What's A Niggun?

When does a Jew sing? a Hebrew writer once asked. His answer: when he is hungry.

Truth is, a Jew is always hungry, and to most observant Jews the niggun (a wordless song, but not necessarily) is the fastest way to feed his hunger. Hungry, a Jew searches because his Jewish soul won't let him rest until he has come to hear what he needs to hear and to say what he needs to say. Hungry, he turns to music when words fail and he looks up to Him and sings his heart out. With the right intent, any Jew who sings a niggun always reaches his Creator.

In a sense, a niggun is a combination of parent-child sounds that no one else can understand. "Ya--na--na--ya--na--pa--pa--yaya--ya"--a stammering infant language G-d created for us when our feelings are too delicate or too intimate for others to hear.


A child speaks this perfect language, but forgets it when he learns his parent's language. Yet nothing is lost to a Jew. One day, when he is at his wit's end, the parent rediscovers suddenly, in singing a niggun, the language of the child in him. Then he speaks to his Father, and all becomes right. This is what a niggun is for.

As for the person who has not yet a child? He who experiences such inner aspect of a deeply moving emotion, through a niggun is flooded with light, beauty, and soul, above all, awareness of details, even those that are related to the emotion.

For, in calling his Father in heaven, is he not also calling for himself? The need for acceptance is forever with us. Hungry, we need our Father to feed us, so we can in turn feed our child--including the child in us or the child not yet born.

What is a niggun? Why do I ask the question again? Because a niggun means one thing to its singer and another thing to its listener. "Ya--na--na--ya--na--pa--pa--yaya--ya." At this level, when the sounds of the niggun reach G-d, he beholds his beloved, yearning child on earth, and there comes an awareness only when the intensity of the joy subsides. G-d moves towards this lower level of experience, the child becomes closer to the existence of definable experiences, and the world of speech. This setting is no more dramatized than in the holiest part of the Shemoneh Esrei, in the Jewish prayer service, when both G-d and the Jew physically move toward each other: Then, nothing better can be exchanged than a simple song in which the highest inner level of experience is expressible.

For me a niggun comes down to this: I can't carry a tune across a street, but I can tell a story that reaches up to Him, as long as I keep one typing finger on my computer at such times.

With this in mind I present a collection of stories--stories did I say? A better word is "prayers"--that have helped me learn more about my ancient Jewish heritage. Guaranteed they'll do that much for you, too. I've been told--and my wife Ada has repeated that over and over to me--that the niggun is the quickest way to G-G-d's innermost ear.

Countless religious scholars have written much about niggunim, and you can look it up--provided you read Yiddish or Hebrew, the languages the scholars wrote in. This book, niggun, written in English, is not scholarly, although I've kept to the facts and managed to tell the stories behind these unusual songs. And what stories they are!

For centuries, Jews have sung these niggunim every chance they had--in synagogue, at farbrengens (Chasidishe get-togethers), around the Shabbos dinner table, and surely in the privacy of their own worlds, including the shower. The songs are very special. Some have words, many others don't. But each has a story, expressing an inner state of the soul, that must be told, and must be heard.

So now come with me into the ancient and modern worlds of the niggun. Niggun centers on stories, truth and poetry, that connect Jews to G-d through specific niggunim. Each chapter generally deals with one niggun. Once you take a look at my table of contents you'll see the variety of religious experiences, which, hopefully, will encourage at least one person, besides me, to reclaim his inheritance and share the Jewish legacy. With that in mind I began my book and with that in mind I ended my book.

My "look it up" sections, at the end of the book, include a glossary, a genealogy of outstanding chasidic rebbes, a discography of available chasidic niggunim on cassettes, and a final word, "My Swan Song, Kosher, Of Course."

Back to "Niggun"