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Endnote: Songs from the Rebbe’s Court

Riki Goldstein

“If words are the pen of the heart,” taught Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, “then song is the quill of the soul”

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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ongs from the Rebbe’s Court

Niggun holds a central place in chassidic tradition, and many rebbes of chassidic courts over the last few centuries were either composers themselves, or adapted and sanctified tunes whose source they knew to be from higher realms. Many of these tunes, the ones that have endured, are cherished and sung regularly at chassidic gatherings and special occasions. Each court has developed its own repertoire and signature sound, to mark exalted moments and joyous celebrations. Connect to the music, and let yourself rise higher

Reconnecting in Chabad

Close to the Rebbe’s Heart

The previous Rebbe of Chabad, Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (the Rayatz), was extremely careful to preserve the nuances of old niggunim, telling his chassidim, “A niggun should be sung with the same care that one would employ in citing a devar Torah learned from one’s rebbi.” One melody he especially enjoyed was a niggun which he named “The Beinoni” — the “intermediate” Jew to whose level, according to the Sefer HaTanya, everyone can strive. On special occasions he would tell the chassidim to sing this tune, and today it’s always sung on the 10th of Shevat, the Rayatz’s yahrtzteit. Composed by Reb Aharon Charitonov, “The Beinoni” is the wordless but eloquent song of someone who’s in a constant inner battle for his spirituality, yet doesn’t fall and always forges onward.

At a farbrengen at the end of Nissan in 1954, four years after the Rayatz passed away, his son-in-law the Lubavitcher Rebbe reintroduced a nearly-forgotten niggun composed by the Baal HaTanya: “Tzamah Lecha Nafshi” was little-known at the time, even within Chabad. The Rebbe repeated this choice of niggun many times in public, and soon the slow, contemplative song, with its ecstatic climax of dveikus, was repopularized.

In the privacy of his own room, the Rebbe was sometimes overheard singing to himself ancient Chabad niggunim of yearning.

It Isn’t Yom Tov without…

In the ten years between 1954 and 1963, the Rebbe taught the chassidim 13 niggunim. Each Simcha Torah he would either teach a new niggun or revive an old one following hakafos. On Simchas Torah of 1960, he introduced a niggun for “Atah Bechartanu” which he had heard from Chabad chassidim when he was a child.

Chabad has a repertoire of about 200 niggunim, but only about half of these are widely known. Since they are wordless melodies, they are identified by name, or town of origin.

Composition for the Court

Some of the modern Chabad repertoire came from the annual composition of a niggun from the perek of Tehillim corresponding to the Rebbe’s birthday, beginning in the early 1970s. But across three centuries and eight generations, Chabad chassidus has seen hundreds of composers. Many famous niggunim were composed by the rebbes themselves, starting with the Baal HaTanya, known as the Alter Rebbe, (think the ever-popular “Keili Atah”). A notable early composer was the immensely talented Reb Menuchin, a grandchild of Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, who married the Alter Rebbe’s grandchild. A hundred and fifty years ago, in the Ukrainian township of Nikolayev, a family of shochtim named Charitonov produced several musical geniuses. The niggunim of Reb Aharon Charitonov and Reb Sholom Charitonov have been passed down and are widely sung as part of the Chabad musical legacy.

Sound of Celebration

For a Chabad chassid, there are no deliberations about which tune to play at the chuppah. The custom is to play (and sing) the most elevated of the Chabad niggunim, the Baal Hatanya’s “Arba Bavos.” The four stanzas of the song correspond to the four spiritual worlds set forth in Kabbalah, and because of its exalted nature, the niggun is sung with great reverence — and only on special occasions such as Yom Tov, Yud Tes Kislev, and at weddings.

Signature Style

Like much chassidic music, Chabad niggunim reflected the cultural milieu of their time and place. The nature of Russian and Belarusian music was contemplative, often originating from shepherds or peasants. As an oppressed nation, Russians expressed a longing for freedom and better times through their heartfelt music. Chabad is contemplative and soul-searching, and its music is the language of spiritual longing.

The Chassid’s Ensemble

The second Rebbe of Chabad — Rav Dovber Schneuri, known as the Mitteler Rebbe — did have a cappella, but for the past 200 years there has been no choir. What is popular today is the “seder niggunim” held in many Chabad yeshivos during Shalosh Seudos, where the old niggunim are taught and sung by a new generation. The niggunim are taken seriously — every sigh, trill, and pause is significant, and there is no adding or taking away, no chopping or changing allowed.

Saving Souls in Skulen

Close to the Rebbe’s Heart

Before the bochurim go back to yeshivah for a new zeman, they come to the Rebbe for a special visit and are sent off with a niggun favored by the Rebbe, “Beni beni, im chacham libecha yismach libi gam ani.” This is always a very warm and uplifting moment, when the Rebbe seems to send a special message and brachah to accompany the bochurim.

It isn’t Yom Tov without…

The ancient piyutim of each Yom Tov are sung in Skulen to complex niggunim, some of them composed by the previous Rebbe, others written by Reb Pinye Chazan. He was a chazzan in the Ruzhiner court, who used to come to the Skulener Rebbe to sing.

The Skulener song for the words of the Yom Tov Mussaf, beginning “Bnei bnei bnei beischa,” a fast niggun yet full of longing for the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, has been adopted by many chassidic groups for Yom Tov. As for “Layehudim, Layehudim Hoysah Orah”— the song is still sung wherever Purim is celebrated. It was composed by the previous Rebbe ztz”l on a visit to Montreal during Chodesh Adar.

The Chassid’s Ensemble

There has never been an official choir in Skulen, which is low on formalities, although in recent years, yungeleit gather together to sing in the succah, and also on Motzaei Shabbos Nachamu, which is the night that the Skulener Rebbe celebrates his release from a torturous Romanian prison.

Sound of Celebration

The famous hand-clapping, backward-dancing song “Yamim Al Yemei Melech Tosif” was originally composed in honor of Rav Mordechai Sholom Yosef Friedman of Sadigura-Przemysl, the fourth Sadigura Rebbe. Legend says that the streets of the town were black with his followers on the day he became rebbe, and the previous Skulener Rebbe, who was in attendance, composed a song in his honor. The Sadigura Rebbe’s huge following was decimated during the war, yet “Yamim Al Yemei Melech” has become the anthem of welcome for rebbes and roshei yeshivah throughout the Jewish world.

At the mitzvah-tantz in Skulen weddings, the minhag is to sing the Rebbe’s “Vetaher Libeinu” (“…le’ovdecha le’ovdecha, le’ovdecha le’ovdecha be’emes).” And at one grandchild’s chasunah a few years back, the Rebbe sang a lively new composition, overflowing with heartfelt gratitude, “Ahalelah Hashem, Ahalelah Hashem, Ahalelah Hashem Bchayai,” which has become a staple at chassidish weddings and Simchas Torah celebrations in recent years.

Compositions for the Court

Both the previous Rebbe, Rav Eliezer Zusia Portugal, who passed away in 1982, and the present Rebbe, Rav Yisrael Avraham Portugal, are prolific composers and were known to carry a small tape recorder around to record any new niggun that would come to mind. Many of the songs are sung at the tishen. Some are forgotten after they’re recorded, and others have become classics.

Rav Eliezer Zusia became rav in the town of Skulen in Romania at age 24. When the Zionist school network spread to Skulen, he opened a Talmud Torah school to counter their influence — the first institutional Talmud Torah in that area of Romania. To draw the children to Yiddishkeit with pride, the young rav wrote songs, marches, and even plays in the Yiddish vernacular. The classic “Lulei Sorascha” was one of his earliest niggunim. The Talmud Torah thrived and eventually the Zionist school closed down. After the war, when the Rebbe adopted hundreds of war orphans in communist Bucharest, he once again used the power of music to draw them close and strengthen their Yiddishkeit. There are a few thousand known Skulener niggunim written by both father and son. Among the dozens of most famous are “Oy yoy yoy, Shabbos” and “Beyom Hashabbos, Shabbos Kodesh, Sisu Vesimchu,” both written to lift the spirits of young Holocaust yesomim and convey some of the sweetness of Shabbos.

A Niggun for Dark Times

Rebbe Eliezer Zushe and his family survived the war and moved to the Romanian capital of Bucharest.Romania was overtaken by a Communist regime, but their anti-religious legislation couldn’t intimidate the Rebbe. He traveled around and spent every Shabbos in a different town or village. Many of the local Jews were forced to work on Shabbos, but on Motzaei Shabbos, the Rebbe’s Melaveh Malkah would be packed with men, women, and children. The Rebbe would speak at length, offering them encouragement and hope, begging them to hold on to their Yiddishkeit, and he would compose and sing niggunim — songs like “Atah Hashem Lo Sichlah Rachamecha.” The Communists eventually jailed the Rebbe and his son Rav Yisrael Avraham, but even there, their spirits were not crushed — the famous “Yivoda Bagoyim” and “Odeh Hashem Me’od Befi” are lasting mementos of those terrible times.

A Chuppah in Bobov

Close to the Rebbe’s Heart

The Bobover Rebbes have always been prolific composers, and many niggunim have remained popular up to a century later. One very moving melody, written by Rebbe Shlomo Halberstam, who revived the chassidus after the war, is still sung for “Heyei Im Pipiyos,” the chazzan’s request in the middle of Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah before he begins the main section of the Amidah, and repeated at the Motzaei Yom Kippur tish. Another old-time favorite is the song “Yancheini Bemaaglei Tzedek,” which is sung every Bobov wedding, just before the chassan proceeds to the badeken and chuppah.

It Isn’t Yom Tov without…

Rebbe Sholomo’s father, Rebbe Bentzion of Bobov, known as the Kedushas Tzion Hashem Yikom Damo, composed many enduring niggunim which have remained part of the Yom Tov tefillah — there’s the complex and well-loved tune for “Mah Ashiv” from Hallel, which begins “Mah, mah-mah-mah…, “ and “Melech Rachamon” is another Yom Tov favorite. “Vehi sheamdah laavoseinu, laavoseinu velanu…,” as sung in many chassidish communities and chadarim, is a Bobover tune as well.

At the Shevii shel Pesach tish, commemorating the splitting of the Red Sea on that night, the crowd sings the lively Bobov tune for “Bevakacha Yam Suf, amcha ra’u, hayad hagedolah vayira’u” with joyous inspiration for at least an hour straight. And on Purim, the chassidim sing the upbeat “Tzamah, tzamah, tzamah lecha nafshi,” over and over too.

Compositions for the Court

Rebbe Bentzion Halberstam, the second Bobover Rebbe, was a young child when his father, Rebbe Shloime, the first Bobover Rebbe and oldest grandson of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz, told him he should begin to compose niggunim. His first song was a tune for Tehillim 121, “Shir Lamaalos Esa Einai.” After that, many more followed. Every Yom Tov, the Bobover chassidim who were spread out among the shtetlach of Galicia sent messengers to the Rebbe. The messengers would bring home the new niggunim which were sung in the Rebbe’s court. Rebbe Bentzion composed the famous march-style “Keil Adon” with several parts, which can still be heard on Shabbos mornings in many shtiblach and minyanim, as well as the rhythmic “Lo-ooo-ooo Seivoshi” tune and the classic “Kah Ribbon Olam”(the one with the repetitive “Perok yas anach, perok yas anach”). Rebbe Bentzion’s gabbai, Reb Chaskel Rottenberg, was also responsible for some niggunim in the Bobov repertoire.

Rebbe Bentzion’s son Rebbe Shlomo of Bobov, the third Bobover Rebbe, survived the war and tirelessly rebuilt the chassidus in America. His all-pervasive warmth and generosity of spirit — despite having lost so much — was reflected in his own assortment of niggunim which are still popular today: “Veseigoleh,” “Boruch Hu Elokeinu,” “Chazak Yemalei,” and “Sabeinu,” to name a few.

The Chassid’s Ensemble

Bobov does have a choir, a dozen or so young men who stand in a semi-circle around the baal tefillah, but the Rebbe instructed them to always choose niggunim that everyone can sing. They begin the tune, which is then taken up by the whole crowd.

A Niggun for Dark Times

Back in the 1930’s, when foreign influences were circulating broadly among Galicia’s youth, the Kedushas Tzion was informed that a package of heretical books had arrived in Bobov. He instructed that the books — and the paper and strings which had bound the package — be burned. And to counteract the “koach hatumah,” the impure forces, he composed an elaborate new niggun for “Yismach Moshe” — as “Moshe rejoices in the gift of his portion, for You have called him a faithful servant.”

Sound of Celebration

The famous chuppah processional “Na, nanana, na, na, na, na, na, na nah”, traditionally played as the chassan walks down the aisle, is known as the Bobover chuppah march. It was composed by a chassid named Rav Ezriel Mandelbaum. Rav Ezriel was very poor, and legend has it that he composed this niggun based on the rhythm of the drips of water from his leaking roof. It was taught to Bobover chassidim and spread from there. His younger brother Reb Yossele was chazzan and composer in Crakow. After the war, he srerved as chazzan in Boro Park’s Sephardishe shul.

Reb Chaim Duvid Blum, a well-known chassid who was the chazzan in the town of Kshanov, wrote a celebratory tune for “Kol rinah viyeshuah… der rebbe zohl laiben a mazal tov” in honor of one of the Bobover weddings. The song was later adopted by many chassidic groups, and is sung in honor of rebbishe simchahs the world over.

Gut Shabbos in Vizhnitz

Close to the Rebbe’s Heart

There is a special Vizhnitz tune for “Hu Yiftach Libeinu” sung on Shavuos and Simchas Torah, to which the previous Rebbe, the Yeshuos Moshe, was very attached. The niggun dates back many years and was already sung in the court of his grandfather, the Ahavas Yisrael of Vizhnitz. The same tune is used both in Vizhnitz-Monsey and in Bnei Brak, but with different kneitchen, as the two brothers — Rebbe Moshe Yehoshua and Rebbe Mordechai (Mottele) — each remembered it slightly differently.

It Isn’t Yom Tov without…

There are two types of Yom Tov songs in Vizhnitz: the “regular” songs, a pasuk set to music which are better known, and “yetziros” — longer and much more complex compositions, which have to be learned and take up to 20 minutes to sing.

Vizhnitz has a plethora of Shabbos niggunim, which are sung at the weekly tishen with great intensity and feeling. One of the oldest and best-known of these, which is sung at the start of every Shabbos tish as the Rebbe enters the room, is “Gut Shabbos, gut Shabbos, gut Shabbos, shreit shoin Yiddelach gut Shabbos, zugt shoin Yiddelach gut Shabbos, heilige Shabbos, lechtige Shabbos….” The origins of this niggun predate the chassidus itself. Reb Yaakov Koppel, the father of the Ahavas Shalom of Kossov and grandfather of the first Rebbe of Vizhnitz (Rebbe Menachem Mendel Hager, known as the Tzemach Tzaddik), was a beloved talmid of the Baal Shem Tov. He was chosen to serve as the baal tefillah in the Baal Shem Tov’s beis medrash. In his times, on Thursday evenings, a group would go from door-to-door to collect for those who didn’t have money for Shabbos necessities. At each house, they would begin their fundraising pitch with this chant, “Gut Shabbos, gut Shabbos, gut Shabbos….” Eventually, the tune was adopted as the opening melody of the Shabbos tish.

A slow and complex “Menucha Vesimchah” (including the better-known part “Nishmas kol chai, nishmas nishmas nishmas kol chai, nishmas kol chai…”) is followed by a widely known wordless Vizhnitz niggun, “Ai dididay did di day day day daay day day didi day didi dum… Shabbos, Shabbos Kodesh….”

The Chassid’s Ensemble

Around 30 young men sing in the Vizhnitz choir, which is conducted by Rav Usher Pollak. The soloist is composer and singer Yanky Daskal.

Compositions for the Court

The Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz composed songs, and he had a powerful singing voice as well. The recording of “Kevodo Malei Olam” from Kedushah of Shabbos is probably the most well-known example, a classic piece of Vizhnitz liturgical music. Prominent pre-war composers among the chassidim included Reb Nissen Just, the gabbai of the Ahavas Yisrael, and Reb Cheskel Klagsbald. Since Vizhnitz was known for its warm, heartfelt singing, other composers and chassidic personalities would send their works to the Rebbe. On one occasion, the previous Skulener Rebbe sent his niggun “Chiko Mamtakim” to the Imrei Chaim for mishloach manos. Another time, the Gerrer composer Reb Yankel Talmud attended the tish of the Imrei Chaim. The Rebbe challenged him to compose a song on the spot, and said that if he did, the Rebbe would do so too. Reb Yankel composed his famous “Yismechu Bemalchuscha” and the Rebbe composed “Haben Yakir Li.” More contemporary Vizhnitz composers include Reb Yitzchok Ungar (“Laasos Retzoncha”) and Reb Yanky Daskal (“Hakol Yoducha”).

Sound of Celebration

At a mitzvah tantz, the Rebbe always dances to the famous tune of the “Sixth Hakafah.” This elevated tune, which seems to carry the Rebbe and chassidim almost to another plane, has been adopted more widely in recent years. In Eretz Yisrael, it can usually be heard at a Hachnasas Sefer Torah, with the words “Sisu vesimchu besimchas haTorah, ki hu lanu oz ve’orah” added at the end.

At tena’im engagement celebrations, at Chumash seudahs, and at many other milestones, the Vizhnitz chassidim sing a slow, intricate niggun “Odeh Hashem Bechol Leivav”— which was composed by the Imrei Chaim when he recovered from a stroke when he was in is seventies.

New Niggunim in Belz

Close to the Rebbe’s Heart

In pre-war Belz there was very little singing or music, so traditional Belz niggunim are few and far between. The tunes for “Adon Olam” on Yom Kippur night, “Mizmor Shir Chanukas Habayis” and “Maoz Tzur” on Chanukah, and “Torah Hakedoshah” on Simchas Torah are among the few prewar Belz songs which were taught to a new generation and thus are cherished by the Rebbe today. But in a famous letter from Rebbe Aharon of Belz to Reb Shmiel Frankel, the previous Rebbe wrote that despite this, there will come a time — before the times of Mashiach — when niggunim will flourish in Belz.

It Isn’t Yom Tov without…

Twice a year, the Belzer Rebbe sings alone —”Hamavdil” on Motzaei Yom Kippur, and “U’vau chulam” on Shavuos. Another highlight of the end-of-Yom Tov ne’ilas hachag tish is Rav Yirmiya Damen singing solo “Ve’saiorev,” with back-up vocals from the choir.

Seven different vintage chassidic tunes were originally used for hakafos on Simchas Torah. But when the Zionists adopted the seventh hakafah tune for “Hava Nagilah”, it was no longer used in Belz. The first hakafah niggun is thus reused for the seventh circuit. (Recently, they started singing the old niggun once again in Belz, but only later on Yom Tov afternoon.) After Hakafos comes a special tune for “Se’u Shearim,” which is said to have been adapted by Belz chassid Rav Mordche Pels from a march tune used by the local army.

The Rebbe’s Prayer

On the Motzaei Shabbos before the yahrtzeit of Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk this past Adar, the Belzer Rebbe departed from tradition to sing aloud Reb Elimelech’s famous prayer that all Jews see the good points of one another: “Aderabah tein belibeinu she’nireh kol echad maalas chavereinu velo chesronam.”

Court Composers

In general, the rebbes of the Belzer dynasty did not compose their own niggunim. But today’s Belzer Rebbe is a talented composer, and many of his songs have gained fame among the general public, such as “Yehi Hachodesh Hazeh,” “Ki LaShem Hameluchah,” and “Vechesed Hashem Me’olam Ve’ad Olam.”

Back in the 1970s, when the Rebbe would hold tish, he started asking for songs and inviting people to get up and sing. At first, they sang Modzhitzer niggunim and tunes from other courts, but the Rebbe wanted more. He summoned Reb Yirmiya Damen and Reb Mordechai Fried to establish a choir and harnessed the talents of a small cadre of chassidim to compose: Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Brier, Rabbi Eliyahu Eisenbach (“Veyeidi veyeidi veyeidi, ki Atah shimcha Hashem”), Rabbi Shlomo Kalish (“Tehai Hasha’ah Hazos,” “Ki Orech Yamim,” and “Kol Asher Yaaseh Yatzliach”), his son Rabbi Eliezer Kalisch (“Ki Atah Hu Melech”), Rabbi Shlomo Yaakov Fried, and Reb Moshe Kalisch. In honor of the Rebbe’s son’s bris in 1978, the first Belz recording was made, and dozens have followed. For the past 40 years, the songs they’ve produced have become hits far outside the chassidus, yet they’re still constantly sung at the weekly Belzer tishen. The Rebbe, ever-encouraging of new compositions, often requests new songs in honor of Yamim Tovim and special occasions.

Sound of Celebration

Since there are so few old Belz niggunim, the melodies played at Belz simchahs are drawn from other chassidish courts. The Rebbe, who spent the first year of his marriage with the Rebbetzin’s family (she is the daughter of the Yeshuos Moshe of Vitzhnitz), was very close to her grandfather, the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz, and is still visibly moved when the crowd sings niggunim which were sung in the Imrei Chaim’s court. Examples include the Imrei Chaim’s own “Odeh Hashem,” and the well-known Vizhnitz song “Nafsheinu Chiksah Lashem,” which the Belz chassidim sing at their pre-wedding forshpiel celebrations.

The Chassid’s Ensemble

Back in Galicia, Belz never had a choir. The Rebbe organized a choir in the 1970s, but then they were still using borrowed material. With new Belz compositions however, the choir gradually built up a repertoire of original Belzer niggunim. Mona Rosenblum was involved in getting the choir on its feet in a professional way. Today, the choir is conducted by Alter Meir Kalisch.

( Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 704)

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