Nigun, kavanah and Chassidism

Here is a collection of quotations and teachings from various sources that hopefully give an insight into a Chassidic perspective on music; there is a fluidity in the teachings between song, melody, melody with words and melody without words, and instrumental music. There are also a few references and thoughts outside the Chassidic world, that readers may find fit well here. The sources from which these selections have been made are well worth reading in their entirety.

In a personal conversation, Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi (zt”l) told me that it was important to develop a deep, personal relationship with a nigun; only then might we begin to discover its true potential. My understanding is that, fundamentally, sacred melody and music are not frivolity or entertainment, even when they are at their most joyful. Nigun – sacred music – is profound, and must be composed, sung, played, and listened to with many levels of awareness. Just as with the study of Torah, nigun can be approached in the spirit of PaRDeS, and can be taken at face value (peshat), or at the most esoteric level (sod). As an example of my own nigun composition, have a listen to Tree of Life nigun.

  1. Azamrah – Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s teaching of Azamrah (Likutey Moharan I:282)

[Read the quotations in this section in the context of each other. While some might not immediately related to music, it should become clearer that they are making links between music, spiritual life, personal development and community.]

  • Azamrah l’Elohai b’odi!
” I will sing to my God as long as I live!” (Psalm 146:2).
  • “Know that you must judge all people favorably. This applies even to the worst of people. You must search until you find some little bit of good in them. In that good place inside them, they are not bad! If you can just find this little bit of good and judge them favorably, you really can elevate them and swing the scales of judgment in their favor. This way you can bring them back to God.”
  • “This teaching is contained in the words of King David in the Psalms: “And in just a little bit (ve-OD me-at) there’s no sinner; when you think about his place, he won’t be there” (Psalm 37:10). “
  • “By finding one tiny good point in which he is not bad and thereby judging him favorably, you really do raise him from being guilty to having merit. This will bring him back to God.”
  • “You must also find the good in yourself. A fundamental principle in life is that you should always try to keep happy and steer well away from depression.”
  • “The good you find inside you will give you new life and bring joy to your soul.”
  • “And so you must continue finding more and more good points. This is how songs are made.”
  • “In essence, music is made by sifting the good from the bad. The musician has to find the “good spirit” and reject the bad.”
  • When a person refuses to allow himself to fall into despair but instead gives himself new life by finding and gathering his positive points, this makes melodies. He can then pray, sing and give thanks to God.”
  • “Azamrah l’Elohai b’odi! “I will sing to my God as long as I live”. The phrase “as long as I live” is a loose translation of the Hebrew word be-ODee, which refers to the good that still (OD) remains in me. For as we saw earlier, “In just a little bit (OD) the sinner is not.” In virtue of this good point I can sing and give thanks to God.”
  • “And know that the one who can create these melodies by finding the good points in every Jew, even the worst, is fitted to be the prayer leader. The leader of the communal prayers must represent the whole congregation. He must find and gather all the good points in each of the worshippers. All these good points must be joined together in him so that when he stands before God in prayer he comes with the power of all this good. The prayer leader must have the power to attract all this good and gather together all the good points so that they are joined together in him.”
  • “When a child first learns to read and starts studying the Torah it is customary for the child to begin with the words, “And He called to Moses” (Leviticus 1:1). The reason why the child begins here is because the book of Leviticus opens at the point when the building of the Sanctuary (as described in the book of Exodus) was complete. It was then that God called Moses and started speaking to him from the Sanctuary: “And He called to Moses.” The children begin studying from here because it is from here that they receive the breath of their mouths. This is where they start to read, therefore, and enter into the study of Torah.”
  • “And know that each and every one of the tzaddikim [righteous ones] in each generation plays the role of this shepherd. Each one is a Moses, and each in his own way builds a sanctuary from which the little children receive the breath of their mouths. Every tzaddik according to his nature and the nature of the sanctuary he builds has children who receive from there. Each tzaddik has a certain number of children who receive the breath of their mouths from him – each in accordance with his nature.”
  1. Introduction to Chassidic Music’ by Velvel Pasternak (from ‘Songs of the Chassidim’, Tara Publications) –
  • lvdu et adonai b’simchah, bo’u l’fanav birnanah.” “Worship the Lord with joy, come before Him with song,” said the Psalmist [Ps 100:2].
  • “All melodies,” said Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, “are derived from the source of sanctity, from the Temple of Song. Impurity knows no song for it is the source of all melancholy”.
  • “… according to the rebbes, the melody alone is of primary importance. It is the melody that brings one to the heights of ecstasy and true religious fervor. The textual material is only secondary.”
  1. ‘Chabad Melodies’ Velvel Pasternak, Tara Publications, 1997
  • 5 “all [Chabad songs] alike reveal the inner state of the singer’s soul.” [Chabad—the name of the religious movement formed by Ranni Scneur Zalman of Liadi in 1775 in Eastern Europe—is an acronym of CHochmah / wisdom, Binah / understanding, and Da’at / knowledge.]
  • 5 “Chabad song has no set formulas; rather it aims to free song from dogmatic rules. Sometimes a single strain, a mere ‘twist’ will suffice to express the inner state of a Chassid’s soul; at other times a melody progresses through several emotional and spiritual stages.” [A chassid is a devoted follower.]
  • 5 “Chabad philosophy maintains that what is impossible to express in words may and should be conveyed in melody.”
  • 5 “In song an emotion ascends upward, climbing the mystic Biblical ladder of perfection, step by step to the Ultimate.”
  • 6 “All of God’s creations recite melody in the heavens and on Earth and there are mansions in heaven which can be opened only through song.” Zohar, Genesis, Chayei Sarah
  • 7 “The Chassidic movement … may be defined as the religion of Torah, performance of God’s commandments, and song and melody. The ecstasy of melody is the key with which Chassidism strives to unlock the gates of heaven. It is, so to speak, the “ladder to the throne of God”.”
  • 8 Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 21 “Access to certain [mystical] temples can be achieved only through song.”
  • 9 “The surprising and interesting thing about Chassidic music is that it could take the foreign elements of surrounding cultures and create a unique body of song with its own definite characteristics.”
  • 9 “Songs without words, but full of religious ecstasy, were created on the premise that a song without words is much better than one with words. King David of old had stated this premise: L’cha dumiah t’hilah ‘Words alone cannot relate the greatness of God.’ [Ps 65:2; lit, ‘To You, silence is praise.’] ‘Melody is the outpouring of the soul,’ said the first Lubavitcher Rebbe [Schneur Zalman of Liadi] . ‘Words interrupt the stream of emotions. For the songs of the souls, at the time they are swaying in the high regions, to drink from the well of the Almighty King, consist of tones only, dismantled of words.’ [Konteras Hahithpaaluth, Warsaw 1876, p.19ff] A melody with text, according to him, is limited in time, for with the conclusion of the words the melody, too, comes to an end. But a tune without words can be repeated endlessly.”
  • 11 “Basically, Chassidic nigunim can be placed within three distinct categories…. The three are rikud (dance), the tish nigun (song sung at the rebbe’s table), and the dveykus (slow and rapturous melody).”
  • 11 “Just as there are various movements in a melody, so are there also various movements in every part of the human anatomy which are suited to the tones of a melody, and every chassid who desires to understand a nigun must be able to dance to each tone with a different part of the body.” Reb Nachman, quoted in Menashe Unger Chassidus un Leben, New York, 1946, p.117
  • 12 Also Chassidic march, symbolizing spiritual victory, or royalty, rather than militarism
  • 12 “Just as there were two different schools of Chassidism, the emotional and philosophical, (the Baal Shem Tov having been the founder of the former and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi the latter) so there were also two distinct type of melodies; the ecstatic and reflective, the joyous and the mystical. A strong melody luring one to dance is characteristic of the first; a more subdued, pensive, introspective, rapturous and yearning tone is the theme of the second group. Simchah, – joy, is the feature of the Beshtian school; D’vekut – union with God is the characteristic of the Chabad
  • “For Chabad, nigunim were not only an integral part of Chassidism – the songs are a complex philosophy unto themselves. The Chabad system, as first formulated by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, strives for the same goal as the other branches of Chasidism, namely the attaining of divine bliss. But it had, and still has, a unique approach to that goal. Chabad contends that it is impossible to leap immediately from extreme melancholy to extreme joy. It is impossible for a human being to rise from the lowest to the highest state without proceeding through the whole scale of the intermediate sentiments of the soul. Great stress and care is laid upon each progressive stage of development, as significant for the education of the soul and for the improvement of the spirit. It is, Chabad Chassidism contends, as if someone who had never seen the interior of a palace suddenly stepped into its bewildering splendor without first having passed through its corridors. Such a person will never be able to sense the full glory of the palace. The approach to joy, therefore, is extremely important, and each and every step must be achieved through deep meditation. The various stages in this process of elevation according to Chabad philosophy are: 1) hish’tap’chut hanefesh the outpouring of the soul and its effort to rise out of the mire of sin, out of the klipah, the evil shell, 2) hitor’rut, spiritual awakening 3) hit’pa’alut [enthusiasm], the stage in which the individual is possessed by his thoughts, 4) d’veikut [attachment], communion with God, 5) hit’lahavut, flaming ecstasy, 6) hit’pash’tut hagash’miut [the expansion (or removal) of corporeality], the highest state, in which the soul completely casts away its garment of flesh and becomes disembodied spirit. Many of the Chabad songs are analyzed according to these steps of elevation. … A system such as this could, with much less success than the Beshtian school seek tunes from the outside, because no such programme underlay the folk songs of the gentiles. True, one can find among Chabad nigunim many songs of Russian and Ukrainian origin, often sung verbatim in these languages. … By and large, however, these are the shorter and happier melodies of their repertoire. For the achievement of the goals as outlined above, Chabad was compelled to create original tunes to be used as a means for attainment of its purpose. Every Chabad tune aims to voice either all, or some, of the stages of elevation of the soul. There are specific tunes which express hitor’ruthit’lahavuthish’tap’chut hanefesh, d’veikut and so on. The two stages of hitor’rut and hit’lahavut are also called rikud. The melodies voicing d’veikut and hish’tap’chut have the free unrhythmical approach, and are sung slowly. The tunes for hit’lahavut and hitor’rut are built on vigorous syncopated dance rhythms.”
    • 15 “Discussion of these recent compositions has been lively, many labeling them neo-chassidic rather than chassidic songs. Those who refuse to accept these new melodies, especially the compositions of the younger generation, contend that they are merely secular melodies attached to sacred text and can, at best, be called Shir Dati (religious song).”
    • 15 “The true test of these [modern] songs and their proper labeling will be in their acceptance or non-acceptance among the chassidim. Those that will be sung regularly among the various chassidic groups and will enter permanently into their repertoire will deserve to bear the title chassidic.”
    • 16 “Many Chassidic leaders believed melody could reach the heavens faster than speech. They therefore urged prayer to be sung rather than recited.”
  1. Shir/collar/song – The Master of Song– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi [the ‘Alter Rebbe’] – “One of these early short discourses was based on the Talmudic passage, “All bearers of collars go out with a collar and are drawn by a collar” (Shabbat 51b). The Talmud is discussing the laws of Shabbat, on which it is forbidden for a Jew to allow his animal to carry anything out from a private domain to a public domain; however, it is permitted to allow one’s animal to go out with its collar around its neck, and even to draw it along by means of its collar. But the Hebrew word the Talmud uses for “collar,” shir, also means “song.” Thus Rabbi Schneur Zalman interpreted the Talmud’s words to say that, “The masters of song — the souls and the angels — go out in song and are drawn by song. Their ‘going out’ in yearning for G-d, and their drawing back into their own existence in order to fulfill the purpose of their creation, are by means of song and melody.””
  1. A Heart Afire: stories and teachings of the early Hasidic masters, Translated and retold with commentary by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yepez, JPS, Philadelphia, 2009
  • 102 “Now, the nigun is a melody for tuning the soul, for creating a unique atmosphere, and for keeping it primed. … There is a certain kavanah, a certain intentionality that goes into the composition of nigun, and that quality can be invoked under the right circumstances.”
  • 103 “… [a nigun] doesn’t sing itself. It isn’t living until it is sung. It isn’t transformative until it is heard by an open and engaged heart. That is to say that the nigun is an interactive tuning instrument. Through it, the soul is tuned and transformed. But to effect this change or exchange, the singer must first be mindful and listen to what the nigun is trying to communicate, even as he or she is singing it.”
  1. ‘Music, Spirituality and Transformation: the centrality of song in Chabad’, Tzvi Freeman –
  • “If words are the pen of the heart,” taught Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “then song is the pen of the soul.”
  • “A tzaddik (“righteous person”) is one who has mastered the animal inside and achieved a higher state of being. In a nigun, a tzaddik encodes his soul. When we sing a nigun of a tzaddik, we connect with the innermost garments of the tzaddik’s soul, and from there come to union with the light that tzaddik has found. That is why each note and nuance of a nigun must be precise. As the words of a sacred text, they must be learnt and repeated in perfect form.”
  • “The parts of the nigun are called “gates”—entrances from one spiritual world to a higher one. Each demands not only new breath, but a new state of consciousness. The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer, taught, “Each gate must be repeated twice. The first time only traces a form; the second time carves deep into the soul.” That is why a nigun must never be rushed. The pace, the silence, the mindfulness—all must be preserved in order that the nigun reach deep inside.”
  • “Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, taught, a song unites those who sing and hear it: When words are spoken, we each hear the words according to our understanding. But in song, we are all united in a single pulse and a single melody.”
  1. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
  • “In this material world, especially if we have sinned and are very far from God, the main way to attach ourselves to God is through melody and song.” (Likutey Halachot, Nesiat Kapayim 5:6)
  • “The musician playing the instrument must gather the good spirit – the spirit of prophecy – and separate it from the sad, depressed spirit. He must understand music in order to know how to sift out and gather up the parts of the spirit and put them together in order to construct the melody, namely the joy, in order to build the good, prophetic spirit, which is the opposite of the depressed spirit. He must move his hand up and down the instrument in order to channel the joy and bring it to perfection. And when the prophet hears a melody from an expert musician, he receives a spirit of prophecy, the very spirit that the musician gathered with his hand and separated from the depressed spirit. Thus the attendants of the depressed King Saul said to him of the young David: “And he will play with his hand and it will be good for you” (I Samuel 16:16). Accordingly, by playing the musical instrument with one’s hand, one sifts, purifies and elevates the good spirit and separates it from the bad. This is the way to overcome the evil spirit of folly that seeks to spoil and upset the good, prophetic spirit. The bad spirit is dissipated through the joy that comes through the hand of the player. For the root of the power of the spirit of folly lies in sadness and depression. Therefore the only way to receive a holy spirit of prophecy is through joy – the joy created by the hand of the player. Thus, “It was when the musician played that the hand of God was upon him” (II Kings 3:15) ; “and he will play with his hand and it will be good for you”. The player who has the power of the hand can sift out the good spirit from the bad and thereby subdue the evil spirit.” (Likutey MoharanI, 54)
  1. Shirat HaLev [The Song of the Heart], Shmuel Stern – Translated by Gita Levi –
  • “Rebbe Nachman of Breslov wrote (Likutei Moharan, Part II, Paragraph 63) that every shepherd has his own unique melody, his own nigun, born of the grass, and the place to where he leads his flock to graze, and so forth. The shepherd himself is benefited by this nigun. This is because spending so much of his time amidst the herd could result in a descent of the shepherd from his standing as man down to the level of beast. The nigun spares him from this descent. The nigun is surely as a spiritual distillation, refining men’s spirit from that of the beasts. As the Ramban writes, “There is nothing as subtle within the realm of physicality as music.” That is to say, that the nigun is found on the borderline of physicality, at the point of connection with the spiritual. Therefore the nigun is bestowed with the power to raise us from the material and physical to the realm of spirituality; to enable the ascent from the level of beast to the level of human. Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi interpreted the Talmudic passage “All bearers of collars [ba’alei shir] go out with a collar and are drawn by a collar” to imply that humans, the singers of songs [ba’alei shir can also mean leaders of song], are drawn out from beastliness through song. [In the Talmudic text the word “shir” is used for “collar”; this Hebrew word also means “song”.] In the Holy Temple, the Levites would sing their song, accompanying the sacrificial animal’s ascent towards heaven. For through sacrifice, the animalistic ascends to a level of spirituality. The Levites’ song accompanied and facilitated this ascent of the bearer of the sacrifice. Through the Levites’ song, the man offering the sacrifice was aroused to absolute teshuvah [repentance] and thus neared his Maker.”
  • “The gematria [numerical equivalence] of the word tefillah [prayer] is shira [song], i.e. 515.”
  • Prophecy – “The true purpose of the nigun, the genuine perfection of the song, is to achieve there within the power of prophesy. As is written in the Book of Kings II: “As the musician played, G-d’s Hand came upon him.” That is to say, that the musician was blessed with the spirit of prophesy. In the Book of Samuel it is written: “…you will meet a group of prophets descending from the high place, preceded by a lyre, a timbrel, a flute and a harp, and they will be prophesying.” Rambam (Maimonides) taught that the prophets were empowered with the spirit of prophesy only when they were intensely contemplative and meditative, their hearts abundant with joy. Prophesy is never the consequence of sadness or despair or lethargy but rather of joy and celebration. Therefore prophesy is led by song, by the playing of musical instruments. … The Midrash teaches us that it was Moses of blessed memory who taught song to the Levites, as is written in Midrash Raba, Genesis 54, “what efforts the son of Amram toiled until he taught song to the Levites”. This explains the reasoning as to why King David and Samuel chose the Levite prophets. For the Levites had attained a perfection in music – the song of prophesy, the song capable of leading a person to a truly inspirational clinging to Hashem [the name of God] and the revelation of His Light.”
  1. Sayings of Chassidic Masters– quoted in ‘Chabad Melodies’ ed. Velvel Pasternak, Tara Publications, 1997
  • “A person should not have an ear just to hear songs of others, but also to hear the songs which sing from within his heart.”
  • Neginah is the language of the soul.”
  • “Melody is the outpouring of the soul. Words interrupt the stream of emotions. For the songs of the souls at the time they are swaying in the high regions to drink from the well of the Almighty King, consist of tones only, dismantled from words.”
  • “Were I blessed with a sweet voice, I could sing you new hymns and songs every day, for with the daily rejuvenation of the world, new songs are created.” First rebbe and founder of the Ger dynasty, quoted in A.B. Birnbaum The song in the courts of the Tsadikim in Poland, Haolam, 1908
  • “A nigun can pull one out of the deepest mire.”
  • “Song opens a window to the secret places of the soul.”
  • “In reality those who understand that which they hear, a song tells more than a story.” Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi
  • “The tongue is the pen of the heart, but melody is the quill of the soul.”
  • “Through song, calamities can be removed.”
  • “Every locksmith has a master key with which he can open many doors. Neginah is such a key, for it can unlock all doors.”
  • “Song reveals the beauty within the soul.”
  • “How do you pray to the Lord? Is it possible to pray to the Lord with words alone? Come, I will show you a new way to the Lord – not with words or sayings but with song. We will sing, and the Lord on high will understand us.”
  • “Even the most wicked can be turned to repentance upon hearing a song which emanates from a tzaddik’s innermost heart.”
  • “Music originates from the prophetic spirit, and has the power to elevate one to prophetic inspiration.”
  • “Through song the gates of heaven can be opened. Sadness closes them. The origin of all songs is holy, for impurity knows no song. It is the root of all sadness.”
  • “A person sees himself as he truly is through a Chassidic nigun.”
  • “Song elevates an individual and brings him closer to God.”
  • “Our sages tell us that things that come from the heart enter the heart. Neginah expresses not only what is in the heart, but also what overflows from it.”
  • “Songs heard at Chassidic gatherings arouse their listeners to repentance.” Compare: “By singing the melodies, says R. Joseph Isaac, in whatever situation a person might be, he will be aroused in Repentance.” Quoted in, Loewenthal, Naftali (1997) ‘Spirituality, Melody and Modernity in Habad Hassidism’, in Proceedings of the First International Conference on Jewish Music, 62-78. London: City University Print Unit, 1997, p.73
  • “If you sing a nigun correctly, without mistakes, then the nigun speaks for itself.”
  • “Speech reveals the emotions of longing and delight. These stem from the inner self, from the very soul, and are much higher than reason and intellect.”
  • “It is said that the Mansion of Song and the Mansion of Penitence are close to each other, and I say that the Mansion of Song is the Mansion of Repentance.”
  • “Lord of the Universe, were I a singer I would not allow you to live in the heavens, but You would be forced to live with us here on earth.”
  • “He who has no feeling for neginah has no feeling for Chassidism. He has a great feeling for neginah has a great feeling for Chassidism.” Hillel of Paritch. This statement implies that melody can be equated with the sod (secret), the highest level of Torah interpretation, which is central to Chassidic thought.
  • “In all nigunim can be found love [ahavat] and fear [yirat/awe] of the Lord.”
  • “Through the power of neginah one may conquer the heart.”
  • “Rejoice that you have an opportunity to sing unto God.”
  • “When I hear a song from the mouth of a Jew, I can ascertain how much fear of God there is within him and whether he is wise or foolish.”
  • “If I were a singer, I would accept upon myself the duty of travelling from city to city in order to lead prayers in the various congregations.” Quoted in E.Steinman The Garden of Chassidism, Jerusalem, 1961
  1. ‘The Role of Music in Chassidut’, online study session with Rabbi Dr. Nehemiah Polen, 29 Oct 2017 –
  • “Chassidic nigun is a derech avodah… a path of service.”
  • “It begins in silence, and it ends in silence.”
  • “It’s about listening, much more than it’s about broadcasting”
  • Alter Rebbe teaching
    • Shir in Mishnah means a ‘collar’ around an animal’s neck; if an animal normally has a collar, then it is not a ‘burden’, which means that the animal can be led on Shabbat. Alter Rebbe talked about shir/song, as like a collar that we are led by from one state to a higher state. [Rabbi Polen might have confused things a little here, because he talks about shir as the ‘chain’ as well as the collar, and then compares a song as a ‘chain’ of notes; but Rabbi Polen has contradicted himself, because earlier, he specifically said shir was the collar, not the chain …]
    • Maggid of Mezritch (d. 1772) explained that the only way a thing can be transformed is if it is prepared to give up something of its former identity. [When we want to sing, and be changed, we must be prepared to leave the state we were in. When I write a song, I want the music not to seem like normal, secular music any more, and I want the lyrics to feel like heightened language and intent, because of what the music helps the lyrics ‘say’.]
    • “What nigun is supposed to do is to enable you to transition from level to level, and to drop something as you move to the next level. In other words, it’s a challenging thing. It’s not simple.”
    • The previous state is not ‘lost’, although it is dropped. Its essence is contained in the next level up, and is a necessary component. Without the first level, you can’t get to the next level.
    • “Every time I’m working with a nigun, what am I being asked to surrender, how to surrender it but have enough of it within me to be able to move to the next place?” A nigun is asking us to do some work.
  • “What you have after the nigun stops is the silent reverberation, which is a completely different silence from the silence before the nigun. The silence before the nigun is, ‘I’m waiting for it to start’, which is very good, which is very wonderful. The silence after the nigun holds all the notes, holds all the vibrations, holds all the emotions. Maybe that’s what holds all you dropped, as well as what you aspired to. All of that is held in the silence. That’s the most important part. If you don’t have the silence, then you’re absolutely missing the point of the nigun. That’s when you get it.”
  • Nigunim without words are not ‘higher/better/deeper’ than ones with words. They’re two different modalities. Words give an anchor, greater specificity.
  • Chasidic teaching about connection between the High Holy Days Psalm 130 out of the depths mima’amakim ‘I have called to You’, which is penitential, and Song of Songs 2:1 ‘I am the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys’ ha’amakim. When a parent looks lovingly at us, we feel good, and it brings out the best in us, and encourages us. God gazes on us, in Ps 130, not judgementally, but lovingly, and so the best part of us, which is the good in us, is inspired to call out and sing. In Song of Songs 2:1, we affirm that good part of ourselves. [Song of Songs 2:4 “He has brought me to the banqueting house, and His banner over me is love.”] It is the best part of us that sings and makes music.
  • Nigun is not just entertainment, or to be blasted out at a wedding, … but this is serious spiritual work … Turn your face to the wall, or close your eyes, and consider and think that you are standing before Hashem. … We have to see clearly that we are standing before someone. Da lifnei mei atah omeid.[Know before whom you stand.]”
  • “Sometimes we use a nigun to wake us up. Eventually, the nigun takes over. That’s a very important part. … Don’t give up on a nigun too soon.” “He [Shlomo Carlebach] could sing a nigun for 20 minutes.” “You’re not singing the nigun any more. The nigun is singing you.”
  • “We should all the be on the level of what a nigun does and how it does it.”
  • “The nigun conforms to the shape of your soul, or your soul conforms to the shape of your nigun. … The vibrations take the shape of your n’shamah [soul], influence your n’shamah as in the same way, reciprocally, your n’shamah is giving energy to the nigun. … You are in dialogue with the nigun. The nigun is taking you over in a good way. … But you are also taking and shaping the nigun and forming it to the shape of your n’shamah. The reason the power of the nigun is so internal is because it’s having this dialogue literally with the shape of your soul. So you’re discovering and refining and elevating your n’shama as you’re working with the nigun.”
  • “These walls are not limiting walls. They’re walls of enclosure and reverberation. They really bring the notes and the melody into a much deeper place.”
  • “Whenever you sing a nigun in a place, then the walls have a memory of the nigunim that were sung there before. So when you sing a nigun now, you’re activating the memory. You’re not only hearing the reverberation of the nigun that you’re singing now. But you’re hearing the reverberation of all the nigunim that were sung here from the beginning. Hopefully kedushah [holiness] was here before, and it goes back and back and back and all of that is absorbed into the walls and now is coming out at us in this gentle way, like the ‘drops of dew’ that come out of the rose.”
  • “What happens when your vocal cavity becomes not a neophyte, but really becomes trained. There’s a depth, there’s a memory, there’s experience. You’re singing not only with the voice you have now, but with every bit of voice you ever had whenever you sang. And you’re called upon to feel that. … But then – and this is the open your heart moment – I want to ask myself, what do I want to deposit in these walls now for the next time, and the next person. … If I’m benefiting from [what] was going on for so many years, don’t I want to leave a reverberation for those who are going to come, next week, next month, next year, or for the next generation?”
  • “Learning a nigun is avodah [work, service of the heart].”
  1. Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi, Jewish Lights, 2012
  • tunes are prayers
  • you’re not ‘singing’, you’re davening (praying-meditating)
  • nigunim have specific kavanah [focus and intention]
  • Write English words kavanah for nigunim, so we know where our mind/heart should be directed when chanting them
  • Words can limit a tune
  • Melodies might warm people up, but conflict with kavanah of words
  • Ps 137:4 “How can we sing the Lord a new song in a strange land” Reb Zalman: “The answer is to adapt the music of the land where you find yourself and make it holy.”
  • Kavanah more important than vocal quality
  • Nigun tunes the soul to God, and us to our praying companions
  • Repeat many times. Sway, involve the body
  • Each reading can reveal a new meaning
  • nigun must be a path of ascension to God
  1. Ma’amerei Admor ha-Zaqen,Shneur Zalman of Liadi
  • 5566 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 2005), 2:741-742 “The song in the melody comes in the aspect of a circle (igul) really like a material circle of a material song that we see with our senses and it is known to all those who are knowledgeable in singing with a voice that the movements of the melody are composed that each of them are connected to its partner and concatenate from movement to movement until there is a connection and link to the end of the melody with its beginning, so that immediately when the melody ends, he is forced to return to the beginning of the melody and so its end is with its beginning and are continued in one continuation and one matter and if he does not return to the beginning of the melody immediately when he finished its ending it is as if he remains in the middle of the matter and intention. For all the sounds of the melody are comprised together in such an integration to the extent that a beginning and end cannot be found at all like a material circle, which does not have a top or bottom and no beginning or end, so too in a melody all of its parts are unified as one whose beginning is unfolded in its end and its end is enfolded in its beginning and therefore when he finishes the melody he immediately returns to its beginning… for when there is no higher and lower, then lower and higher are equal to the extent that the lower is found to be like the higher in one actual equanimity [hashva’ah] [also means comparison, paradox, opposites, undistinguishable unity, equality].”
  • 5569, (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1981) 302“… when it is impossible for a man to explain some deep intellect in words to someone else, even if he is a very wise person, he is able to direct him to intuit the depth of it through a hint [remez], for through letters it is impossible to be garbed, for they cannot contain it, but it may be garbed in a hint. And what is extracted from this is that also with melodies and cantillation marks, that also when it is impossible for the concealed light of chochmah [wisdom; one of the ten sefirot] to shine in the aspect of a dot upon the letters, but in a melody, which is a movement and drawing down of the voice in to the world, it is able to be garbed, but it is there in a great concealment, denied from every aspect of comprehension, even as a dot or as lightening in the world it has no apprehension.”
  1. Samuel Zalmanoff, Sefer Hanigunim, Book of Chasidic Songs, 3 vol. (Brooklyn: Nichoach, n.d.), from a teaching from a lecture delivered by Yosef Yiṣḥaq Schneersohn, the ‘Frierdiker Rebbe’, 1:21 “At the exact moment that he sings [a melody] he is totally withdrawn and submerged in a room that is in a room hidden in his soul and for this moment there is absolutely nothing of his revealed essence, for then he is conjoined in the essence of the soul… And when a man arouses [himself] with all his will and desire to ascend in the palaces of light of his innermost soul, then he climbs and ascends the rungs of the ladder of the melody and there he is able to absorb the life force of his soul’s essence – which is wholly good. For certainly the hidden and concealed that is in each Jew… is wholly good… and when he ascends by means of the melody… then the hidden good and concealed within the crevices of his soul are revealed, thereby the man is made more pure and praiseworthy, in any event, for that moment.”
  1. Nigun Shamil: the soul endlessly yearning for what it has always never been, Eugene Matanky – sourced 6 Jan 2018,– 9-10 “Schneur Zalman associated melody with the highest and most sublime aspects of divinity. Using imagery related to the supernal realm of the sefirot to describe the movements in a melody and also conveying the higher unity that is to be found in the singing of a melody. Further associating melody to be higher than thought and speech and as such that which cannot be conceptualized or comprehended, but at the same time is able to make things comprehended.”
  1. Zvi Mark, Mysticism and Madness: The Religious Thought of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (New York: Continuum, 2009), p.164 “The person who worships exclusively through wisdom and speech is incapable of contending with the void that lacks any intellect or language. Only one who has acquired the ability of silence and the casting off of the intellect on the one hand and, on the other, ‘knows melody,’ is able to believe and to play the melody of the presence of ‘the light of ‘Ein Sof’ [the One-With-No-End] when faced with the void… The aspect of Moses is not restricted to silence; it also comprises melody, the mystical ability to come in contact with ‘the light of ‘Ein Sof,’ even when the latter is not manifested in intellect, language, and speech.”
  1. Music and prophecy
  • 2 Kings 3:15 (Elisha) V’hayahk’nagein ha-m’nagein, va-t’hi alav yad-adonai. “And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him.” [Paraphrased, using literal translations] “And so it was that, as the musician became [transformed into] a musical instrument, the hand of God [i.e. the ability to prophesy] came upon him [Elisha].” The implication is that prophecy is possible only when one connects to God, and that this can be achieved particularly well through experiencing music – music precedes prophecy. Note also that Elisha was not the musician, but the listener. The play on language might suggest that the musician becomes God’s musical instrument through which a divine message or intention (kavanah) is transmitted. Rather than meaning that prophecy came because music had opened the channel, it could mean that the making of music can itself be a prophetic act, the musician becoming the mouthpiece of God.
  • 1 Sam 10:5-6 (Saul)Samuel speaking to Saul – “…as you enter the town, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine [high place] preceded by lyres, timbrels, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. And the spirit of the Lord will grip you, and you will prophesy along with them; you will become [be transformed into] another man.”
  • 1 Chron 25:1 (David) “David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun to prophesy, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals.”
  1. Chani Haran Smith (2010) Tuning the Soul: Music as a Spiritual Process in the Teachings of Rabbi Nahman of BratzlavLeiden, Brill Publishing
  1. A final thought

All sacred music, and all prayer, can be enriched when we begin with listening, breathing and emptying ourselves. As we make space, we listen for what is happening, for what is needed, and for what is there as we lean into the Great Silence. What happens in the silence affects the sounds we make. And the sounds we make affect the shape and texture of the silence that follows. In our silence and breathing, we turn to God. In our song, we tune to God. This is not singing, but praying – avodat lev (or avodah shebalev), ‘service/work of the heart’.

Letting the music come through our bodies, whether we listen, sing or play, shifts us into the kabbalistic world of yetzirah and feeling. Singing this way tunes us not only to God, but also to the companions we are praying with – and to ‘that of God’ within them. We give time for our soul to breathe, and room for God to enter.

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