Tabrets, Timbrels, Tambourines
Just what is a Tabret, really? Isn't it just a Tambourine ?
There is a little bit of confusion when considering the Tabret, the Timbrel, and the Tambourine. Tabret is actually an archaic, obsolete word. Many translations of the Bible, and many dictionaries, cause some confusion since they often change (archaic) words to try to make it easier for some readers to understand their meaning. Tabret is one of those words, often translated as timbrel or tambourine. While similar, the Tabret, Timbrel, and Tambourine are, in fact, separate instruments, having their roots deep in ancient history. Our friend Jeanette Strauss first pointed this out to us, and her study shows that the King James 1611 translation and Hebrew/Greek study references rightly differentiate between the tabret and the timbrel in scripture.
The Tabret is an ancient percussion instrument which no longer exists as such. The earliest mention of the Tabret (Gen 31:27 KJV) dates back to about 1740 BC (that's over 3700 years ago !), so it appears to have been in common use for worship and celebration in very ancient times. There are no good illustrations, or even good descriptions of how the tabret was made, what it looked like, or exactly how it was used. The root word for tabret is tabor, which describes a small frame drum with one head. The word tabor is also used to describe the frame used for embroidery - with two hoops used to keep the material taut. While the timbrel has small bells, rings, or metal discs attached to the frame to make a jingling noise, most sources agree that the tabret did not have these. As a drum, the tabret would have been played by beating with a small drumstick, or by tapping with the hand. The tabret was often accompanied with a pipe, and, at times, both may have been played by the same person.
Frame drums were common in the Middle East and elsewhere in ancient times, and exist in many cultures today. Arabs have the duff (or dif), which is a large diameter frame drum and the riq, a smaller version of the same. The Tar is a frame drum with one head found in North Africa. Same with the Persian Daf, and many others. The ancient Israelites appear to have adopted the tabret during their time in Egypt, where such drums were in common use.
Drums are (and were) often decorated with bright colors on the frame or drum head, and we can assume this to be true for tabrets. The addition of streamers or ribbons for decoration appears likely. At least one source states that tassels (or ribbons) were added to tabrets and timbrels in accordance with Jewish custom. Jewish men then and now wear tassels on their garments and especially prayer shawls to remind them to keep the commandments of the Lord. Their use on tabrets and timbrels may well be based on this.
In ancient times, it appears that the tabret was used during worship, though perhaps not in the Temple itself. Their use by prophets is mentioned in 1 Sam 10:5 KJV. Their use in (spiritual) warfare is indicated by Isa 30:32 KJV. However, the tabret was used mostly by women during worship, dance, and celebrations. In 1 Sam 18:6 KJV, for example, when David returned after the slaughter of the Philistine, he was greeted by Israeli women "singing and dancing....with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of music".
The use of the tabret, especially in Jewish worship, died out as the use of musical instruments became more and more carnal, being used more for entertainment than worship, and the tabret disappeared, lost to history.
The Lord says in Jer 31:4 KJV that Israel will be rebuilt and that we will once again see and be adorned with the original version of the tabret in the last days. The tabret we use today is symbolic of this ancient instrument of praise, and is a precursor of that which the Lord will restore to us. They are waved before the Lord in worship and praise to His name.
The Timbrel, on the other hand, is a percussion instrument which does have bells, rings, or metal discs attached to make a jingling noise when shaken or tapped with the hand. From the Hebrew root word toph (or tof), the timbrel first appears in scripture in Exodus 15 (about 1490 BC), confirming that it, too, dates back to very ancient times. The timbrel, like the tabret, had ribbons, tassels, or streamers attached for decoration. Some ancient timbrels appear to have had a single drum head, like the tabret, and some appear as a frame only. In either case, including jingles and streamers makes it a timbrel.
As with the tabret, timbrels were used primarially by women, especially maidens and young girls. The timbrel was the instrument used by Miriam and the other women to celebrate the Lord's deliverance after the parting of the Red Sea and destruction of the Egyptian army (Ex 15:20 KJV). Jephthah's daughter is shown using the timbrel and dance to celebrate his victory (Judges 11:34 KJV). David and all Israel played before God " with singing...harps...psalteries, and with timbrels.." (1 Chr 13:8 KJV). Several scriptures in Psalms refer to using the timbrel in dance, as well as for praise and worship. Like the tabret, the timbrel is not listed in Chronicles as one of the musical instruments used inside the Jewish Temple itself, though they are mentioned in Psalms 150 as being used for praise "in His sanctuary".
Over time, as with the tabret and other musical instruments, the use of the timbrel in worship died out. Thanks to the Salvation Army, the use of the timbrel for praise and worship and in church was revived in the late 1800's. They formed Timbrel Brigades devoted to learning and playing the timbrel, especially during their outreach ministry, and they continue to this day.
Though the use of the timbrel as a part of church worship was discontinued, they continued to be popular with dancers and entertainers as a colorful and easy to use musical instrument. By the late 15th century, the timbrel had developed into what we now call the tambourine, and the distinctions between the older musical instruments blurred into this one definition. By this time, the tambourine had one or two rows of metal discs in the frame for jingles, and was usually seen without steamers attached. Today, the tambourine may have a drum head, but sometimes has just the frame as a shaker. Shakers especially may be in round, half circle, crescent or other shapes. Sources for Judaica often show some frame (shaker) tambourines having tassels and sometimes ribbons attached, like the older timbrel. However, the single head tambourine with rows of metal disc jingles and no streamers seems to be the type of this instrument most familiar to most people. As with the Salvation Army timbrel, the use of the tambourine for praise and worship has become popular and accepted in many churches today.
In conclusion, the tabret, timbrel, and tambourine all share the same roots and history, but really are different instruments. The tabret appears in scripture at least 250 years before the timbrel, and they both are mentioned in scripture several times in the Old Testament over a period of some 1100 years (from Genesis to Jeremiah and Ezekiel). The ancient timbrel continued to be used and years later developed into the tambourine as we now know it. The use of the timbrel/tambourine for praise and worship was revived over 100 years ago, and continues today. The symbolic tabret we wave to the Lord today is itself a powerful instrument of praise and worship.
In the great scheme of things, whether called a Tabret, Timbrel, Tambourine, a Glory Hoop, or Shield, if used properly for worship and to give praise and glory to the Lord - that's what it's all about, and that's all that really matters.
A special thank you to Jeanette Strauss for her help and information used in this study.