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Elie Wiesel remarked, "In every one of my novels, there is always somebody who feels the sacred urge to sing. What are we doing with words if not trying to turn them into song?"


Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote in his essay, The Vocation of a Cantor:  "The call to prayer often falls against an iron wall. The congregation is not always open and ready to worship. The Cantor has to pierce the armor of indifference, to fight for a response. Often the Cantor must first be one who awakens those who slumber. Responsiveness may waste away for lack of new inspiration, just as fire burns itself out for lack of fuel.

"Music is not an end in itself but a means of religious experience. To sing means to sense and to affirm that the spirit is real and that its glory is present. Prayer is song. Music is more than just expressiveness. It is rather a reaching out toward a realm that lies beyond the reach of verbal proposition. Music endows us with moments in which the sense of the ineffable becomes alive. Song is a sphere that will admit even the poor in faith. The Cantorial voice is a door.

"Music is the soul of language. All we have are words in the liturgy and reverence in our hearts. But even those two are often apart from each other. It is the task of music to bring them together. Words die of routine. The Cantor's task is to bring them to life. A Cantor is a person who knows the secret of the resurrection of the words. There is the liturgy but there is also an inner approach and response to it, a way of giving life to the words, a style in which the words become a personal and unique utterance. The word is dark. This is the task of those who pray: kindle a light in the word. One who succeeds in kindling a light within the word will discover that the word has kindled a light within his soul."

Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira (1889-1943) advised, "Sing to uncover and propel your soul upward. Melody is one of the keys of the soul. Feel your soul emerge in song. You must use that moment of opportunity. Do not recite Psalms as a transcript. Experience feeling, intensity, and even fervor. If your emotions are so great and powerful that you cannot contain yourself and you cannot prevent yourself from singing or you cannot allow yourself to sing mechanically, that is fervor. Try stopping all of your movements. If you really have reached a state of fervor, your burning spirit will not let your rest. If after you stop your movements you fall so low that you could enter into a trivial conversation and that doesn't bother you in the least, that means you have not experienced feeling. If your song is accompanied by feeling, when you suddenly stop, you will experience a sort of pain in your heart that results from your yearning for God."

Featured below, among others, are Cantors Netanel Hershtik, Yaakov Stark, Yitchak Helfgot, and Aaron Bensoussan. Their fervor is palpable.

Pierre Pinchik (1900-1971) gave the most beautiful blessing I've ever heard (counting the Omer):

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It is the best example I know of the key theme of Isaiah 29:13--passion, enthusiasm, and vitality in study and prayer. "The letters of Torah are drained of their power when recited by rote, without correct contemplative attention. The potential divinity of each and every speech act can be unlocked only through focus and intention." (Rabbi Ariel Evan Mayse)

Below are some favorite niggunim led by Rabbi Menachem Schneerson (1902-1994). Elie Wiesel's novel Gates of the Forest helped me understand their content and context, since a chapter in the novel is based on Wiesel's conversations with Schneerson. The book's plot centers on a Holocaust survivor who ends up in New York, attending Hasidic farbrengen. He meets with the Rebbe, decrying God's role in the Holocaust and chastising the Rebbe for the simplicity and meritless conviction of the farbrengen. The Rebbe responds:

"Do you want me to stop praying and start shouting? Who says that power comes from a shout rather than a prayer? Do you think I have no eyes to see or ears to hear? That my heart doesn't revolt? That I have no desire to give rein to my sorrow and disappointment? 


"What is there left for us to do? In what direction are we to go? When you come to our celebrations you'll see how we dance and sing and rejoice. It is the Hasid's way of proclaiming: 'You don't want me to dance; too bad, I'll dance anyhow. You've taken away every reason for singing, but I shall sing. You didn't expect my joy, but here it is. Yes, my joy will rise up; it will submerge you.'  You must sing."

There is a straight line between the last sentence ("you must sing") and the attitude/practice of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943), who was a spiritual leader in the Warsaw ghetto for three years during the Holocaust before dying in the latter. Survivors recall that Shapira always sang during the Holocaust, even after the death of his own family members.

Shapira accepted, and surrendered to, the fact that "the world simply is. He had an unblinking, candid assessment of events, an acceptance of the enveloping waters as they are: sufferings crush the human mind, sweep away every human conceit of understanding and security, every conceptual underpinning and foothold." (Nehemia Polen)  Shapira understood the battle against psychological disintegration and paralysis:  "it is hard to raise one's self up, time and again, from the tribulations...controlling ourselves, overcoming depression and a broken spirit, is indeed very difficult...but even when in the depths, we must find the inner strength to rejoice in the face of troubles...we must stand firm in this trial."  

While fully acknowledging torment and horror, "the very fact that Shapira did not allow himself to be crushed by the events of the war was surely his greatest teaching of all. His singing was all the more poignant and powerful because it did not receive any confirmation from the surrounding environment. In the desert landscape of absence he managed to find Presence, not as a response to a favorable stimulus from above but initiated by his own capacity for self-awakening out of the darkness. Through his own initiative and labor, he wrested the spirit of song from the abyss itself." (Polen) 

This emphasis on singing, on finding something to do, to focus on, other than misery is more nuanced than just choosing to be happy. The latter doesn't work in the midst of a truly awful situation, when stress and negative emotions--anger, frustration, sadness, fright, guilt, and worry--burst forth. Simply choosing to be happy is impossible, in terms of brain chemistry. However, I can moderate negative emotions with the aid of distractions, as Schneerson advised: "Even a little light dispels a lot of darkness. Try to think as infrequently as possible about your problems, until you completely dismiss them from your mind. Do not dwell on them. This means not even thinking about their harmful aspects or how to overcome them, but completely disengaging your thoughts from those problems and engaging in other matters. Whenever the thoughts occur to you, at once turn your attention to any other thing."

Does this strategy work? Can I accept and surrender to the fact that "the world simply is"--feel the anger, frustration, sadness, worry, fright, and guilt--but moderate those emotions (i.e., control my thoughts and imagination) with the aid of distraction? Is it possible to copy Job: "I recant and relent being but dust and ashes" (עַל־כֵּ֭ן אֶמְאַ֣ס וְנִחַ֑מְתִּי עַל־עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר)?

Yes. I find this strategy does enable me to sidestep, at least a bit, the "psychic state of being overwhelmed by circumstances: being without breathing room or the capacity to conceive any life alternative. This is the state of qotzer ruah, or shortness of breath." (Fishbane)  The phrase "qotzer ruah" is from Exodus 6:9 when Moses tells the Jews that God will bring them to Israel, but they wouldn't listen because their spirits were crushed (which is the common translation of qotzer ruah - קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ) by slavery. "Oppression burdens both spirit and body, and narrows the horizons of thought and feeling. It's an invisible force, crushing the individual." (Fishbane)

Distraction is an effective, albeit not perfect, tool for moderating anger, frustration, sadness, worry, fright, and guilt--all of which coagulate like clots--creating a depressive deadness and blocking joy. Their weight must be lifted so that joy has the opportunity to uplift and heal. "God doesn't reside in the midst of dejection, rather in an atmosphere of joy." (Shabbos 30b)  "They shall take hold of gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." (Isaiah 35:10) Or, as Jerry Seinfeld described laughter: "It's the best thing in the world. It's a couple of seconds of weightlessness where everything in your mind that you worry about is gone."

"You don't want me to dance; too bad, I'll dance anyhow. You've taken away every reason for singing, but I shall sing. You didn't expect my joy, but here it is. Yes, my joy will rise up; it will submerge youYou must sing."

Rabbi Nehemia Polen offers a more gentle kind of niggun, which prefaced a lecture he gave about the aforementioned Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira: 

In this lecture, Polen shared Shapira's sublime insight about music, which explains the tenderness of the niggun: "Every time you sing a melody you enter a world where you retain a sense of just enough emergence of distinct notes to be able to have awareness of them, but the melody does not devolve into the hierarchical, graded, judgmental, comparative world we live in most of the time. Music enables me to be in a world where I am aware of distinct entities but without creating much distance between them. This is a world with supple, seamless, energetic, dancing movement between one entity and another in a way that doesn't divide but unites. That's what music allows us to do. A niggun should be a spiritual vehicle that transforms every aspect of your soul. It should be a process of removing the calcification, of exfoliating the soul, of creating sacred space. When you end a niggun you should be in a much richer, deeper place than you were at the beginning. Listen to the silence; it will be transformative and repercussive."

One of my enjoyable Shabbat activities is searching the internet for Kabbalat Shabbat services from different synagogues. It's a way of keeping my Judaism fresh, as described in the "Kavanah" link of this website. B'Nai Jeshurun in New York is a favorite, being so aesthetically pleasant in its rich mix of melodies, styles, tempos, and instruments. Their superbly creative versions of Lecha Dodi, Shalom Aleichem, and Yedid Nefesh:

The clergy do an outstanding job on all other occasions as well. The service below begins at the 12:00 mark with a rendition of Achot Ketana that I could listen to in perpetuity.

The vitality of its congregation is perfectly illustrated in this Simchat Torah celebration:

Romemu, also in New York, is led by Rabbi David Ingber, who brings creativity to every aspect of its services. I especially enjoy his various versions of Modeh Ani to begin the morning, for example at the beginning of this clip:

Benjamin Zander, director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, personifies the joy that is so central to Judaism. When I imagine the Ba'al Shem Tov--who taught that life should be filled with joy and simple pleasures--I see and hear someone like Zander (particularly starting at 5:45). In the book, Nine and a Half Mystics, Herbert Weiner--upon meeting Hasidim in Jerusalem--wrote "there was something in the eyes of the smile...evidence of a process whereby matter is somewhat refined and transmuted by spirit. That, precisely, has been the aim of Hasidism: not to despise or to leave the body, but to refine it so that an inner light could show through."  Zander shows his inner light and uncovers it in others, too.

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