There can be no denying the centrality of niggunim – music and singing – in hasidic 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 repertory of hasidic niggunim is varied: some niggunim are joyous ditties, others triumphant marches, still others introspective journeys. Contrary to popular perception, many hasidic niggunim have words, and these words can direct the singers’ meditations. Besides words, the message or ethos of a hasidic niggun 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 niggun may be sung as a prelude to 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 niggun. That story may recount an historical episode or it may refer to a mythical event, and the niggun becomes intrinsically linked to the memory.
Some hasidic masters emphasised the importance of the singer’s spiritual pedigree, as the key to framing the niggun experience. Thus one of the early hasidic masters, Rabbi Zev Wolf Halevi of Zhitomir (ca.1740-1798) reported that the Besht – Rabbi Yisrael Baal 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.
Rabbi 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 niggun that he hums, a lofty spiritual person can perceive his all his actions and all his iniquities. Zev Wolf explained that since the person invests all his strength in the niggun, it is not just the music that is emitted from his mouth but an expression of his innermost self.
Other hasidic 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 travelled 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 hasidic master wanted to assist him. In Hirsh home, Yitzhak of Neshkiz heard his children singing at the table and he perceived in their voices that they were studying a language other than the Holy Tongue.
Rabbi Yitzhak of Neshkiz 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 of Neshkiz continued, recognising 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.”
Rabbi Nahman of Breslov 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 of Breslov ground his assertion in a creative reading of the biblical verse requiring the children of Kehat to carry the holy items of the Tabernacle on their shoulder (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 (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 11a; Psalms 81:3). Nahman explained: Just as the children of Kehot carried the holy ark on their shoulders, thus a voice may carry the scent of Torah.
Thus a niggun comes from and reflects our insides. Some of the traditions cited focus on songs that reveal sin; Nahman of Breslov suggested that the converse is also true. Thus, when people give voice to their insides, the mystically adept will hear their soundwaves carrying words of Torah. Perhaps they will even perceive all the righteous deeds of the singer.
The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.