Monday, October 27, 2014

The Musical Magrepha of the Temple

The term magrepha (lit., shovel) appears three times in connection with the daily sacrificial service:
(1) "The Kohanim took magrephas ... and went up to the top of the Altar ... and started piling the ashes onto the tapuach [mound]" (Tamid 2:1-2).
(2) "In Jericho they could hear the sound of the magrepha" (Tamid 3:8).
(3) "One [of the Kohanim] would throw the magrepha into the space between the Antechamber and the Altar, and a person in Jerusalem could not hear his friend speaking on account of the sound of the magrepha" (Tamid 5:6).

From the context, (1) would appear to be describing a shovel. Yet the Gemara (Erchin 11a) describes the magrepha as an intricate musical instrument capable of producing 100 different notes, which might fit with (2). But could such an instrument have been thrown onto a hard stone floor — every day?

Tiferes Yisrael (based on Tos. Yom Tov to Tamid 5:6) explains that there were three distinct utensils called magrepha. (1) is an actual shovel; (2) is the musical instrument described in the Gemara; (3) is a shovel-like utensil which was designed to make a loud clatter when dropped (apparently it was quite sturdy).
The hurling magrepha (left) and scooping magrepha (right)
The Gemara (with Rashi ad loc.) writes that the magrepha was an instrument which had ten holes in it, and from each hole came a pipe. Each of these pipes also had ten holes, so that all together it could produce 100 notes. There exists a lot of literature attempting to explain what type of instrument this was, and some of the possibilities include a ten-reeded oboe, a bagpipe, or an organ.

I then saw that the magrepha was described in great detail in Encyclopedia for Matters of the Tabernacle and Temple by Shaul Sheffer (thanks to R' Chaim Kessler for bringing this source to my attention). Volume 6 focuses on the songs and music of the Temple and consists of various passages taken from the work Shiltei Giborim, and he writes on p.45-46:
[The magrepha] consisted of a hollow wooden box measuring 1 amah tall, 1 amah wide, and 2.5 amos long. The ten pipes were contained within this box and were arranged horizontally along its length. Some of the pipes were long, others short, and the ten holes in each pipe were facing downward. On the northern and southern sides of the box, on the outside, were two bellows. On the western side the ten pipes emerged from the box and the ends of the pipes were all in a straight line. On the eastern side of the box was a ledge jutting out upon which rested one hundred slats of wood corresponding to the one hundred holes in the pipes. At the other ends of these slats, within the box, were small pieces of metal rising vertically and these were topped with wood. By pressing down on the end of the slat, it raised the other end and closed the hole in the pipe. This instrument was thus able to produce 100 distinct notes and could be played by a single individual [with the help of two bellows operators].
This description is somewhat similar to a Roman pipe organ (hydraulis), shown here:
Hydraulis (Wikipedia)
Based on the description by Shiltei Giborim I modeled the instrument shown below. I had to divide the 100 keys into two rows since the individual keys would be much too narrow to all fit in the one-amah width of the magrepha.

Magrepha seen from the back where the keyboard is located.

Magrepha seen from the front where the pipes emerge.


  1. Replies
    1. Could *I* play it? My formal keyboard training stopped at age 8, so I would probably not be the best person to play this instrument :)
      Now, if you are asking whether this instrument is playable, I would say yes. From the basic description we know it to be a wind-powered organ of sorts, so this should, in theory, produce music.


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