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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Harp And Lyre

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The ancient Hebrews had two stringed instruments, the "kinnor" () and the "nebel" (). In the English versions of the Old Testament the former word is wrongly translated "harp." In both instruments the strings were set in vibration by the fingers, or perhaps by a little stick, the plectrum (as Josephus says). Bow instruments were unknown to the ancients. The strings were made of gut, metal strings not being used in olden times. The body of the instrument was generally made of cypress (2Samuel 6:5 ) or, in very precious instruments, of sandalwood (IKings 10:11 A. V. "almug").

When Used.
The kinnor and nebel are often mentioned together. As in the case of all instrumental music among the Hebrews, they were used principally as an accompaniment to the voice (see Music ). Instruments were used on joyous occasions, such as banquets and festive processions (Genesis 31:27 1Samuel 10:5 2Samuel 6:5 Isaiah 5:12 ), and especially in the Temple service (Psalm 33:2 , 43:4 Nehemiah 12:27 1Chronicles 16:5 ) here also in accompaniment to songs of praise and thanksgiving (1Chronicles 16:16 2Chronicles 5:12 Psalm 33:2 , 57:9 , 71:22 ). They were never used on occasions of mourning (Isaiah 24:8 Ezekiel 26:13 Lamentations 5:14 Psalm 137:2 Job 30:31 ). The more popular of the two instruments was the kinnor, which is much more frequently mentioned in the Old Testament than the nebel. Its invention is ascribed to Jubal (Genesis 4:21 ). It was used on family occasions and at popular festivals (Genesis 31:27 Job 21:12 ), and was played upon both by the noble and by the lowly. David, the shepherd-boy, was a noted player (1Samuel 16:16 ). The nebel, on the other hand, seems to have been reserved exclusively for religious occasions (Amos 5:23 Psalm 144:9 ). In connection with secular events (Amos 6:5 Isaiah 14:11 ), its use appears to have been regarded as unseemly and profane. Regarding the form of the two instruments, it is evident from the Old Testament that they could be played while the performer was walking (1Samuel 10:5 2Samuel 6:5 Isaiah 23:16 ) hence they must have been easy to carry.

Coin of Bar Kokba Bearing Lyre with Three Strings.
(After Madden.)

Coin of Simon Nasi Bearing Lyre with Six Strings.
(After Madden.)
From the name "nebel" it has been inferred that the shape of this instrument, or of its sounding-board, was similar to that of the bulging vessel of the same name in which wine was kept, or that the sounding-board was made of some animal membrane ( = "skin"). This, however, is a very questionable explanation.

Similarity to Greek Instruments.
Reliance must therefore be placed upon tradition and the analogies furnished by the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Babylonian instruments. The translation of "kinnor" by κ ι Θ ά ρ α presupposes a similarity between the Hebrew and the Greek instruments, a supposition that is confirmed by the illustrations of the kinnor found on Jewish coins (see illustration), which is very similar to both the Greek lyre and cithara. If these had been foreign instruments derived from the Greeks, they would not have been represented as emblems on coins. On the other hand, the Hebrew cithara, the kinnor, is not found in its original form, but in the modified form it assumed under Greek influence. The earliest shape of this instrument, which readily explains that on the coins intended as ornaments, is perhaps represented on an Egyptian tomb at Beni Hassan (see illustration). Here the instrument consists of a long, rectangular board, the upper half of which is cut out so as to form a kind of frame and above this opening the strings, running parallel to one another, are strung lengthwise across the board. The player holds the instrument in a horizontal position against his chest, and touches the strings with his left hand, while his right holds a little stick serving as a plectrum. The illustration furthermore shows that the instrument did not originate in Egypt, but with the Asiatic Semites for it is carried by Asiatic Bedouins praying for admission into Egypt. The instrument was subsequently introduced into Egypt, where it was modified in form.

Bedouin Playing a Harp.
(After an Egyptian painting in the tombs of the Beni Hassan.)

Harper on a Babylonian Bas-Relief, About 3000 B.C.
(After Ball, "Light from the East.")
The same instrument is again found in its primitive form on an Assyrian relief, here also played by Semitic prisoners, from the western districts. The representations on Jewish coins, mentioned above, appear in comparison with these primitive forms as further developments under the influence of Greek taste. In one of the instruments there is under the strings a curious sounding-board like a kettle-drum such a sounding-board is mentioned by the Church Fathers in describing the instrument. As it appears from the foregoing that the instrument was widely used among the Semites, and as the Biblical references, as well as those found in Josephus, seem to apply best to the cithara, it may be assumed that this instrument corresponds to the kinnor. The number of strings evidently varied. In the old Egyptian illustration there are eight strings the later Egyptian cithara has from three to nine strings the instruments on the coins have from three to six strings and Josephus says that the cithara had ten and the nebel twelve strings.

The Nebel.
Regarding the nebel there are different views, of which the principal two may be mentioned here. According to one opinion the nebel was identical with the harp. Among the ancient Egyptians there is found, in addition to the large, upright harp, a small portable instrument of that class, which, like the nebel of the Old Testament, the harpist could play while walking. This harp consists of a wide, flat board, with another board fastened at right angles at one end. Across this frame are stretched strings decreasing in length from the center to the sides. A somewhat different Assyrian harp is pictured in a Kuyunjik relief, where a band of musicians going to meet the victorious Assurbanipal is represented. An illustration of a Babylonian harp is again somewhat different, showing but five strings. Although Josephus mentions twelve strings, it must be remembered that the instrument underwent various changes of form in the course of time.

According to another view the nebel is to be compared with the "sanṭ ir" (still used among the Arabs), perhaps in view of the Septuagint rendering of the word by "psalterion" (= Daniel 3:5 ). The sanṭ ir consists of a longish, shallow box across which the strings are fixed, the player holding it on his lap. The earliest form of the instrument is found, together with the harp, in the above-mentioned illustration from Kuyunjik. The strings here are strung parallel across the box the player holds the plectrum in his right hand it is not clear whether he touches the strings with his left hand also. It is said in reference to the last-named instrument that the name "nebel" would apply very well to it, whether one imagines a bulging sounding-board of one made of an animal membrane. The words "pi ha-nebel" (Amos 6:5 ) would in this case refer to the opening in the sounding-board. But, as stated above, this interpretation is very questionable. Jerome's statement that the nebel had the delta form (Δ ) argues in favor of a harp-like instrument, as does also the statement of Josephus ("Ant." 7:12, § 3) that the nebel was played with the fingers, which seems hardly possible in the case of the cymbals.

Finally, there is the tradition that the nebel, unlike the kinnor, was an instrument that stood upright.

Bibliography : Benzinger, Arch. Nowack, Lehrbuch der Hebrä ischen Archä ologie , 1:273 et seq. Riehm, Handwö rterb. des Biblischen Altertums. pp. 1043 et seq. Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl. s.v. Music Wellhausen, in S.B.O.T. Eng. transl. of Psalms ( Polychrome Bible ) Benzinger, Protestantische Realencyclopä die , s.v. Music and the bibliographies cited in these works. E. G. H. I. Be.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Harp And Lyre'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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