The tische: Anatomy of a ‘nigun’

Melodies derive from but also reflect the singer’s inner life.

Hassidic Jews celebrate Purim in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Hassidic Jews celebrate Purim in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
There can be no denying the centrality of nigunim – music and singing – in hassidic thought, practice and life. Chanting together can be a unifying act that brings a community together. Alternatively, singing a tune – alone or with others – can be a deep spiritual experience.
The repertoire of hassidic nigunim is varied. Some are joyous ditties, others triumphant marches, still others introspective journeys.
Contrary to popular perception, many hassidic nigunim have words, and these words can direct the singers’ meditations.
Besides words, the message or ethos of a hassidic nigun can be framed by a variety of factors. If the song is traditionally sung at a designated time of year or at particular recurring events, the soundscape becomes part of the experience. A nigun may be sung as a prelude to a certain ritual, precipitating a state of mind or emotion for the performance of the rite. If the song has a story behind it, then that backdrop may shape the experience of singing the nigun. That story may recount a historical episode, or it may refer to a mythical event, and the nigun becomes intrinsically linked to the memory.
Some hassidic masters emphasized the importance of the singer’s spiritual pedigree, as the key to framing the nigun experience. Thus, one of the early hassidic masters, Rabbi Zev Wolf Halevi of Zhitomir (ca. 1740-1798), reported that the Besht – Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov (ca. 1700-1760) – once heard a wicked person playing the violin. As he listened to the music, the Besht perceived all the sins that the violinist had committed since his childhood.
Zev Wolf continued: And if the person reveals his sins through a violin, how much more so when he sings with his own mouth. By listening to the nigun that he hums, a lofty spiritual person can perceive all his actions and all his iniquities. Zev Wolf explained that since the person invests all his strength in the nigun, it is not just the music that is emitted from his mouth but an expression of his innermost self.
Other hassidic masters – including Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772- 1810) and Rabbi Yitzhak of Neshkiz (1789/90-1868) – also recounted the tradition of the Besht’s ability to mystically perceive a person’s iniquity through that person’s music.
A disciple of Yitzhak of Neshkiz recounted that his teacher once traveled to Makhnivka. In Makhnivka there was a man by the name of Reb Hirsh, who was known to welcome visitors into his home. Hirsh had, alas, fallen on hard times, and the hassidic master wanted to assist him. In Hirsh’s home, Yitzhak heard his children singing at the table and he perceived in their voices that they were studying a language other than the holy tongue.
Yitzhak turned to his host and said: “I am surprised that your children study this, because in each of the letters there is a unique husk [meaning darkness or impurity] – may the Merciful One save us!” Yitzhak continued, recognizing that at times there may be a need to study a foreign language, but cryptically adding that “a person needs to know how to act in this.”
Nahman added a slightly more positive angle: Through a person’s singing, it is apparent whether that person has accepted upon himself the yoke of Torah.
Nahman grounded his assertion in a creative reading of the biblical verse requiring the Kehathites to carry the holy items of the Tabernacle on their shoulders (Numbers 7:9). Nahman referred to the Talmudic passage that links the word for carrying (yis’u) to the act of singing as described in Psalms: “Take up (se’u) the song, sound the timbrel, the melodious lyre and harp” – both words have the same root in Hebrew (Arachin 11a; Psalms 81:3). Nahman explained: Just as the Kehathites carried the holy ark on their shoulders, thus a voice may carry the scent of Torah.
Thus a nigun comes from and reflects our insides. Some of the traditions cited focus on songs that reveal sin; Nahman suggested that the converse is also true. Thus, when people give voice to their insides, the mystically adept will hear their sound waves carrying words of Torah.
Perhaps they will even perceive all the righteous deeds of the singer.
The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a postdoctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.