picture by Eliyah Succot

The Nigun's Influence on the Soul

From the book Shirat HaLev [The Song of the Heart] by Shmuel Stern - Translated by Gita Levi.

- The Nigun's Influence on the Soul

- Ten Kinds of Songs

- Tikkun Clali [The General Remedy]

- The Nigun and Tefillah [Prayer]

- The Power of the Imagination

- The Power of the Intelligence

- Nigun above the Words

- The Power of Prophecy

- Dance – The Tikkun of the Feet

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov wrote (Likutei Moharan, Part II, Paragraph 63) that every shepherd has his own unique melody, his own nigun, born of the grass, and the place to where he leads his flock to graze, and so forth. The shepherd himself is benefited by this nigun. This is because spending so much of his time amidst the herd could result in a descent of the shepherd from his standing as man down to the level of beast. The nigun spares him from this descent. The nigun is surely as a spiritual distillation, refining men's spirit from that of the beasts. As the Ramban writes, "There is nothing as subtle within the realm of physicality as music." That is to say, that the nigun is found on the borderline of physicality, at the point of connection with the spiritual. Therefore the nigun is bestowed with the power to raise us from the material and physical to the realm of spirituality; to enable the ascent from the level of beast to the level of human.

Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Lyadi interpreted the Talmudic passage "All bearers of collars go out with a collar and are drawn by a collar" to imply that humans, the singers of songs, are drawn out from beastliness through song. [In the Talmudic text the word "shir" is used for "collar"; this Hebrew word also means "song".]

In the Holy Temple, the Levites would sing their song, accompanying the sacrificial animal's ascent towards heaven. For through sacrifice, the animalistic ascends to a level of spirituality. The Levites' song accompanied and facilitated this ascent of the bearer of the sacrifice. Through the Levites' song, the man offering the sacrifice was aroused to absolute teshuvah [repentance] and thus neared his Maker.

"Ten Kinds of Songs"

The ten types of songs are:

1 . Ashrei – Joy
2 . Beracha – Blessing
3 . Lamenazeach – For the conductor
4 . Maskil
5 . Mizmor – Psalm
6 . Hodiya – Thanksgiving
7 . Shir – Song
8 . Niggun – Melody
9 . Tefillah – Prayer
10 . Halleluyah

"Ten" signifies wholeness. In such, an entire tier of Creation incorporates ten aspects. Our sages teach us that the world was created through ten utterances. Esoteric teachings reveal that the human soul too encompasses ten parts. The ten kinds of song, of nigun, correspond to these ten spiritual spheres of the soul. {The ten-stringed harp mentioned in the Book of Tehillim}.

The Book of Tehillim, The Book of Psalms, was composed through these ten kinds of nigun. As R' Yehoshua ben Levi explicates: "The Book of Tehillim was spoken through the ten utterances of praise". These are the songs sung by King David. Therefore most of the psalms included in the Book of Tehillim begin with one of these ten kinds of songs, e.g. halleluyah, mizmor, etc. These opening phrases reveal which of the ten kinds of song the particular psalm belongs to.

Tikkun Clali [The General Remedy]

The ten kinds of songs are the ten languages of praise through which the Holy One should be praised, and that is why the Book of Tehillim was composed through these ten kinds of songs.

When a person praises his Maker, he rectifies his soul and too, restores all the elements of his soul that have fallen into impurity. Through the praise he extols upon his Maker, he admits that he is truly dispassionate for evil and yearns only for righteousness. Through this longing he will cling to the good and surely evil will then inevitably fade away.

Corresponding to the ten spheres of the human soul are the respective ten kinds of nigun. When one praises and glorifies the Maker through one these kinds of songs – the part of his soul connected to that respective kind of song is rectified and restored to holiness. So too, when one glorifies G-d with all ten kinds of songs, all ten parts of the soul will be returned to holiness.

The Nigun and Tefillah [Prayer]

Our sages have taught us that Tefillah, prayer, is in essence the toil of one's heart. The gematria [numerical equivalence] of the word tefillah is shira [song], i.e. 515. So we learn that true song is prayer, and too, true prayer is song; that both, surely, are dependent upon one's heart.

In the Book of Hassidim it is written: Seek out the niggunim. When you pray, sing your prayers in the nigun [melody] that is pleasant and sweet to you, and thus pray with sincerity and dedication so that your mouth shall speak words of appeal and submission. The nigun prepares the heart to speak genuine words of praise; it cheers the heart until one's words are overflowing with love and joy.

The Beit Hamikdash [The Holy Temple], "heart of the world" {see Likutei Moharan 49} is a place of prayer, as it is written "…and My house will be a house of prayer for all the nations." And that is why the foremost singing of Am Yisrael, the song of the Levites, was sung in the Holy Temple. For this song is dependent upon and intertwined with the heart, and the Beit Hamikdash is the heart of the world.

Our sages teach "the Holy One Blessed Be He would not have created this world, were it not for the song and praise sung anew each day." For He desires our hearts; when we sing before Him we reveal the genuine joy as we serve Him and seek out His Holy Light. This truly is our purpose, and there within lies the infinite significance of prayer and song before G-d. [Likutei Moharan 42: it is written that through song, one creates a garment of light for the shechina, the Divine Presence].

This is why the tzaddikim, the righteous ones, have always chosen a path of singing before the Holy One. King David, called Sweet Singer of Israel, sang his Psalms before his Maker every day of his life. And when the Messiah, Moshiach ben David, will come, he will restore the songs of the Holy Temple; he will teach us the songs and melodies of King David, for this is the song proclaiming the eternality of the Kingdom of Israel. Then will the righteous Moshiach sing with us; he will instruct us how to serve G-d through song and niggun. May this day come soon, Amen.

The Power of the Imagination

The power of the imagination is one of the primary forces of the neshama [the soul] functioning within the realm of the nigun. When the nigun is a good one, that is to say played for the sake of glorifying His name, it stimulates in the listener a wondrous imagination which connects him to his Creator and enables him to ascend higher and higher spiritual levels. If a listener finds that the music leads him to negative imaginings and stirs in him earthly passions, he can then know that the music is not played for the sake of G-d. This is the great pleasure of the nigun: to arouse the power of the imagination.

The Power of the Intelligence

The capacity of intelligence in the context of nigun is found in the Holy Torah, and therefore through study a person may rectify the niggun.

The supplementary aspect of intelligence in regards to nigun is the lyrics. This is what is alluded to in the Book of Psalms, when King David wrote "Song of the Maskil". We learn that the words accompanying the musical notes of the melody should employ the wisdom of the Holy Torah and thus stir the hearts to serve G-d.

For the notes and the melody awaken the heart, while the words arouse the mind. When the musician plays his nigun with the wisdom of the Torah and sings words of holiness and Torah, the listener is inspired to a great awe of G-d, by way of the mind (through the words) and his heart (the melody). With this inspiration, the listener is brought to a genuine clinging to Hashem, both in heart and in mind. So it is befitting that King David, the Sweet Singer of Israel, composer of the Book of Psalms, instructs "Song of the Maskil" to play the sweet melodies and sing the sweet words that are absolute holiness.

When, G-d forbid, the lyrics and/or melody is created out of wickedness and defilement, both the musician and his listener can be brought down to unspeakable abysses. One should surely distance one's self from such music. For just as pure niggunim are born of holiness, so impure melodies/words find their source and vitality from the unholy. This explains the inner holiness of the cantillation notes as explicated by the Arizal. Through holy and sublime nigunim, one can attain great spiritual ascent.

Nigun above the Words

Words make up the language of our intelligence, while music is the language of the soul. That is why the language of the nigunim is at times more spiritually elevated than words, just as the emunah [the faith] rooted in one's heart ascends the limits of knowledge and rationality.

It is true, that a great portion of the labor a Jew must perform is in fact to lead the mind to command and control one's heart, and lead intelligence {Torah} to control one's emotion. When a person achieves true wholeness, his emotions will nurture all of his deeds. His deeds, enacted then according to Divine Will, will be performed through the utmost intensity of emotion.

The nigun signifies such wholeness. For when a person has achieved this level of perfection, he is motivated to sing. Then his wisdom and intelligence navigates towards a desire to sing and dance. In such, he can achieve an understanding and a comprehension on a level higher than intelligence itself. This is the "encircling light" ['or makif'] that cannot be grasped by one's intelligence, but only on a higher level through the faculties of emotion and heart. When a person sings and dances with an abundance of joy and cheerfulness, he can surely attain lofty spiritual levels. Subsequently, this transforms to the sparks of holiness that enter one's mind and are truly comprehended.

All of this can explain why a person who is in a difficult spiritual state can attain joy and new spiritual strength through music and dance. It is through the 'encircling light' that the 'inner light' will be grasped by both his intelligence and by his heart; this is the true source of joy.

So we see, that nigun and dance allow one to attain levels denied him by mere intelligence. It is told of the Alter Rebbe, Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, that when he arrived to the city of Shkolov, he was addressed by the wise men of the town with a series of difficult questions. The Rebbe, instead of replying to these questions with words, began to sing a niggun. He sang with an unsurpassed love and cleaving to the Holy One Blessed Be He, and as he sang, the scholars felt how each one of their challenging questions was being answered. (This nigun is called "The Nigun of Matan Torah", The Nigun of the Giving of the Torah).

Song has the capacity to open new wellsprings beyond the limitations of intelligence, for the nigun is grasped within one's heart; the heart surely is capable of a fuller and more sublime understanding than one's brain. This is the power of faith and teshuvah, of repentance, which is elevated above knowledge and logic, and comprehended through one's heart. This will explain why a niggun can arouse a person to do teshuvah. This we witnessed in the times of the Holy Temple, for when the Levites sang their songs of praise, the people were inspired to do teshuvah.

This is the power of the nigun, for listening to a pure melody can create encircling lights of teshuvah. Yes, the world of the nigun is surely the realm of repentance. Niggunim enthuse the listener with a revitalized power of faith and repentance; with emunah and teshuvah that goes far beyond the boundaries of intelligence, reason and words.

The Power of Prophecy

The true purpose of the nigun, the genuine perfection of the song, is to achieve there within the power of prophesy. As is written in the Book of Kings II: "As the musician played, G-d's Hand came upon him." That is to say, that the musician was blessed with the spirit of prophesy. In the Book of Samuel it is written: "…you will meet a group of prophets descending from the high place, preceded by a lyre, a timbrel, a flute and a harp, and they will be prophesying."

Rambam (Maimonides) taught that the prophets were empowered with the spirit of prophesy only when they were intensely contemplative and meditative, their hearts abundant with joy. Prophesy is never the consequence of sadness or despair or lethargy but rather of joy and celebration. Therefore prophesy is lead by song, by the playing of musical instruments.

This then is the level of perfection in the realm of nigun and song, when the music generates the spirit of prophesy through attainment of the highest spiritual levels of clinging to G-d. As is written in the book "The Gates of Holiness": Even if one is worthy, if he has not accustomed himself to reveal his soul he will not merit receiving this power of prophesy. Therefore the prophets mentioned above used the playing of musical instruments to achieve sufficient soul-baring necessary for the attainment of sublime devotion that enabled the power of prophesy.

Such was the "school" for the Levites who dedicated themselves to five years of instruction before entering their service in the Beit Hamikdash. The Midrash teaches us that it was Moses of blessed memory who taught song to the Levites, as is written in Midrash Raba, Genesis 54, "what efforts the son of Amram toiled until he taught song to the Levites". This explains the reasoning as to why King David and Samuel chose the Levite prophets. For the Levites had attained a perfection in music - the song of prophesy, the song capable of leading a person to a truly inspirational clinging to Hashem and the revelation of His Light.

This is the Song of Shabbat, as we sit at the Shabbat table and sing songs that arouse our devotion and our clinging to the Holy One. This song is born of the aspect of the Levites' song. For as we eat the Shabbat meal, it is as if we are partaking of the sacrifices sacrificed in the Holy Temple, and our song is as the song of the Levites accompanying the ascent of the sacrifice. Through the songs we sing on Shabbat, we experience the sweet taste of the pleasantness of the Shabbat. Consequently, we influence the entire world of creation in a positive way, for all is surely dependent upon the joy and pleasantness of the Shabbat. This is why Rebbe Nachman was so adamant that his disciples sing the songs of Shabbat with utmost simplicity and sincerity.

Dance – The Tikkun of the Feet

Following the heart and the hands [clapping], the nigun travels to the feet; this is dance. In many ways, the ultimate purpose of the nigun is to reach the realm of dance, for it is then truly all of the physical body is attached to joy. The nigun extends to the whole body; it lifts the feet, and in that raising of the feet one is in absolute joy and shakes off the evil (the impure husks) within him. The dancer jumps and dances in supreme cleaving to the sublime purpose – the clinging to his Maker.

The dance of holiness is the dance directed towards Heaven. When a person dances for the sake of filling himself with joy, joy in Hashem and the Holy Torah, this is a great mitzvah, for it is a great mitzvah to always be in simcha, in joy, as it is written: "Serve the L-rd with joy". Joy brings a person closer to the Holy One and to act according to His Will. Dancing assists a person to be saved from iniquity and to free us from the sadness and evil within us, as Rebbe Nachman teaches in Likutei Moharan II: Torah 23. In this teaching Rebbe Nachman illuminates his teaching through a parable, how sometimes a group of people gathered together in joy and dance will bring in to their circle a person who is standing outside, someone who has fallen into sadness; they may pull him into their circle of dance even if at first it is against his will, and compel him to join in the dance, etc. (The rule being that one has to make a great effort with all one's strengths to overcome any and all obstacles in order to be in happiness, to be always in a state of joy. For the nature of a person is really to draw himself towards melancholy and sadness consequent to the events of time, his trials and tribulations; and therefore it is only with great effort that we can coerce ourselves to be in constant joy).

Therefore, when we dance in the presence of a bride and groom in order to make them happy, this leads to the couple's building a home rooted in happiness. This is a great mitzvah; this is the dance for the sake of holiness. Therefore we find in Talmudic literature many examples of great Torah scholars dancing wondrous dances in front of the bride and groom for the sake of their joy.

Dance brings a person to self-nullification; a person, while dancing wildly, swiveling, leaping, etc. is not in a position of honor. In the Holy Tongue the word kavod [honor] shares the root of the word kaved [heaviness], i.e. heaviness, lethargy. So we find King David dancing in the attendance of the Holy Ark as it was being brought to the City of David. And as it is written: "Michal the daughter of Saul peered through the window, and she saw King David leaping and dancing before the L-rd; and she loathed him in her heart." And therefore King David said: 'Before Hashem, who chose me above your father, and above all his house, to appoint me prince over the people of Hashem, over Israel; therefore I have made merry before Hashem. And if I be demeaned more than this, and be abashed in mine own eyes, [yet] of the maidservants of which you have spoken, with them will I get me honor." That in fact the dancing and leaping and hopping before Hashem is his honor.

And for this reason the Rambam teaches in Hilchot Lulav that it is a great mitzvah to be joyous. The great sages, the Heads of Yeshivot and the Sanhedrin, the Chassidim and the elders all sang and danced and made merriment; and in contrast those who restricted themselves in concern over their own self-honor erred and sinned. He who is willing to humiliate himself is truly honorable, and serves Hashem in joy. And that is why King David said " And if I be demeaned more than this, and be abashed in mine own eyes…" for there is no true greater honor than rejoicing in front of Hashem.

Hence the genuine purpose of dance is to bring a person to a state of joy, to attain true self-nullification before G-d. The true dance is the dance for the sake of Heaven, through which one merits worshipping Hashem in sincere service. This is why the great sages wrote: "in the future The Holy One Blessed be He will make a circle of Tzaddikim and He will sit with them in Gan Eden." For the true Tzaddikim have attained absolute self- nullification before Hashem, have reached the level of the aspect of the holy dance; and therefore they will merit dancing in the presence of Hashem in the World to Come.

And through dancing b'kedusha [in holiness] it is possible to rise above reason and logic. Within the circles of dance it is possible to attain higher levels of emunah [faith] and devekut [cleaving to Hashem] beyond the realm of logic and intellect, just as the dancers' feet are functioning without intellect. When one dances for a purely holy purpose, for the sake of Heaven, and merits consequently to achieve devekut, then through his dance he can indeed go beyond reason and intellect and reach a higher level of holy faith and cleaving to Hashem.

Through dancing for the sake of Heaven one conquers the primeval snake that has hold over the feet, as it is written: "…He will crush your head, and you will bite his heel." When the dancer lifts his heels for the sake of Heaven, with his dance he crushes the head of the snake. Through dancing on behalf of holiness he indeed conquers the snake, the physical body made of the skin of the snake. Through nigun, through the swirling and holy dancing to the nigun, he transforms his body from corporal skin to purified untainted light. And, G-d forbid, the opposite is also true – if one dances a dance connected to his evil inclination, a dance of impurity, it is as "and satyrs shall dance there" {Isaiah 13} .

Yet the escalation of the rikud d'kedusha' [the holy dance] in the world, the level of 'feet' will be rectified until the words of the Holy Zohar shall be fulfilled: "Until the feet come to the feet," which is, in truth, the final and complete redemption.

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