It is known that Chabad niggunim are different than other niggunim, and as such, their special quality is easily discernible. Still, it is hard to agree with the kana’us (zealotry) for Chabad niggunim exclusively and the dismissal of other niggunim. It’s one thing when it’s a farbrengen or davening, but what about in one’s free time — what’s the big problem with singing Jewish or Chassidic songs that add chayus and simcha to one’s avodas Hashem?
The question can be considered a good, logical question as long as we are not aware of the inner significance of Chabad niggunim. When we learn about what Chabad niggunim are, even if we briefly peruse what appears in the writing of our Rebbeim, we will discover that the question is not a question.
“FREE TIME IS NO DIFFERENT”
First, let us take a look at the idea of separating between the time for learning, davening and farbrenging and one’s free time. This approach is somewhat reminiscent of the approach of the maskilim, “Be a Jew in your home and a man when you go out.” As long as you are in the dalet amos of Torah and tefilla, in your private home, conduct yourself as a Jew, but when you go out to the world, when you come in contact with the gashmius of the world, you can forget a bit about the Creator, relieve yourself a bit of the “heavy yoke,” and live like a normal person.
Our Rebbeim fought to the extreme against this approach as we know what the Rebbe Rayatz said when he came to the United States, “America is no different.” Yiddishkeit and Chassidishkeit are not the province of the Old Country; they are relevant even to the America of today.
Even within the earthiness and materialism of the world, there needs to be the awareness of “Ein od milvado” (there is nothing but Him). Matters of holiness and G-dliness pertain not just to a specific time and place, to a beis medrash when learning and davening. They need to encompass a person all the time.
Actually, specifically those times and in those places that are not bound by rules from the hanhala of a yeshiva or peer pressure, are the time and the yardstick to see whether these ideas are ingrained within us in a deep and truthful way. Do we live with it, is it part of us, or not so much. Is it something only superficial and peripheral?
When something is firmly fixed within someone, then it makes no difference whether he is at home or at work, at shul or on the street. Here too, if the advantage and preciousness of Chabad niggunim are understood to be incomparably greater than other niggunim, this advantage will not change in our free time.
MUSIC — QUILL OF THE SOUL
What is the uniqueness of a niggun and what is its place in the hierarchy of the powers of the soul? I will quote some short excerpts from the Rebbe Rayatz:
Sefer HaSichos 5697, p. 221:
Negina is the language of the soul. In the maamar V’yodaata 5657, the difference between thought and speech is explained. The letters of thought are a revelation to oneself and a concealment from others. The letters of speech are a concealment relative to oneself and a revelation to others. That is regarding thought and speech, but with negina — that is the language of the soul and its revelation.
Sefer HaSichos 5709, p. 278:
There are various niggunim. There are foolish niggunim in which he taps his foot and claps his hands but it’s nothing. It’s without an inner content. But there are niggunim pnimiyim, along the lines of “Rebbi Meir would sing (in prayer) with all kinds of song.”
Sefer HaSichos 5702 p. 122:
Language is the quill of the heart and song is the quill of the soul. When you hear a niggun you can discern whether it is a “filled” niggun or an “empty” niggun.
Sefer HaSichos 5706 p. 52:
A niggun shows a person what state he is in, what state he should be in, and what state he could be in, that he can attain, which is through the revelation of the essence — the essence of the neshama. A niggun is a doorway and gateway through which you can reach the state you should be in.
Likkutei Dibburim vol. 3, p. 409:
Once... every Chassid had delight and sweetness in a given niggun ... when he sang that niggun it disconnected him from his simplicity and elevated him from a mundane state.
Sefer HaSichos 5706 p. 47:
The Alter Rebbe said: A niggun has the ability to extricate man even from the deepest mud.
To summarize: A niggun is the quill of the soul. A niggun can remove a person from the lowest place and lift him to the highest of places, which nothing else can accomplish.
THE POWER OF A NIGGUN
There are some interesting facts from which we can see how powerful a niggun is, such as the story told by the Rebbe MH"M on Shabbos, parshas Shemini 5744:
When the Modzitzer Rebbe was sick and went to Berlin to consult with doctors, they told him he needs an operation. However, since his heart was quite weak, they did not know whether he could tolerate the surgery. Hearing this, he said they should wait until he sang and and became engrossed in the niggun etc — we know that he was musically gifted, and in his great deveikus in the sweetness and pleasure of the niggun, he would not feel what they were doing to him and then they could perform the operation without fear. That’s what happened. They waited until he sang and became engrossed in the niggun etc, and then they performed the operation and all went well.
What greater tangible testament is there than the fact that thousands of baalei teshuva changed their way of life from one extreme to another with the power of a niggun! There are many well known and touching stories that attest to this...
At the same time, for the same reason, if a niggun comes from a problematic source, it can bring a person down because, it depends, to a great extent, not only on the style of the song (soft or wild) or the words of the song (secular or of holy content) but on the composer.
BEWARE “HIDDEN EVIL”
It is known that everything a person comes in contact with, even something “external” makes an impact on man’s soul. For example, eating. There are types of food that engender bad tendencies in a person and the opposite. Clothing — what you wear affects you. We know that Shabbos clothes help a person absorb the holiness of Shabbos (as in the custom of wearing silk which comes from a living creature). Society — your environment makes a big impact on you.
The same is true for a niggun. Although it is only heard, its impact on the soul is very powerful.
Furthermore, as the Rebbe Rayatz is quoted above, song is the quill of the soul. A niggun expresses that which lies more deeply within the soul because when composing a song, the composer invests and expresses his soul. The inner workings of his soul are expressed within the movements of the music. It is not merely like writing or speaking which comes from man’s external soul garments but from the inside; music is the language of the soul.
This is why one needs to be very careful about niggunim. Not just because of the words or tune which can sound fine, appropriate and even inspiring for avodas Hashem, but mainly because a niggun has something deeper that comes from the soul of the composer and when the composer is in a problematic “state” (to put it nicely), then this is expressed (often in a hidden way) in his music.
If one ought to be careful about reading something written by someone whose views are not in line with Torah, then all the more so must one be careful with music from such a person.
In Chassidus, there are things that are in the category of “hidden evil,” that a person does not discern but whose effects are destructive. This evil can bring a person down (and in a way, is even worse than “revealed evil”), without a person realizing it (see Sefer HaMaamarim 5704 p. 99).
I’m talking about things which, at first glance, do not seem problematic like reading a secular book (a book that is not forbidden). All the more so with a niggun (see Sefer HaMaamarim 5699 p. 98 for the reason why a person can attain “expiry of the soul” through hearing and not through sight).
This is why, one needs to be extra careful with those niggunim that are inspiring and moving, because a person relates to a niggun and is influenced by it more than by a niggun that does not move him that much.
LEVELS OF NIGGUNIM
Specifically, it is important to discern and be aware of the place that a given niggun has within the hierarchy of niggunim as it affects the divine service of a person. From the lowest level to the highest, they are:
1. There are niggunim that are in the category of “niggun asur” (forbidden niggun), niggunim that according to Torah are forbidden to listen to. We don’t need to describe them, just to emphasize that just as we need to be careful to avoid forbidden foods, forbidden speech, forbidden sights, so too, we need to be careful to avoid listening to this music.
2. There are niggunim that are in the category of “niggun shoteh” (vacuous niggun), [like the term “hadas shoteh” which means devoid of halachic standing regarding the mitzva of the four species], which includes most tunes and songs that have no “inside” and inner depth. They are empty, without particular meaningful content. (In this category are included niggunim one needs to beware of and to know what their source is, as we mentioned regarding “hidden evil.”)
3. There are niggunim that are in the category of “niggun memula” (filled niggun), niggunim with meaningful content that contain, hidden within, some inner substance, like a niggun that absorbed the warmth and enthusiasm of a Chassid as he davened or that was sung at the Rebbe’s farbrengen. All Chabad niggunim are included.
4. There are niggunim in the category of “niggun mechuvan” (exact niggun), those which are associated with our Rebbeim, niggunim whose every tone is exactly aligned with the most exalted spiritual levels.
It is important to emphasize that we need to have very clear lines between the forbidden and the vacuous. Even someone who still does not discern or feel the special quality of Chabad niggunim and even someone who does not discern that which is absent in other niggunim, who will maintain that he is not “holding there,” and niggunim from other Chassidic courts or the frum world in general, are good enough for him, should remember that in any case, he must be very careful about avoiding listening to forbidden music!
Where there are different views in halacha as to whether a certain niggun is forbidden outright or there may be room to permit it, remember what the Rebbe once said: From listening to such a niggun, fear of heaven will definitely not be increased!
IT DEPENDS ON WHOM YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT
Regarding a “vacuous niggun” there is another point (based on the Rebbe’s response to a Chabad singer). There are people for whom a “vacuous niggun” is a step up like those who are becoming religious. If such a person were to sing with passion the well-known “v’kareiv pezureinu” [not the one that was sung at times in front of the Rebbe], it is a step up from where he was coming from, he is getting excited about the impending Geula etc. Previously he was listening to that which is forbidden and now he has made progress.
But for a bachur from Tomchei Tmimim whose entire world is one of holiness and G-dliness, a “vacuous niggun” is a big step down for him. It depends who we are talking about...
[It’s like what the Rebbe SHLIT“A once said, true, the Alter Rebbe said “Moshiach will be written about in the newspapers,” but that doesn’t mean our knowledge of Moshiach should come from there. We need to know about Moshiach from the source, from sifrei Chassidus. Newspapers are for those who haven’t yet come in contact with Chassidus. The purpose of the publicity in the papers is so that even someone like that will know about Moshiach’s coming.]
“ONE NEEDS TO KNOW WHERE IT COMES FROM”
Although “all Jews are presumed kosher,” there are certain singers who went off the derech, in some manner or another, and did so publicly. So one would not need ruach ha’kodesh to understand that their music is problematic. Obviously, their music does not reach the ankles of a “niggun memula” or a “niggun mechuvan.”
As for niggunim whose source is unknown, even if we feel inspired by them, we ought to apply the rule “sit and don’t take action, that’s preferable,” because it is very likely that the source is not good as we learn from the following incident.
At one of the farbrengens, the Rebbe asked one of the guests from Eretz Yisrael, who was a well known baal-menagen, to sing a niggun. He sang an ancient niggun that is sung in many Israeli communities whose words speak of the Jew’s deveikus to the Shechina and the tune was also one of deveikus. However, to the surprise of everyone, the Rebbe stopped him and said, “One needs to know where it comes from,” and it was not sung again for the Rebbe.
Furthermore, we have singers who are called “Chassidic singers,” who took tunes from the goyim and put pesukim to them. The tune remains in the nethermost pits and obviously, a tune from an impure source won’t have positive effects. Rather than take a person out of the mud and elevate him to kedusha, a tune like this gets him deeper into the mud.
[There are tunes that our Rebbeim elevated to holiness like the popular tune for “Ha’Aderes v’ha’Emuna.” Obviously, only a Rebbe can do this. G-d forbid that people should think that anyone can do this as the Alter Rebbe asks, “How can he raise it up above when he himself is bound down below?”]
THE GREATER POWER OF THE POSITIVE
Considering all the above, we understand how worthwhile it is to try and listen to Chabad niggunim and surely, the niggunim of the Rebbeim, for a niggun that is filled and saturated with inner avodas Hashem we can readily project to what heights it can raise the person.
As for a niggun composed by a Rebbe, whose soul is invested in the movements of the niggun, we cannot even conceive of such a level.
A niggun of the Rebbe is even loftier than his words of Torah as it says in Likkutei Dibburim, quoting the Tzemach Tzedek:
When reviewing a dvar Torah you unite with the nefesh-ruach-neshama of the baal-ha’shemuah, and when you sing a melody of the baal-ha’shemua you unite with his chaya-yechida.
There is another saying, also from the Tzemach Tzedek:
When it says in the Yerushalmi “Whoever says something in the name of the baal-ha’shemua should imagine as though the baal-ha’shemua is standing before him,” that is only “imagine” and “as though,” but when you sing his tune, then the baal-ha’niggun himself is actually there.
Action is the main thing: Try to listen to recordings of Nichoach that were produced with the Rebbe’s instructions and encouragement and which he listened to himself; listen to recordings of ziknei Chassidim; and especially listen to niggunim sung by the Rebbe himself.
WHY GRAZE IN FOREIGN FIELDS?
Another point that is important to emphasize is Chabad identity. As Chabad Chassidim who are connected to the Rebbe, it needs to be clear that these niggunim, with which generations of Chabad Chassidim grew up, niggunim with which Anash and tmimim went through times of mesirus nefesh, and mainly niggunim sung for and by the Rebbe, should take first place in our lives. The story goes that the Rebbe found out about a wedding of Anash at which all sorts of songs were played but not Chabad niggunim and the Rebbe said, “Why graze in foreign fields?”
The very fact that one is looking in other places already shows that something is lacking, especially when we don’t lack for Lubavitcher niggunim. There are hundreds of nigunei deveikus, gaaguim, simcha and rikud. So really, why look elsewhere?
In our generation, with all of its technological advances and “sound effects,” recordings of Chabad niggunim have been produced with all sorts of production techniques and background voices. The producer does not necessarily stick to the original notes. Unfortunately, he does with the niggun as he pleases. In a way, this is worse than listening to ordinary Chassidic songs since the innocent listener is confused and learns the niggun wrong.
It is, or at least should be, well known to what extent one should be particular about the exactitude of a Chabad niggun, specifically because of its holy origins and it shouldn’t be changed. The holiness of a niggun is like the holiness of Torah — it depends on sticking to the source without adding or subtracting.
There is nothing wrong with an orchestra and choir (the purpose of the Nichoach choir back then was specifically to produce the niggunim in an attractive way), but that’s only fine when the beauty is not at the expense of the original tune.