“I have five days of music in my iTunes library.” “When do you listen to it?” “In my room to chill out, or while I’m exercising.”
“[Clueless Freshman (a.k.a. Me)] Why isn’t there any singing on campus? [Well-adjusted Super Senior]No one has time.”
Melody has been a critical part of Jewish life from the dawn of the Jewish nation to the present day. [i] With the inception of the Chasidic movement, sacred melody, or Niggun,[ii] became an increasingly prominent mode of Avodat Hashem, in theoretical discussion and in practice. Through an analysis of the spiritual qualities and historical uses of Niggun, we can better evaluate how we use Niggun within our own communities and to what extent we are satisfied with our current Niggun practices.
Imagine the following scene: the hour hand on the clock resting in the back of the beit midrash moves to four p.m. It is Shabbat afternoon in Yeshiva, and the time has come for the second stage of afternoon seder. The Yeshiva students close their books, and begin pushing their tables toward the center of the room to form one long table. Everyone takes their seats, and slowly wordless melodies begin to waft through the beit midrash– Niggun Seder has begun.[iii] Over the course of the next hour, the assembled students sing Niggunim together, thereby experiencing and perpetuating the living tradition of Niggun. Such is a typical Shabbat experience at Tomchei Temimim schools, the Chabad movement’s global network of Yeshivot Ketanot and Gedolot.
Niggun is a lynchpin of Chabad life and religious experience.[iv],[v] The Yiddish term Niggun stems from the Hebrew root N.G.N, a word often used to refer to musical compositions in Tanakh[vi], songs with earthly notes whose distinction is that they are dedicated to Hashem. Hasidut sees itself continuing this hallowed tradition of sacred song, embodied by David ha-Melech and the Leviim[vii], to achieve a level of divine service that has been largely ignored since the destruction of the Beit ha-Mikdash. Niggun uses melody to engage the voice and arouse the soul to serve Hashem, making it a primary method of spiritual connection.
To understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to investigate Chabad’s musical philosophy. The Niggun’s philosophical underpinnings certainly were nurtured in the thought and practice of Baal Shem Tov, but for Chabad, the crystallization of Niggun philosophy truly begins with Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Chabad’s first leader and author of the Tanya, also known as the Alter Rebbe. The Alter Rebbe views Jewish observance as all-encompassing—that is to say, for the Alter Rebbe, Judaism demands a relationship between the Jew and God that must involve every faculty of the human experience. According to the Alter Rebbe, people possess different levels of self-expression, ranging from physical actions, to speech, to thought, and finally at the highest level, the subconscious will of the soul. A Jew must use all of these faculties to fully connect to God.[viii] Niggun plays a critical role in reaching the peak of Divine service, which incorporates all forms of human expression, because it is the vehicle by which one can express the depths of the soul.[ix] Wordless Niggunim go a step further- unfettered by the limitations of language, they achieve the most exquisite and moving revelation of the human soul. As Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson often said, “The tongue is the pen of the mind, the Niggun is the pen of the soul.[x]”
Niggun is not just a means of deep self-expression. Perhaps even more importantly, it is a vehicle for spiritual journey, for one to access the depths of his or her own soul, or to engage in self-discovery and self-purification, and ultimately through this process achieve teshuva and an intimate relationship with Hashem. Niggun is a primary medium by which one can access the depth of feeling necessary for this type of relationship with Hashem, achieving the profound love of God that Jews are called upon to attain in the recitation of the Shema.
While discussing the power of Niggun, a word of caution is in order. I should emphasize that it is not the Niggun itself that accomplishes these great things, it is the Niggun singer’s internal state and intentions that do. Much like prayer, Niggunim mouthed without intent cannot be expected to move a person. Niggun is simply a powerful tool that can catalyze certain feelings that allow the individual to achieve spiritual goals, which often translate into tangible lifestyle modifications.[xi] The Alter Rebbe saw the practice of Niggun as a continuation of songs found in the Tanakh, where the Leviim and David ha-Melekh would use song as a mode of passionate Avodat Hashem.[xii] However, fundamentally, Niggun is just a form of deep musical expression that may be used for good or evil.[xiii]
Thus far, we’ve discussed Niggun from a general standpoint within the Alter’s Rebbe’s philosophy, and by extension briefly examined how the individual can use Niggun to enrich his or her Avodat Hashem. However, Niggun is certainly not limited to the individual experience, and may wield tremendous power on the communal level.
Niggun’s unique communal power can be demonstrated through stories like the following one, which take place every week on college campuses across North America.
In an upstate New York university, amid the raucous Friday night partying, a different sort of party is taking place in a small house one block off campus. Yossie and Bracha, the campus Chabad shaliakh couple, are seated around a crowded folding table, with a white, lace tablecloth. A sophomore sporting long curly hair under a trendy cap complemented by a Phish T-shirt plants his arm on Yossi’s long black coat. A junior wearing denim shorts provides a similar contrast to Bracha’s long skirt. But as this motley group shares Niggunim late into the night, these differences don’t seem to matter, the shared Niggun breaks down barriers if for only a moment, and makes them one.
Niggun has a striking ability to create unity among disparate groups of Jews. At Chabad Farbrengens,[xiv] Jews who usually might not have much meaningful conversation or commonality come together, and while they sing together, their differences seem inconsequential. In the context of a Farbrengen, Jews from highly disparate frames of reference are able to share the experience of Niggun. Niggun belongs to all Jews, from the ex-convict to the Torah scholar. Niggun is in a sense democratizing. All Jews, no matter their level of ritual comfort, are able to participate together in this simple but powerful form of Avodat Hashem.
Although Niggunim can be a powerful force of internal Jewish unity, paradoxically they also have an exclusionary quality: different Jewish groups are set apart from one another by the Niggunim they sing (or don’t sing). When a person is not familiar with a particular group’s Niggunim, he or she can try to sing along, but will still in a sense be excluded from the group. In personal experience at Farbrengens and Seudat Shelishit gatherings, people who knew the in-group’s Niggunim and could begin Niggunim were immediately recognized as insiders, while those who could not were identified as outsiders. While some might deplore the potential exclusiveness such a phenomenon creates, by adding a deeper level of complexity to a group’s ethos, Niggunim become a means of solidifying a group’s shared identity. A group who shares deep, moving experiences together becomes closer to each other and identify more strongly, allowing them to accomplish more together. The deeper the connection people share, the fewer the boundaries between them and their ability to act and interact as a unit.
Particularistic Niggunim are used within group contexts on different occasions to evoke memories of the past, as theme songs for leaders; as calls to action, to contemplation, to express collective joy, and to express intense gratitude to, or yearning for, Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Niggun is a poignant means whereby a large group can share as one in expressing and sharing such feelings, often when these feelings are so profound such that they transcend verbal expression.
In Chabad philosophy, where each Jewish individual is part of a larger, integrated unit, the unifying and shared identity building fostered by the Niggun is critical. It is a tool that allows Am Yisrael to reach spiritual peaks as a community, and ultimately fulfill their duty as a manifestation of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s will and presence in this world.
In this context, Niggun Seder in Chabad Yeshivot can now be more fully appreciated. The beit midrash is a place where Am Yisrael attempts to connect to God through Torah and tefillah, it is a place where tradition grows and continues; it is also a place where the religious identity of young Jews is often formed. Applying the term Seder, a term normally reserved for formal study of Gemara in the beit midrash context, to Niggunim effectively puts them on the sacred level of Torah study, implying that the Niggun has a primary role in building the Jewish people and their connection to Hashem.
If Niggun has such a sacred quality, what separates it from an ordinary song? Some melodies go through an explicit process that changes them into a Niggun and will conform to a certain genre of music. Often, however, the process is more spontaneous; as previously noted, “The Niggun is the pen of the soul.”
The same notes that comprise a song can also comprise a Niggun; the divide between the two is simply a matter of the composer or singer’s perspective. Music and song in the modern era are often treated in a consumptive fashion, becoming part of a capitalist, consumer driven ethos. For many, music is merely used for cheap entertainment or quick emotional release, instead of as a means of deep spiritual expression. But even when music is a creative experience or an act of profound cathartic expression, it still is not sufficient to become a Niggun. A Niggun is a song that, from the perspective of the singer and the singer’s experience, expresses the full range of the individual or communal emotion in the context of divine service– it is a medium to sanctify individual and community. What defines a Niggun then is the perspective of the singer, not the song itself.
Given the enriching nature of Niggun, could the broader Jewish population, and the American Jewish community in particular, benefit from a stronger relationship with Niggun? R.Hershel Reichman, a longtime Rosh Yeshiva in the Yeshiva Program at YU, argues that Niggun is a most critical mode of tefilla in the modern American context. R. Reichman references the Sifrei on Parshat va-Etkhanan[xv], which lists ten modes of prayer, including rinah, a word denoting song. The common denominator between these ten types of prayer is that all are forms of shefikhat ha-lev [xvi] )a means of “pouring out the heart” to ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu). R. Reichman argues that praying in Hebrew can be a means of shefikut ha-lev. However, pouring out one’s heart in tefillah is easier when one is praying in a language he feels comfortable in. Thus, in America, where most Jews, even in Orthodox communities, do not speak Hebrew as a native language, Niggun serves as a universal language whereby all Jews can engage in prayer from the depths of their heart. True prayer, argues R. Reichman, involves becoming “enwrapped” in the relationship with Hashem, and for many this only happens in the context of Niggun. In his role as Rosh Yeshiva, R. Reichman has seen the power Niggun has to electrify a room of mitpallelim (congregants). R. Reichman notes that though it is difficult to gauge to what extent American Jews recognize the importance of Niggun, the phenomenon of Carlebach Minynanim may be an indicator that American Jews are beginning to actively recognize and employ the power of Niggun. “Niggun is here to stay, and its having a bigger and bigger impact,” R. Reichman claims. This growth of Niggun, he says, is a tremendous change from twenty-five years ago when the general trend of American Jewish congregations, including those at Yeshiva University, was to sing minimally during prayer if at all.
Although he emphasizes the importance of Niggun in enhancing tefillah, R. Reichman also feels that Niggun plays an important role in religious experience outside of tefillah. He lamented that the people involved in singing Niggunim are generally a self-selecting group. He says, “It’s hard for people to change if Niggun isn’t what they’re used to growing up, but I’m not me-ya’esh (despairing) from these people.”[xvii] R. Reichman said he hopes to introduce programming at YU that will make Nigguunim relevant to a broader range of the University population.
A teaching fellow at MTA, who has been involved in Jewish summer camps and high-schools for the past five years, shared R. Reichman’s optimism, and related that Niggun has seen a strong rise in its influence on high-school communities, especially as an independent experience outside of tefillah, “Nearly all kids in camp are involved in Niggunim,” he argues. However, he also observed that as these same students leave high school and enter college or the workforce, Niggun begins to play a much smaller role in their lives. “It’s part of a larger issue; high-school students are into spirituality, [but this feeling tends to decline] as people get older and shoulder more responsibility, or take on the American workforce mentality wherein they see themselves as ‘more down to earth,’” These kids leave Niggunim behind as a juvenile relic. The challenge then, for young people on the cusp of adulthood and adults of all ages, is to re-examine Niggunim and see them not as pleasant childhood camp songs, but as powerful spiritual tools used by the greatest of Jews.
Ultimately, we have much to learn from Chabad’s conception of Niggun. Jewish music isn’t just another means of entertainment, it’s a way for us add another element to our spiritual lives, to our life as a Jewish community, and to our relationship with God. Even when we sing songs for spiritual purposes, it is important not to see music as a simple aesthetic enhancement of spirituality. Niggun is the unique transcendental spiritual tool that is “the pen of the soul”[xviii], allowing the expression of that which cannot be expressed through the limited medium of words[xix]. We should recognize its power, study it, and consume ourselves in its experience, thereby achieving a fresh type of Avodat Hashem that is “the intense love resembling the flame that flashes out of the lightning”[xx].
Elisha Pearl is a Sophomore at Yeshiva College.
[i] For a history of Jewish song from Tanakh to the modern era, see Shmuel Zalmanov (ed.) Sefer HaNiggunim: Niggunei Chasidei Chabad, Mevoh, (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1984).
[ii] The usage of the term Niggun and its theosophical underpinnings has spread beyond the Hasidic world and permeated all elements of Jewish religious expression, including those outside of Orthodoxy. See Aaron Sokoloff, “The Power of a Well Placed Niggun,” Journal of Synagogue Music (2008): 205. For an example of the popularity of Niggun in non-Orthodox congregations see http://urj.org.
[iii] Niggun Seder is held either between Minkha and Kabalat Shabbat or after Minkha on Shabbat afternoon, depending on the branch of Tomchei Temimim. According to Tomchei Temimim tradition, the practice was started by a young student named Notte Peharer in 5666 (1905).
[iv] I encourage the reader to read Ellen Koskoff, Music in Lubavitcher Life (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001) for the best treatment of the Niggun and its philosophical and social place in Chabad as a religious philosophy and as popular movement.
[v] Although all Hasidic groups use Niggunim, and may in fact bear strong similarity to Chabad, both in their philosophical underpinnings and popular expression, these aspects are emphasized most strongly within the Chabad movement. Therefore, this article will generally limit its discussion of the Hasidic Niggun to Chabad.
[vi] See Melakhim I 2:15 where Elisha needs a “menagen” (musician) to play melodies to calm him and allow him to attain prophecy. The term “nagen” occurs frequently throughout Tanakh, especially in the book of Tehilim where David ha-melekh praises God. See also Havakuk 3:19 and Yeshayahu 38:20.
[vii] See Tanya 50 where the Alter Rebbe uses the Levitic Niggun as a paradigm for Avodat Hashem as the final step in achieving the purest quality of Ahavat Hashem. This metaphor appears with some frequency in the Alter Rebbe’s maamarim.
[viii] See Tanya II: 9 for a particularly clear explication of Alter Rebbe’s qualitative levels of human spiritual expression.
[ix] See Tanya I, 50 where the Alter Rebbe writes: “The service of the Levites was to raise the voice of melody and thanksgiving, with song and music, with tunefulness and harmony, in a manner of “advance and retreat” which is the distinction of the intense love resembling the flame that flashes out of the lightning, as is mentioned in the Gemara (Chagigah, ch. II). It is impossible to elucidate this matter clearly in writing.” Tanya Bi-lingual edition Kehot 1998, Nissan Mindel trans. The reference to Chagigah is found on 13b.
[x] The attribution of this statement is somewhat murky. It never appears in Chabad writings before Rav Yosef Yitzchak. Rav Yosef Yitzchak used multiple versions of it in his spoken addresses. Most often, he attributed it to the anonymous “Wise Man,” (see Likkutei Dibburim Hebrew edition p. 714, see Sefer HaSikhot 5709 p.299 for a variant version) although in one instance he attributes it to Alter Rebbe (see Sefer HaSikhot 5702 p.122). The Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson used the phrase often in spoken addresses most often attributing it to his father in law or referring to it as “the well-known fact.” The first clause, “HaLashon Hu Kulmus HaLev,” (the tongue is the pen of the heart) is a quote from Hovot HaLevavot Shaar Bet, Shaar HaBekhinah V.
[xi] See Torat Menakhem Hivaaduyot 5747 I, 92.
[xii] See Tanya I, 50.
The Alter Rebbe also argues that Niggun was a critical element of Moshe Rabbeinu’s Avodat Hashem. See Sefer HaMaamarim 5562, Part 2, p. 341 s.v.Kametz B’Keter, U’Patach B’Hokhmah etc.
[xiii] See Sefer HaMaamarim 5572, s.v. BeShabbat SheBarach Admor MiTzarfat, p. 282. There the Alter Rebbe refers to the intensely negative spiritual expressions of Yishmael and Esav as Niggun.
[xiv]Farbrengens (Yid.) Also known as Hitvaaduyot (Heb.), are Jewish communal gatherings characterized by Niggunim that take place in myriad contexts, among Jews of all persuasions. Although the term was once limited to the Chabad movement, its usage has since extended beyond this community.
[xv] Sifrei Devarim Parshat Va-Etkhanan 26 s.v. Davar Akher Va-Etkhanan El Hashem
[xvi] Rav Reichman’s take on “Avodah Shebalev.” See Mekhilta D’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yokhai 23:25
[xvii] R. Hershel Reichman, Personal Communication, September, 2013
[xviii] Ibid, note 15.
[xix] Tanya I, 50.