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The Melodic Cymbals of the Levite Singers - expanded documentation

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Of all the three instruments classified in the Hebrew texts as an "instrument of song," probably the least recognized and understood are the cymbals utilized by the Levite singers. It is very easy when reading the various English translations to assume that when the word cymbal is used, the texts are speaking of one particular type of instrument. The fact is however, there are two very specific and distinct types of cymbals mentioned in the Hebrew texts - one type that was used by the Levites singers and one associated with the common people. Just as the English word cymbal does not refer to a specific type of instrument, but is a generic term referring to a family of instruments, the corresponding Hebrew words derived from the Hebrew root tsel refer in like manner to a class of instruments not a single, specific instrument.

A simple definition for a cymbal might be, "a type of instrument consisting of a circular, domed or flat metal plate that can be percussively struck with a mallet or when used as a pair, concussively struck together." When most people think of a cymbal, they may reference in their mind's eye the large, thin instruments that are used in marching band, concert band, and are found in various forms on modern drum-kits. These types of cymbals; referred to in various settings as crash cymbals, hand cymbals, ride cymbals, hi-hat cymbals, etc. are fundamentally contemporary instruments, not ancient ones.

types of cymbals

In contrast to these very large and thin types of cymbals, the cymbals of the Biblical time periods were substantially smaller and thicker by comparison. From the artifacts that have been excavated in the Palestine area, we are told that there are two basic types of bronze cymbals that ranged in size from approximately 1.125" to 2.325" (3-6 cm) for the smaller cymbal to 3.125" to 4.75" (8-12 cm) for the larger variety that have been excavated.1

The smaller of these cymbals are similar, if not identical, to the finger cymbals worn on the hands of center Eastern dancers today. In modern times, we continue to find a related word in Arabic that refers to these types of cymbals, zil. As you may have noticed, both the Hebrew tsel and the Arabic zil are quite similar in pronunciation and most certainly had a common etymology in antiquity.

Another instrument of this period that utilized these smaller types of cymbals were the cymbal clappers. Individually mounted on flexible prongs and a handle (Job 41:7), the player would rapidly shake the instrument causing the two cymbal plates to concussively strike each other creating the pulsating rhythmic pattern that is most likely being referred to in the second part of Psalm 150:5 (with cymbals of teruah - ba-tsel-tsa-la' ta-ru-ä'). The teruah was also the rhythmic pattern associated with a specific call of the shofar (Leviticus 25:9) and the two silver trumpets (Numbers 10:5). It is also the term for the wobbling, verbal 'war cry' that continues to be heard even today in the center Eastern countries (Joshua 6:5, 1 Samuel 4:5-6). Unlike the techniques used for the intricate rhythmic patterns of the finger cymbals associated with the dance, the cymbal clappers require very little skill to play and were most likely used by the common people in their celebrations (2 Samuel 6:5). Still available from contemporary cymbal manufactures like Zildian, this type of rhythm instrument is also referred to today as a cymbal castanet.

In contrast to these non-musical, concussive, rhythm instruments that utilized the smaller of the ancient cymbal types, the larger variety of ancient cymbals had the unique characteristic of being able to produce a defined, musical tone. We get our first clue regarding this type of cymbal from the first part of Psalm 150:5 we spoke of earlier. In the Greek Septuagint translation of this particular verse, the translator picked up on a very subtle, yet important aspect when he chose to translate the Hebrew phrase ba-tsel-tsa-la' shä-ma' as melodic or melodious cymbals.

As the only other word (besides the Hebrew word for cymbal tsel-tsa-la') in this two-word phrase is the word Hebrew word shä-mä'; it is not unreasonable to conclude that shä-mä', when used in association with a particular type of cymbal, is an idiomatic usage of the term. Traditionally, the word shä-mä' is understood to relate to the sense of hearing, being heard, to hear, etc. However, its association with the word cymbal and subsequent translation of Psalm 150:5 into the Greek may be an indication of a broader meaning and application when used in relation to the cymbals of the Levites. A type of cymbal that produced a melodious sound rather than the clanging, percussive sound mentioned in the second part of the Psalm 150:5 text. In this context, words derived from the Hebrew word shä-mä' appear to relate in some manner to our English word pitch when used in relation to the cymbals of the Levites. Assuming this premise is correct, the two types of cymbals referenced in the Hebrew texts are:

finger cymbals or cymbals clappers
The smaller variety of ancient cymbals produce a high-pitched tinkle much like our contemporary finger cymbals. - 2 Samuel 6:5, Psalm 150:...5

melodic cymbals, tuned cymbals, crotales
The larger variety of ancient cymbals produce a clear, ringing, defined tone and pitch. With the exception of Psalm 150:5..., all other references below relate exclusively to the cymbals of the Levite singers (*associated with the Hebrew word shä-mä' )

1 Chronicles 13:8, *15:16, *15:19, *15:28, *16:5, *16:42, 25:1, 25:6; 2 Chronicles 5:12, 5:13, 29:25, Ezra 3:10; Nehemiah 12:17; Psalm *150: 5... (total 14 occurrences) see also Antiquities of the Jews, 7:306 by Josephus Flavius

In addition to the above, we also know that the cymbals of the Levite singers were used in pairs. In the Hebrew texts of the Masorites a unique convention was used in when referencing these particular types of cymbals associated with cymbals of the Levite singers, the dual form. In Hebrew, this unique way of defining things that come in twos (i.e., hands, feet, eyes, etc.) is designated with specific vowel pointing associated with the plural endings of each instance. In all cases, the cymbals of the Levites are referenced as being a pair and never as a single cymbal.

(ma-tsel-tä'-yem)

crotales

plural ending

root tsel

preposition min

dual

single plate

meaning from

plural ending

tsel

min

We also know from various historical Jewish writings, that by the time of the Second Temple there was only one cymbal that remained and was used by the singers to start the song. - an extremely important point that will be discussed in more detail later. These texts further state that this one cymbal was cracked.2 A further commentary relates that the Temple hired some metal craftsmen from Alexandria in attempt to repair a crack in this single remaining cymbal. However, once the crack was fixed, the tone changed and the sound was no longer pleasant so they removed the patch.3 By patching the cymbal with more metal would not only change the pitch, but also the ability of the cymbal to vibrate in a manner that could produce the uniform and repeating sound wave needed to create the pleasing, musical tone of the original cymbal. Apparently, the art and technology used to create or even repair these unique types of cymbals used by the Levites had been throughout the centuries.

An interesting parallel to this single, broken cymbal used in the Temple and the texts in Psalm 150:5 may have been the inspiration to a commonly quoted Christian text of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1:

1 Corinthians 13:1
"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I have become like a sounding piece of bronze or a clanging cymbal."

Psalm 150:5
"Praise Him with melodic cymbals, praise Him with cymbals of 'teruah'"

Paul, who was a Jewish convert to Christianity and no doubt familiar with the Temple and the artifacts of the Temple of his time may have been alluding to the two types of cymbals mentioned in Psalm 150:5. If we change the traditional translation slightly to include the understanding that Paul was in fact referring in a derogatory sense to this single, broken cymbal in use in the Temple during his time, the text takes on a much clearer understanding:

1 Corinthians 13:1 - an alternate translation
"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have not love,

I have become like a broken cymbal of bronze - referring to the single, cracked cymbal of the Temple,

or a clanging cymbal - referring to the cymbals of 'teruah'."

A final important piece of information in the Hebrew texts regarding the function of the cymbals of the Levite singers is found in Ezra 3:10:

"And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of Yahveh, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise Yahveh, according to the direction of David king of Israel." - Ezra 3:10

How could instruments like the melodic cymbals of the Levite singers praise Yahveh?
It was by being able to play the Name of YAH!


Footnotes
1 Joachim Braun, Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine, William B. Eerdsman Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K., page 109).
2 Mishna-Arachin II, 5; Mishna Tamid; VII, 3
3 Mishna-Arachin 10b. see also A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, John Lightfoot (ca. 1602-1675), A Chorographical Century, Chapter 36.