The Lullaby

The night before "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of G-d shouted for joy,"1 Rabbi Akiva Greenberg sat by the bedside of his children and lulled them to sleep with a very special niggun that few have ever sung or heard of. The niggun that Reb Akiva sang could only have come from heaven--like a G-d-given business card that says, "Call me when you need me." However, according to a chasidic tradition, the niggun must have sojourned solely for a time in the heart and soul of one Elimelech of Lizhensk.2

For what could be simpler than a niggun sung by Reb Elimelech! In his time he was known as the little Baal Shem Tov,3 who said: "If they had left me alone, if they had left me in peace for two years, I would have made the Messiah come."4 Brother of Reb Zisha5 (who was known for his compassion), Reb Elimelech, chief rebbe of Galicia (who was known for his severe authority), was "the practical man who translated abstract concepts into simple language for simple people."6 But his music to G-d, like the niggun Reb Akiva sang to his children at bedtime, was not only a simple message for simple people, it was also a plea that could readily bring tears to the eyes of G-d.

"Oy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoyyyyy." As the song winds along with its precious few notes, in the sing-song sacred to talmudic syllables, Reb Akiva ponders the deep, religious fervor he has found through song--this one in particular. "Oy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoyyyyy." Reb Akiva recalls the first time he heard that song, and if that were the last song he ever hear--chas vesholom!--but then Orthodox Jews don't deal with "perhaps" and "what ifs"--only in realities, so Reb Akiva perishes the unwanted thought.

Instead he focuses on the reality, and such a reality happened to Reb Akiva, as a young man in search of a yeshivah to learn and a niggun to sing. Leaving the United States, he enrolled in Ponevezer Yeshivah, a misnaged yeshivah in Benei Brak, Israel, in the early 1950s. Quickly attracted to the Vizhnitzer Rebbe who held his court for chasidim in Tel Aviv, every Shabbos afternoon the young Akiva would sneak out of the misnaged yeshivah and walk 3-1/3 hours to Tel Aviv, where he'd spend the rest of Shabbos among the Vizhnitzer chasidim, deep into the night and early morning partaking of delicious foods, listening to stories of the Baal Shem Tov and, of course, singing niggunim. At such times, deep in song and prayer, it seemed to Reb Akiva that he did not belong to this world at all. Reb Akiva found what he was searching for, in a place where lay rich treasures and still fairer hopes. Understandably, each Motzoei Shabbos it was difficult to leave Tel Aviv and bus back to his yeshivah, but Reb Akiva knew he'd be back the following weekend, as it is written, "Man is not taken away before he has heard what he has come to hear and before he has said what he has come to say."


Suddenly the scene in Rabbi Greenberg's head shifts. He is back in his yeshivah. For some reason he takes a different turn and opens a door. Inside are two bochurim, known as the Weisblum brothers, one of them Akiva's classmate. He greets them and they greet him. They do not ask whence he came, and he does not ask them where they spent their Shabbos. "Gut voch" (Good week) allows each to get right to the point.

Akiva speaks first (after he closes the door behind him): "Look, you don't have anything to be afraid of me, but I would like to know the truth. Are you guys related or descended from the family of Rebbe Elimelech? Weisblum was his surname, too."

The two looked at each other, smiled, then said yes.

"So what is the relationship?" Akiva asked his classmate.

The classmate's older brother spoke: "We're eighth generation descendants of this Rebbe Elimelech."

Akiva had to take a seat, he couldn't believe his ears and eyes. Then he said, "Tell me, what traditions have been handed down to you about the Rebbe Elimelech in your family?"

The classmate interjected, "I know he was very tall and thin. Red-haired. Held his pants up with a straw belt, I think. Very strict in demeanor. Even in his home."

His brother then told Akiva his ancestor used to preach that the first duty of a chasid consists of reverence for the tzaddik. "In fact, don't quote me, but I was told by my parents that my ancestor opened the era of the tzaddik. The rebbe-tzaddik came into his own. Reb Elimelech paved the way for the tzaddik to be considered a 'middleman between Israel and G-d,'" he said. "He intercedes with G-d to bestow upon the faithful all earthly blessings--'life, children, and sustenance.'7 There's so much to this ... do you want me to go on?"

"Not for the moment, because the hour is late and I'm very tired, but please tell me," asked Akiva, "do you have any tradition in your family regarding niggunim from Rebbe Elimelech?"

Both brothers quickly said yes, and suddenly the yawning Akiva livened up.


The older brother again answered: "We have one niggun that has come down to us that the Rebbe Elimelech made."

"Made? Composed?" Akiva stood up on his feet and ran to the door--the brothers also leapt up, not knowing what to expect. Akiva shut the bolt on the door, then returned to the brothers. "I'm not letting you out of here until you teach me this niggun."

So all three sat down again, and they taught Akiva the niggun. "Oy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoyyyyy."

Reb Akiva remembers it well, right from the outset; "I never heard it from anybody else, other descendants of Rebbe Elimelech included. There's a cassette of niggunim recently come out that are attributed to Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, but it's not on the tape. The niggun has no name, it's bittersweet, beautiful and short, and it struck me that one day I could use it as a lullaby to rock my children--which," here Reb Akiva chuckled, "I must tell you I had none at the time to rock to sleep at night."

In the stillness of his apartment, with now his children grown up with their own children, Reb Akiva sang the lullaby niggun, in the same fresh and loving vein we can safely assume he sings to his grandchildren when he is with them.

"Oy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoy--yoyyyyy . . ."

When he finishes singing the wordless song, Reb Akiva says: "For me a niggun is always very subjective. To the one who listens to a niggun, it may be nice or not nice, lovely or not lovely, etc. But it's always full of meaning for the one who sings it because the meaning of the niggun is to a great degree dependent on the circumstances under which the person learned the niggun.

"That's why a niggun my Rebbe taught me is very dear to me; a niggun that I did not learn from my Rebbe can also be very beautiful and very nice, yet it doesn't have the same meaning, the same effect on me. So, it makes sense, that a niggun--what it means to the person who hears it and to the person who sings it--depends on a lot more than the musical value of the niggun.

"This niggun, according to these two brothers, was one of the first niggunim composed by the Rebbe Elimelech himself. As such, it stands out to me as such, almost in a class by itself. Learning that particular niggun--well, I might say--was like hearing it from Rebbi Elimelech's lips himself."


The young Rabbi Akiva Greenberg heard what he came to hear and, profusely thanking the Weisblum brothers for their gift of the niggun, said what he had to say. There was no further information from the brothers--under what circumstances Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk composed or sang the niggun, or anything else about it except that it was his--this song that all sons of Israel needed to hear to brave the dark unknown of sleep and to look forward to the dawn, when their souls returned to their bodies, and "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of G-d shouted for joy."

There's another story connected to this niggun, which brings a satisfied smile to Reb Akiva's face.

"Talk about a blessing! Talk about a gift!" Reb Akiva went on to explain himself. "In the Talmud,8 it's said that to get a gift means to return one. What gift? This niggun. To return to whom? I didn't know for a long time. Would I ever know? Of course. There used to be in Williamsburg [Brooklyn, New York] up till this year [1992] a descendant of the Rebbe Elimelech, who was the Stashover Rebbe. A very old man, very old, and the story about him was that when he reached a very old age the Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk came to him in a dream and said to him, 'Start to give berochos [blessings]. You've nothing to be afraid of. You're an old man already anyhow. So when the time comes for you to go, you won't have to worry about anything.'

"Immediately the Stashover Rebbe began to give berochos in his old age to people, and all kinds of miraculous things happened. Every one of his blessings rang true. Some people had children. Some were cured of harsh diseases. That's the story about him.

"One day I took a couple to see him. And when they were done seeing him, the Stashover Rebbe turned to me, and asked me what it was I came for. I said, 'First of all I came to bring this couple to you; second, I came to sing you a niggun. He was very surprised. People don't come to a rebbe to sing him a niggun.'

"The Rebbe looked surprised. Perhaps he was thinking, everyone comes to ask something from him, and here's a fellow who wants to give him something. A pleasant switch. And it's true, I wanted to give him a gift, a blessing, so I told him the story under what circumstances I learned this niggun, that "it was my favorite lullaby," and he settled himself back and listened to the niggun, and was very pleased with it, and he gave me a berochah. That was the last time I saw him; very shortly after that he passed away."

Reb Akiva sighed, and I sighed, too.

We both sensed the reality of a Jew's life. Every man needs a lullaby, as it is written, "Man is not taken away before he has heard what he has come to hear and before he has said what he has come to say."


1. Job 38:7.

2. 1717-1786. Chasidic Rebbe, popularly known as the No'am Elimelech, after the title of his work.

3. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760, founder of Chasidus.

4. Elie Wiesel, Souls On Fire (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993), 123.

5. 1718-1800. Rabbi Meshullam Zisha of Hanipol.

6. Wiesel, Souls On Fire, 122.

7. Hayye, bane, u-mezone--allusion to a well-known talmudic dictum; Mo'ed Katan 28.

8. Talmud, Sukkah.

Back to "Niggun"