The Nigun

A mystical musical prayer introduced by Hasidism.

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Types of Nigunim

Later Hasidic rebbes continued to ascribe both mystical, magical power to nigunim and extolled the more basic, if no less powerful, effects of music on human psychology. Over time, different kinds of nigunim developed amongst various Hasidic communities and in the larger East European Jewish world. There are many different kinds of nigunim, associated with Talmud study, prayers, and other aspects of traditional Jewish life. Roughly speaking, however, the three main kinds of Hasidic nigunim are deveykut nigunim, dance tunes, and tish nigunim:

1) Deveykut (dveykes) nigunim are usually slow-tempo melodies in free rhythm (non-metric) or changing meter, with a reflective mood. Their name derives from the biblical passage in Deuteronomy 13:4 ("And cleave unto Him") that refers to the individual's attempt to commune with God. They are usually performed by individuals.

2) Dance tunes are simpler, faster, and more rhythmic (and metrical) designed to be sung by a group during dancing. They are usually performed in unison (without harmony).

3) Tish nigunim or "table" tunes are slower and more complex, often sung at Sabbath or holiday meals or in the presence of a Hasidic rebbe.

Origins and Sources

Where do the melodies of Hasidic nigunim come from? While many tunes are ascribed to specific musicians or famous rebbes, other were adopted from a diverse array of sources, including traditional Jewish prayer, modes to Cossack dances, Polish military marches, East European folk songs, Near Eastern dance tunes, and even Central European waltzes. The use of secular or non-Jewish melodies for nigunim was not considered a problem for Hasidim. On the contrary, Hasidic thought contains a notion of tikkun (literally, "fixing"), whereby non-Jewish or secular melodies can be spiritually redeemed and restored to their religious state by being sung as nigunim, either with new religious lyrics or without words altogether.

A famous example of this tikkun is the Hungarian nigun, "Gules, gules" (click here to listen)  According to tradition, the Kalever Tsadik, Isaac Eizik (Toib) of Kalev (1744-1821), was once walking in the Ukrainian forest when he heard a pastoral shepherd singing a love song in Ukrainian. The Hasid was captivated by the song, whose lyrics spoke of the shepherd's longing for his love, separated from him by the vast forest. The Hasidic rebbe took the song and translated the lyrics into Yiddish, replacing the lyrics' description of secular love with a description of his soul's longing for the shekhina, the mystical divine presence (of God). He then asked the shepherd to sing the song, but the young man found he had forgotten it. Whereupon the Hasid exclaimed, ""I have purified the nigun and returned it to its holy sources!"

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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).