In addition to being Tu Bishvat—The New Year for the Trees, a minor holiday which has been increasing in significance due to its environmental and Kabbalistic themes, this past Shabbat happened also to be Shabbat Shira or the Shabbat of Song. Shabbat Shira is one of several Shabbatot throughout the year with special names which these Shabbatot are given either because of their proximity to a holiday or due to the Torah or Haftorah reading for that day. Shabbat Shira falls into the latter camp.
On Shabbat Shira, we read Parashat Beshalach (Exodus/Shemot 13:17-17:16) which includes Shirat HaYam—the Song at the Sea. The Haftorah for this Shabbat includes Shirat Devorah—the Prophetess Devorah’s song (Judges/Shoftim 4:4-5:31). Shabbat Shira has become a time for communities across the spectrum of observance to focus especially on song, either by increasing singing during services or in some other way.
Music has always played an important role in Jewish religious and spiritual expression, and there has been a renaissance of new musical forms and modes of expression in recent decades. As someone who connects most deeply to spirituality through music, I find this all very exciting. The nigun or wordless melody which came into existence as a result of the advent of the Hasidic Movement in the 18th Century C.E. is one of the most popular in my experience. The term nigun, which comes from the Hebrew shoresh nun gimel nun is also shared by the word “manginah” or melody. It has long been noted that music has the power to move people and to unleash emotions in a way that other forms of expression cannot. Listening to nigunim, as well as participating in the singing of one can be an incredibly beautiful and powerful spiritual experience and I find this indeed to be true for me. Singing a nigun is also a very powerful communal bonding experience. Nigunim have also been referred to as a spiritual or mystical language that transcends words.
Although nigunim are most often without words, they may also be comprised of simple phrases usually taken from Jewish liturgy. Although most commonly sung a cappella, nigunim may be accompanied by instruments. People sing nigunim while sitting around the Shabbat table, as a way of beginning and ending a meditation sit, as part of prayers in the synagogue, or at a tish. A tish, which comes from the Yiddish for table involves people coming together to learn words of Torah, sing and partake in the occasional l’chayim.
The founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (literally master of the good name) taught that music is an incredibly powerful form of spiritual expression, indeed more powerful than traditional Jewish prayer and a path to G-d that transcends the limitations of human language. This notion is still resonant for many today, both within the Hasidic community and outside of it. The Baal Shem Tov composed many nigunim or had many attributed to him which still survive to the present day, as do those of many other Hasidic masters.
The origins of the many melodies used for nigunim are incredibly diverse. While the composer of many are known for certain, others were adapted from Eastern European folksongs, dances and even the occasional drinking song. There are also many contemporary composers of nigunim, including Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach Z.L. and Joey Weisenberg, who is an incredibly popular figure amongst the independent minyanim that exist across the United States, in the UK, Israel and beyond. These communities are not affiliated with any established Jewish denomination.
Nigunim are sung throughout the Jewish world and have been enormously influential. The Jewish Renewal Movement, which began in the 1960’s and 1970’s has done a great deal to popularize them for liberal Jews, turning them into an integral part of the prayer experience. Music can play such a pivotal role in one’s personal and communal spirituality, and the singing of a nigun is one path of many for doing so, lifting up what can be, for many of us, a prayer experience that is done on autopilot, purely by wrote into something truly transcendent and difficult to adequately express through the medium of the written word.