Song and Chazanus in Chassidic History
Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine a"h
A Fit Intermediary
“I heard my holy ancestors repeat in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, that he had come to earth to correct a major flaw in this world, which had come about through the erosion of the three pillars on which the world stands: the pillar of Torah had been ruined by the darshonim who went from town to town sharing false words of Torah; the pillar of tefilah was destroyed by the chazanim…” These are the words of the Minchas Elozor of Munkatch in his sefer Divrei Torah (Vol. 3, §86).
In fact, in his letter regarding the structure of a Chabad minyan, the Rebbe Rashab lumps these two destructive tendencies together: “There should always be a Chabad minyan, they should never let a maggid to speak… and they may not hire a chazan, not even for the Yomim Noiro’im.” (Igros Kodesh, Vol. 1, p. 287)
Here is not the place to discuss the erosion to which the Baal Shem Tov referred, which involved the inappropriate conduct of those chazanim; rather we’ll discuss another—partially less severe--aspect of it, namely their style of davening. This too already existed in the early days of Chassidus, as the leading student of the Baal Shem Tov, R. Yaakov Yosef of Polna’ah, writes in his Toldos Yaakov Yosef (Parshas Tzav):
“I have heard that in earlier times the chazan was a prestigious individual who knew the proper intention and meaning of each word, and he would sing the words at length as he finished thinking the meaning of each word. However, with the passage of time and the decline in holiness of each generation, they would sing the tunes without thinking about the words, so the tune which was supposed to be secondary became primary, while the meaning of the words became secondary.”
[Elsewhere in his sefer (Parshas Naso), he writes, “I have heard from a certain scholar that nowadays the yetzer hara has become clever, and instead of targeting each individual to sin, he goes for the one person who will cause the public to stumble. For example, he appoints a shochet in a town who will cause everyone to eat treif meat, and everyone is thus brought into the yetzer hara’s domain. Likewise, our Sages, Rishonim and Acharonim warned that the shliach tzibur – who is the intermediary between the congregation and our Father in Heaven – should be the most noteworthy person in the congregation, whereas today they choose the most disreputable…”]
Chassidisher Baalei Tefilah
Honestly, choosing empty chazanim wasn’t novel to that time period. The Gemara (Ta’anis 16b) already applies the posuk (Yirmiyah 12:8), “she raised her voice against me, therefore, I hated her” to an inappropriate chazan, and it is quoted in the responsa of the Rashba, Rosh, Maharshal and others, regarding chazanim whose musical talent outshone their integrity and good deeds. (See also the Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch 53:4-5,14.) As each generation passed, the secondary tunes become the primary focus.
It is self-understood that the more a Chassidic community focused on davening and its meaning, the more it was repulsed by a ceremony led by a singer known as a “chazan,” (something that was common in other circles where people came to shul to hear a concert from the chazan). This accords with what the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya (Ch. 10) that the greater one’s love for Hashem, the greater his hate for klipah and his disgust of evil.
The Rebbe Rashab, who raised the standard of prayer in our generation, was the one to enact that “only R. Avraham Charitonov or someone of a similar caliber” (a chassidisher baal tefilah) should be appointed as a chazan. R. Yechiel the Shadar, the chazan in Lubavitch for the Yomim Noira’im, was of this standing. (Parenthetically, the nigun “Hu Elokeinu” which the Rebbe taught on Simchas Torah 5724 is one of his compositions).
In the same vein, R. Avremke, the rov of Zhebin and a prominent chossid of the Tzemach Tzedek and the Rebbe Maharash, once said that the halachic queries that are brought to him during Yom Kippur davening don’t disturb him since they are Hashem’s Torah, but when the chazan starts to foolishly perform his chazanus (machen zich narish), it disturbs him… (Likutei Sipurim, p. 322.) [On a lighter note, that is implicit in Shulchan Aruch's instruction not to appoint a “foolish chazan”… (Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch 53:25)].
[There is a well-known expression, “A chazan is a fool.” Tzadikim have explained that the chamber of music in Heaven is adjacent to the chamber of teshuva, and since the chazan doesn’t jump inside the chamber of teshuva he is obviously a fool. Now, how do we know that he hasn’t actually made the jump? Can we read his heart? It is simply that we observe how he continues to sing away, and with that he demonstrates that he hasn’t changed.]
The above critique is despite Chabad’s renowned passion and endearment for neginah. Chassidim sing nigunim on their own or as an extension to davening when the soul seeks to express itself with joy or yearning.
According to the Mitteler Rebbe, “The true expression of G-dliness in one’s soul during davening happens through singing and exultation, when the heart is inspired in song or in motion of the hands or feet.” He also quotes the Alter Rebbe as having instructed those who feel downcast to daven with joyous song. (Igros Kodesh, p. 264)
It seems clear then, that Chabad emphasizes neginah – soul song, but has an aversion to chazanus – cantorial singing.
The difference in attitude lies in the distinction between the two. While the basic distinction is clear, it can be better understood by examining the Mitteler Rebbe’s words regarding singing during davening, which will also explain another shortcoming with cantorial singing.
In the first chapter of Kuntres HaHispailus [an essay on the appropriate form of excitement during davening] the Mitteler Rebbe writes, “The spiritual excitement that comes from a nigun must be spontaneous, without premeditation or intent to become excited; it should come on its own… This is known in Chassidus as the ‘absence of feeling one’s ego,’ [as the nigun arose freely].”
In other words, the desired song during davening is the unprompted one, and not one that comes from a person’s ego and self-consideration – the abhorrence of Chassidus – which is expressed in a davening with prepared song.
Melodies of the Heart
One of the differences between a Chabad nigun and other nigunim is that those of Chabad are generally wordless melodies. Chabad nigunim are not arbitrarily wordless, rather they communicate the very essence of a nigun: the inability of the created and defined word to exist in the infinity of a melody.
Song is the pen of the heart and soul. Neginah allows the soul to express its yearning and desire to connect to an infinite G-d, while also conveying the person’s emotion – whether joyful or bitter – which the finite word is simply not capable of capturing.
Every rule has an exception, and there are many Chabad nigunim that have words. Many of those are not originally Chabad, but were introduced by other sources. Some original Chabad nigunim do have words, however the words are secondary to the melody, and the climax of the nigun is at the wordless part. (Think of “Yemin Hashem Romeima,” and “Nye Zuritzi Chluptzi.”)
Another type of Chabad nigun with lyrics is one whose very words are fluid, expressing a deep yearning to Hashem. Such are the melodies of “K’ayol Ta’arog” (As a deer cries longingly for creeks of water, so does my soul cry longingly to You, Hashem), or “Tzama Lecha Nafshi” (My soul thirsts for You, my flesh longs for You, in an arid and thirsty land without water). Anyone who watched the Rebbe sing these nigunim needs no additional explanation.
The words of the Alter Rebbe in Torah Ohr (Hosafos to Parshas Ki Tisa) about neginah are very telling:
“It is a mitzva to sing zemiros on Shabbos as the Arizal writes, for they facilitate expiration of the soul (kelos hanefesh). This is alluded to in the words of our Sages (Shabbos 5:1), ‘Yotzin b’shir v’nimshochin b’shir’ [literally meaning that animals may go out and be drawn with a leash on Shabbos, but the chassidic interpretation is] that one ‘goes out’ and ascends from the constraints of the body through song (‘shir’). Song is bitul (self-nullification) without words, only an expression of being drawn towards something with selflessness and yearning.”
As we know, the Alter Rebbe didn’t integrate Shabbos zemiros (hymns with words) in his siddur, since he wanted chassidim to “sing nigunim (wordless melodies), which are loftier than zemiros” (the Rebbe Rashab in his notes to the siddur quoting the Tzemach Tzemach). In other words, he wanted his chassidim to sing songs from their hearts, not ones dictated to them.
Even nigunim that are not profound enough to bring to kelos hanefesh still cannot be defined by words, as the Rebbe writes, “The spoken word confines the melody, for a tune on its own is flexible and can contain multiple meanings that cannot be incorporated into one text.” (Igros Kodesh, Vol. 18, p. 157)
A group of chassidim can be sitting together at a farbrengen singing the same nigun, yet each one injects it with an entirely different meaning, in line with his spiritual state at the time. If the nigun would have words, it would be restricted and limited to one single message!
Melodies that have been adapted to unrelated words (such as camp songs and the like), lose their deep meaning. When former campers hear that nigun sung at a farbrengen, even years later, they automatically recall memories of those fun times in their mind, instead of focusing on the depth of the nigun and the soulful experience it offers.
Words can sometimes make joyful tunes even more joyful, as long as they are aptly fitted to the tune. A perfect example would be the Dubrovna nigun – an old-time chassidic melody (Sefer HaNiggunim, nigun 143) to which the words “U’faratzta” were added. Today, we couldn’t separate the words from the tune and sing the melody alone, and it is difficult to understand how it was ever sung so bare without the words! It almost as though the tune was waiting from the beginning of time to be joined with those words.
If, however, the words are unnaturally pasted onto a tune, the tune will lose some of its original liveliness. For example: Try singing the nigun “Ovoi Bigvurois” with the words and then again without them, and I am sure that you will find the melody alone far more joyful.
Having begun on the subject of chazanim, let us turn to their failed attempt at coupling tunes and words – ruining both the davening and the nigun.
First, on davening to a tune:
I recall one yom tov in 5727 (1967), a chazan who was prone to sing a different song for every paragraph (including such tunes that the Frierdiker Rebbe labeled “nigun shoteh,” pointless songs) went up to daven musaf. Before he began, one of the secretaries warned the bochurim who were standing nearby not to disrupt the man’s davening because “the Rebbe cherishes his davening very much.” I have strong doubt whether the Rebbe actually told the secretary that piece of information, (what I do know is that in the middle of chazaras hashatz the Rebbe turned around and expressed wonderment when the chazan repeated words to fit the tune better…). At any rate, it was clear singing davening was not a Chabad minhag, which is why the secretary had to warn the bochurim not to disrupt the chazan.
Some of the younger readers may not even know that in Chabad they did not sing “Lecha Dodi” or “Keil Adon”; in fact, it was completely unheard of! Those words were recited as a part of davening, not as musical lyrics.
Although “Lecha Dodi” was sung in the Rebbe’s shul in the later years, (and the Rebbe encouraged it), the Rebbe himself would not sing “Lecha Dodi” or “Keil Adon”when he served as chazan on Shabbos. (Besides for one occasion when the Rebbe soloed the verse in “Keil Adon” beginning “P’eir V’chavod”).
I wonder if someone who understands the meaning of “Lecha Dodi” would consider coupling it with random tunes. While the tune may make the congregation joyful, what connection does it have to the words? Besides, how can one tune encompass so many different messages? “Lecha Dodi” discusses the unity of Hashem, the ratzo-yearning of the neshama and its subsequent shov-return (as explained in Tanya Ch. 50), the golus of the Shechina and of the neshama, the shine of the Geulah, and more.
If we reflect on the nigun dveikus (cleaving to Hashem) that the Alter Rebbe sang to the phrase “Likras Shabbos” (which is only a half of one verse!) we can appreciate the depth of “Lecha Dodi” and what sort of song suites it.
[In fact, the Rebbe Rashab would sing this tune during Shema (Sefer HaNiggunim, Mafteiach, Nigun 7 and 177), which besides for demonstrating the depth of the tune, it also indicates a common denominator between “Shema” and “Lecha Dodi” – and one wouldn’t think of turning Shema into a song…]
Secondly, there is the destruction that the chazanim have wrought upon the nigunim themselves, which is in addition to the problem of melodies that are ill-fitted with the words. It is especially worth mentioning the tampering of those nigunim with words that the Frierdiker Rebbe calls “nigunim mechuvonim” (composed or chosen by the Rebbeim with special intentions).
Two notable examples are in “Hallel”:
The Tzemach Tzedek had a nigun of dveikus and joy to the posuk of “Yemin Hashem romeima.” It is mostly a wordless melody which flows from the deep meaning of the few words and their impact on the singer. Came along some chazanim and haphazardly pasted it onto a bunch of other pesukim that follow it just to fill the tune.
Effectively, the soul that the Rebbe placed in the nigun was removed, and the part of the nigun which expresses the outpouring of the soul was filled with incongruent words.
The second example is the Alter Rebbe’s nigun on the posuk “Keili Atah,” which chazanim have extended to the following posuk of “Hoidu La’Hashem” as well. This also shows a lack of sensitivity and appreciation for the nigun, as well as tampering with a “nigun mechuvon.” This distortion will likely remain forever since young children are taught the nigun as though it were composed on both pesukim, and they often hear it sung that way at farbrengens.
As You Wish
Everything I’ve written here is simply my hergesh (feeling), and since people think differently, there are surely those who think otherwise. Now, while I think that matters of hergesh are indisputable (as you can’t claim that someone’s feelings are not true), I would nevertheless like to address one argument that could be raised against me. That too, I will explain according to my own hergesh.
The glaring issue is the fact that many chazanim in the Rebbe’s shul did sing parts davening, and not only did the Rebbe not protest their behavior (which one can argue is because the Rebbe in principal did not get involved in shul policies – a practice he quoted many times in the name of the Rebbe Rashab), but on the contrary, the Rebbe encouraged it!
I will answer this with a story and a parable told by the mashpia R. Groinem:
The Tzemach Tzedek once lamented that under his father-in-law – the Mitteler Rebbe’s leadership –Chassidus had been on the rise, and when he became the Rebbe it had declined. His proof was this: When the Mitteler Rebbe had yechidus, the Torah scholars and melamdim would enter first and then the wealthy chassidim followed, while during the his own yechidus, the wealthy chassidim entered first.
When R. Shaul Ber Zislin, who was then a student in the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva, heard this story he asked his mashpia, “Surely the Tzemach Tzedek could have instituted at his yechidus that the melamdim should enter first as well?”
R. Groinem responded with a parable:
It once happened that a simple yishuvnik (shtetl Jew) came to the big city and overheard the rov discussing with the community leaders about establishing a fast day due to the drought. The yishuvnik quickly interjected and told the rov that he has a way to fix the rain problem: Everyone knows that before it rains the cats jump behind the oven, so they should go around town, collect all the cats, place them behind the ovens, and then there would be no need for a fast.
The problem of course was the very fact that the wealthy chassidim did not recognize that they should not enter first. Even if the Tzemach Tzedek would institute that they go second, the issue would not be resolved – just disguised.
I would argue the same is true regarding the behavior of chazanim and those that request their services: If they are comfortable distorting the davening and the nigunim, let them do as they please, and the Rebbe will be the last one to take away their joy (as he said regarding other practices).
However, let it be clear, that it wasn’t the Rebbe who initiated this conduct, and he personally did not conduct himself that way. Even when the Rebbe introduced the song “Hu Elokinu” in “Keser,” it was only sung on yom tov and select Shabbosim (as per the Rebbe’s instruction). It wasn’t until the later years when it was sung every Shabbos.
Generation of the Geulah
A positive way of explaining this practice, in line with the Rebbe’s custom of seeing the good in everything:
The Rebbe often repeated Chazal’s statement that “Kalkalaseinu zu hi takanaseinu – our devastation is our remedy.” The spiritual structure of a generation is not decided solely by the people themselves, rather it is by Divine providence and intervention from Hashem. Perhaps it can be said, that since Moshiach and neginah are strongly related, song during davening is specifically related to the generation of geulah and a sign that Moshiach is on the way.
In that case, you may ask, what is the purpose of discussing and contemplating the comportment of chassidim in previous generations?
The answer, in short, is similar to the explanation (in Kuntres Eitz HaChaim 7-8) of the obligation to contemplate “Yichuda Ila’a” (the higher level of G-dly unity), although very few can ever actually attain it, since it leads us to strive for elevation and loftiness, if only for a moment. If we only consider the lower level of “Yichuda Tata’a” which is attainable by all, we are more prone to fall.
In other words, remembering our history and striving to greatness uplifts us and contributes to our overall growth. Considering the meaning and role of nigunim in Lubavitch of yesteryear can likewise elevate us, to some degree, in the song of the soul.
משיב באריכות ובחריפות לתגובתו של בעל "משיב הרוח" הנ"ל על פי סדר דבריו בדבר הגשם הקמוץ, ושוב מצביע על סילופיו והתנגדותו לדעת הפוסקים והחכמים. בסיום
חמש הערות קצרות על שיטת העריכה של אדמו"ר זי"ע במפתחות לספר ה'תניא': [א] לענין שם "ספר [ה]גלגולים" – ה"א הידיעה אינה נחשבת לעולם כחלק משם
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