Joy and its expression through song and dance have been important values of the Hasidic movement since its beginnings in the second half of the eighteenth century. The idealization of music reflected an innovation in Jewish culture, in contrast to the general attitude of the Ashkenazic rabbinical establishment. Hasidic spiritual leaders since that time devoted increasing attention to music and dance in their writings.
Music in Hasidic Thought
The central place of music in Hasidic thought and life is anchored in ideology—and ideological differences among the various streams of Hasidism, along with philosophical changes throughout the generations, were reflected in evolving attitudes toward music. The movement of religious thought and activity from the theosophical to the psychological sphere, for example—from a focus on the divine to an emphasis on the human soul—had important implications with respect to music. In early Hasidic writings, magical and theurgical conceptions rooted in theosophical kabbalistic doctrine prevailed. These conceptions hold that human deeds, including musical activity, have the power to affect the godhead—and, as a result, the entire world. Later generations abandoned the view that every Jew can influence the divine world with music and restricted this ability only to the tsadik.
A parallel development occurred under the leadership of Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh (d. 1772), and especially in the teachings of some of his disciples. According to this approach, instead of music being directed outward, in order to affect the godhead and the material world, it is turned inward, with the goal of affecting one’s inner life. Music is seen as a form of contemplation into the soul that seeks to reveal its divine source and to enable devekut (mystical communion with God) to be achieved.
Stoliner nigun. Words and music: Traditional. Performed by Stoliner Hasidim. Private recording by Benedict Stambler, Brooklyn, 1958. (YIVO)
During the same period, there is a movement from dependence of music on text, especially prayer text, toward the belief that music can act in its own right, whether connected to a text or not. In consequence, Hasidic nigunim (sg., nigun; Yid., nign; spiritual melodies; in Hasidic terminology nigun can refer broadly to “music” as well as to a tune or composition) are typically sung without words, though some are adapted to texts from the prayers or piyutim (liturgical poems). Some nigunim remained attached to a fixed text, such as the recitative nigunim for the Sabbathzemirot (table hymns), including “Kol mekadesh” and “Barukh Adonai yom yom,” and the dance songs of Lag ba-‘Omer. In addition, a movement took place from the performance of music in the individual, meditative sphere toward a predominantly collective expression of the entire congregation. Today only the Lubavitch and Bratslav movements engage in both individual and collective performance of nigunim.
As an expression of innermost emotions that cannot be expressed through words (even through words of prayer), a nigun helps the tsadik to plumb the depths of a person’s soul, whether that person is evil or pious, and to achieve the desired devekut. A nigun can help simple people, who have not achieved the level of a tsadik, to attain spiritual elevation, whether they engage in music actively or passively, by singing or by listening. Listening to a tsadik singing a nigun provides the ordinary person with a foothold at the edge of the world of the sacred, enabling the tsadik to refine that person’s soul and raise it to a higher level of existence.
Adapting tunes from surrounding non-Jewish cultures is a hallmark of Hasidic music. The leading sages offered different understandings of this phenomenon of musical acculturation, even giving it the force of a religious duty. For example, Naḥman of Bratslav (1772–1810) approved of singing gentile music as a way to attract God’s increased attention to Jewish people’s sufferings at the hands of non-Jews and to induce redemption.
A more typical view holds that sacred melodies in gentile music have been, as it were, taken captive by evil forces in the constant struggle between divine forces and the forces of evil. These captive tunes—or, rather, the “holy sparks” hidden within them—await redemption. Tsadikim and their emissaries, wherever they lived, constantly sought out melodies with a “sacred flavor,” in order to “redeem the sparks” and restore them to their heavenly source. Thus, gentile folk tunes and popular melodies (in Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Rumanian, Hungarian, Turkish, and even Arabic) left a strong stamp on Hasidic music. This plurality of melodic sources has given rise to the opinion that Hasidic music cannot be regarded as an individual ethnomusical unit. But such an attitude disregards the obvious processes of transformation and re-creation that occurred in these tunes as they were absorbed into Hasidic music.
On occasion, Hasidim borrowed gentile folk songs along with their original texts, but endowed the texts with new, allegorical meanings in the spirit of Hasidism. Other borrowed songs or melodies were preserved together with the stories (apocryphal or real) of how they came to be “lifted up” from the “sphere of impurity” and by whom—such as the nigunim attributed to Yitsḥak Isaak Taub of Kallo (Nagykálló, Hungary; d. 1821).
Although Hasidic thought also considered instrumental music legitimate, particularly in the context of weddings, Hasidic music developed primarily as a vocal genre even when it picked up motifs and melodies from the instrumental music of East European peoples. Another characteristic of Hasidic music is its singing by the entire community. Even so, solo singing also plays a role in specific circumstances, such as when the rebbe sings in the presence of his Hasidim at his tish (a gathering typically featuring a discourse by the rebbe and community singing), when the badkhn (jester) sings at weddings, and when individual Lubavitch Hasidim sing while at prayer.
Some dynasties have a repertoire of their own; others partly share a common repertoire; while a few mainly use nigunim from the general “pan-Hasidic” inventory, which are known in Yiddish as velts-nigunim (lit., “world” nigunim).
Hasidim with a musical ear insist that they can identify the dynastic origin of a tune at first hearing and claim that the nigunim of certain dynasties have a unique musical flavor. There are indeed a few characteristic features that can be associated with the music of specific dynasties. For example, the brief dance nigunim of Bratslav and Karlin Hasidim have a simple structure and narrow range. Hasidic marches are found for the most part in the repertoires of Ger (also Gur or Gura), Vizhnits, and Modzits Hasidim; and longer compositions, made up of sections of differing characters and musical meters, figure in the repertoires of these communities and also of Bobov Hasidim. Some nigunim of the Vizhnits and Belz Hasidim resemble cantorial compositions and are sung by the kapelye (choral group) in a variety of polyphonic textures, such as parallel thirds, canons, and other imitative techniques, sometimes over an ostinato. In many Hasidic communities, one element of community singing is a gradual but continuous rise in pitch, sometimes to impressive proportions (as among the Hasidim of Boyan, Lubavitch, and Slonim).
The Rebbe as Musical Leader
The development of different styles among Hasidic dynasties also seems to be related to the nature of the musical leadership provided by the rebbe. Many Hasidic leaders were highly musical, and some also earned fame as gifted ba‘ale tefilah (prayer leaders) or composers. Such leaders enlarged their community’s musical repertoire and encouraged original creativity on the part of their Hasidim; they sometimes drew gifted composer-ḥazanim, together with their kapelyes, to their courts. Among the most famous were Yosef Volynetz (“Yosl Tolner,” 1838–1902) in Talnoye and Rakhmistrivke (Rotmistrovka); Yankev Shmuel Morogowski (“Zeydl Rovner,” 1856–1943) in Makarov, Rovno (Rivne), and elsewhere; and Pinḥas Spector (“Pinye khazn,” 1872–1951) in Boyan—along with the menagnim (musicians) Yankl Telekhaner in Koidanov, Stolin, and Lakhovits and probably in Slonim, and Ya‘akov Dov (Yankl) Talmud (1886–1963) in Ger.
"Ovinu malkeynu" (Avinu malkenu). Words: Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Amram Gaon. Music: Shneur Zalman of Liady. Performed by the Lubavitcher Chorus. Unissued take from recording sessions for Chabad Melodies: Songs of the Lubavitcher Chassidim, Collectors Guild lp CGL 615, New York, 1960. (YIVO)
The musical leadership of the rebbe is also expressed during the tish. At this occasion, some rebbes sing all the nigunim on their own, while their Hasidim join in at specified points. Other rebbes conduct the musical part of the tish through subtle cues: they signal to the Hasidim, or to the kapelye, with a hand gesture or even a glance. The late Vizhnits rebbe used to actually conduct the singing of his Hasidim; he was also in the habit of correcting them when a nigun was sung inaccurately. Among the Vizhnits, the excitement reaches its peak when the rebbe stands up; among the Boyan, this happens when the rebbe claps his hands. This gesture, among others, is also used to alter the tempo—and as a result, among the Boyan, a nigun may be rendered with unusual changes of tempo.
Still another type of musical leadership emerged after the Holocaust, stemming from the perceived danger that with the annihilation of entire communities, musical traditions would disappear as well. The rebbe of Vizhnits, Ḥayim Me’ir Hager (1888–1972), who reestablished his community in Israel, felt this danger and took several steps to revive his community’s musical tradition, while at the same time also encouraging the preservation of nigunim from other Hasidic sources so that they would not be lost. He also established a kapelye that would sing in polyphonic style and would perform works by ḥazanim from the past.
Among the Belz Hasidim, who were regarded as not musical, a veritable revolution took place when the Vizhnits rebbe’s son-in-law became the rebbe of Belz in the mid-1960s. His encouragement of original musical creations, together with the establishment of a kapelye modeled after that of Vizhnits, brought about a new and unique repertoire beyond the traditional nigunim. The current Karliner rebbe, Barukh Me’ir Ya‘akov ha-Levi Shoḥet (1954– ), zealous with respect to his community’s musical tradition, has directed the gathering of Karlin traditional nigunim from all possible sources, even from the National Library in Jerusalem, in order to revive them. The guarding of the tradition had included prohibiting taking the nigunim out of the community, whether through publication or recording or even through handing over the scores to individuals from outside the community.
Lubavitch Hasidism has evolved a terminology and theoretical framwork, with which it tries to explain mystic aspects of nigunim and Hasidic musical activity and to distinguish between different genres. Hasidic musicians of other dynasties use different terms to classify nigunim, and as a result some genres are referred to with more than one term.
1. Tish nigunim make up the core of the Hasidic repertoire and constitute the major part of melodies sung at the rebbe’s table. Most have stylistic similarities to the Lubavitch genre of devekut (cleaving) nigunim—sometimes called hitva‘adut (gathering) tunes by the Lubavitch; elsewhere known as hisoyrerus (awakening), makhshove (meditation), moralishe (moral), hartsig (heartfelt), or bet (begging) nigunim. In Lubavitch, devekut nigunim are subdivided into ga‘agu‘im (yearning or longing) and common volekh tunes (the term volekh is derived from the geographical name Walachia, although they did not necessarily originate there). All are characterized by slow tempi, expressing serious, meditational, and even sad feelings, and by either metrical or free rhythm—sometimes in combinations of metrical and free sections and with variable or erratic tempo, rubato, and so on—and are thought to enable union or communion with God. One of the most widespread subgenres of the tish nigunim resembles a slowed-down mazurka. Nigunim in free rhythm are related to the cantorial recitative; in some dynasties they show the influence of East European folk forms such as the Romanian doina.
2. Tants (dance) nigunim are mostly used for dancing and are also called tentsl, or freylekhs nigunim. Other terms used by Polish Hasidim are hopke, dreidl, and redele. Many dance nigunim have the following characteristics: duple meter; fast tempi; a periodic or symmetric structure in multiples of four bars; relatively few sections (from one to five); a small range (sometimes only a fifth or a sixth); and a small number of motives. (Some tunes consist of only one or two motives and their developments). Dance tunes are performed mainly at weddings and joyful festivals such as Simḥat Torah and Lag ba-‘Omer, but they also sometimes have an imported role at the Hasidic tish and during synagogue prayers. About a third of these nigunim have fixed texts, mostly short, taken from biblical verses or from the liturgy. A related category included “tunes of rejoicing” (nigune simḥah), which possess all the above characteristics but are sung at a slower tempo and usually without dancing.
3. Marches and waltzes are joyful tunes adapted from, or influenced by, non-Jewish cultures from Central Europe (mostly Polish and Austro-Hungarian). They are used neither for marching nor for dancing and are generally sung more slowly than their non-Jewish counterparts. Most nigunim of these types are sung without texts; some are incorporated into Sabbath and holiday prayers and sung to poetical texts such as Lekhah dodi and El Adon (for the Sabbath) and Ki anu ‘amekha, Ki hineh ka-ḥomer, and Ha-Yom te’amtsenu (for the High Holidays). The Vizhnits repertoire includes march nigunim with the characteristic triple meter of the waltz style; they are thus called marsh-vals (march waltzes).
4. Beside the main genres, one finds peripheral ones, such as badkhones (jester’s tunes, sung with Yiddish rhymed verses), bilingual songs, and nigunim of instrumental origin, borrowed either from the gentile repertoire or from Jewish klezmorim.
Tradition and Renewal
As information about music in the Ashkenazic communities of Eastern Europe before the rise of Hasidism is sparse, the main way to determine whether music in Hasidic society primarily adhered to tradition or mapped out new paths is to consider music in non-Hasidic communities in and after the eighteenth century. Of the dominant musical elements in Hasidic prayer, the modality (Yid., shtayger) and most of the recitative-like melodies (including those known as mi-Sinai tunes—renditions from Sinai—on account of their antiquity) are common to the Hasidic and non-Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe; these elements thus represent continuity. Hence the extensive use among Hasidim of the term velts nusaḥ (world style) for the liturgical recitative common to both Hasidim and Misnagdim (opponents of Hasidism).
The repertoire of some Hasidic communities (such as Boyan and Vizhnits) presents another case wherein Hasidic music shows a similarity to non-Hasidic music. These communities have adopted polyphonic choral music written by cantors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as nigunim sung to the texts of prayers, owing to their leaders’ penchant for such music. The specific character of prayer among Karlin Hasidim, on the other hand, as well as certain characteristic elements in the so-called Volhynia nusaḥ (which has survived among offshoots of Ruzhin Hasidism—Boyan, Sadagora, Tshortkev, and others—and in the nusaḥ of such communities as Vizhnits, Zhidachov, and Zhidachov’s offshoots (Spinka, Kosoni, Tass) may be attributed to the preservation of old local traditions.
The most salient Hasidic innovation in synagogue music was the introduction into Sabbath and festival prayer services of nigunim sung by the entire congregation, generally without text. That the Hasidic nigun is usually independent of any text explains why the pre-Hasidic distinction between music for prayer and for the home (like zemirot at the Sabbath table) became blurred—and, as well, how nigunim “wandered” from the Hasidic tish to the prayer service and back.
This autonomous role of Hasidic melody, along with the openness to borrowing non-Jewish melodies and the lack of differentiation between religious and secular music, also accounts for the absorption of instrumental melodies (such as waltzes and marches) from the repertoires of non-Jewish musicians and klezmorim. These borrowed melodies, along with newly composed nigunim, made up a repertoire of melodies to be sung in prayer, at the rebbe’s tish, and at every possible opportunity: at Sabbath meals in Hasidic homes, at wedding feasts, and at various social and religious gatherings.
Research and Collections
The first steps of collecting and transcribing Hasidic music (as a part of Jewish music) were made in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century by Yo’el Engel. Sussmann Kisselgof was another significant collector early in the twentieth century, and very important work was done (by Engel, Kisselgof, and others) by the Jewish Ethnological Expedition under the auspices of the Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society in Saint Petersburg between 1912 and 1914. Of note also is the work of Moisei Beregovskii, who devoted a special volume to “tunes without words.”
Ethnographic collection with the goal of classifying Hasidic melodies, analyzing them, and trying to understand them in the context of Hasidic social life and religious thought has been a major focus of documentation and research work at the Jewish Music Research Centre in Jerusalem since its inception in 1964. Recorded material is kept at the National Sound Archives (NSA) of the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem, which also initiated its own recordings. Additional recordings have been transferred to the NSA from other collections, mostly private.
Moisei Beregovskii, Evreiskie napevy bez slov (Moscow, 1999); Me’ir Shim‘on Geshuri, Neginah ve-ḥasidut be-vet Kuzmir u-venoteha (Jerusalem, 1952); Me’ir Shim‘on Geshuri, Ha-Nigun veha-rikud ba-ḥasidut, 3 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1954/55–1958/59); André Hajdu and Yaakov Mazor, Hassidic Tunes of Dancing and Rejoicing, 1 CD (1978; rpt., [Washington, D.C.], [2001?]), includes notes in Hebrew and English; André Hajdu and Yaakov Mazor, Otsar ha-ḥasidut: 101 nigune rikud ḥasidiyim, 3rd ed., rev. and enl. by Yaakov Mazor (Jerusalem, 2000), printed music with Hebrew words (romanized and unromanized); text in Hebrew and English; English title: Hassidic Treasury: 101 Hassidic Dance Tunes; Abraham Zebi Idelsohn, Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (New York, 1929); Abraham Zebi Idelsohn, comp., Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies, vol. 10, Songs of the Chassidim (Leipzig, 1932); Yaakov Mazor, “Merkaziyuto shel ha-admor be-hitḥadshut ha-ḥayim ha-musikaliyim be-ḥatsar Viz´nits bi-Bene-Berak, 1949–1972,” Dukhan 12 (1989): 130–158; Yaakov Mazor, “Koḥo shel ha-nigun ba-hagut ha-ḥasidit ve-tafkidav ba-havai ha-dati veha-ḥevrati,” Yuval 7 (2002): 23–53; Yaakov Mazor, Ha-Nigun ha-ḥasidi be-fi ha-ḥasidim, 2 CDs (Jerusalem, 2004), includes booklet in English and Yiddish and English title: The Hasidic Niggun as Sung by the Hasidim; Yaakov Mazor and Edwin Seroussi, “Towards a Hasidic Lexicon of Music,” Orbis musicae 10 (1990–1991): 118–143; Yaakov Mazor and Moshe Taube, “A Hassidic Ritual Dance: The Mitsve Tants in Jerusalemite Weddings,” in Yuval, vol. 6, Jewish Oral Traditions: An Interdisciplinary Approach, ed. Israel Adler, pp. 164–224 (Jerusalem, 1994); Chemjo Vinaver, comp., Anthology of Hassidic Music, ed. Eliyahu Schleifer (Jerusalem, 1985), unacc. melodies and choruses, romanized words in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Yiddish, words also printed as text with English trans., intro. and notes in English and Hebrew; Shemu’el Zalmanov, ed., Sefer ha-nigunim, 2 vols., 3rd ed. (Kefar Chabad, Isr., 1985).