The Nigun

A mystical musical prayer introduced by Hasidism.

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"There are gates in heaven that cannot be opened except by melody and song."

Attributed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, founder of ChabadMusical notes without words.

From the time of its emergence in the 18th century, the Hasidic movement turned to music and dance as powerful forms of Jewish religious expression. One result was the Hasidic nigun (Hebrew for "melody"; plural nigunim), a new genre of Jewish vocal music. Often described as a mystical musical prayer or a spiritual language beyond words, the Hasidic nigun is a fundamental part of all Ashkenazic culture and is, in the words of one Hasidic master, "the pen of the soul." 

Features and Style

Musically speaking, Hasidic nigunim vary enormously in style, form, and feeling. Some are slow and meditative, others fast and jubilant. Nevertheless, they generally share certain basic features: they are songs formed of multiple melodic phrases, typically sung without instrumental accompaniment and without words. This last feature, while not found in every Hasidic nigun, is one of the genre's most distinguishing characteristics. In place of words, repeated "nonsense" syllables (such as bam-bam-bam and doi-doi-doi) are used. Nigunim are also performed in a distinctive expressive vocal style with dramatic inflections similar to cantorial music referred to by the Yiddish words krekhts (lit. moan, sigh, or sob) and kneytsh (lit. pinch).

The unique form and features of Hasidic nigunim reflect the creative and radical nature of Hasidic theology. To be sure, the connection between music and Jewish prayer was not a wholly Hasidic invention. In fact, music had always played a central role in Jewish religious life, a fact to which both ancient biblical texts such as the Book of Psalms and medieval liturgical songs (piyyutim) testify.

jewish music quizLikewise, medieval Jewish mystics developed complex ideas about the theological and even magical power of music in the universe. However the rabbis took a decidedly cautious, sometimes even negative attitude towards music. Out of concerns about piety and the role of music in gentile religious and cultural traditions, they generally discouraged the use of instrumental music in the synagogue and banned it altogether on the Sabbath and holidays. Most crucially, they insisted that text mattered more than melody. Thus in traditional liturgy and medieval religious poetry, individual melodies were frequently changed but the Hebrew and Aramaic texts were considered sacred and unalterable.

A Great Spiritual Power

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Dr. James Loeffler

Dr. James Loeffler is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and author of The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Yale U. Press, 2010).