February 20, 2023

Shalosh T’nuos

By Chana Raskin with Josh Fleet

RAZA circle, photograph by Shmulie Lowenstein

“Song is the quill of the soul.”
“.השיר הוא קולמוס הנפש”

—The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad)

I was raised with the idea that music comes from the soul. Just listening to a nigun connects you to the person who wrote it. To sing its phrases is to deliver a cosmic invitation to the composer’s soul on high: an invitation to join in the timeless moment of song.

I can’t remember ever learning “Shalosh T’nuos,” the Nigun of Three Stanzas. It is one of those tunes that was just always there, a living link to my family’s musical tradition. I am a direct descendant of Rabbi Mordechai Posner, brother of the Alter Rebbe, the first leader of Chabad. There is something about this multi-generational connection, this Rebbe-Hasid and parent-child-grandchild relationship that both moves and grounds me. To sing this nigun is to confront myself, to be reminded of where I come from and what I’m doing in this world.

“Shalosh T’nuos” is a three-part composition. According to Chabad tradition, each part was contributed by one of the three foundational figures of Hasidic Jewry—the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezeritch, and the Alter Rebbe.1 Each musical phrase, linked to the soul of a great spiritual light, activates and invokes a unique energy.

There is the light of someone who wanders—a flame flickering along the way, always seeking out wicks waiting for a spark from amidst the darkness. There is a light planted in its place, and as it grows and glows, people begin to gather around. Then their flames, too, begin to stand up on their own, connecting and combining their light, giving birth to a blaze of holy fire.

The Baal Shem Tov—Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, originator of the Hasidic movement—walked in the world as a simple person. The stories surrounding his life have been passed down from Rebbe to Hasid, parent to child, generation to generation. Orphaned at five years old, he lived in the forest and was raised by the nearby villagers. Later, as a teacher and mystic healer, he was based in Medzhybizh, but he remained a perpetual traveler. Much to the chagrin of the elitist rabbinic establishment of the time, he hung out with, and revealed the Torah’s secrets to the masses, all people, regardless of their erudition or level of “observance,” wherever they were—the tavern, the inn, the fields, the road. His stanza, the bare and lonely opening to “Shalosh T’nuos,” is a reflection of the pathos of the peasant’s soul. There’s nothing fancy about it; it’s simple, raw, uncomfortable at times. It’s a nigun from the shtetl, and I hear in it the hum of a person cleaning the mud off the wheels of a broken-down wagon, pausing for a moment to reflect and connect within, suddenly traversing worlds.

The Maggid—Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, a prominent student of the Baal Shem Tov who established Hasidism as a philosophical movement—lived in Mezeritch. He was more of what one might think of as a Rebbe. He held court. He stayed in one place and people came to him. That’s already a different kind of light, a different kind of tune. With him, the nigun, the flame, finds a home and the fire begins to burst forth.

Painting of the Alter Rebbe

That energy attracted the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Hasidism. The last stanza of “Shalosh T’nuos” is a repeat of the Maggid’s movement, only elevated. It is composed of the same notes, but sung higher up the scale. The Alter Rebbe was a true disciple, a hasid. He taught about bitul ha-yesh, about what it means to surrender your ego and be transparent to your source, to truly reflect the Divine Light. He spent his life clarifying his vessel for that work, and I sense traces of this process reflected in his part of the nigun. He sang his teacher’s song in a higher octave, elevating it by bringing in his own powerful newness without wavering from his source.

Hasidic women have not typically had the opportunity to refract the light of our teachers in song. We were not traditionally invited into the room.

Gathered in the studio in August 2022, moments before we began recording this first track for Kapelya, I offered a long overdue invitation along with the assembled women. We invited in the Rebbes and the Hasidim who had composed these melodies. We invited in the people from our personal lives, whom we wanted to come sing with us, or bear witness to our voices. But even more wondrous, we invited in the Hasidic women of generations past, women who no doubt sang these nigunim with silent lips and praying hearts.

In “Shalosh T’nuos,” with our hearts bowed and heads upright, we invited ourselves into the room. With this song, we kindle a new flame for all to see, and open our mouths for all to hear.

Footnotes

  1. The tune’s origins are opaque and enigmatic, with the attribution of its component parts reaching back hundreds of years—yet its documentation did not occur until much later. The Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson), the seventh leader of Chabad, said that the first time he heard this nigun was in America. This would have been no earlier than 1941, when the Rebbe arrived in New York. Interestingly, there is also a different nusach, a different melodic version recorded by a Hasid from Montreal, who said he learned it from his father, who learned it in Russia from the Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn), the fifth leader of Chabad. Recordings and explanations of both versions of the nigun can be accessed here, fifth down from the top.

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.