The magrepha mystery

The magrepha of ancient Hebrew ritual has been variously described as a percussion machine, signal gong, bell, tympanum, kettle drum, or hand drum—but also as a pneumatic organ, water organ, steam organ, composite woodwind instrument, pipework, or controllable siren. For centuries, scholars were unable to reach a solution that squared with ancient texts.

In “The magrepha of the Herodian temple: A five-fold hypothesis”, Joseph Yasser settled the matter by showing that the earliest sources mention the magrepha as a shovel for removing ashes and describe the thunderous sound caused when it was thrown to the floor at a particular point in the service; this sound apparently symbolized the vengeful actions of an angry God, aligning the ritual act with passages in Ezekiel. Later sources unmistakably characterize the magrepha as a type of wind instrument with multiple openings, each producing multiple sounds; Yasser’s proposed reconstruction is shown above.

The article appeared in A musicological offering to Otto Kinkeldey upon the occasion of his 80th anniversary, a special issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society (vol. 13, no. 1–3 [1960], pp. 24–42; the issue is covered in our recently-published Liber amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.

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Filed under Antiquity, Curiosities, Instruments, Source studies

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