Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 6

Echoes of Ecstasy: Hassidic Inspiration

by Neil W. Levin

V1ALTHOUGH THE VERY THOUGHT OR IMAGE of Hassidic life instantly and appropriately evokes its hereditary link with song in an almost Pavlovian sense, the emergence of Hassidism in the 18th century was hardly the first episode in Jewish religious history in which vocal music played a central spiritual role. Nor is the prominent function of song exclusive to Hassidic religious experience. To the contrary, vocal music—to one degree of sophistication or another—has always been an inextricable, historical feature of all Judaic worship rituals and related ceremonies, within or outside of the synagogue. It has served to amplify the liturgy and adorn its recitation, to provide opportunities for communal expression as well as artistic renditions, and to create ambiances conducive to worship. Vocal music has thus been invoked in virtually all Judaic rites and traditions to facilitate the communion with God that is the ultimate value and purpose of prayer.

It was specifically Hassidism, however, that first assigned to song a new, transformative musical power capable of operating with and independent of liturgical expression. Beginning in the first half of the 18th century with the teachings and examples of the founder of the Hassidic movement, R. Israel ben Eliezer Baal Shem Tov (known also in Hassidic circles simply as the Baal Shem Tov, or by the acronym the BESHT), and his first followers (hassidim), song was placed on a series of ever deepening and ascending but Judaically untested planes of spiritual experience. It was a Hassidic innovation to employ sacred song in way that would transcend its traditional aesthetic role of iddur mitzva—the beautification of the performance of a commandment, such as required prayer—to become not so much a mere partner in liturgical declamation as a self-contained means of spiritual elevation toward a state of oneness with the Divine essence.

The Hassidic movement began and burgeoned rapidly as a popular, antielite and anti-ascetic mass movement, partly in reaction to the perceived staidness of halakha-driven, erudition-centered Judaism of the European rabbinic establishment, and partly as a response to Hassidism’s mystical attractiveness and its message of what might be called “inclusiveness” in 21st-century lingo. Its appeal, especially in its incipient stages, was thus largely emotional rather than intellectual, since it held that individual Judaic worthiness is potentially as available to the unlearned and even uninitiated masses as it is to the learned and well versed. (Subsequently, however, the various branches and dynasties of Hassidism developed their own fully intellectual-philosophical bases, systems, and literature and then their own yeshivotfor promulgating Hassidic sensibilities, worldviews, and practices in the context of historical emphasis on talmudic learning.) A linchpin of its teaching was thus, from the outset, an intricately developed conception of sheer inner joy and ecstasy—not only as a perceived Divine mandate and the means by which God can best be served, but also as the ultimate desiderata of spiritual quest and Jewish existence. In that connection, the first generations of Hassidic leaders—the rebbes, or tzaddikim—turned quite naturally to earlier mystical writings for support, which they found, for example, in the Zohar:

the Divine essence—God—has no presence in any place of sadness, but, rather only in a place where there is joy. The Divinity does not abide in any place where there is no joy.

The BESHT, his successors, and their disciples also sought to base their emphasis on joy on gleanings from the Torah—for example, Deuteronomy 16:14: “And you shall rejoice in your Festivals and you shall be altogether joyful.” And for them, the operative word in this Divine commandment may well have been “altogether”: joyful in every sense and on every level of one’s being. In their interpretations of this and other biblical references to joy and gladness, neither communication with God nor service to Him can be accomplished exclusively or sufficiently through the traditional rabbinic mandates of Judaic learning and deliberation, steeping oneself in talmudic study, or perfunctory obedient observance of the commandments (mitzvot)—including prayer—alone. At least equally required for them was immersion in intense joy—not only in prayer, but in every aspect of Jewish life, including, in principle, the most mundane activities. But this Hassidic concept of joy goes far beyond the superficial emotions of pleasure or merriment to embrace a journey of the soul toward quasi-altered states of ecstatic “clinging” (hitlahavut) to the Almighty and union with His essence.

The corollary to this concept of joy is the conviction that the most effective vehicle for its attainment lies in the realm of song. This belief that inherent in song is the power to elevate the soul dates to the very birth of the Hassidic movement. It was further developed and expanded by successive rebbes and masters, in various writings as well as by personal example. The early Hassidic masters recognized and wrestled with the conundrum that although words can serve on some levels to crystallize thoughts and ideas, they can also present an impediment to deeper thoughts and feelings—especially in contexts of striving toward mystical union in which the very reduction of thoughts to words can be spiritually limiting. (Analogies might be drawn to levels of high art in Western culture. One speaks of “plumbing the depths of meaning,” for example, in a late Beethoven string quartet, yet any attempt to reduce its inner meaning to words, to verbal description apart from purely musical analysis, or to images that can be conveyed by words, is ultimately futile—risking triviality and jeopardizing the depth of our appreciation.) A statement to the effect that words “interrupt” and therefore stifle the flow of emotions that bespeak the expressions of the soul is attributed to R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Thus the genre of wordless but sung melodies came to constitute the bulk of Hassidic song repertoires, by which such music is most frequently recognizable and identifiable to the outside world. Many Hassidic tunes, especially the more concise ones, are in fact authentically sung to liturgical or biblical lyrics—often with innumerable repetitions that drive the ascension to desired states of communion. But the most complex and profound melodies (which actually comprise successive sections of melodies that flow from each other as a single melodic composition) dispense with words and are intended—through musical content as well as emblematic performance mode—to transcend altogether the realm and capacity of human speech.

Hassidism was not invented overnight or exclusively by the BESHT operating in a vacuum with some worldwide master plan or scenario in mind. Like many political, social, or religious movements that ultimately consolidate around a single or primary leadership, building on previous experiences as smaller, individually guided coteries, Hassidism under the BESHT coalesced from a number of minor independent groups drawn to anti-asceticism, mystical emotional religious experience, ecstatic adoration, and populist inclusiveness. Driven by a combination of angst, frustration, demoralization, perceived inferiority in education and thus of worth, and alienation from the rigorous authoritarianism of the rabbinic establishment and its maintenance of a status quo, an increasing number of Jews who were excluded from (and even altogether uninitiated in) Judaically learned circles hungered for acceptance and for some alternative path to religious participation. Thus they responded enthusiastically in growing numbers to ecstatic worship in place of—or at least supplementing or facilitating—formulaic, perfunctory prayer (which itself requires at least proficiency in Hebrew and liturgy), to a life-affirming world outlook and conduct, and to quasi-magical solutions to life’s challenges. Before the BESHT’s hegemony by the middle of the 18th century, these goals could be pursued not only at his court, but also in various incipient Hassidic cadres devoted to individual popular “healers” and self-proclaimed righteous lodestars. Although historical evidence remains vague and documentation sparse, it is now accepted that there were at least quite a few other charismatic leaders who presided over similar flocks of religiously disenfranchised Jews in Podolia and its surrounding regions in the early decades of the 18th century.

Like other charismatic leaders, the BESHT too traded in his followers’ apparent need for visions, superstitions, healing formulae, and supernatural powers (in his own possession of which he is reported actually to have believed). But, probably unlike many of the other contenders, he was also a legitimately authorized rabbi—by all accounts, one with extraordinary gifts for sage counsel and insightful guidance. During and after the 1730s, perhaps not least owing to his superior wisdom and unquestionable sincerity—and certainly to the depths of his charisma—his public persona and image overtook that of de facto competitors. He succeeded in attracting not only the ordinary masses but also talmudically initiated future theoreticians of Hassidism. As the movement spread in its post-1730s permanence throughout Podolia and nearby regions in southwestern Russian Poland (which, as part of the Czarist Empire, included historic Lithuania), he gradually became the acknowledged leader of virtually all Hassidim—and thus forever after recognized as the founder of the movement and all its subsequent branches.

After his ascendancy, the BESHT was not without imitators, impostors, and outright impersonators. A story has circulated among Hassidim that when he was told about one such impersonator in a relatively far-off region who was offering counsel and guidance to unsuspecting followers, the BESHT reacted—to the surprise of the informers—without anger or resentment. To the contrary, he is said to have replied that this amounted to a tribute to his high reputation; if someone else was helping Jews by pretending to be he, what was the harm?

Within a few years of the BESHT’s death, in 1760, the leadership of what is now called the second generation was assumed by Dov Baer of Mezhirech, also known as the Maggid of Mezhirech, and a new center was established in Volhynia. There was opposition by some prominent figures who had been among the BESHT’s disciples (R. Pinchos of Korets, for example, and Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, who in 1780 produced the first known Hassidic theoretical work, Toldot yaakov yosef, delineating the underlying formulations of Hassidism on a scholarly plane). Also Dov Baer’s relatively cloistered lifestyle differed from the BESHT’s example of openness and availability to disciples. Yet this second generation succeeded—through Dov Baer’s efforts and those of his emissaries—in attracting a brand of talmudic scholars who were nonetheless equally interested in Hassidism’s ecstatic and other mystical dimensions. In short order Hassidism advanced further to Belarus, to central Poland and Galicia (then part of the Hapsburg Empire), and to Lithuania—even into its capital, Vilna, which was the epicenter of Hassidism’s organized rabbinic opposition. Condemnation there culminated in the Judaic counterpart of excommunication: the herem.  

The Vilna Gaon (Elijah b. Shlomo Zalman), who held great sway in the rabbinic world and, in particular, over Vilna’s leadership structure, was adamantly opposed to Hassidism’s mystical-ecstatic, superstitious, and quasi-magical aspects, as well as to its perceived anti-intellectual stance and non- or at least extra-halakhic emphases. He viewed Hassidism as approaching a form of idolatry in its veneration of leaders; as a delusional, dangerous, and infectious temptation for naïve and unsuspecting Jews; and thus as a serious threat to rabbinic Judaism and authority. As early as 1772, two herems were issued, prompting the Hassidim to issue one in response against their opponents—who became known generically as mitnagdim (lit., those opposed). Then, in 1781, a third herem was issued, ordering that Hassidim evacuate traditional Jewish communities with their families...“they must be denied lodging even for a night; their performance [or version] of sh’ḥita (ritual slaughter) is forbidden as unacceptable; doing business or intermarrying with them, and assistance with their burials, are forbidden….”

In the not so long run, however, despite ugly incidents in which Hassidim and mitnagdim denounced and informed on each other to secular authorities—sometimes resulting in arrests and imprisonments as spies—the spread and vitality of Hassidism was unaffected. When, in 1804, legislation in the Czarist Empire allowed all individual Jewish groups to have their own synagogues and rabbis (i.e., instead of a single authorized rabbi in any given city), Hassidism largely prevailed. It is estimated that well before the middle of the 19th century, Hassidic lifestyle and practice touched—if not dominated—the majority of Jews in central Poland, Galicia, and the Ukraine; and at the same time the numbers of Hassidim in Belarus, Lithuania, and, by then, Hungary, were significant.

The origins of Hassidic community proliferations beginning with the third generation lay in the groups headed by principal disciples of R. Dov Baer of Mezhirech upon, or shortly after, his death, in 1772. From that generation on (roughly until 1815), the movement became geographically and politically further decentralized (sometimes localized), as well as philosophically, theologically, practically, and sometimes aesthetically (including musically) diversified. This gave rise to the institution of individual dynasties, usually based on hereditary succession of both leaders and their hassidim, or adherents. Some dynasties began as tributary branches or offshoots occasioned by splits based on doctrinal or jurisdictional disputes, philosophical differences, geographical distances, and sometimes internecine struggles for the acknowledgment of rightful succession and the loyalty of a previous leader’s hassidim. Other dynasties were founded de novo around newly emerged or proclaimed leaders who managed to establish their credentials through a combination of charisma and, if possible, Hassidic pedigree. After the first years of the 19th century, the number of dynasties increased substantially—with a few new ones being founded as late as the 20th century.

Not all important Hassidic rebbes or tzaddikim founded dynasties. Probably the most famous example is R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (the Berditchever Rebbe), who was respected not only by Hassidim but by the Jewish community as a whole in Berditchev, where he was also the official rabbi. Moreover, he came to be known and admired in perpetuity by much of Ashkenazi Jewry in general—especially for his poetic defense before God of the Jewish people. On the other hand, there is the case of R. Nahman of Bratslav, a great-grandson of the BESHT, who established the community of the Bratslaver Hassidim but left neither a hereditary nor a stipulated successor—and whose Hassidim did not appoint one. Ironically known since his death as the toyte hassidim (the “dead” Hassidim), whose only rebbe is dead, they continue to thrive as a community in Israel and make an annual pilgrimage to his grave in Uman, Ukraine.

The leaders of dynasties or communities are most commonly known as rebbes—but also as tzaddikim (righteous ones) or Hassidic masters. As leader of his flock, the rebbe is acknowledged to have supreme and absolute authority in all matters. And it is to the rebbe that his hassidim turn for binding counsel, guidance, a model of piety as well as ecstatic devotion, leadership, and learning. It is important to underscore, however, that the word rebbe is Yiddish, not Hebrew. Although it was no doubt deliberately coined to reflect the sound (and the aura) of the Hebrew rav, or rabi (Hebrew for “rabbi”), not all rebbes are or have been ipso facto rabbis—i.e., one granted s’mia (roughly equivalent to ordination in modern Western terms) by a recognized orthodox rabbi and thereby possessing the rabbinic authority to make or decide halakhic(Jewish legal) rulings or adjudicate disputes based on halakha. Some rebbes have been rabbis, while others have not.

Typically, the headquarters and residence of dynastic rebbes have been regarded as “courts,” where they are surrounded by their inner core of disciples. It is to these courts that the local circles of hassidim come to join their rebbe in prayer, extra-liturgical spiritual experience, and, depending on the orientation or emphases of the dynasty, study—particularly on Sabbaths, Festivals, and other holy days, as well as nonliturgical festive occasions (often specific to the traditions of a particular dynasty). Adherents come to pray in their rebbe’sexalted presence, to be guided and inspired by him as they become enraptured in song, and to partake of meals at or around his table (the “rebbe’s tish”) as a mystical-spiritual event. The courts also have had great musical importance, serving as the primary environments for the introduction, learning, and preservation of new melodies. Some of them have had virtual “court composers” and appointed individuals who functioned as “musical secretaries” to the rebbe.

In prewar Europe, out-of-town adherents would frequently travel great distances as pilgrims to their rebbe’s court for these elevating experiences, leaving their families behind, sometimes neglecting family life and business or trade, which naturally provoked resentment and provided ammunition for Hassidism’s vocal opponents.

The dynastic courts and their rebbes were entirely dependent for material support on their rank-and-file Hassidim, who perceived their sustaining role as both obligation and privilege. The courts thus ranged from modest to regal, depending on the financial circumstances of the community and the preferences and orientations of particular rebbes. Some courts even had the trappings of royalty, with a structure of quasi-courtiers, intrigues, official “court cantors” and choirs, “house” musicians and bands, and lavish appointments—all of which played squarely into the hands of the mitnagdim and invited their scorn. The court of R. Israel of Rhizhyn (d. 1850), for example, the founder of the Galician Rhizhyn-Sadagora dynasty, was known for its exceptional splendor and palatial atmosphere. Not surprisingly, R. Israel was equally known for his outspoken stance against asceticism. (He was also known for his balanced attitude toward the pursuit of spiritual joy, which, for him, called for restraint in prayer. He attracted the admiration of such figures as far removed from Hassidic sympathies as Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the founder of modern, rational neo-orthodoxy in Germany.)

Prior and up to the Second World War, the vast majority of Hassidic communities were still centered in eastern Europe, although a small number had established themselves in the Land of Israel (then Palestine) as early as the 18th century. Only a few small groups and their rebbes had come to America before the war. Prewar population figures and related statistics, insofar as they existed, are not necessarily reliable owing to a combination of factors—some dating to the 19th century: the insularity of Hassidic communities and dynasties with regard to secular government agencies, despite their high visibility in other ways; avoidance of government census efforts and procedures—particularly in the Czarist Empire but to some extent in the Hapsburg Empire as well—in order to escape military conscription; shifts in Hassidic concentrations, their relocations, and their redistributions during and following the First World War as a result of various battles, border changes, and creation of new national polities out of prewar empires; and internal secrecy concerning general population figures in the Soviet Union and the regime’s isolation of its Jews. Nonetheless, it is clear that masses of Hassidim, along with many of their leaders, were murdered by the Germans and their collaborators between 1939 and 1945; and it is widely acknowledged by many historians and demographers that these murdered masses included the greater number of Hassidim worldwide. Those communities or remnants of communities that survived the wholesale slaughter in areas under occupation by the German army or under the control of the Third Reich (and, in the case of Hungary, its own Fascist forces) relocated after the war mainly to the United States or Israel.

Among many significant thriving dynasties founded in prewar Europe were those of Modzhitz, Bratslav, Szatmar, Belz, Bobov, Vizhnitz, Rhizhyn-Sadagora, Karlin-Stolin, Ger (Gur), and Lubavitch (or HABAD, the acronym for akhma, bina, da’at [“wisdom, understanding, knowledge”], by which the movement is now known interchangeably with Lubavitch). In addition to other numerically substantial dynasties and communities, there were many rebbes with smaller but intensely loyal followings.

The quintessential Hassidic melody, in all its various formal structures and degrees of complexity, came to be known as a niggun (Heb.), or nign (its derived Yiddish counterpart). But considerable confusion can surround this terminology, since the Hebrew word niggun (as well as its Yiddish derivation) translates generically and simply as “melody” or “tune,” without reference to type or purpose. (At one time it was also used to signify “music”: an obsolete meaning of the Hebrew phrase akhmat haniggun is “music theory” or “theory of music.”) Depending on the context and time frame of use, niggun could, in theory, mean any type of melody. And so it has been employed. Indeed, in eastern European Ashkenazi synagogue and cantorial jargon for at least 150 years, the label missinai niggunim has referred (at first colloquially as a Yiddish tag and only more recently as accepted ethnomusicological rubric) to the circumscribed set of seasonal leitmotifs associated historically with High Holy Day, Festival, and a few other annual liturgies—having nothing to do with Hassidim per se. In other cases, niggun in various grammatical forms has been used more broadly to refer to synagogue melodies and modalities in general. In the realm of secular Yiddish folksong, one finds its occasional use with reference simply to “tunes,” without Hassidic implication. And in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, synagogue music scholars such as Aron Friedman used niggun exclusively with reference to biblical cantillation motifs.

Nonetheless, as Hassidic music and Hassidism in general have come gradually to the attention of the wider Jewish public during the course of the 20th century—particularly in the post–World War II years—we have come increasingly and necessarily to accept the Hassidic connotation as the primary association, without further stipulation. That is how classical composers, too, have employed the term in titling their works based on Hassidic melos: Ernest Bloch, for example. It is therefore probably safe to conclude that in the absence of any descriptive modifier of the word niggun to the contrary, the adjective “Hassidic” has become all but superfluous.

Rather than attempting to render their wordless niggunim by humming or by open-mouth legato singing (oo, or ah), as in Western vocalises, Hassidim developed the practice of utilizing vocables. These include such deliveries as oy, yoy, yoy, yoy . . .; day, day, day . . .; na, na, na, na . . .; aha, aha, aha . . .; ya ba bam, ya ba bam . . .; yama ma ma ma . . .; bim-bam bam bam . . .; lay, lay, lay, lay . . .; and a variety of others that can be manipulated to evoke intense feeling. They are sometimes improvised in the context of desired moods and sometimes fixed by tradition as standard features of particular niggunim. Moreover, specific syllabic usages have sometimes been associated with corresponding preferences of particular dynasties and their own traditions—although over time, such distinctions, to the extent that they were once in force, have tended to become blurred. There are those who maintain that they can identify the dynasty of origin of a niggun by the specific choices of syllabic delivery, but that claim, while still valid in some cases, can be easily oversimplified if not inadvertently exaggerated. Some Hassidic informants and insiders, even their leaders, acknowledge this associative phenomenon, though hardly in an airtight, mutually exclusive context; others question it altogether in view of intercultural contact over so long a period.

Collectors, historians, analysts, ethnomusicologists, and other scholars of Hassidic song such as Velvel Pasternak, Yaakov Mazor, and Edwin Seroussi— conducting their own continuing fieldwork and following on earlier systematic collection and transcription efforts and preliminary analyses by M. S. Geshuri, Shmuel Zalmanov, and Chemjo Vinaver—have discerned several distinct categories of niggunim. Hassidim of various dynasties and communities have confirmed these observations and provided additional perspectives with regard to the primary function of the basic types. Any such differentiations must allow for the sometimes porous boundaries separating the typologies, the inevitable commingling of musical features, and the overlapping of functions. Chief among these basic categories are:

TISH NIGGUNIM. These are typically lengthy, drawn-out niggunim, sung at gatherings around a rebbe’s table (rebbe’s tish). In many traditions, tish niggunim are structurally complex, comprising at least several sections; and each section can correspond to a particular mood or mood progression toward ecstatic elevation. Many of these niggunim have interpolated melodies that bridge the sections, all of which may be followed by a final repetition of an internal refrain or by a coda.

NIGGUN RIKKUD (dance niggun). Niggunim in this category are employed for characteristic Hassidic dancing (while singing), but they can also be sung at a tish, bringing an enthusiastic element of celebration and rejoicing to the event. In addition, they can be adapted to liturgical texts heard in synagogue services. Not surprisingly, their tempi tend to be faster than the more meditative tish niggunim, and their formal structures are generally less complex: two or three sections, often with a repetition of the second section (an ABCB form); and, of course, the entire niggun rikkud can be repeated many times, with increases in intensity and tempo at each repetition of the whole. Mazor and Seroussi have identified a related subcategory, niggun simḥa (rejoicing niggun), which they have found thus labeled primarily among Lubavitcher Hassidim. The niggun simḥa can serve the same function as the embracive niggun rikkud, except that it is apparently characterized by a slower tempo.

D’VEKUT (lit., clinging, or cleaving [to God] in mystical union). Niggunim in this category generally represent the ultimate plane of spiritual creativity among Hassidim. Like the tish niggunim, they can have multiple sections that build in emotional and mystical intensity, and they can also be sung at a rebbe’s tish. (Mazor and Seroussi do not distinguish neatly between tish niggunim and d’vekut niggunim, viewing the latter as mostly sung at the tish.) This d’vekut category embraces niggunim sometimes identified as ga’agu’im (yearning), which are also contemplative and intense.

VOLAKH NIGGUN(volekhl). Pastoral and serene in character, these tunes are generic derivatives from a folksong type especially popular at one time in Walachia (Romania). Some were originally borrowed and adapted for Hassidic use, while others are original compositions by Hassidim on the same basic model. Often, a volakh niggun is sung in combination with a tish or d’vekut niggun—sometimes interpolated as a bridge between sections that provides a kind of interludal relief from the otherwise pervasive intensity. The rhythm of the volakh niggun tends toward greater freedom than that of others, in some cases including quasi-recitative passages.

March and Waltz Tunes. Both genres, together with a large part of their actual tune repertoires, were adapted originally from the popular music of host cultures and environments. Throughout the 19th century, march tunes could be heard frequently in the streets, public squares, and markets, and they seem to have had a special lure for certain Hassidic communities. Some musicological observers have interpreted the attraction partly as symbolic of messianic expectation, although substantiation is vague. Waltz melodies, whose triple meter appears to have been their principal attraction for Hassidim, were absorbed in the later part of the 19th century—when they were ubiquitous in Central Europe.

Neither adopted march tunes nor waltz melodies, however, retained their original marching or dancing function once they became part of Hassidic song. Nor did they necessarily preserve their original tempi (which usually became much slower in Hassidic rendition) or spirit.

Z’MIROT SHEL SHABBAT. The vast composite musical repertoire of these so-called table hymns–para-liturgical poems sung at the table before, during, and after each of the prescribed Sabbath meals in most Jewish traditions–contains a wealth of Hassidic tune versions. Emanating from many distinct dynasties, the accumulated and variegated Hassidic inventories are especially numerous for those texts of kabbalistic origin or significance. Z’mirot are, of course, sung to the words of the preexisting poems (all written before the advent of Hassidism), nearly all of which are metrical. But Hassidic versions frequently include interpolated, wordless sections in both metrical and free recitative styles.

The aforementioned disciple of the BESHT and the first known theoretical writer on Hassidism, Rabbi Yaakov Josef of Polnoye, delineated three types of niggunim according to their intention or function: those expressing kavana—intense devotion; those encapsulating the principle of yiḥud—union; and those he perceived as lashir b’alma l’hitpa’er—intended to be sung as purely personal expression, without specific ritual function.

Later students and practitioners of Hassidic song have viewed niggunim categories or types according to different kinds of criteria. In 1944 R. Yosef Yitzhak, the rebbe of the sixth Lubavitch generation, established the Nichoach Society to collect, preserve, and disseminate HABAD niggunim. R. Shmuel Zalmanov, one of his adherents, was charged with conducting the project and editing the resulting volumes. Zalmanov observed distinctions between what he labeled hartz niggunim (“from the heart”)—i.e., those that are primarily raw emotional manifestations—and kopf niggunim (“head” or “intellect”), which embody abstract concepts or thoughts.

Community or dynastic traditions can vary widely with regard to the typical length and complexity of their niggunim. Some of these, especially those dating to the early Hassidic generations, are relatively short and simple in structure. Generically, however, a niggun—in particular the d’vekut or tish categories—can have multiple extended sections and subsections, far exceeding the number found in common ABCB, ABAB, or ABCA forms. Moreover, many such niggunim are structured to provide for internal repetition of sections and corresponding modulations.

It can thus be erroneous to label as niggunim many of the more recent, concise neo-Hassidic tunes by composers such as Shlomo Carlebach. Notwithstanding their perceived Hassidic flavor, as well as the Hassidic heritage of their composers, these tunes—many of which conform to a simple ABA form of phrases rather than true sections—might more appropriately and more simply be called songs. The hallmark intricacy and insular communal function of the developed niggun genre usually do not characterize these more pithy, albeit alluring, melodies.

The longest and most complex of all niggunim are the operes of the Modzhitzer dynasty, which was founded in Poland by R. Yisroel Taub (1848–1920). These highly developed works are not, of course, related in any way to the genre of stage works in Western culture that we know as opera. The Modzhitzer use of the term echoes more directly its Latin root in the general sense of an extended, full-scale work. With their numerous sections, these opere-niggunim have been composed for the purpose of elevating the participants through successive stages of ecstatic communion toward a spiritual epiphany that, ideally, culminates in self-perceived exaltation and rapture. R. Yisroel’s magnum opus, Ezk’ro elohim, is an opere with more than thirty distinct sections, each based on an original motif. Often viewed as the quintessential masterpiece of the Modzhitzer legacy, it is said to require about half an hour to sing in its original version. The succeeding rebbe, Saul Yedidiah Elazar, composed five operes; and more recently, the distinguished Modzhitzer composer Ben Zion Shenker—who functioned as the de facto musical secretary to R. Saul and notated many of the rebbe’s niggunim—has composed similarly expansive operes.

Internal Hassidic theoretical-musical conceptions, which differ from one dynastic tradition to another, include various rationales and descriptions of the intended stages represented by the successive sections of extended niggunim. A composer from the Gerer (Gur) Hassidic tradition, for example, explained them from that perspective to Mazor and Seroussi in the course of their research for their article “Towards a Hasidic Lexicon of Music” (Orbis Musicae X). Using an ABCB niggun structure, he identified its four sections (faln in Yiddish) as symbolizing four stages of mystical-ecstatic experience: preparation (of the soul); emergence of arousal; peak of ecstasy; and a return to the second stage.

There are many other related, but sometimes varying, conceptions espoused by other traditions. Of all of them, it seems that the Lubavitcher Hassidim have developed the most systematic formulation from theoretical perspectives—amounting in essence to what has been called by Mazor and others a “niggun theory.” This Lubavitch-HABAD theory holds that the progression from an early stage of simple, melancholy-infused contemplation to the pinnacle of ecstatic joy is anything but instantaneous. The spiritual journey requires a traversal across a span of stages through which the individual and the group proceed and in each of which they linger with meditation in the form of song. Velvel Pasternak’s analysis, based on substantive debriefing of HABAD sources, reveals the following stages of elevation in the most extended Lubavitcher niggunim:

Histapkhut hanefesh—the initial attempt of the soul to transcend and shed the encasement of the so-called yetzer hara, the natural evil inclination in all human beings over which the yetzer hatov—the equally inherent inclination toward good—must be made to triumph.

Hitor’rut—the initial spiritual awakening.

Hitpa’alut—the stage in which one becomes possessed by thought (viz., without or beyond verbal counterparts).

D’vekut—mystical communion with God.

Hitlahavut—flaming ecstasy.

Hitpashtut Hagashmi’ut—the highest state, in which, as a “disembodied spirit,” one is ideally able to discard his corporeal dimension.

The deliberate adoption of non-Jewish secular tunes from surrounding host cultures has always played a major role in developing Hassidic niggun repertoires. Legend holds that the BESHT made it a point to learn tunes from non-Jewish shepherds and then to incorporate them in the rituals of his Hassidim, believing that every tune contains a hidden spark of abstract holiness. Subsequent rebbes followed his example and expanded on it to include tunes heard in the streets and even in inns, taverns, and wine gardens. Some communities also incorporated melodies from Western art music traditions.

Whereas many in the non-Hassidic world, including some but not all rabbinic authorities, have in principle adjudged the knowing use of secular—even vulgar—tunes for sacred purposes a virtual sacrilege, the Hassidic position veered in the opposite direction. Not only was the practice permitted, it was advocated consciously as a means of making holy the profane—of “redeeming the holy spark” within a tune. Some tzaddikim such as R. Nahman of Bratslav went further to propose that all music emanates mysteriously from the ancient Temple—in the sense that all music comes, like everything else, from the Divine source—and was scattered in bits upon the Temple’s destruction along with and into the Diaspora. The corollary to that belief was that the Divine or Holy sparks within all music await redemption. Hence, the redemption through Hassidic adoption of all so-called foreign tunes is indeed a holy—and for some a divinely mandated—task.

Among the many outside sources for Hassidic niggunim were Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, and occasionally Hungarian folksongs; the aforementioned western and Central European march tunes and waltz melodies; traditional Balkan instrumental musics; some Romanian song and dance forms; Near Eastern melodies; and operatic melodies.

Not all niggunim have their origins in adopted music, however. A substantial, perhaps equally large part of the aggregate repertoire is owed directly to the imagination and creativity of rebbes and tzaddikim themselves. Those with the requisite gifts have composed many hundreds—probably thousands—of niggunim over the past 200 years. (R. Saul Taub of the Modzhitzer dynasty, for example, by far the most musically prolific group, is said to have composed as many as 700 niggunim; many were never notated, and it is estimated that only about half of them remain extant either in notation or in the active oral tradition of the community.) In addition, many individual Hassidim have functioned in various dynasties as virtual court composers—a role that was encouraged by the rebbes in their efforts to expand the repertoire continually—and, in some cases, the regular, sometimes weekly, introduction of entirely new niggunim was mandated. Since these composers believed themselves to have been musically as well as spiritually inspired by their rebbes, theyusually created their niggunim in their rebbes’ names.

Many niggunim continue to be known and sung primarily by their dynasties or communities of origin, as part of their internal heritage. Others have been disseminated more widely across dynastic boundaries to become part of a general Hassidic repertoire.

American Jewry’s romantic–and, more recently, practical–attraction to Hassidic traditions is illuminated in this volume through a wide variety of 20th-century music. The offerings here comprise classical art and concert pieces, liturgical expressions, and folk settings. (Operatic reflections of Hassidic experience, such as Paul Schoenfield’s The Merchant and the Pauper, are included in Volume 16, which is devoted entirely to opera. Many Hassidic influences are to be found among cantorial and synagogue choral compositions of traditional eastern European character, and these are addressed in Volume 14. And Hassidic echoes in Yiddish art song inform some of the repertoire in Volume 9.) The broad gamut of styles, aesthetic approaches, harmonic languages, personal orientations, and forms are indicative of the many different ways in which American composers have been inspired by Hassidic history, lore, personalities, sensibilities, and the musical dimensions.


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