A Perspective of Habad Hassidut Towards Music

The [Rebbe] noticed an old man among his listeners who obviously did not comprehend the meaning of his discourse. He summoned him to his side and said, “I perceive that my sermon is unclear to you. Listen to this melody and it will teach you how to cleave unto the Lord.” The [Rebbe] began to sing a song without words. It was a song of Torah, of trust in God, of longing for the Lord, and of love for Him.

“I understand now what you wish to teach,” exclaimed the old man. “I feel an intense longing to be united with the Lord.”

The Rebbe’s melody became part of his every discourse henceforth, though it had no words.[1]

Music is an invariably powerful entity; a solid beat can, in one instant, urge thousands of individuals to dance and a sweet melody can bring even the hardest heart to tears. Music has the potential to bring man to the deepest depths and to the highest heights. As with all such potent matters, there are several Jewish perspectives – attributed to a variety of Jewish thinkers spanning from Rishonim to Aḥaronim, Hassidim to Mitnagdim (Jewish opponents of Hassidism) – which seek to understand and harness music for the ultimate goal of achieving closeness with God. Though music is appreciated across the Jewish spectrum, Hassidic literature is known for being filled with stories and explanations of the power of a niggun, a Jewish melody, to arouse closeness to God and repentance. Once one understands some of the nuanced perspectives and approaches to music, this powerful tool can be used and integrated in order to uplift the individual’s avodat Hashem (service of God).

There is an innate connection between music and spirituality; on one hand, music has a pure emotional power because it is free from any lyrical structure, not bound by words, and on the other, music has a timeless component that can bridge between past, present, and future. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks similarly draws this connection between music and spirituality:

Music is a form of sensed continuity that can sometimes break through the most overpowering disconnections in our experience of time… Faith is more like music than like science. Science analyses; music integrates. And, as music connects note to note, so faith connects episode to episode, life to life, age to age in a timeless melody that breaks into time. G-d is the composer and librettist. We are each called on to be voices in the choir, singers of G-d’s song. Faith teaches us to hear the music beneath the noise… The history of the Jewish spirit is written in its songs.[2]

Music’s connective quality has the ability to transcend space and time in order to link individuals to that which is otherwise out of reach.

The fact that music is an entity from the realm of Torah is discussed by the Talmud Bavli (Arakhin 11a). One biblical source referenced there is Deuteronomy 18:7, where the Torah discusses the Levite: “V-sheret be-shem Hashem Elokav,” – “And he may serve in the name of the Lord his God.”[3] The Amoraic sage Shmuel derives exegetically that this service in the name of God to which the verse refers is song. A second source the Gemara cites is Deuteronomy 28:47: “Tahat asher lo avadeta et Hashem Elokekha be-simhah u-ve-tuv levav”- “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness.” Rashi[4] (ad loc.) explains that singing is necessarily an expression of simhah and gladness, as the verse from Isaiah states, “Hinei avadai yaronu mi-tuv lev” – “Behold, my servants sing from gladness” (Isaiah 65:14). According to Shirat Shelomoh, a contemporary commentary on Song of Songs, song has the power to bring out one’s love for something and increase it; when a person sings out of his love for God, he is performing an act that affirms his gratitude and brings him closer to God. Many Torah scholars perceive a connection between song and the learning of Torah and keeping of the mitzvot. The Vilna Gaon[5] explains that the deepest and most secret parts of the Torah are inaccessible without song, so much so that a song can both be life taking and life giving. The Steipler Gaon[6] elaborates upon this idea, adding that there is so much more to song than physical pleasure.  Rather, song can awaken the heart to a consistent burning passion and can also arouse inspiration in one’s religious practice.[7]

While several sources expound on the power of music, Ḥabad Hassidut has a tradition of an in-depth understanding of a spiritual hierarchy and anatomy of melody. According to the Lubavitcher perspective, music and its performance are conceptualized as inherently neutral powers, the art form itself being neither particularly divine or otherwise. Listening to music has an equal potential to pull one’s heart closer to the Divine as it does to pull one away. The Lubavitcher approach sees music, like anything in the physical world, as a vessel that contains within it a spark of the Divine, but it is the degree of accessibility to that spark that determines the quality of the vessel. Music that has the potential to draw one closer to the Divine is traditionally associated with Lubavitcher niggunim. Such songs are said to be a blessing to perform, to the extent that they have the ability to even uplift an evil person performing them for an evil purpose. On the opposite end of the spectrum, music that has the potential to debase an individual spiritually is characterized by anti-Jewish music. Such music is said to be so thickly encased in a metaphysical husk of impurity (kelipah) that only the highest spiritual leader, a rebbe, could extract the holiness that lies within.[8]

Music that is wholly divinely inspired and music of anti-Jewish origin represent two poles on the spectrum of accessibility to holiness; however, in between them exists a large area of neutral genres. This music is referred to by music historian Ellen Koskoff as “potential niggunim.” These melodies, often from non-Lubavitcher sources, are said to have perceptible sparks of holiness in them which can undergo a spiritual tikun (repair) that elevates them towards their holy source. In the process of musical tikun, a melody is first identified as having potential for holiness and then somehow “acquired” by a lofty personality; this means that a rebbe, a tzadik (righteous individual), or perhaps even a beinoni (an individual whose spiritual labors have brought him to a level of perfection in thought, word and deed, despite his still-active evil inclination)[9] must be able to perceive a holy spark within the music. The next part of the tikun involves textual and compositional manipulation, in which words are evaluated and either changed or reinterpreted to have a religious meaning. Finally, the actual music is modified to conform to Hassidic religious and aesthetic principles.[10]

Music that has Hassidic origin or has undergone spiritual tikun is musically and structurally unique in that the sound itself carries multileveled musical, spiritual, and social meanings. Like most Eastern European Jewish music, Lubavitcher music often contains an augmented second, which, when included in a musical scale, has a sort of “yearning quality” that evokes images of wandering and the pain of unfulfilled spiritual love. Mark Slobin, an ethnomusicologist who specializes in Eastern European and klezmer music, describes three distinct augmented second melody-types that are found in the 347 niggunim notated in the Sefer ha-Niggunim, which is a compilation of Lubavitcher niggunim.[11] Further, the musical structure of niggunim carries religious meaning as well; for example, the overall structure of the song “Niggun for Four Worlds” is believed to incorporate the essence of the “four-ness” associated with the tetragrammaton, the four worlds of the ten sefirot, and the four-stage process of achieving closeness with God. The music of each stanza moves upward, which reflects the Lubavitcher ideal of upward spiritual trajectory that is described in a metaphor of movement from the heart to the head. The combination of melody-types, stylistic features, vocables such as “bam, bam” or “ai, ai”, is part of what creates the unique effect of Jewish music, lending musical, social, and religious meaning.[12]

The power ingrained in music has been understood across all cultures and times. It is one of humanity’s oldest and most universal languages, and is often more powerful than the spoken word. In light of this, the music of Ḥabad Lubavitch approaches the realm of music with delicate care. It is not merely a combination of notes, but rather a unique key to spiritual development. In today’s day of earbuds and the constant bubble of music in which we live, it is incumbent upon the sensitive soul to take a closer look at just how deeply music can affect an individual, and ascertain that we are maximizing its deep and powerful potential.


[1] Newman, L. I, The Hasidic Anthology (London: Jason Aronson, 1988), 293.

[2] Sacks, Jonathan, “The Spirituality of Song (Ha’azinu 5776),” Covenant and Conversation, http://www.rabbisacks.org

[3] Biblical translations by The Jewish Publication Society, The JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (Philadelphia, 2003).

[4] Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, France, 1040-1105

[5] Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon of Vilna, Ukraine, 1720-1797

[6] Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky of Bnei Brak, Israel, 1899-1985

[7] Tzofioff, Shlomo, Shirat Shelomo (Jerusalem: Ginzei Ha-Melekh, 1996), 4-5.

[8] Koskoff, Ellen. Music in Lubavitcher Life (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2001), 74-79.

[9] “The Beinoni,” Chabad.org, http://www.chabad.org

[10] Koskoff 76-77

[11] Description of the musical theory and form of these three melody-types go beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say that they are characteristic of Eastern European Jewry and some are even congruent with the Turkish-Arab Jewish styles.

[12] Koskoff 77-78