<BGSOUND SRC="chanuka11.mp3" LOOP="INFINITE">
A.Z. Idelssohn CHASSIDIC MUSIC
from an Ethnomusicological Perspective

Essence and principles of Chassidism (1)
From A.Z. Idelssohn Anthology


In addition to its distinctive chazzanuth and folk song, Eastern Europe made another contribution to Jewish music. The Jews in Poland and Ukraine produced an original type of song which in its aim and composition has no counterpart elsewhere. It is generally called Chassidic song, because it was created out of the spirit of Chassidism.

Chassidism is usually linked up with Kabbala, with mysticism. Indeed, Chassidism is a derivation of and a new phase in the development of the never completely lost mystic strain in the Jewish people. When we glance over the long history of Judaism, we become aware of the continuation of a hidden mystic stream flowing through Jewish life from ancient times on. And music is and always has been an important means wherewith to procure the mystic's inspiration and to express his ideas. The Neo-mystics in Safed, Palestine, under the leadership of the genius Isaac Luria - known by the abbreviation "Ari" - made singing their duty (2). From that time onward the rivulet of mysticism pushed its way ahead without pausing, winding through many changing fields and emptying into the stream of Chassidism.

The code of the "Shulchan Aruch ", a program of Jewish life formulated for the purpose of keeping before the people through their daily practices the religious and ethical intent of the commandments became, in the course of time, an end in itself rather than a tool to achieve a spiritual goal; it became a scholastic system of laws and commandments. This decadent state roused emotional spirits among the Jewish people to infuse into Judaism new vision, or rather to re-awaken the dormant emotionalism and mystic strain.

The founder of this movement was Israel Baal-Shem-Tov, known by the abbreviation "Besht". He lived in Galicia and Podolia (1700-1760). After his death, his disciples and followers continued his work, and at the end of the eighteenth century, through the influence of several prominent and inspired leaders, the movement reached its height. These leaders were called "Tzadikim" - Righteous ones - in the sense of saints. The most outstanding among them were Ber of Meshiritsh (1710-1772), Levi Yitzchok of Berditschev (1740-1810), Shneor Salman of Ljadi (1747-1813), and Nachman of Brasslaw (1772-1810). The two latter, being 1ine thinkers, attempted to formulate the ideas of Chassidism into a philosophical system.

The "Tzadikim" founded residences, called "courts" by their adherents, whereto the chassidim - the pious ones - used to pilgrim in order to receive inspiration and salvation, and to be instructed in the mysticism of the Chassidic doctrine. Every chassid used to bring gifts to his "Tzadik", so that the earthly prosperity of the "saints" depended upon the number of their adherents.

Like other religious mystic movements, Chassidism is affected by and mixed up with superstition. Its atmosphere is filled with good and evil spirits, with angels and ghosts, heaven and hell.


1 - This chapter is an excerpt from my "Jewish Music" etc., Henry Holt and Co" New York 1929, chap. XIX.

2 - In "Shivehe Ari" it is related that "once on the eve of a Sabbath the Rabbi (I. Luria) went out of the city of Safed, followed by his disciples...to receive the Sabbath, and started singing special Sabbath songs in sweet tunes", Compare also "Sofer Churedim", Venice 1601, chapter 7.



The "Tzadik" is a Thaumaturge and has exclusive access to the High Spheres. Only he, through his prayers, can obtain the things desired.

Throughout the nineteenth century this movement remained untouched by the realistic and materialistic "Weltanschauung" of Central and Western Europe. Secluded from the outer world in remote villages, the "Tzadikim" continued their mystic work amidst their pious ones.

The Chassidim were separated from the other Ashkenazic Jews by the establishment of their own synagogues in which they introduced the Sephardic ritual, according to the version sanctioned by I. Luria (1). They made some minor changes in Jewish religious customs. Their opponents, called "Misnagdim", fought them bitterly, accusing them of pantheism, even of paganism, excommunicating them, burning the books on Chassidism (2), and going to the extreme of effecting the imprisonment of one of their leaders, Rabbi Shneor Salman of Ljadi. Nevertheless, the movement grew in Eastern Europe, and toward the end of the nineteenth century its adherents numbered from three to four million.

THE VALUE OF SONG

Chassidism set piety above learning and regarded the expression of exuberant joy as a chief religious duty. The chassidic leaders believed that vocal music is the best medium of rising to salvation. "All melodies are derived from the source of sanctity, from the temple of music. Impurity knows no song, because it knows no joy; for it is the source of all melancholy". "Through song, calamities can be removed". "Music originates from the prophetic spirit, and has the power to elevate one to prophetic inspiration" (3).

Song is the soul of the universe. The realm of Heaven sings; the Throne of God Breathes music; even the Tetragrammaton "Yahve" is composed of four musical notes (4). "Every science, every religion, every philosophy, even atheism has its particular song. The loftier the religion or the science, the more exalted is its music(5)".

The Tzadik, as the only representative of his flock, has sole admission to the Heavenly spring of music. He receives the holy, magic song from that source and uses it as a tool to purify the fallen soul, heal the sick, and perform an sorts of miracles (6). The Tzadik receives the most exalted music of the Divine wherewith he destroys all songs of the pagan religions and of heresy(7). Some of the saints believed they could achieve more in the Heavens through the power of their song than through that of their prayers (8). "In the high spheres there exist temples that can be opened through song only. Some held that the sphere of music is near to the sphere of penitence (10)



1 - The most important prayer-book was edited by Shneor Salman, called "Dem Rebbins Siddur", and was published in 1803, and later, by his son Ber, Kopust 1824.
2 - Rabbi Elija of Wilna (1720-1798) ordered in 1772 tbe excommunication of the chassidic sect, and in 1777 the burning of their books. He repeated his orders in 1781 and in 1797. V. M. Teitelbanm, the Rabbi of Ljadi (Hebrew), Vols. I-II, Warsaw 1913. S. Dl1bnow, History of Chassidism, Tel-Aviv 1930, chap. 3
3 - Likkute Moharan, a collection of sermons by Nachman of Braslaw, Jerusalem 1874, F. 54 aff.; 62b.
4 - Comp. Zohar, Pinchas, Wilna 911 p. 454; my Essay "Hanegina Hachasidith", in "Sefer Hashana.", New York 193l, p. 76.
5 - Likkute etc. F. 18a, 79 a
6 - Ibid. F. 79 a
7 - Ibid. F. 39 a.
8 - A. B. Birnbaum in his essay "The song in the courts of the Tzadikim in Poland" (Hebrew), Haolam, 1908. It Is told of Rabbi Shalom of Belzi that, without haying bccn a musician he could by the power and sweetness of his voice inspire his hearers to the extent that they forsook their iniquities and repented whole heartedly (Seder Hadoroth Hechadash). Similarly is reported of Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin (o.c.).
9 - Teitelbaum, The Rabbi of Ljadi (Hebrew), Warsaw 1913
10 - Attributed to Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, Birnbaum, l.c.


Since the Tzadik was the only divine singer, it is evident that he was also the creator of the holy tunes by Heavenly inspiration. Several melodies still circulate among the chassidim as compositions of Tzadikim. It is, however, uncertain, whether these are inventions of the sainted leaders, or are adopted tunes reshaped in accord with their emotions. Almost every "court" had its original style in music, its preferred mode, or at least a special tune, expressing the individuality and train of thought of the "reigning" Tzadik.
In case the Tzadik lacked creative musical ability, he would engage a court-singer whose task it was to study the nature of the "saint", his emotions and ideas, and give them tonal utterance. The function of the court-singer was to sing tunes with or without words at the public Sabbathmeals, in order to inspire the Tzadik. But as soon as the singer dared to intone melodies belonging to another "court", i. e. to another Tzadik, he was immediately dismissed, because in singing other tunes he desecrated the holy impulse of this Tzadik. 'The Tzadik also had his court-synagogue in which he frequently functioned as precentor (1).
Because their song was largely "inspirational and extemporaneous, chassidim paid but little attention to the musical tradition of the Synagogue. The Tzadik of Gor, Isaac Meyer, used to say: "Were I blessed with a sweet voice, I could sing you new hymns and songs every day, for with the daily rejuvenation of the world new songs are created" (2). Some Tzadikim opposed prayers and tunes "from yesterday" (3). Following their inspiration, they would invent new meditations and set them to tunes. Their texts were often a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish (see Tonality)(4). This neglect of traditional tunes stimulated the antagonism of the "Misnagdim" (5). Only Rabbi Jacob Joseph Katz, one of the outstanding disciples of Israel Besht (died 1782), favored traditional songs, at least those for the High Holidays (6).

The songs were first rendered at the public-meals of the "court". The chassidim present would memorize them and carry them into their homes, teaching them to the pious-ones until the tunes became widely known. At least twice a year, on the High Holidays and Shavuoth, large pilgrimages to the "courts" were customary, on which occasions, as a rule, new melodies would be invented and sung (7).

Israel Besht, so the folklore has it, used to perceive words out of the tones of a melody. He was likewise able to follow the thoughts of the singer. Another saint believed that he could hear the confession of the singer, though no words were uttered (8). Shneor Salman was of the opinion that melody is the outpouring of the soul, but that words interrupt the stream of the emotions For the song of the souls - at the time they are swaying in the high regions to drink from the well of the Almighty King - consist of tones only, dismantled of words" (9).


1 - L.c. such as Rabbi Shlomele of Radomsk who used to sing accompanied by a choir of his adhercuts, or Rabbi Meirl of Apta, and Rabbi Avrohom Moshe of Prshischa.
2 L.c.
3 - This saying is attributed to Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk, ibid.
4 - Nachman of Brasslaw in his above-mentioned work Likkute. etc. F. 23a says: "Seclusion is the highest stage in which man can attain inspiration, where he can pour out his heart to his God in a free and intimate way, and in the language familiar to him, in his native tongue. In our country this is Yiddish, for Hebrew is little known to the average man, and consequently it is difficult for him to express himself in it fluently. Therefore, whenever Hebrew is used as a medium of prayer, the ears do not hear what the mouth utters".
5 - Among the reasons for the issuance of an excommunication of the chassidim, Wilna 1772 and in Brody and Cracow in 1789 was also the accusation that they changed the traditional form of the ritual and disregarded the traditional tunes. S. Dubnow, o. c. p. 115ff. Wetstein, Kadmoniyoth etc. Cracow l892, p.62.
6 - Toldoth Yaacov Yoseph, quoted by A. Kahann, l.c. p.135. However, already in "Sefer Chassidim" of the thirteenth century No. 159, ed. Warsaw, 1902, the advice is given that if one cannot invent new prayers or meditations, he should choose the tune which appeals to him most and chant in it his prayers. In so doing his heart will be filled with meditation. Soft - minor - tunes should be selected for supplications, while for laudations joyous ones should be chosen.
7 Birnbaum, l.c.
8 - A statement of the Maggid (preacher) of Koznitza.
9 - Konteras Hahithpaaluth, Warsaw 1876, F.5; Teitelbaum, l.c. I, p. 19ff. The same opinion expressed Anton Rubinstein: Die Musik und ihre Musiker,
Leipzig 1891, p. 2 - 3.


A melody with text is, to his mind, limited to time, because with the conclusion of the words the melody, too, comes to an end; whereas a tune without words can be repeated endlessly. As a result of this attitude, most chassidic tunes are sung without words. In this collection only 40 tunes have texts, while 180 have no texts. These numbers relate to the genuine 220 chassidic tunes, not the humorous songs in I.

The characteristics of the early chassidic melodies were governed by the preferences of the Tzadikim. Some delighted in lyric-sentimental tunes which voiced yearning and reverie (1); while others liked subtle rhythms, syncopations and tempo vivace (2). Some would pour out their emotions in sweet tunes; others would give utterance to emotionalism and indulge in dance and march rhythms. Once a chazzan (Nissi Belzer) gave a concert in the court of Rabbi Dovidl, Tzadik of Talno. He selected his best compositions for the High Holidays, in order to delight the Rabbi But .when the choir started to sing a touching tune, the Tzadik interrupted the singing, exclaiming, "Oh, you want to move me to tears. Stop! (3)"

The material for their songs and melodies, the chassidic singers drew from the Synagogue modes, from the Oriental elements in the Ukrainian or Slavic folk song, and from Cossakian dances and military marches. Naturally, the adopted melodies were reworked, for borrowed tunes, sprung forth in an entirely different "milieu", could not satisfactorily express the chassidic spirit. Gradually there developed a typical style, a chassidic melodic line. This style branched itself out into sub- divisions, in compliance with the spirit of the varions "courts", voicing one or the other feature within Chassidism. But despite the emphasis laid by the Tzadikim upon their individuality, they remained within the chassidic realm as it was framed by the first leaders of that movement.

Like the zealous Christians in the fiddle Ages, some of the Tzadikim considered it their ho1y duty to save secular tunes for sacred purposes (4). It is related of Leib Sarah's (1730-1791) and of his disciple the Tzadik Eisik of Kalif, Hungary, that they used to stroll through woods and, meadows to listen to the songs of the shepherds and to rework these songs into religious meditations. Once, upon listening to the love-song of : shepherd, the Tzadik of Kalif immediately copied the ditty and paraphrased it in Yiddish. Both versions are circulating among the people, the secular and the reworked religious (5).

                                Secular.                                                             Religious.
                  Ros, Ros, wie weit bist du!                            Shechina, Sheehina, wie weit bist du!
                  Wald, Wald, wie groB bist du!                       Golns, Golns, wie lang bist du!
                  Wolt die Ros' nit aso weit gewe'n,                  Wolt die Shechina nit aso weit gewe'n,
                  WoIt der Wald nit aso groB gewe'n.               Wolt der Golus nit aso lang gewe'n

                               Rose, rose, how far you are! Woods, woods, how large you are!
                               The rose would not have been so far, Were the woods not so large

The Tzadik substituted "Shechina" for "rose" and "golus" for "woods". In this sanctified form the song lived among the chassidim for about a century and a half, until lately, when it was written down and published (see No. 213, I, II).

In the course of its development, the chassidic movement branched out in two directions: The one called "the system of Besht" with most of its adherents in Poland, Southern Russia, Roumania, and Hungary.


1 - To that type belonged the "court" in Borka
2 - This type of song was cherished in Talno, Kotzk, and Gor.
3 - P. Minkowsky in "Reshumoth", I, p. 174.
4 - Likkute I, 39a. Thesaurus Vol. IV, p. 20 (Hebrew). O.c. Vol. II, p.28 (Hebrew)
5 - Kahana, l.c. p.284 - 286.



The followers of this system claimed to be the real disciples of the founder Israel Besht and of his descendants. The other system was called "Chabad ", an abbreviation of Chochma - Wisdom, Bina - Insight, and Daath - Knowledge. This system was founded by the above mentioned Shneor 8alman of Ljadi, with its adherents mostly in Lithuania and White Russia (1), and with its centre in Ljubawitz, in the Government of Mohilev. Here the descendants of Shneor Salman resided for about a century, establishing a dynasty of five generations, called "the Shneor sons" (2). This system, although reaching toward the same purpose of attaining divine bliss, has another approach to the goal. It is impossible, the "Chabad" contends, to leap immediately from extreme melancholy to extreme joy. It is impossible for a human being to attain from the lowest to the highest degree without proceeding through the who1e scale of the intermediate sentiments of the soul. Great stress is laid upon each progressive stage of the development, as significant for the education of the soul and for the improvement of the spirit. It is, Chabad Chassidism says, as if someone who had never seen the interior of a palace suddenly stepped into its bewildering splendor without having first passed through the corridors. Such a one will never be able to feel fully the glory of the palace. Therefore, the approach to joy, the corridor of the palace, is very important. Every step must be achieved through deep meditation. These steps for the elevation of the spirit begin with the lowest, called "hishtapchuth hannefesh" - the outpouring of the soul and its effort to rise out of the mire of sins, out of the shell of the evil spirit, the "Klippah", and to reach the second stage, "hithoreruth" - spiritual awakening. Thence the devotee rises to "hithpaaluth", a stage when he is possessed by his thought, and from this state he reaches "dveikuth", communion with God. Then he progresses to "hithlahavuth", a flaming ecstasy; and finally he attains the highest step, "hithpashtuth hagashmiyuth", a stage when the soul casts off its garment of flesh and becomes a disembodied spirit.

For this purpose the Chabad chassidim, even less than the Besht sect, could not find tunes from without, because none of the gentiles have such a program underlying their folk songs. Therefore, they were compelled to create original tunes which express the meanings and the thoughts of all these stages in the elevation of the soul, tunes to be used as means for the attainment of their purpose. The founder of the Cbabad system himself composed a tune, called "Dem Rebbins Niggun" - the Rabbi's tune (No. 123) - constructed to conform to his system.

The rhythmical tunes are usually sung in unison by the groups, while unrythmical songs are rendered by single voices.

The Chassidic song, though religious in purport, is not used for the worship proper, but for the inspiration and preparation of the "pious-ones" for worship. It aims to elevate the troubled soul to approach the Source of all goodness, happiness and joy, in prayer and in communion.

As long as the Chassidic movement flourished its song naturally developed. But since the end of the nineteenth century, Chassidism began to deteriorate, and as a consequence, its song likewise decayed. Hence, those Chassidic tunes created in the last decades sound like caricatures.

Chassidic song exerted a strong influence upon the chazzanuth of Eastern Europe. Almost all the prominent chazzanim were reared in the chassidic atmosphere and were imbued with its mystical spirit and its emotionalism. These characteristics are reflected in their musical creations.

Chassidic song is exclusively rendered by men.


1 - The best work on the founder of the Chabad system is the book by M. Teitelbaum, cited in the text.
2 The last living Rabbi of Ljubawitz and the sixth generation of Shneor Salman, Yitzchok Yosef, was forced by the Bolshevik Government in 1927 to leave his residence and to emigrate. He settled in Riga, Latvia. In 1929 he visited the United States.




return home Return to top