Kudos to Nina Glick for her recent Jewish Link piece about the plague of loud noise in our community. This was the subject of a recent shiur that I presented at the Naftoli Aaron Torah Enrichment Program at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn. My focus was primarily the loud music at weddings. In a nutshell, the halacha is opposed to endangering oneself, and prolonged exposure to excessively loud music does cause hearing loss. There is a reason why musicians wear earplugs.
During COVID I attended a small wedding where masks were included with our seating cards. That makes sense. At a recent simcha, ear plugs were provided. This is crazy. There is no need for music to be so loud. Some of the most lively weddings take place with only one or two instruments. This is especially important when there is a halachic requirement not to injure others or put yourself in a situation where you may be harmed. One of my mechutanim has a decibel meter app on his phone and he is not bashful about complaining when he can’t hear the person sitting next to him.
Even though hearing loss takes place over time, it is considered a type of damage for which one is legally responsible. Furthermore, one may not put oneself in a position where such damage may occur. This is clear from several Talmudic sources. What is also clear is that one may not cause a self-inflicted injury nor may one inflict any damage that may not cause immediate pain or injury.
It is a great mitzvah to rejoice with and gladden a bride and groom, and music is integral to this mitzvah. Notwithstanding the ruling against music after the destruction of the Temple, weddings are the exception. One must even interrupt one’s learning to rejoice at a wedding. There are even certain exceptions to self-inflicted harm when engaged in a mitzvah. For example, drinking four (full) cups of wine at the Seder even if it gives you a headache. However, if sitting in a sukkah makes you uncomfortable because of the cold or the rain, you are exempt from this mitzvah. The halacha strives to find a balance between strict observance and technical leniencies. In general, where health is concerned, the halacha follows one’s well-being. In this case, even though hearing damage is cumulative, excessively loud music at weddings is probably prohibited as a matter of law.
In Israel many catering halls are equipped with a decibel meter and when the noise level reaches 85 the electricity gets shut off. A typical rock concert is about 120 decibels. When you cannot carry on a conversation at your table or even standing next to someone on the dance floor, it’s too loud. Granted that the “young people” like it loud, there is simply no justification for bands to be earsplitting.
In the same way that rabbis will not officiate at a wedding without a halachic prenuptial agreement being signed, they can also exert some control over the decibel level of the music. That too seems to be within their halachic purview.
The rule that that no harm will come to those engaged in the performance of a mitzvah only applies when harm is unlikely. There is also a rule that we do not rely on miracles. There are many sources that can be marshaled to support a position against excessively loud music at weddings. Loving one’s neighbor as oneself, causing imperceptible damage, placing a stumbling block before the blind, standing on the blood of your neighbor, being very careful about your souls (i.e., bodies), indirect damages, etc.
Orchestras face the dilemma of satisfying their clients while maintaining fidelity to halachic concerns. In view of the halachic and health issues raised, modifications and compromise can still result in an enjoyable simcha while bringing joy to all in a healthy environment.
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene teaches at The Naftoli Aaron Torah Enrichment Center at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.