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Monday, February 27, 2006

From an Elevating Shabbos to the Entry of Adar

I was privileged to spend a very elevating Shabbos in Ramat Beit Shemesh this past Shabbos Mishpatim-Shekalim. My host davens at the Aish Kodesh Shul, home to today’s Piaseczno Rebbe Shlita, who is a great-nephew to Rebbe Klonymus Kalman of Piaseczno, and named for him. While the majority of the Shul’s members are newly-arrived Americans, the flavor is quite Chassidic while maintaining a modernity usually not found in other Chassidic environs. The Rebbe speaks both during the evening and morning services, as well as at Shalosh Seudos [the third Shabbos meal]. There was plenty of singing, which included many Carlebach niggunim. I was pleasantly surprised to find the Baal Tefilla for Shacharis singing a Rebbe Mottel Twerski [Hornesteipel Rebbe Shlita] niggun, “V’ha’arev Nah,” for Mimkomcha, and was zoche to relate this good news to Rebbe Mottel himself, when I saw him at his grandson’s Bris on Sunday.

At Shalosh Seudos, I was hoping the Piaseczno Rebbe would call on me to sing Mizmor L’David. After they sang this niggun twice, first to a Carlebach niggun, then to a standard Chassidic tune, the Rebbe asked if anyone has a new tune for this that perhaps they could add to their repertoire. I gladly volunteered and sang the Divrei Yisrael’s “Niggun of the Homeless,” which is often sung to Mizmor L’David.

The Rebbe himself later sang Keil Mistater to a Modzitz niggun,
[found here, sixth track – Yibaneh] which yours truly later identified it to him as such. Finally, after a guest delivered a dvar Torah, the Rebbe spoke briefly, and then called upon the young boys present to deliver a short dvar Torah on the Parsha. Many of them did so, most beautifully, as the Rebbe stood behind them, beaming! Those familiar with the life of the first Piaseczno Rebbe will know that this practice originates with him.


Rav Avraham Greenbaum (L) and Yosef Karduner (R)

But perhaps the highlight of my Shabbos was the wonderful Melave Malka that my good friend Bobby Rosenberg, the mainstay of the Carlebach shul in RBS, “Kehillat Ahava v’Simcha” put together. Billed as “The Healing Wisdom of Chassidus, from the writings of Ramchal and Breslov, presented by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum with music by Yosef Karduner,” it was indeed that and more.
Karduner’s music is well known, and speaks for itself, though I must say, to hear him live adds an extra dimension that cannot be duplicated on recorded music.

Reb Avraham Greenbaum of the Azamra Institute is an amazing speaker. But first, a bit about Azamra:
AZAMRA is a Hebrew word meaning "I will sing!" The keynote of all Azamra's work is the teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) based on Psalms 146:2:"Azamra! I will sing to my G-d as long as I live!" "The way to sing the song of joy is by seeking the good in all people, especially in ourselves. Each good point is one more note in the song of life!"

One of the many beautiful points of R. Avraham’s talk was an expansion of what we had written here in a previous post – on the Shira:
“…as a result of the Emuna [faith, belief] in Hashem, the Jewish People sang Shira. The verse preceding “Az yashir,” says “Vaya’aminu BaShem uv’Moshe avdo – they (the Jews) believed in Hashem, and in Moshe, His servant.” Our Sages explain that in the merit of Emuna that they had, they were able to sing Shira, and the Shechina (Divine Presence) rested upon them.”

Rabbi Greenbaum brought a verse from Shir HaShirim [4:8] that says, ‘tashuri m’rosh Amana,’ literally, ‘look from the top of Amana.’ However, this can be read, ‘tashiri m’rosh emuna – sing from the beginning of faith’, which, indeed points to the lesson cited above. Moreover, he said, miracles come out of faith, and are made of song, as follows: Even the miracle of the splitting of the Yam Suf [Reed Sea] could be explained as an act of nature, as some kind of tsunami. Indeed, the verse in Chumash relates, “…and G-d drove back the sea with a powerful east wind during the entire night, transforming the sea bed into dry land, and the waters were divided” [Shemos, 14:21]. But what was really miraculous was the timing, the “orchestration,” if you will. For the sea had to split exactly as the Jewish People entered, and had to return to its natural state just as they were through, and the Egyptians were inside. Similarly, for an orchestra to play music and not just generate noise or cacophony, they need to be perfectly timed.


When Adar Enters…

Fish, the Symbol of the Month of Adar

"Meshenichnas Adar, Marbin b'Simcha - When Adar enters, our Joy increases (Ta'anis, 29a).

All of this now brings us to tonight’s festive beginning of the New Month of Adar. Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum writes on his Azamra website about the Month of Adar:
This week we celebrate the beginning of the new month, Adar, which is the twelfth and last month of the Jewish year. People usually rejoice when they start the year or any other enterprise, but tend to succumb to sadness and apathy as things become more ragged later on.
This is why the
Shulchan Aruch emphasizes: "When Adar arrives" we must maximize the Simcha (= Joy)! Precisely towards the end, the climax of the year, we must strive to increase our joy.
But how is this possible when we face so many dire threats all around us and from within? Only through strengthening our
EMUNA -- our strong FAITH that G-d is with us now at the end just as He has been ever since the beginning of time -- can we attain true and enduring joy, secure in the knowledge that everything that is happening is for our own ultimate good and the good of the whole universe.

This point is further emphasized in a dvar Torah from Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar of Modzitz, the second Rebbe. He asks, I could understand if our Sages told us, “when Adar is going out, we should increase our joy,” for this is after our deliverance from the decree of the wicked Haman. But when Adar comes in – this is the time that the decree was still in effect, to utterly destroy the Jewish People! How can that be a time for increasing joy?

However, it is precisely at this time that we are to increase our joy – from our deep faith, which is our best weapon. [The following, till the end, he brings from his father, the Divrei Yisrael:]
In Tehillim [106:44], the verse says, “And He saw their distress, when he heard their Rina – exaltation.” This is strange – when someone’s in distress, we would expect him to cry. However, again referring back to the crossing of the Reed Sea, we are told that “the women followed her [Miriam] with drums and tambourines” [Shemos, 15:20]. Where did they get drums and tambourines in the desert? Our Sages say that the righteous women were so certain that Hashem would perform miracles for the Jewish People, that they prepared themselves with drums and tambourines.

So therefore the verse which says, “And He saw their distress, when he heard their Rina – exaltation” can be explained: Hashem saw, that when the Jewish People were in the very midst of distress, He still heard their exultation and singing to Him, so He saved them. From here we learn that whenever a Jew is, G-d forbid, in a difficult situation, if he sings about his salvation which is to come, Hashem will help him.


Finally, with the advent of the New Month of Adar, I’ve already been asked to present niggunim for Adar and Purim. We’ll begin with Meshenichnas Adar: from the Binyomin Ginzberg Trio’s
Purim Sameach recording: Mishenichnas (which is also often sung to the pasuk V'nahafoch from Megillas Esther 9:1) has been reharmonized for some added harmonic "bite." The lyric for Mishenichnas is from the Gemara Ta'anis 29a.

Another well-known Mishenichas Adar is set to the melody of a traditional cotton-picking song whose Southern origins inspired the Trio's bluesy rendition of the popular tune.

Please send in, by either e-mail or in the Comments, your links and suggestions for the following niggunim:
Shoshanas Yaakov
Layehudim Haysa Ora
Any other Purim niggunim!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

How Does an Orphan Honor his Parents?
a story about Rebbe Yehoshua of Belz

The original Belz Shul in Galicia

Today is the 112th yahrzeit of Rebbe Yehoshua [Shia’leh] of Belz, son of the Sar Shalom, who was the first Belzer Rebbe. This story was told by Rebbe Mordechai of Bilguria zt”l, father of today’s Belzer Rebbe Shlita. It is my free translation of a story which appeared in this past week’s “Alim L’Trufa,” a weekly Parsha sheet.

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: As we mentioned in a previous post, Tehillim [Psalm] 119 is also known as “Tmanya Apei” – literally, “eight faces.” This refers to the fact that this Psalm goes through the entire Hebrew alphabet eight times. That is, eight verses for Aleph, then Beis, etc. – a total of 176 verses. Belzer Chassidim sing this Psalm throughout Chanuka.

Rebbe Yehoshua of Belz was once at a Bris [circumcision] of a baby who was already orphaned from both of his parents. His father had passed away after his mother had conceived, and his mother died in childbirth. At the Bris, there was a tremendous amount of crying and wailing, which created a very somber and morose atmosphere.

The Belzer Rebbe ordered that the crying should stop, saying that a Bris is a joyous occasion of a Mitzva. Crying is therefore prohibited, and it will in no way help the unfortunate child. At the Seudas Mitzva [the festive meal], the Rebbe commanded that they should sing the entire Tmanya Apei. “You are undoubtedly wondering why I asked that these verses should be sung,” the Rebbe said. And he then told the following story.

Rebbe Yaakov Yitzchak of Pshischa, known as the Yid HaKodesh [the Holy Jew], would learn with the young men in his Beis Medrash [study hall]. Whenever a very difficult question arose to the Yid, he would concentrate very deeply, being often steeped in his thoughts for half an hour or more - until the answer came to him. Once a young man, who was orphaned from his father, was learning with the Yid, when one of these questions came up. As the Yid was steeped in his thoughts, the young man became very hungry, and decided to go home quickly to his mother for a quick bite.

He quickly ran home and asked his mother for some food, reminding her that he was in the middle of his learning, and had to return immediately to the Beis Medrash. After preparing and serving the food, his mother asked him to bring down a package that she needed from the attic. Nervous about returning late, the young man told his mother he had to return to his learning. As he hurried back to the Beis Medrash, he realized what he had done – after all, isn’t all his learning supposed to be in order to fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah, and he had just missed an opportunity to honor his mother?!

He quickly did an about-face and ran home to his mother, pleading for her forgiveness. When she agreed, he brought the package down from the attic, and quickly ran back to the Beis Medrash. Upon his arrival there, as he opened the door, the Yid was aroused from his deep thoughts, and he stood up to greet the young man.

Noticing that the Rebbe had stood up, all the other talmidim [students] also stood. The young man was quite bewildered at all of this. The Yid then delivered his answer to the difficult question, and asked everyone to sit down. Sitting down with them, he turned to the young man and said, “Now tell us everything that happened to you.”

After the young man told his story, the Yid said, “Surely you wonder why I stood up. The Gemara [Kiddushin 32b] says that Abayei [an Amora, one of the Sages of the Talmud] was an orphan from both parents. His father had passed away after his mother had conceived, and his mother died in childbirth. How, then, could he fulfill the command of honoring one’s parents, which is one of the Aseres HaDibros [ten commandments]? Therefore, whenever anyone fulfills this mitzva properly, Abayei accompanies him. So, since you did this mitzva so well, Abayei went with you. When you came here, Abayei came with you, and I stood up in his honor. And it was he who gave me the answer to the difficult question.”

Rebbe Yehoshua of Belz then added that in the Maharsha’s commentary to this Gemara, he brings that the name Abayei is alluded to in the verse, “asher becha yerucham yasom” [the first letter of each word spells out the name Abayei], meaning, “in You the orphan finds mercy” [Hoshea, 14:4]. “We can therefore explain the verse, ‘becha yerucham yasom,’ not by crying over him, but by insuring that he receives a proper Torah education as he grows up. For the gematria [numerical value] of the letters of ‘becha’ [in You] hints at the 22 letters of the Torah, and if we bring the child up according to the Torah, this will bring great satisfaction to his parents in Gan Eden.”

“Now you can understand why I asked you to sing Tmanya Apei,” the Rebbe concluded, “for in the entire psalm is about the Kedusha [sanctity] and greatness of the Torah.”

Sunday, February 19, 2006


Dear Readers & Fellow Bloggers,

Tonight is the yahrzeit of the "Seraph" [fiery Angel] Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. I've been searching for quite a while, both in sefarim and on the Web, for niggunim by him or his Chassidim, and haven't found anything but this:

"With less success later on did Chassidim, notably those of Kotzk and Ger, make use of the melodies of Schubert, Chopin and Verdi. That these melodies have been completely forgotten by the Chassidim is the best indication that they did not lend themselves to a reworking into the Chassidic mold." -- Velvel Pasternak, "Chassidic Music - an Overview" [found in Melodies of Modzitz, p. 14].

We know that the Chozeh of Lublin - one of the Kotzker's first Rebbeim, composed niggunim, and later, the dynasty of Ger which followed from Kotzk, has many precious niggunim, including beautiful marches and waltzes.

If anyone out there knows of either Kotzker or Pshischa niggunim, please let us know either by e-mail or in the Comments section, thanks!

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Our friend Lazer of Lazer Beams has produced another amazing post, this time we quote it almost in its entirety:

The Melitzer Rebbe Shlita taught me the secrets of praying with a niggun (melody), as follows:

1. A niggun speaks the heart's deepest emotions, and is far more expressive than words.

2. A niggun rises higher and faster than words.

3. Prayer in words only is subject to a bombardment of outside thoughts and disturbances that destroy kavanna, or intent. A niggun focuses prayer by uniting the brain and the heart. The stronger and better-focused the prayer, the more resistant it is to the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination), who tries to destroy the prayer or block its ascent.

4. A niggun helps a person cling to Hashem almost instantly; when one clings to Hashem, nothing can block prayer.

5. A niggun cleanses the soul, and facilitates the wonderful emotional releases of tears and laughter.

The Melitzer Rebbe Shlita also quoted an advice from the Arizal for anything that ails or troubles a person: During Shacharis (morning prayers), one should sing Shiras HaYam word for word and in the niggun of Torah reading. Posted by Picasa

The full post, including Lazer's "secret spiritual artillery", is here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Rebbe Yechezkel of Kuzmir, founder of the Modzitz Dynasty [Avi HaShosheles]

"Like a lone bird on a roof" - the Kotzker's description of Rebbe Chaztkel

Tonight [and tomorrow], the 17th of Shvat, is the yahrzeit of Rebbe Yechezkel of Kuzmir. A talmid of the Chozeh of Lublin, Rebbe Shmuel of Karov, and the Yid HaKodesh of Pshischa, Rebbe Yechezkel was one of the key figures of Polish Chassidic Jewry. Not only was he the grandfather of the Divrei Yisrael – the first Modzitzer Rebbe; but moreover, his style and approach to Chassidus and Avodas HaShem [Divine Service] became the milestones that outlined the path that would in later years be identified as that of Modzitz.

Rebbe Yechezkel of Kuzmir led his Chassidim as their Rebbe for some 40 years. He attracted important Torah scholars and tzaddikim as well as simple people. Some of the more famous people who traveled to him often included: Rebbe Shlomo HaKohen, the Tiferes Shlomo of Radomsk; Rebbe Yosef of Neishtat (“the Gutteh Yid”, whose father was the author of the famous Ma’or VaShemesh); Rebbe Nasan David of Shidlovsta (who later became Rebbe Yechezkel’s mechutan); Rebbe Yisrael Yitzchak of Radoshitz; Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vorke and others. Among his leading talmidim were Rav Meshulam of Plotzk; HaGaon Reb Yaakov Aharon, the Av Beis Din of Alexander (author of the Beis Yaakov); Rav Chaim Eliezer Wachs (author of the Nefesh Chaya, and Rav of Kalish) and others.

Rebbe Yechezkel was famous for his chessed. The Lubliner Rebbe is quoted as saying that Rebbe Yechezkel was the “image” of Avraham Avinu. Rebbe Yechezkel was deeply and personally involved in hachnasas orchim (hosting guests), attending to their specific and personal needs.

Rebbe Yechezkel of Kuzmir was renowned as a ba’al ruach haKodesh, one who had Divine Inspiration. There are numerous stories that exemplify this, which can be found on the Modzitz website including an interesting story from this week’s Parsha, Yisro.

Rebbe Yechezkel on Negina:

Reb Chatzkel, as he was known, had a novel interpretation of the mitzvos of Prika and Te’ina, loading and unloading a fellow Jew’s animal from a heavy burden. He says that in any matter that is difficult for his fellow man, one must help. This also applies when his friend is singing a niggun, for example. When his comrade is singing weakly, or is tired, by accompanying him, he fulfills the mitzva of Prika – “unloading” the burden. And when he doesn’t remember the tune exactly and someone refreshes his memory, he performs the mitzva of Te’ina, “loading up.” That is, he loads him up so that he can continue to sing afterwards. He ends by warning that those who know how to sing should be careful in these matters.

Rebbe Yechezkel of Kuzmir said:
"I cannot sit at the Shabbos table without a new song. There is no festive Shabbos without a new song."

"One niggun can express more than a thousand words."

In the name of the Maggid [of Mezritch]: "The zemiros of Shabbos are the wings of the Shabbos seudos, to bring them up on high."

There is but one known niggun from Rebbe Yechezkel, which is sung at his yahrzeit seuda, which will take place tonight in both Bnei Brak, Israel and in Flatbush [Brooklyn], USA. It was recently “discovered” by Reb Ben Zion Shenker.

Sunday, February 12, 2006


A number of years ago, the Modzitzer Rebbe Shlita, may he be well, composed a lively niggun to [a paraphrase of] the words of the Gemara [Taanis 5b-6a]:

Ilan, ilan, ilan, bameh avarechecha – Tree, O tree, with what can I bless you?
Peirosecha mesukim, tzilcha naeh, amas hamayim overess tachtecha – that your fruits should be sweet, your shade pleasant, that a stream should flow beneath you?
[But you (this tree) have all those qualities, therefore:]
Ela, yehi ratzon she’kol netiosecha yihiyu kamos’cha – But, may it be His will that all of your offspring should be like you!

The Rebbe Shlita composed it in honor of a grandson’s Bar Mitzva. It quickly caught on amongst the Chassidim, and has been used as a lively dance tune ever since.

This can be heard on an interesting recording which I call, “Modzitz Lite.” It’s the Duo Reim’s recording of some Modzitz niggunim, the very first track.


Eitz Chaim Hee – the Tree Song. This is a lovely heart-rending ballad composed by Reb Michel Twerski, found on a 3-tape set called,
The Melave Malka Experience
with Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski and Rabbi Michel Twerski

from the Beth Jehudah website:
This cassette series is the first of its kind. Rabbi Avraham J. and Rabbi Michel Twerski share the golden moments of Melave Malka through story and song. Narratives recounting inspiring chapters in the lives of the great Masters of Torah and Chassidus, are passed on to you through the rich Twerski tradition. These timeless vignettes carry the listener to an exalted plane, where joined with giants of the spirit, one soars to a world of the transcendent and the wondrous, a real, in which all thing become possible. This new offering represents a rare opportunity to be swept up in the warmth of a magnificent family tradition.

In addition to the anecdotes, these cassettes feature music composed and written by Rabbi Michel Twerski. His compositions are sung by Jews throughout the world. Enjoy and reflect upon four stirring ballads written in the vernacular. "The Tree," "The Forest," "The Old Man," and "The Child Within," as well as two deeply moving Yiddish niggunim, "A Guten Shabbos," and "Karev Yom." These recordings will enable you to capture the Melave Malka flavor and savor it throughout the week.

An enjoyable Tu B'Shvat to one and all! Posted by Picasa

Rabbi Kaplan holding my son at his Bris in 5737 (1977) [Click to enlarge]

In the battle to unite the Torah with its people, he was a mighty warrior and his pen overpowered countless swords. He is gone from the front, but victory is nearer because of his magnificent legacy. – from the dedication to The Aryeh Kaplan Reader, p. 9.

Today is the 14th of Shvat and the 23rd yahrzeit of Rabbi Aryeh Eliahu Moshe Kaplan ZT”L, whom I was privileged to know personally.

As a graduate student, having earned a master's degree in physics, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was described in the Who's Who in Physics as the most promising young physicist in America. When he decided to devote his overflowing heart and massive intellect to the writing and teaching of traditional Torah values, the Jewish people gained a prolific and brilliant expositor with the uncommon gift of analyzing and presenting the most complex ideas in accessible terms.

Rabbi Kaplan was educated in the Torah Vodaath and Mir Yeshivos in Brooklyn (New York). After study at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, he was ordained by one of Israel's foremost rabbinic authorities, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, the Mirer Rosh Yeshiva.

In the course of a writing career that spanned only eleven years, Rabbi Kaplan produced over 60 works. His genius and unique abilities produced many of the great classics of contemporary Jewish philosophy. Celebrated for their erudition, completeness and clarity, they included a wide range: booklets about the outlook behind various mitzvos and other concepts, The Handbook of Jewish Thought, books explaining the deepest mysteries of Kabbalah and Chassidus, and a unique Haggada combining the utmost simplicity and scholarly depth.

His translation of Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s Derech Hashem included copious footnotes that were hitherto unknown – with his encyclopedic knowledge, Rabbi Kaplan himself identified the Ramchal’s sources. His translation of the Chumash [Five Books of Moshe], The Living Torah, has become the standard text in many synagogues throughout America and elsewhere. The text includes maps, notes, illustrations and an annotated bibliography, which was compiled in a mere nine months! In my contact with him when he was working on this project, I learned that he taught himself Greek – to study the ancient Septuagint translation of the Bible – as well as Egyptian, to better understand the origin the words he encountered. Similarly, when he translated most [he completed 15 of the 20 volumes] of the classic Me’am Loez commentary on the Torah, he taught himself Ladino, the original language of that text.

And when he passed away suddenly at the age of only 48 with decades of productive activity still ahead of him, Jewry lost a priceless, irreplaceable treasure. But Rav Aryeh Kaplan left a legacy of the thousands of people whom he touched and elevated, and of the scores of books and papers that flowed from his pen.

[Most of the material above was taken from the two sources above that are linked, with some of my own additions].


Music, Meditation and Prophecy

In his book Meditation and the Bible, in chapter four, “Prophetic Methods,” Rav Kaplan writes: “Although no explicit discussion of the prophetic method is found in the Bible, there are enough hints through which a fairly accurate picture can be drawn…One important practice mentioned explicitly in the Bible was the use of music in order to help attain the prophetic state. (Rav Kaplan goes on to cite examples: Elisha [II Melachim (Kings), 3:15]; King Shaul [I Shmuel 10:5]; and Asaf, Hemen and Yedusun [I Divrei HaYamim (Chronicles), 25:1].)

“A repetitive melody is very much like a mantra, and it can be used to banish extraneous thoughts and clear the mind for the enlightened state.

(Interestingly, in a chapter on “Davening with Kavanna” from The Aryeh Kaplan Reader, Rav Kaplan cites a discussion he had with a young woman about transcendental meditation. She told him, “If you repeat the same phrase over and over, and do it in the right manner, it can bring you to higher states of consciousness.” And then Rav Kaplan went on to write: “Didn’t Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, of blessed memory, teach a generation of yeshiva bachurim [young men] that for a niggun to be savored, it should not be sung for three minutes and then be discarded for a fresh one, but that it should be repeated for as long as forty-five minutes at a time? Then the meaning of the words beings to sink in and penetrate the emotions.)

“An important category of classical meditation is the path of the emotions, where one reaches a meditative state through the emotions, rather than through the intellect or senses. Since music can work very strongly on the emotions, it is particularly useful for this meditative method…

“The Hebrew word for music used in the case of Elisha is Nagen…[whose root] is also the base of the word Mug, meaning to melt. The main idea of music is therefore one of melting and breaking down. As used by the prophets, the purpose of music was to melt the emotions and break down the ego.

"The Kabbalists note that another important role of music and song is to cut through the forces of evil, and help the prophet penetrate the Klipot [shells or husks]. It is pointed out that the word Zamar, meaning “to sing,” as well as its derivative Mizmor, meaning a song or chant, comes from a root that also means “to cut.” Music thus cuts through the Husks of Evil, opening the way for the mind to ascend on high.

"It is significant to note that another word for song, Shir, is very closely related to the word Shur, meaning “to see.” This is another indication that song and vision are related, and this is especially true of mystical vision."

As you can see, twenty-three years later, Rav Aryeh Kaplan continues to inspire us! Zechuso yagein Aleinu!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Shabbos of Song and the Song of the Birds

Crossing the Dry Land at the splitting of the Reed Sea
[click to enlarge]

The Sfas Emes on Shiras HaYam

This Shabbos is Shabbos Shira, the Sabbath of Song, for we read Parshas Beshalach, which features the Shiras HaYam – the Song of the Sea, that the Jewish People were inspired to sing as they crossed the Yam Suf - Reed Sea [no, that’s not a typo – suf in Hebrew means “reed”, and it was an earlier typo that somehow it became “red”.]

In addition, last Erev Shabbos, the 5th of Shvat, was the 101st yahrzeit of the Sfas Emes, Rebbe Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, the second Gerer Rebbe. Since we didn’t manage to post something on his yahrzeit, at least a week shouldn’t go by without a Torah from him. So without further ado…

The very first Torah on Parshas Beshalach in the sefer Sfas Emes is from 5631 [1871]. There he brings the Midrash [Shemos Rabba, 23:1] which relates the verse, “Az Yashir Moshe – then Moshe sang” [Shemos 15:1], to the verse in Tehillim [93:2], “Nachon kisacha me’az – Your Throne is from then.” The Midrash explains that even though, “You [Hashem] are from eternity,” Your Throne was not established and You weren’t known in Your world until Your children sang Shira – hence “Nachon kisacha me’az.”

The Sfas Emes goes on to explain that at the time of Creation, Hashem’s Divine Providence was hidden. It was revealed at the time of the Redemption from Egypt. The “establishment of the Throne” thus refers to the establishment of the knowledge of Divine Providence in His creatures.

This can also answer another question posed in the Midrash: the verse says “Az yashir - [then Moshe] will sing,” rather than “shar – sang”. Every being has a point through which Hashem’s Glory is revealed. This is the idea of Perek Shira [a Midrash which describes the song of many of G-d’s creatures] – that each creature has a song of praise to Hashem. “Then [Moshe and] the Jewish People sang this Song – that is, the Song that is known to arise from all of the creatures; and the Jewish People caused all of Creation to sing, and to reveal the true point from where they stand – from the Life Force of Hashem that renews Creation daily.

All of this depends on Man’s deeds. When one performs a deed with dveykus [attachment] to Hashem, through the knowledge that all deeds come from the Life Force of G-d, in this manner the deed becomes clear; that is, the hidden aspect [that it’s the person’s deed alone] is removed and the inner part [that it comes from the Divine] is revealed. Thus with the word for song, Shira, we can explain that everything is drawn in a line and row [shura], to the Source which is the Life Force from Hashem. That is, as a result of the Emuna [faith, belief] in Hashem, the Jewish People sang Shira. [The verse preceding “Az yashir,” says “Vaya’aminu BaShem uv’Moshe avdo – they (the Jews) believed in Hashem, and in Moshe, His servant.” Our Sages explain that in the merit of Emuna that they had, they were able to sing Shira, and the Shechina (Divine Presence) rested upon them.]

The Song of the Birds

Children feeding the Birds at the Sea (from this website)

There is an ancient Jewish custom [minhag] to feed the birds on Shabbos Shira. I had learned that the reason for this minhag was because they didn't eat the Mon [manna], which is also mentioned in Parshas Beshalach [Shemos, 16:4-36].

However, today my good friend Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen sent me the following explanation, which he says is also mentioned in the new edition of the English Mishpacha magazine (page 33). Yosef has a wonderful website called Hazon - Our Universal Vision.


There is an ancient custom of our people during the winter season which expresses our gratitude towards the birds for a benefit which we received from them on our journey to Mount Sinai: There is a winter Shabbos when we read the Torah portion that includes the song which we sung after we crossed the sea, when we were saved from the Egyptian army that was chasing after us in order to enslave us again. This is a joyous song of deliverance, and it also alludes to the future age of universal redemption when all people will accept the sovereignty of the Compassionate One; thus, the song concludes with the words, "The Compassionate One shall reign for all eternity" (Exodus 15:18).

The Shabbos when we chant the Torah portion which includes this song is known as the "Shabbos of Song"; moreover, there is a special custom associated with this Shabbos which involves the birds. I will describe the custom as it is practiced in my community of Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem. Before sunset on Friday, we put out food for the wild birds. "Nefesh Kol Chai" cites Halachic sources which state that the reason for this custom is because the birds also sung a special song when we were delivered at the sea! We therefore express our appreciation to the birds for singing their song by giving them food just before the arrival of the Shabbos of Song; moreover, this custom reminds us of the great joy of the Song at the Sea (Aruch HaShulchan).

May we all be renewed with Faith and Song on this Shabbos Shira!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sweetening the Harsh Judgments

From Lazer Brody's wonderful Lazer Beams blog today [lightly edited]:
Rebbe Nachman of Breslev teaches us an easy way to rid ourselves of harsh judgments, as follows: Music sweetens harsh judgments. If you begin singing the words of your prayers with feeling and in a clear voice, you'll be actually robing the Holy Shechina (Divine Presence) in radiant garments. I do this all the time; almost every morning, I sing (after Baruch She'amar) Psalm 100 - Mizmor L'Todah or "A Song of Thanks" to [a] tune...That puts the rest of my morning prayers in an upbeat groove.
Listen Yossi, if you'll work with me, we can pull you out of the dumps in less than an hour. Learn
this niggun - it's Rebbe Nachman's Lecha Dodi played by my wonderful friends from Simply Tzfat. Now, if you go out to a park or for a walk along the river, and apply the words of Tefilla L'Ani (Psalm 102) to the above niggun, within two minutes the tears will be streaming down your face, you'll be praying from the heart, and you'll be breaking the back of all the harsh judgments against you. Watch how your entire life takes a turn for the better from a few minutes of meaningful prayer with a niggun...

The entire post is here. Thanks again, Reb Lazer!

THE MAHARYATZ [Frierdikker Rebbe] on NEGINA

Today, Yud [10th of] Shvat, is the yahrzeit of Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), the sixth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, who was one of the most remarkable Jewish personalities of the twentieth century. In his seventy years, he encountered every conceivable challenge to Jewish life: the persecutions and pogroms of Czarist Russia, Communism's war on Judaism, and melting-pot America's apathy and scorn toward the Torah and its precepts. The Rebbe was unique in that he not only experienced these chapters in Jewish history -- as did many of his generation -- but that, as a leader of his people, he actually faced them down, often single-handedly, and prevailed.


Some of his teachings about Negina:

*The Talmud presents the teachings of the Torah in a highly personalized form. Each statement is given with an author: Rabbi Akiva said such-and-such… The Talmud states: (Yerushalmi, Shabbos 1:2) When you say over a teaching you should see its author as if he were standing before you.
The previous Rebbe, says that this applies also to melody (and also telling a story). When one sings a melody relating to a great figure of the past, it is as if that person were actually present. A further point made by the previous Rebbe: “When one says over a Torah teaching, one is unifying oneself with the Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama [the lower three levels of the soul] of the author of that teaching. But if one sings his melody, one is joining with the Chaya-Yechida, [the upper two levels of his soul].” In other words, by singing the melody of a teacher one is entering into a bond which is even more powerful than that achieved by studying his Torah teaching.

*A melody should be sung with the same correctness that one would employ in citing a commentary on Torah learned from one’s teacher or Rabbi.

*Speech reveals the thought of the mind, but melody reveals the emotions of longing and delight. These stem from the inner self, from the very soul and are much higher than reason and intellect.

*Touching the Soul: Music has the potency to enter the person's consciousness and touch the essence of the soul. Thus, hearing is regarded as the most important and vital of all senses.

*A Chassidic melody fortifies hope and trust, brings joyousness, and places the home and family in a state of "light."

[thanks to A Simple Jew for these last two quotes]


The Chassidic Needle:
A Chassidic gathering often involves the injection of a medicine into the body with the prick of a needle. Chassidim rebuke one another regarding their character and behavior. These rebukes, though motivated by an inner love and a sense of concern for the spiritual health of one's fellow, often come in the form of a pricking needle -- much the same way that an injection of physical medicine, administered for positive ends and with the best of intentions, must often be accomplished by means of a prick.
But before the needle pricks living flesh, one must ensure that the needle, the hands of the injector, and the area of the injection, are all free of the most microscopic bit of foreign matter. With the neglect of this pre-condition, not only will the "remedy" be rendered utterly useless, but one endangers the very life of the patient, G-d forbid. For so long as this "contamination" remains outside, it can be eliminated or, at least, swept away; but should it enter within, G-d forbid, it inflicts great damage.
A gathering of Chassidim ("Chassidishe farbrengen") is a healing balm, a literal lifesaver, bringing unimaginable benefit. We have seen time and again how every Chassidic word penetrates to the innermost parts of the mind and heart, how every note of a Chassidic melody awakens the heart, brings it closer to goodness and cleaves it to the truth. But the healing medicines of a farbrengen are administered with a needle, that is, in a tone of rebuke. Therefore, great care must be taken that the "barb" be cleansed and sterilized of the slightest taint of antagonism and self-interest.


The Maharyatz [or Rebbe Rayatz], as the Frierdikker Rebbe was also called, lived through times of tremendous upheaval – from the Bolshevik Russian Revolution against the Czar, World Wars One and Two, through the massive assimilation of American Jewry. During his lifetime, he moved from Rostov [Russia] to Riga [Latvia] to Warsaw and Otvosk [Poland], and on to New York [America] via Berlin and Riga once again. During times of upheaval, many time-honored and ageless traditions tend to be lost: including Chabad niggunim that had been sung faithfully from the times of the Alter Rebbe, Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi. The Maharyatz put much effort into preserving these niggunim, and correcting the mistakes that had come about through the travail of the tumultuous times in which he had lived.

For example, the notes to the Alter Rebbe’s famous Niggun of Four Bavos [stanzas] were published in booklets by the Rebbe, with commentary. It was noted that it was composed by the Alter Rebbe, and sung only on special occasions, such as Simchas Torah, Purim, the 19th of Kislev [the Maggid of Mezritch’s yahrzeit, and the anniversary of the Alter Rebbe’s release from prison], and at weddings of the Lubavitch Rebbe’s family. Further instructions were included as to how it should be sung: beginning with fervor and moderately, raising the volume and fervor with each stanza; until the end, which is again sung somewhat quietly.

The Frierdikker Rebbe also sought to preserve the niggunim of other early Tzaddikim, such as those of Rebbe Yechiel Michel of Zlatchov and the Shpoler Zeide.

The Rebbe compared the procedure of kashering meat [by removing the blood] to avodas Hashem, as follows: in kashering meat, it is soaked, then salted, and then rinsed. The soaking is like soaking in the words of the Rebbe; the salting is like yechidus, a private tete-a-tete with the Rebbe; and the rinsing is compared to a niggun.

UPDATE: The "Beinoni" Niggun:

Composed by R. Aharon Charitonov, one of the great baalei menagnim [composers and/or singers] of Chabad, it was beloved and chosen by the Maharyatz and given the name "the Beinoni" ["Intermediate"], the level to which every Jew should strive, according to the sefer Tanya.

The Maharyatz wryly added: "It is very difficult to become a Beinoni [as described by the Tanya], but singing the Beinoni niggun does not have to be so hard." It can be heard here.

HAT TIP: My good friend, Yrachmiel Tilles of Ascent Institute in Tzfas.

Zechuso yagein aleinu v’al kol Yisrael, Amen!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


a Shtetl wedding - note the Klezmer at the lower left & in front of the Chupa
(click to enlarge)
Tonight and tomorrow, the 4th of Shvat, is the yahrzeit of Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov, a talmid of the Rebbe Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg. Born in the year 5505 [1745] in Brody, he was the author of several chiddushim on the Talmud [Chiddushei RaMaL], Likkutei RaMaL, and Toras RaMaL HaShalem. He subsequently became a Rebbe in his own right with many followers, and was famous primarily for his love of his fellow Jews and his creative musical talent. Amongst his talmidim were Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kossov [forerunner of the Vizhnitz dynasty], and Rebbe Tzvi Hersh of Ziditchov.


The great master woke in the morning. Today was a day of quest. There was no grail at the end, no pot of gold to find. The prize was the spirit ... the goal, an elevated sense of self. The Baal Shem Tov, the spiritual leader of Chassidus, walked out his door on such a journey. He went to a special clearing in the forest outside his village. In the clearing he lit a fire in a special way, a way that he had come to understand only through his studies. He then began to hum a special niggun, a song without words. As the melody floated ever softly towards the sky, a ray of light came down upon the spot where the Baal Shem now stood. A calm came over him as he had arrived at the heights of his spirit. He felt lighter now, his soul less burdened.

When his student, the Maggid of Mezritch came to him for guidance, the Baal Shem Tov had already forgotten the instructions for lighting the special fire, but he remembered where the spot was in the forest and he knew the melody of the niggun. The Maggid found the spot and sang the melody and he, too, reached the heights of his spirit.

The Maggid’s student, Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov, was known to say: “Not only have we forgotten the instructions for lighting the fire, but the melody, too has been lost. All we know is the place in the forest, and that is enough.” Finally, his student, Rabbi Yisrael [of Rizhin?] noted with sadness: “We no longer know how to light the fire or how to sing the melody, and we do not know the place. All we have is the story of how it was done.” And for him, that was enough.


NOTE: There is more than one version to the following story. What appears below is a condensed version of what Rabbi Eliahu Kitov z”l wrote in his sefer, Chassidim v’Anshei Maaseh, Vol. 2. [Another version appears in R. Shlomo Y. Zevin’s Sippurei Chassidim – Torah; story #164].

One episode in his life seemed to Rebbe Moshe Leib himself to be a high point of chessed.
At one point in his life, Rebbe Moshe Leib decided to move to Apt, a city known for raising Torah scholars. He and his family were traveling in their carriage and met up with two people on a horse and wagon -- one horse and a small wagon. Rebbe Moshe Leib recognized them as a poor father and his son on the way to get married to the daughter of the shamas [synagogue caretaker] of Apt. He went out to greet them and was struck by the sad expressions on their faces.

Rebbe Moshe Leib realized that the unfortunate couple hadn’t the wherewithal for even the basic wedding festivities, so right then and there he and his wife decided to sponsor the wedding. He said to the father and son, “A Chasan [groom] is like a king – you and your son deserve the best.” Rebbe Moshe Leib dressed the Chasan in his own clothes, fed them from his own provisions, sat him in his own carriage and sang and danced the Chasan and father into Apt.

When they reached the outskirts of Apt, Rebbe Moshe Leib and his two sons jumped out of the carriage, and he danced before the Chasan, while his sons played on drums. Eventually, the Chasan’s family alighted from the carriage and joined them. As they made their way down the main street of Apt, throngs of passers-by were pulled into the amazing circle of song and dance, until they reached the Kalla’s [bride's] house.

There, Rebbe Moshe Leib’s wife likewise cared for the Kalla, giving her beautiful clothing and jewelry, and preparing the wedding feast for them.

The Klezmer musicians of Apt were the finest in the entire region. Only the wealthy Jews from Apt and the surrounding towns could afford to hire them to play at their children’s weddings. That night, there was no wealthy man’s wedding for these musicians to play. But when they heard that the entire town had assembled at the wedding of this poor boy and the daughter of the Apter shamas, they decided to come with their instruments.

There was tremendous rejoicing in the town -- the townspeople of Apt, the parents of the Chasan and Kalla, and especially for the Chasan and Kalla themselves and for Rebbe Moshe Leib. In the middle of a particularly beautiful song he called out, “If only they would play this niggun as I leave this world.” The wedding feast went on and the slightly cryptic statement was forgotten.


Years passed, and after sojourning in various towns, Rebbe Moshe Leib returned to Sassov, his hometown, with which his name was associated. "A person never knows when he will breathe his last," he thought, "and if I can’t be buried in Yerushalayim, let me at least find my resting place near my ancestors." It wasn’t before long that he was niftar [passed away], on the 4th of Shvat, 5567 [1807].

On the evening of that very day, the wedding of an only daughter of a very wealthy man in Sassov was supposed to take place. The man spared no expense for his daughter’s chasuna, which included sending emissaries to Apt to invite the famous Klezmer musicians to play for the event.

That morning, Rebbe Moshe Leib davened his last Shacharis [morning prayer], and as he was taking off his tefillin, all those around him could see that his end was near. He, too, felt this, and called the fathers of the Chasan and Kalla over to his bedside. “I decree,” he said, mustering his last ounce of strength, “that your simcha [rejoicing] should not be affected in the least. Rejoice, and I will rejoice with you!” he declared, and expired.

The men, women and children of the entire town and its surrounding villages all turned out for the funeral of Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov. On their way to the cemetery, two wagons, full of people, were coming towards them. It was the musicians from Apt, with their assistants and instruments, who had come for the simchas Chasan and Kalla – the wedding of the wealthy man’s daughter!

Noticing the throngs of people, they inquired as to whose funeral it was. When they found out that it was none other than Rebbe Moshe Leib’s, they remembered his request of so many years before, at the wedding of the Apter’s shamas’ daughter: “If only they would play this niggun as I leave this world.” So many years had passed since they had played that tune, and oy! They had long since forgotten the incident along with the niggun!

But now, stopping at Rebbe Moshe Leib’s funeral, it all came back to them – the story and the niggun. They had to keep their promise! “It’s a mitzva to fulfill the command of a deceased one,” the Talmud tells us. And so, an ad hoc “beis din” [judicial court of three men] was convened at the cemetery, and they decided that the niggun would indeed be played! “And I will rejoice with you,” Rebbe Moshe Leib had said.

Picking up their instruments, the Klezmer band approached the open grave, which was surrounded on all sides. They began to sing and play their instruments, with that very niggun that they had played so many years before, at the wedding in Apt…and all those around them joined in.

This niggun can be heard on Akiva ben Chorin’s recording, Niggunei Aliya - Airs of Ascent, third track.
Zechuso shel Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov yagein Aleinu v'al kol Yisrael - may his merit indeed protect us!

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