February 20, 2023

Nigun Hisva’adus

By Chana Raskin with Josh Fleet

Nichoach, Volume 4

My father often speaks about the records he listened to as a kid. LPs from the project called Nichoach, an acronym for Niggunei Chassidei Chabad, the canonical melodies of Lubavitch. My siblings and I grew up with the same collections of songs, but for us they were on cassette tape. We had the Nichoach box set, all sixteen volumes. White tapes with lettering in bright, royal Tzfat blue.

Every night of Chanukah, just before candle lighting time, we would pop Nichoach, Volume 4 into the tape deck and fast-forward or rewind to the exact point where “Haneiros Halolu”1 would begin. As soon as my father finished singing the bracha,2 one of us kids would hit play and we would sing along while he continued lighting the candles. As kids and parents continued into the evening to make latkes or play dreidel, the tape kept playing. For me, still today, the songs on that cassette make up the Chanukah playlist of my heart.

“Nigun Hisva’adus,” the melody that came immediately after the candle-lighting tune on the tape, is definitely not a Chanukah song, though it remains intertwined with the holiday in my memory. The nigun has three parts but no words, and its composition is attributed to the fabled first generation of Chabad Hasidim.

What is a nigun? Typically, we think a spiritual melody should transport the one who sings it someplace else. Nigunim are songs of “not here,” striving for something deeper, higher than what is. A haunting dveykus nigun yearns from out of the depths. A nigun simcha sets the soul ablaze in a fit of ecstasy. Some nigunim are resplendent, regal, sung only on Shabbat. Other nigunim are used at auspicious occasions—in shul on the High Holidays, at the seder table, under the chuppah—their notes imbued with an awe-inducing power.

RAZA circle, photograph by Ali Cherkis

I like to describe “Nigun Hisva’adus,” at least the version we recorded for this album, as a “medium nigun.”3 It doesn’t necessarily cause me to tremble in holy devotion, to turn inward in meditation, or to dance in utter delight. “Nigun Hisva’adus” meets me right where I am. It invites me deeper into now. Neither overly happy nor terribly sad, and yet, it is somehow both at once. Containing everything, just as each moment does. And much like a mindfulness meditation, when I allow this nigun to move through me as I sing her out, I emerge clearer, calmer, more focused and present. Colors grow brighter, my step a bit lighter, and my breath more easeful as I walk on my way.

In the first teaching from the Baal Shem Tov’s Tzava’at ha-Rivash, the enigmatic founder of Chassidus4 comments on Psalms 16:8, which says, “Shiviti Adonai lenegdi tamid (I place the Lord eternally before me).” He teaches that the first word of the phrase, shiviti, is from the root shaveh, meaning equal, and therefore understands the verse as saying: “I perceive all things as being equally and always Hashem.” In addition to equanimously reframing one’s perception of the extremes in life, this teaching also reorients us to notice the ever-present, inherent holiness of all the in-between, regular moments. This radically non-dual perspective sensitizes us to all that happens between the polar extremes of good and evil, holy and profane—suggesting that everyday things like washing the dishes, driving to work, birds singing in the trees, cows wandering in the field—are all equally divine. In the mundane, too, one finds God.

For me, any nigun that comes from the first generation of Chabad touches something very deep, pointing toward the essence of Chassidus. True, the Hasidim of those days sang extraordinarily complex, deep, searching melodies channeled directly from the soul. But they also sang this—a simple, soulful, sincere melody. “Nigun Hisva’adus” is a sonic window into early Hasidic life in its everyday moments. Of Hasidim just going about their lives in the shtetl, in the shul, in the square. Sung today, it’s a song for an ordinary Tuesday in the city. It has no agenda. It says of the ordinary moment: this, too, is divine.

Footnotes

  1. “These Lights,” a traditional Chanukah song.
  2. Blessing, in Yiddish and Hebrew.
  3. There are many different Chabad melodies called “Nigun Hisva’adus.” Hitva’adut means “casual meeting” or “gathering” in Hebrew; in Yiddish, the word for hitva’adut is farbrengen, which refers to a spiritual gathering of Hasidim. Tunes with the generic moniker “Nigun Hisva’adus” are melodies often sung at farbrengens; they are songs that provide opportunities for Hasidim to connect about their shared devotion to the Divine.
  4. The teachings of Hasidism, associated with an ethics of loving-kindness and a personal, intimate relationship with God.

Chana Raskin, the founder and main facilitator of RAZA, is an untrained vocalist who grew up entrenched in the world of Chabad Hasidut and its profoundly simple and complex melodies. These nigunim have carried her at every point of her journey through life. In her music and singing circles, as well as in her day-to-day experience, Chana strives to hold a space with others recovering from illness or traumatic injury through the healing powers of quiet, laughter, humming, singing, and movement.

Josh Fleet is communications and operations manager at Hadar’s Rising Song Institute.