree as to the extent of these prohibitions.

In general, many poskim, such as Rema, rule according to Maharik that these prohibitions only apply to customs that don’t have a purpose, or are related to avoda zara, or are practiced for immodest reasons.[18] Furthermore, Rav Aharon Valkin explained that even if something was originally associated with avoda zara, if it is now divorced from that source – such as exercise classes that use yoga poses – it’s allowed.[19]

Since you intend to use these instruments for a permitted purpose that seems to be unrelated to avoda zara, they are not prohibited due to chukot hagoyim or darkei ha-emori.

While these instruments are permitted to aid meditation, there may be a problem using them to enhance your prayers. As noted above, there is a prohibition against adopting the practices of idol worshippers. Therefore, some poskim prohibit things like organs in synagogue because Christians use organs in church, and introducing them into the synagogue was understood as trying to mimic this practice.[20] This prohibition appears to apply to using such instruments in synagogue and for services; playing the organ for non-religious reasons does not seem to be prohibited.[21] Therefore, even if the more common use of the type of instrument is in service of avoda zara, one may still play it for their own enjoyment.[22] But it may be problematic to incorporate it into one’s avodat Hashem.


There is little halakhic reason to prohibit buying an instrument to aid meditation if it:

1) is new (you are the first one using it)

2) is not solely used for avoda zara

3) does not have any avoda zara images or symbols

For many people meditation is similar to prayer, and so you may wonder where to draw the line. Many poskim allow people to take inspiration and even tools from other cultures to enhance mental or physical health, as long as the practices are not exclusive to avoda zara. Still, using the same things to enhance your avodat Hashem may be a problem.

Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson strictly prohibited going to “gurus” and was worried by the growing number of Jews who got involved with certain aspects of Eastern religions, such as yoga, which led them on a path to avoda zara.[23] Nevertheless, he believed that certain types of meditation could be done before prayer or to promote well-being and mental health in a way that was both healthy and authentically Jewish. He went so far as to actively encourage more God-fearing mental and physical health professionals to develop this option.[24]

As meditation can be introspective in a way that is similar to prayer, it may be difficult to discern when these instruments should not be incorporated. The following rabbinic teaching may offer a useful guideline: “If someone tells you ‘there is wisdom among the nations’ – believe it… ‘there is Torah among the nations’ – do not believe it.”[25] The wisdom of the nations has developed these instruments that can be tools to aid mental and physical wellbeing, which can affect our prayers – this is fine. Incorporating something foreign into our avodat Hashem is problematic. The path of a Jew to connect with their Creator is through Torah, mitzvot, and accepted Jewish practices.


[1] Shulchan Aruch 139:1

[2] TB Pesachim 26a, Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi and Rav Papa. There’s some discussion if one is prohibited from enjoying the sounds because they are from consecrated instruments, or because the songs are used in worship, see Rashi and Petach Enayim ibid.

[3] Rabbeinu Yerucham, Toldot Adam v’Chava 17:5

[4] Beit Hillel YD 142:2

[5] TB Avoda Zara 52a, Shulchan Aruch YD 139:1

[6] see commentaries on Shulchan Aruch YD 139:9, 12

[7] Rav David Sperling

[8] Orach Chaim 53:25

[9] Ibid.

[10] Responsa Bach 127 (end of the Teshuva)

[11] Tzitz Eliezer 13:12. The language is unclear, and the language here does not mention avoda zara, but “shirim nokhri’im” “foreign songs.” Kol Bo quoted in Darchei Moshe says “a chazzan who does inappropriate things such as utters disgusting things or similar, like sings shirei arev…” These “shirei areiv” may be songs written with Arabic meter (Responsa Lhorot Natan X 14:1), which are often related to “shirei agavim” “love or bawdy songs” meant to elicit lust. (Yechezkel 33:31-32, Radak there)
Therefore, it’s possible that the issue is not the tune, but that the chazzan uses his voice for such things outside of services. This makes sense because it is mentioned alongside “utters vulgar speech.” If this is the case it’s possible the issue is not the tune itself, but the chazzan’s fitness to serve as the congregation’s representative in their service of the Almighty. God gifted this person with a pleasant voice. It’s possible that once he has misappropriated it, such a voice is an unfit conduit for leading prayers of praise and thanksgiving (at least until he does teshuva). Perhaps a chazzan who uses his voice for inappropriate speech may not have the proper intention when praying, or maybe he is more interested in singing before a crowd than the prayers he is leading.

[12] Yabia Omer VI OC 7

[13] TB Megilla 6a

[14] There is a general dispute if Christianity should be considered avoda zara, which he does not go into here.

[15] Responsa Chevel Nachalato 9:5

[16] Bein HaZmanim from page 161

[17] Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 141:4

[18] Responsa Maharik 88, Rema on Shulchan Aruch YD 178:1

[19] Saviv l’Yireiav on Sefer Yereim 88:1:3

[20] Responsa Chatam Sofer VI 86, Mishnah Berurah 138:10, Darkei Teshuva YD 178:11

[21] Mishna Berura 138:10, Responsa Magen Shaul 58, Responsa Melamed Ho’il OC I 16

[22] See note 14

[23] Half a century ago yoga was less widespread in the West and classes were often led by “Gurus” or people who practiced and promoted Eastern religions. Such classes that are directly tied to avoda zara are certainly prohibited. However, now that yoga is more popularly a form of exercise or a tool for health and many instructors have nothing to do with avoda zara there are certainly ways to allow its practice, although it is wise to consult with an authority about specific classes.

[24] The Lubavicher Rebbe spoke about this in a few places. Likkutei Sichos 36/335-336 and Healthy in Body Mind and Spirit Vol III chapter 9

[25] Eicha Rabba 2:13

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.

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