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The Niggun In Jewish Music

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In honor of Chanukah, a time of joy, I have been delving into the realm of Jewish music. Of the three types of Jewish music, klezmer (instrumental), chazzanut (cantorial) and the niggun (wordless tunes), it is the niggun that has evolved and is the most popular today.


There is no way to trace the exact origins of the niggun, a wordless tune that has become an integral part of Jewish culture. In my research I have read that one plausible origin is that at first musical instruments were not used in Jewish music, as an expression of mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was also deemed not proper to use words from the Torah or from the prayers when one was not either learning praying, so the wordless tune was created.


In more modern times the niggun was adopted by the chasidic movement as a way to achieve dveikut, the goal of every chasid of being in the presence of Hashem and serving Him with complete and utter joy.


The pure niggun was used whenever musical instruments were not available such as on Shabbat and Chagim. The Rebbe’s tish, where the Chasidic leaders would entertain their followers on Friday nights was a prime example of when niggunim were sung. The niggun was also used at the slightest provocation and can still be heard whenever the spirit overtakes a person. It is not unusual in a beit medrash to hear someone break out in song out of pure pleasure of being in the service of Hashem.


The chazzanim of pre-war Europe and even those dating back to the mid-18th century, when Chasidism first began to spread, performed in the great synagogues, often receiving large amounts of money for their services. The chasidim rarely used chazzanim from outside their group, and often the Rebbe would be the one leading the prayers. Chazzanim were also notorious for stretching the prayers and even repeating words to showcase their own talents. The chasidim were more concerned with the participation of every Jew in the prayers, and believe that there should be no repetition of words. Instead of the formal tunes of the chazzan, prayers were often sung to niggunim unique to either the Chasidic group, and sometimes to a region.


In chasidic thought, music brings a soul closer to Hashem. They believe that words constrain the melody, whereas the wordless tune repeated over and over can produce a sort of hypnotic state bringing the singer to ever-higher levels of oneness with the creator.


Many chasidic groups were famous for their singing ability. The Modzitzer chasidim who settled in Demblin, Poland, were renowned for their compositions, many of which are still sung today. In recent years there is hardly a chasidic group that does not have a record of their songs, and every record includes a few niggunim.


The chasidim incorporated niggunim into the prayers. These wordless tunes were then brought home and taught to family members at the Shabbat table and used during the singing of zmirot, the songs sung during the Shabbat meals.


Today the niggun has evolved words often are added and when permissible there – is instrumental accompaniment. The boundaries between the three types of Jewish music have blurred. Chasidic music is often today defined as any song whose words originate from a religious source, either the Torah, prayers or rabbinic writings. Most of today’s popular Jewish music is a combination of the three but can be traced to the niggun more readily than to klezmer or chazzanut.

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