The Nigun

A mystical musical prayer introduced by Hasidism.

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Musically speaking, the revolution of the eighteenth-century Hasidic movement was to elevate music to a symbolic place above sacred text. Now, melodies themselves were not only acceptable but even in some cases more important than words. According to Hasidic tradition, this idea began with the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (or the Besht, 1698-1750). The Baal Shem Tov is credited with emphasizing the importance of vocal music as a form of personal confession and spiritual expression. He taught that song is an even greater form of spiritual expression than traditional prayer and that the Hasidic nigun was a musical path to God that transcended the limitations of language itself. There remain many nigunim attributed to the Baal Shem Tov , including "Dem Rebns Nigun."

This same reverence for the nigun and belief in its great spiritual power continued down through the generations of Hasidic rabbinic dynasties. The centrality of this is expressed in many sayings, such as Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav's "Music originates from the prophetic spirit, and has the power to elevate one to prophetic inspiration" and "Song is the soul of the universe."

Habad Nigunim

One of the most famous Hasidic composers was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745-1812), the founder of the Habad Lubavitch movement. For this first Lubavitcher Rebbe, melody was an outpouring from the individual human soul; words only interrupted the stream of emotions. Furthermore, melodies with texts were limited in time because they only lasted as long as the words. "The song of the souls," on the other hand, "consist of tones only, dismantled of words." As such, they reached onto the truly cosmic level of the universe.

Shneur Zalman is credited with the composition of one of the most famous Hasidic nigunim, the "Nigun of the Four Gates" (Nigun arba bavos), said to have been written during his imprisonment by the Tsarist government in St. Petersburg in 1798. This nigun has four sections, which build in musical intensity. They have been interpreted in a variety of ways. One common interpretation is that they represent a human process of soul expression leading to spiritual awakening, receiving the divine, cleaving to God, and then the soul's separation from the body and ascent to the heavens. Another interpretation is that the four gates represent the four mystical spiritual realms of asiyah (activation), briah (creation), yetzirah (formation), and atzilut (divine emanation). Still another view holds that the four sections symbolize four stages of God's creation of the universe: the physical world, the natural world (plants and animals), humankind, and the heavens.

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Dr. James Loeffler

Dr. James Loeffler is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and author of The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Yale U. Press, 2010).