The time had arrived to inform Yaakov that his beloved son Yosef was still alive. His eleven brothers were in a quandary. “If we abruptly tell Yaakov that Yosef is alive,” they agonized, “his soul might fly away.” So what did they do? “They instructed Serach bas Asher, ‘Tell your father that Yosef is alive and that he is in Egypt.’ What did she do? She waited until he was in prayer and then said with an intonation of surprise, ‘Is Yosef in Egypt, and have Menashe and Ephrayim been born on his knees?’ His heart grew faint as he stood in prayer. After he finished, he saw the wagons and immediately, the heart of Yaakov our father lived” (Medrash Hagadol Bereishis 45:26).
According to other sources, the brothers used another tactic to soften the news of Yosef’s survival. They gave Serach bas Asher a harp and told her to sing the good tidings of Yosef’s survival to Yaakov. As reward for restoring Yaakov’s heart to life, he blessed her with eternal life, and she played a vital part in the redemption from Egypt.
A Bridge Between Worlds
This is only one incident in which music plays a vital part in Jewish life and history. For the Jew, music has always been a vital part of existence, a tangible link to the invisible realm of spirituality. Indeed, according to the Maavor Yabok, the reason a Jew enjoys a niggun is that before descending into this world he was accustomed to the songs of the ministering angels and the song of the galgalim (heavenly spheres). Thus, music is a blend of the physical and spiritual and a vital adjunct to avodas Hashem, opening doors inaccessible by any other route.
As Chazal state, “There is a palace of tears that no one has permission to open except through tears, and there is a palace of music that no one has permission to open except through music. Thus, King Dovid approached this palace with music, and concerning this it says [about Elisha] (Melachim II 3:15), ‘Behold, when the musician played, [the spirit of Hashem came upon him]’” (Tikunei Zohar 11).
Similarly, Chazal say, “’Honor Hashem with your wealth (mei’honecha)’ (Mishlei 3:9)… Mei’honecha [may be read as] mei’chonecha (with your chen, your beauty), with the joy of niggun in order to gladden the heart” (Zohar Shemos 93a).
This glorious concept reaches its highest culmination in the Levites’ musical accompaniment to the sacrifices. The Ramban (Toras Ha’adam, Shaar Hagemul 124) writes that since nothing in the physical world is as ethereal and fine as music, this provides the harp and musical instruments of the Mikdosh with the power to help man link with the higher realms of spirituality. According to Rav Nachman of Breslov, this idea is hinted in the Levites’ very name, Levi, which has a connotation of attachment. As Leah said after his birth (Bereishis 20:9), “This time, my husband will be companion to me (yilaveh eilai) me, etc.”
Thus, it is easy to understand why the Levites bit off their thumbs rather than desecrate Hashem’s song for their captors’ entertainment during the Babylonian exile.
According to one approach of the Tosafos HaRosh (Kiddushin 69b), these same Levites who had maimed their hands were the first to return back to Eretz Yisroel, and Ezra was faced with a problem, as they were incapable of playing the harp and flute during the sacrificial services. His solution was to provide them with other instruments that could be played without thumbs. The sefer Ohr Moshe points out that there is Scriptural support for this approach, because unlike verses in Divrei Hayomim (5:13), for example, that mention Levites using “cymbals, flutes, and harps,” the beginning of Ezra (3:8) omits flutes and harps, writing only that, “The Levites, the sons of Assaf, [came] with cymbals to give praise to Hashem.”
Music in Exile
After the second Churban, music took a different course. The original Jewish niggunim became lost. There were two reasons for this: one of them, the forgetfulness incurred through the passing of decades and centuries. The Ritva (Rosh Hashanah 33) points out that musical styles change from generation to generation, and uses this principal to explain how the Gemara could have any doubts regarding how exactly to blow the shofar when it is blown every year. Surely the tradition of shofar blowing went right back to Moshe?
In answer to this question, the Ritva explains: “The earlier generations certainly blew the teruah as they saw Moshe do so. However, [the exact knowledge of] that teruah was lost in the generations of the Tannoim and later times, because the Torah merely stated teruah, a broken sound such as is made by a broken person. The Torah said that all should follow this one style. However, the generations were not consistent regarding this matter, because you find among niggunim, that a sound that was a song for a past generation becomes a sad sound for another generation, and the same happened to the teruah. The later generations did not make broken sounds to express their sorrow the same way as earlier [generations] did.”
A second reason Jews forgot their old niggunim is the tendency to absorb the music of surrounding cultures. The Responsa K’rach shel Romi authored by the Italian poseik, Rav Moshe Yisroel Chazan, describes this phenomenon in detail.
“It has been said that the only [original] tune that remains to us is the niggun ‘L’Dovid, Hashem tzuri,’” he writes. “There are two reasons to say this, first, because it is a fast tune, rising in tempo, like a real martial song, and secondly, it is amazing that every Jew, everywhere, whether in Africa, Asia, or Europe, uses the same tune for this psalm. This is amazing, because they do not share any [other] tunes of prayer or avodah, since in Arab countries all the prayer tunes are Arabic, and in the lands of Edom the tunes are of Edom, whereas for this psalm they all use the same tune.
“I traveled in many of the large countries of these places, investigated the matter, and found that it was true. This is a major indication that this tune is the only inheritance left from our forefathers and there is nothing else.”
How did the original tunes get lost?
“Wherever Yisroel went into exile, they learnt the tunes of those lands,” he explains. “In Eretz Yisroel and all Arabia, the tunes of their prayers and Kaddish and kedusha are all Arab tunes, and in Turkey they are Turkish, and in Edom they are Edom[ite]. Who can deny reality? …It is clear that they only insist that the language of prayer] should be like Lashon Hakodesh, but regarding the tunes? What can we do, now that not a trace of our holy niggunim is left to us?” (Responsa 1).
Despite the foreign origin of some of our niggunim, they assume sanctity of their own. The Maharil (Yom Kippur page 47b) writes: “One should not alter the minhag of a place in anything, even with niggunim that are not usually said there.” The Maharil was careful to daven the nusach and tunes of wherever he was visiting and writes that his daughter died when hecertain place and inserted a piyut the people were unaccustomed to saying. In a similar vein, many holy Chassidic niggunim have their origin in Cossack song and Russian military marches.
All this only applies to the adoption of certain foreign tunes to holy purposes, because, like everything in this world, music too is utilized for good and evil. Rav Hillel of Kolamai complained that the increasing trend of Jews to attend non-Jewish concerts was killing Jewish souls, deriving this from the verse that discusses the invention of music: “She [Ada] bore… Yuval who was the originator of all who hold the harp and the flute, and Tzila too (gam hi) bore Tuval Kayin, the sharpener of all tools of copper and iron, etc.” Why the extra words gam hi? To teach that just as Tuval Kayin’s weapons were murderous, so too are Yuval’s instruments when people use them for perverse purpose.
A Conduit to Wisdom
Music is an important part not only of prayer, but also of Torah study. As the Gemara Megillah (32a) says, “Whoever reads [verses] without a pleasant tune and learns Mishnah without song, of the verse says (Yechezkel 20), “So too, I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances with which one does not live.”
Tosfos explain that the tune helped people remember the Mishnayos by heart, and the Shaloh Hakadosh (Masseches Shavuos; chapter Ner Mitzvah 33) lists it as eighth in his fifteen requirements for successful learning: “One should learn with shir (song), both Scripture and Mishnah, and this is why you find old Mishnayos that have musical notations.”
The Tiferes Yisroel (Erchin 4:1) utilizes this logic to explain the Gemara’s frequent trend of answering questions with the explanation that Mishnayos are missing words, which must be mentally filled in to grasp the Tanna’s real intent.
“But why didn’t they [the Tannoim] correct the Mishnah?” the Tiferes Yisroel wonders. “Why did the Tanna use incomplete wording?”
To answer this, he cites Tosfos who says that niggunim were a memory aid. “Because of this,” the Tiferes Yisroel writes, “the Tanna often chose a particular word according to the special tune of the Mishnah. Therefore, part of a Mishnah, which sometimes seems superfluous… is only to regulate the stanzas of the Mishnah according to its tune. Similarly, even when the Mishnah was lacking words they left it so… because if the words were altered their special tune with its mnemonic device would be muddled.”
The Pe’as Hashulchan writes in his introduction that according to the Gro, music is not merely an aid to remembering wisdom, but also a royal road to its deeper understanding. “Most of the ta’amei Torah and secrets of the songs of the Levites and secrets of the Tikunei Zohar cannot be known without it,” he writes, “and through it, people can die of longing through its pleasantness, and revive the dead with the secrets hidden in the Torah.”
In summation, for the Jew, music is no mere entertainment but a connection to higher worlds and a gateway to Torah and prayer.
(Main source: Otzer Hayedi’os of Rav Yechiel Michel Stern.)