Ernest Bloch’s three-movement Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Hassidic Lifefor violin and piano (also for violin and orchestra), one of his best-known works, is named after the acknowledged 18th-century founder of the Hassidic movement, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700–60). Better known by his acquired moniker, the Baal Shem Tov (master or holder of a good name, viz., a fine reputation), he is also commonly referenced in Hassidic circles by its acronym, the BESHT. The importance of a good name has a long history in Jewish thought, dating to antiquity and to Scripture. Mishlei (the Book of Proverbs) tells us that “a good name is to be chosen over great riches,” and in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) we find the admonition that a good name is “better than precious oil.” In Pirkei Avot (the ethical and moral sayings of “the fathers,” viz., the rabbis), the most widely familiar of the sixty-three tractates of the Mishna, R. Shimon is quoted as saying, “There are three crowns: the crown of learning (Torah); the crown of priesthood; and the crown of royalty. But the crown of a good name exceeds them all.” In his commentary on Pirkei Avot, the Very Reverend Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire from 1913 until his death in 1946, noted that a good name alone is “the tribute paid to personality and character.” In support of that explication he cited G. Beer as expanding upon R. Shimon by observing that “a man attains to priesthood and royalty by heredity, and even learning is not invariably accompanied by nobility of character. Only in the case of a bearer of a good name do we find outward honor combined with inner worth.”
Legend has it that it was once brought to the BESHT’s attention that someone in a distant part of Poland or the Ukraine was impersonating him—going around claiming to be the BESHT, ostensibly for his own self-satisfaction, and offering counsel, guidance, and solace. The Baal Shem Tov’s anger was naturally expected. Instead, he surprised the informer by calmly observing that this meant only that he had a good reputation. If an imposter therefore wanted to emulate him, even to the point of impersonation, and thereby offer some benefit to Jews by helping them, so be it: What was the harm? (For further discussion about the Baal Shem Tov, his influence, and his followers who established the various Hassidic dynasties and courts and their sometimes divergent directions, see in the introduction to Volume 6.)
Vidui [viddui], the title of the suite’s first movement, refers to the remorseful confessional section of the Yom Kippur liturgy during which the worshippers enumerate collectively and vocally a catalogue of transgressions committed or likely—even possibly—to have been committed during the preceding year by them or by the Jewish people individually or collectively. Inextricable from the words as well as from the spirit of the viddui, which is at root a contrite confession of guilt addressed directly to God, are the supplicants’ public announcement of repentance, without excuses for acts, deeds, or lapses—“sins of omission as well as commission”—about which they knew or should have known better; their urgent wish to make atonement for the error of their ways and reverse their conduct accordingly with the advent of the new year; and their petition for God’s forgiveness rather than harsh judgment, and thereby for the opportunity to be freed from the deserved consequences or the shadow of their transgressions in order to be able to begin the new year with a clean slate.
The two most prominent components of the viddui are ashamnu (“We have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously … we have gone astray, we have led others astray”), a twenty-four-count self-indictment and pithy summary of all the various averot (sins, or transgressions), and al ḥet, which recalls and articulates these sins in greater detail and with more vivid specificity, albeit still generically. (“For the sin we have committed before You by. . . .). Viddui is recited initially during the afternoon service (minḥa) on the day before and leading up to Yom Kippur, and then repeated throughout its five services.
The straightforward confession of ashamnu is followed by the acknowledgment “We have turned away from Your commandments and Your judgments that are good, and we have gained nothing from doing so.” This in turn is followed by expressions of remorse and pleas not only for pardon but also for God’s assistance in the process of human self-improvement: “Incline our hearts to forsake the path of evil…. Let [viz., help, or ordain that] the wicked forsake their ways and the righteous their thoughts…. Subdue our inclination so that we may serve You; and bend our will to turn to You.” Judaic theology emphasizes here that ki yarbe lislo’aḥ (He is ever ready to pardon). And in other related liturgical passages God is said not to desire the punishment or death of the sinner, but rather that he return from his wrong ways and repent.
The forty-four enumerations of al ḥet (followed by additional references to offenses applicable only historically—when the sacrificial system of the Temple was operative and the judicial authority of the Sanhedrin was in force in ancient Israel—are interrupted periodically by the plea and its periodic repetition: v’al kulam elohai sl’liḥot s’laḥ lanu m’ḥal lanu kaper lanu (For all these transgressions, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement!).
It is significant that the confessions and pleas for pardon are recited communally, in a public forum, and in the plural. This has been interpreted as indicative of the responsibility each individual has not only for his own conduct but also for the society of which he is a part. In the latter case, this concerns passivity or complacency in the face of conditions or situations that either permit and promote unethical, immoral, or unjust conditions—which one might assume do not affect him directly but negatively affect others—or enable and encourage the flaunting of the Torah’s commandments and all that they mandate in the continuum of rabbinic Judaism. That principle, of course, is not unique to Judaism or to Judaic jurisprudence, and from legal perspectives it is well encapsulated by the Latin maxim en silentio concordia est (in silence there is acquiescence). Whether this amounts to a coincidence may be moot. But we do know that many of the rabbis of antiquity, dating at least to the early centuries of the Common Era, had some awareness of Greek and Roman culture, customs, and thought inasmuch as they were surrounded by the Greco-Roman world.
It must be emphasized that in Judaic tradition as well as legislation, expiation from transgressions and offenses articulated in the viddui can be forthcoming directly from God only with regard to those deeds or acts whose subjects are considered to be matters exclusively between God and man—such as ritual violations—but do not explicitly involve injury to one’s fellow humans. Divine forgiveness for the latter is deemed possible only if the offender sincerely seeks conciliation from the injured party prior to the close of Yom Kippur (Yoma 8:9). It is not sufficient merely to offer material compensation when applicable or appropriate; actual heartfelt forgiveness must be asked even if compensation has been accepted and received.
If, however, an injured party refuses to grant forgiveness after a third request that he has no reason to suspect is less than genuine, he is, according to Moses Maimonides and the continuum of rabbinic tradition, considered cruel. Nor should he forgive grudgingly or pro forma.
Among the rich Hassidic folklore related to viddui is the interaction on Yom Kippur between the fabled rebbeand rabbi R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev and an impoverished illiterate tailor in the congregation who was unable to read or even recite the words. It was near the end of the n’ila (concluding) service, but R. Levi Yitzhak would not permit the shofar to be sounded to signal the end of the fast until he was assured that everyone in the synagogue had asked—and therefore ipso facto received—forgiveness. So when R. Levi Yitzhak asked the tailor how he had repented, he replied with embarrassment that he had simply “spoken to God” in his own words, telling God that the sins for which he needed to repent were minor and inconsequential: keeping unused remnants of cloth paid for by customers for whom he had fashioned garments, so that eventually he would accumulate enough to make a much-needed coat for his child; occasionally forgetting to recite the appropriate b’rakha over a meal; or even accepting a drink of water in the home of a customer whose kitchen might not be kosher. “But You, God, have committed much graver sins against Your people,” the tailor continued, “including removing mothers from their children and children from their mothers, allowing us to suffer in poverty and by oppression, and keeping us, Your loyal people, in exile.” Therefore, he offered God a deal: if God would forgive him his minor lapses, he would forgive God. “You were foolish,” R. Levi Yitzhak told him. “You were too lenient. You held the card. You should have held out for a much better deal—full redemption of the Jewish people; you might have saved the world.”
Referring to customs of going through the motions of lightly striking one’s own chest while reciting viddui—to symbolize “beating one’s breast” in remorse—R. Israel Meir, author of ḥafetz ḥayyim, remarked that “God does not forgive the sins of one who smites his heart; but He pardons those whose hearts smite them for the sins they committed.”
“All Israel, living and dead,” wrote novelist Herman Wouk, “from Sinai to the present hour, stands in its relation to God as a single immortal individual. The mass confession stamps that idea at the heart of Yom Kippur.” The Berditchever might have seen in the tailor that “single immortal individual” who embodied all Israel.
For the liberal theologian Leo Baeck, the concept of atonement contained in the viddui was the desiderata of “return.” Judaism itself, he maintained, is a religion of atonement (unlike so many Freudians who once saw Judaism as a religion of guilt and guilt complexes), and all the elements of Judaic religion are “most intimately combined in the experience of atonement.” Baeck underscored the requirement for directness: that there can be no mediator between man and God for atonement, no symbolic event, and no sacrament or ritual that would substitute. R. Levi Yitzhak’s famous “intercessions”—his defense motions argued before the Supreme Judge on behalf of the Jewish people as well as his accusations—must of course be understood as poetic, not as incompatible with his own always firm simultaneous acknowledgment of God’s welcome supremacy. For it is viddui in Baeck’s conception that brings to the relationship between humanity and God what he called “ethical immediacy.”
The Ashkenazi rite attaches to the viddui liturgy a particular, eponymous mode for its intonation by the cantor or ba’al t’filla (lay prayer leader). The viddui mode is basically akin to major, with a narrow range of pitches apart from ornaments or embellishments.
The second movement, Nigun [Heb., niggun; Yiddish, nign), is the most familiar of all three and is sometimes programmed on its own. Its title refers in a general way to the emotional power and mystical fervor of Hassidic song, although the nign, admittedly the most common Hassidic musical association, is only one of the Hassidic song forms or types. The Hebrew niggun (along, originally, with its Yiddish derivative, nign) is a generic term simply meaning “melody” or “tune.” But its primary connotation has come to be that of a special class of Hassidic song—most often, though not always, wordless and sung to vocables that are said to transcend the ability of words to communicate (lay, lay, lay . . . ay, ay, ay . . . etc.).
It was specifically Hassidim who first assigned to song a new, transformative musical power capable of operating with and independently of liturgical expression according to prescribed words or occasions. Beginning in the first half of the 18th century with the teachings and examples of the Baal Shem Tov and his 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 a way that would transcend its traditional aesthetic role of hiddur mitzvah—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. Niggunim that are simply structured through continuous repetition and, especially, more complex ones are said to constitute a journey of the soul toward quasi-altered states of ecstatic “clinging” (hitlahavut) to the Almighty and union with His essence. And the most effective vehicle for attainment of spiritual ecstasy is believed to lie in the realm of song.
The belief that inherent in song is the power to elevate the soul dates to the very birth of the Hassidic movement and was further developed and expanded by successive rebbes and masters in various writings, as well as by personal example. The early Hassidic masters who succeeded the Baal Shem Tov 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 sonata or string quartet, yet any attempt to reduce its inner meanings 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 (now interchangeable with the designation Habad) Rebbe.
Musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and scholars of Hassidism have discerned in the aggregate repertoire of Hassidic niggunim several distinct categories and types. For a discussion of these differentiations and the musical features that drive them, as well as a brief historical account of the niggun and its study, see in the introduction to Volume 6.
The third and final movement is titled Simhat Torah (rejoicing in or over the Torah) after that holy day, which follows immediately upon the weeklong biblical pilgrimage Festival of Sukkot and its concluding holy day, sh’mini atzeret—originally the “eighth day of the festive assembly,” but, although technically regarded as a separate festival, in effect sometimes called the eighth day of Sukkot. In Israel, sh’mini atzeret and simhat torah coincide on the same day, while in the Diaspora simhat torah follows as a ninth day of celebration.
Simhat torah celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of public (viz., synagogal) readings of the Torah in consecutive weekly Sabbath portions (parashot) and the recommencement of the cycle with the beginning portion of b’reshit (Genesis). The label simhat torah,not known in the Talmudic period, is believed to have come into use approximately in the 9th century in Babylonia, where the one-year cycle of Torah readings was prevalent.
Simhat torah is infused in all rites of Jewish worship with rejoicing over the gift of the Torah and its teachings. During both the ma’ariv (evening) and morning services, the Torah scrolls are carried around the synagogue (and sometimes outside) in a sevenfold series of dancelike processions (hakkafot), in which all join while singing joyfully. This custom dates to the 16th century, and although it involves the entire congregation, there has always been a special emphasis on the childrens’ participation alongside their elders.
Hassidim naturally added their own dimension of particularly joyous niggunim, which, beginning and often proliferating largely in America in the second half of the 20th century, have also been adopted for this purpose by non-Hassidic—including Reform—congregations that might formerly have shunned the music of Hassidim.
Those who might expect in the Baal Shem Suite some simple array of quotations of actual Hassidic melodies, even if artistically developed, will be disappointed in the substantive originality of its material. For this is no fluffy so-called encore piece built on statements of familiar Hassidic tunes, but an exploration—by turns soulful and virtuosic—of the underlying spirit of Hassidic devotion and commitment. The work probes that spirit in the context of the composer’s own broader sense of Jewish spiritual history, which in his own psyche extends to—and was inseparable from—the glory of Judaic antiquity and his abiding pride in the encompassing heritage.
Performers: Isaac Stern, Violin; Alexander Zakin, Piano