“Serve the Lord with joy, and come before Him with singing,” wrote the psalmist. Music played a pivotal role in ancient Jewish observance. The advent of Chassidism in the 18th century reintroduced simcha (happiness) into Judaism, and with it came new melodies.
For centuries, rabbis composed nigunim, personal, improvised spiritual tunes, later recalled by students. The nigun is seen as a way of approaching the divine. Kabbalists wrote: ‘Access to certain temples can be achieved only through song.’
The Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), founder of modern Chassidism, encouraged joyous singing as a way of celebrating God and improving fellowship. According to legend he used to pick up simple everyday tunes from gentile shepherds, which contained anitsotz shel k’dusha (a spark of holiness), and then turn them into sacred songs.
Most early nigunim were wordless. The first Lubavitch Rebbe explained: “Melody is the outpouring of the soul, but words interrupt the stream of emotion.” Later rebbes used special syllables to carry a tune (like ‘bim bam’, or ‘yadi-da-di’). Often these became distinctive signatures. Musicologists can tell whether a particular nigun comes from the Chassidim of, say, Vishnitz, Bobov, Ger or Lubavitch.
There are three main types of Chassidic nigunim. Rikud is a dancing nigun, often in three sections and sung in a major key. One rikud can last up to half an hour. Tisch nigun is a song sung at the rabbi’s table, often by the rabbi’s son. It conveys a myriad of moods, and often features a flute-like pastoral melody called awolloch. Dveykut nigun is a slow and rapturous melody, invariably sung in a minor key. Chassidim often chanted dveykut while studying. Some tunes were adopted for Hallel (prayer).
Nineteenth century Chassidim absorbed newer tunes from the European march and the waltz, yet Kotzker and Gerer Chassidic adaptations of Schubert and Chopin were less successful.
As Chassidim travelled from one Chassidic court to another, tunes spread across Europe. The greatest centre of music was the tiny dynasty of Modzitz. The Modzizter Rabbi Israel Taub, Baal Divre Torah (1848-1920) composed 200 nigunim. “Heimloz Nigun”, “Song of the Homeless”, was inspired by the devastation of war. “Ezk’ra Hagadol” (“The Great Ezk’ra”), evoking thoughts of Jerusalem, was composed by the rabbi while undergoing surgery in Berlin in 1913.
Rabbi Israel’s son and successor, Saul Yedidya Elozor Taub, wrote some 700 compositions, many of them lengthy, intricate operatic works. From 1940 to 1947 he travelled across America and spread his tunes. Rabbi Saul’s own son, Samuel Eliyahu Taub, immigrated to Palestine in 1935, adding about 400 new tunes to the growing Modzitzer repertoire.
Recognising the sacred within the everyday and profane is a key Chassidic tradition, and this is especially true with nigunim. The nigun has inspired secular Israeli music, klezmer and even Chassidic jazz, yet its original spiritual essence remains.
This article is largely derived from Velvel Pasternak’s essay “Song in Hassidic Life”