What happens to a melody when its notes are written down? And what happens to those notes on a page when they are sung out loud?
In the early days of Hasidism, and for many years, nigunim were not often codified in written notation. These sacred melodies were mostly learned experientially and passed on orally, through an organic process of listening and singing, singing and listening, over and over and over. To transcribe a melody is to bring the song into the public domain, outside the chain of direct transmission, leaving it open to (mis)interpretation. It is ultimately an act of preservation, but one fraught with risk, as alluded to in the early rabbinic decree that “oral Torah” should not be written down. However, with the persecution of Jewry in the Soviet Union, and the horrors of the Holocaust unfolding in Europe, a greater fear arose: that this musical tradition, living solely in the hearts and mouths of the people who knew it, could be lost.
In 1944, the sixth leader of Chabad, the Frierdiker Rebbe (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn), deputized Rabbi Shmuel Zalmanov to begin collecting and preparing nigunim for publication in a compendium of Chabad melodies. He gathered a group of knowledgeable ba’alei menagnim, masters of song, to sing every traditional tune they could remember and, with the help of Cantor Yehoshua Weisser, they transcribed these melodies. What emerged—first in 1948 in a volume of 175 melodies, and subsequently expanded to include nearly 350 songs—is Sefer Hanigunim, the canonical collection of Chabad music.1
Witnessing the popularity of the songbook, the seventh rebbe of Chabad, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson), proposed the recording of these traditional tunes in 1957. A few years later, Rabbi Zalmanov oversaw the first studio sessions capturing these nigunim as sung by a sixteen-person choir, all young men and Hasidim devoted to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.Velvel Pasternak, a Jewish musicologist with an interest in Hasidic melodies, was tapped to conduct the choir of bochurim.2 At the group’s first meeting, Pasternak was given a copy of Sefer Hanigunim and as the men sang, he attempted to play along on the piano. But the living voices in the room did not, would not match the sheet-bound notes on the page. The soul of the song had been lost in transcription.3 In his estimation, the “Bible of neginah for Lubavitch” was wrong, so Pasternak set about rewriting the melodies.4
After months of rehearsals, on the day of the recording, the sixteen singers showed up to the studio with a caravan of women, children, and older Hasidim, carrying boxes of food and liquor. When Pasternak asked what was going on—the recording session was scheduled to begin in mere moments and there were now dozens of people in the small studio room—he was told: “We are doing an avodah for the Lubavitcher Rebbe. We are not straight singers, we can’t sing just for microphones. We’re going to have a shtickle farbreng.”5 So, as Pasternak tells it, the Hasidim passed out fruit and pieces of cake, they hung a picture of the Rebbe on the wall, and they all said “L’chaim!” and drank. Following the impromptu party, the women, children, and older people were sent to the back, while the men stood around the microphone, took off their jackets, unfurled their tzitzit, and declared, “We are ready to do the bidding of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”6 And so a monumental album was born: “Nichoach” Chabad Melodies: Songs of the Lubavitcher Chassidim, the first record in the Nichoach series.
The album’s fourth track is “Yemin Hashem”—a melody composed by the Tzemach Tzedek (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch), the third rebbe of Chabad, who used to sing it during the Hallel service.7 The liner notes of the original Nichoach album share that this tune
is often sung at a deliberate pace, at once reflective and vigorous. Even when sung slowly it is a song that conveys tremendous power and confidence; disciplined exaltation. But in the Rebbe’s presence the song was sung at a faster tempo, with particular exuberance and joy, and with the Rebbe vigorously waving his arms, stirring the song to a crescendo.
When I began convening the first RAZA circles in January 2018, the group was open to whomever wanted to join—trained musicians and interested amateurs alike. At that time, I did not have a seder (order) for the nigunim I was sharing with the group; when we gathered, I would just present whatever melodies were most potent in my heart and mind at that point in my life. After a number of months, a second group formed, consisting of more dedicated musicians who really wanted to delve into this music. Around Rosh Hashanah of that year, for this second, smaller group, I decided to teach songs in the order they appear in Sefer Hanigunim.
To be honest, I never particularly connected to the nigun “Yemin Hashem,” so I was surprised when the singers in our circle instantly and deeply resonated with the melody. A couple of them even created incredible pieces of artwork following our session. I was struck by this, internalizing that there was a hidden depth to this nigun—and possibly others I had known, and perhaps dismissed, throughout my life. I was deeply moved and intrigued.
“Yemin Hashem,” as sung by male Hasidim throughout the centuries, exudes confidence, strength, and exaltation. In the musical womb of RAZA, I came to understand and appreciate that, beneath the surface, it also contains an element of swirling chaos and profound mystery.
At the final meeting of the Rising Song Fellowship in 2019, Joey Weisenberg spontaneously asked me to lead the cohort in the Hallel service. This was a tumultuous time in my life—I was healing from a minor traumatic brain injury and still deeply mourning my recent miscarriage—and at some point during the davening I began to break down. While leading the prayers, singing “Yemin Hashem,” I began weeping and couldn’t stop. The other fellows, seeing me and sensing what was happening, continued to sing, sinking into the belly of the nigun, repeating this one section over and over and over again, holding space through song for me to move through all that was arising. And in my tears, I realized I’d never truly heard this nigun before.
The following day, the fellows gathered in a circle to present songs to each other, and I chose to sing “Yemin Hashem” with the group in an improvisational style. It was a revelation, and with it the concept of the Kapelya album was born. I knew then that I wanted to find a way to approach and animate these sacred songs, adhering to their traditional notation, while at the same time honoring the creative spirit present in the moment of their voicing; to open up a space, for myself and for others; to sing as an act of imagination so that even someone who’s sung a canonical tune countless times might feel they’ve never heard it before; to give breath and life not just to the notes, but to what is within them, and within each of us.
In the studio recording for Kapelya, we (unintentionally) ended up arranging this nigun as if we were in shul. I started the melody alone. Slowly, others began to join and respond. Eventually, everyone was crying it out together in a kind of spontaneous unity. What emerged is an experimental reimagining of Jewish prayer —women’s prayer—with nigun as the foundation and catalyst for connectivity and creativity. Instead of the euphoric praise appropriate for Hallel, singing “Yemin Hashem” with RAZA felt like entering the space of selichot8 on the High Holidays. It’s a celebration, yes, but it’s rooted in a visceral feeling of awe and trembling. It’s the soundscape of the full spectrum of devotion, containing the complex dynamics of praise and contrition, rising and falling, running and returning. The solitary voice of the leader—the harmonics of the community—speeding up and slowing down, raucous movement and sublime stillness, layers and layers of supplication bubbling atop chaotic depths out of which a new, deeper order may emerge.
- This origin story is described in Rabbi Zalmanov’s introduction to Sefer Hanigunim.
- An overview of this recording history, including Pasternak’s involvement with the songs of Chabad, can be found in an obituary on the Chabad website: Mordechai Lightstone, “Velvel Pasternak, 85, Preserver of a Priceless Chassidic Musical Tradition,” June 17, 2019.
- In a retrospective of Chabad’s musical preservation project, seventy years after the first publication of Sefer Hanigunim, the magazine A Chassidisher Derher noted about nigunim: “Their very nature defies the classical rules and construct of music, as they are all expressions of the soul and rife with subtle nuance.” “Nichoach: Preserving Chabad Music for Posterity,” A Chassidisher Derher, Nissan 5778, 37.
- “I became aware of the fact that the stuff had to be written down, and it had to be written down correctly,” Pasternak said in an oral history interview conducted by Hankus Netsky in 2011. “Velvel Pasternak’s Oral History,” Yiddish Book Center, 2011. Pasternak referred to Sefer Hanigunim as the “Bible of neginah for Lubavitch” in Velvel Pasternak, “The Story Behind: Nichoach vol 1,” Niggunei Chabad, Youtube.
- Velvel Pasternak, “The Story Behind: Nichoach vol 1,” Niggunei Chabad, Youtube.
- The prayer, “Yemin Hashem” or “Right (Hand) of God,” comes from Psalms 118:16: “Yemin Hashem romeima, yemin Hashem osah chayil (The right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord deals valiantly).”
- Prayers associated with a state of solemnity, humility, and repentance.
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.