The Music of Return

There is a Jewish pied piper among us. Often he strolls through Crown Heights and Flatbush, frequently through Greenwich Village. Many times he performs in holy places, invariably in Golus (Exile), yet always the haunting music he plays returns when you need it most.

Wherever he roves, out of his head comes forth the music played on the ancient musical instruments of Yuval, and one of the few things this pied piper of Chasidus tells his listeners is, "You don't sing a niggun, it sings itself."

"Niggun, niggun, though I loved thee, I did not yet know thee. Tell me of my Creator and His creation. You are the reason of the heart that reason can not understand."

It's in the stillness of rooms made for the heart that this pied piper is surrounded by a mystical circle of ecstatic Jews who follow not him but to the place where it leads: the "ladder to the Throne of G-d." His songs play like prayers.

But before I tell you why, you should know the Aggadah tells us, that one of the musical instruments employed in the Temple service in Jerusalem was a pipe, made of ordinary reed, smooth and slender, dating back to the days of Moses.

When the king saw how valuable it was, he ordered that the pipe be encrusted with gold. After that, whenever the pipe was played during the Temple service, its voice was no longer as clear as it was before. So the king had the gold removed from the reed, and the pipe's voice again sounded as sweet as ever.

And so it is with this modern-day pied piper, Chaim Binyomin Burston, whose own musical roots are deep--and unencrusted--in Yiddishkeit, except that instead of a reed pipe, he uses the latest digital keyboard to play niggunim pure and simple.

As a young yeshivah student in Kfar Chabad, Israel, he spent many Shabbos afternoons, after the Minchah service, joining hundreds of other students in songs that seemed to dance and skip along the darkening walls and ceilings of the yeshivah. There, he fully felt the power of the niggun.

Others have felt that same power of the niggun. For instance, at a different time, across the world, in Crown Heights, a brand-new yeshivah student complained how hard a chasidic text (Tanya) was to comprehend. In response, his rabbi asked him to "sing along with us." The new student was about to experience his first niggun. The reassuring rabbi said, "Don't worry, Eliyahu, you're in good company. Rabbi Dov Ber,1 the son and successor of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi,2 often used to say, 'My saintly father could penetrate into the innermost recesses of a chasid's soul by either a word of Chasidus or a niggun.'"

The yeshivah rabbi was absolutely right. Eliyahu was never the same again after he sang his first niggun. In the words of his chasidic teacher, "Eliyahu's soul had linked, for those brief minutes, in dveikus (attaching oneself to divinity). He fully grasped the words of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, himself a young man when he said them, 'Speech is the pen of the heart, while melody is the pen of the soul.'"

In a Jew's heart and mind, there's always room for more tears and more joy, the mix that makes his neshomah--his Jewish soul--so well connected to the realms of heavens.

Nobody invents niggunim. The niggun takes you through a door, to a ladder which you climb up, whereupon you gaze upon the face of Creation, then you climb down the ladder, whereupon you leave by the door you entered. Where are you then? Not exactly at the same place, but always where you started. For that's the power of the niggun: it's a revolving musical door--always returning you to earth so that you can--no, you must!--share the experience with others, your friends, your family, with yourself, the Torah insight, the truth that has never been known to you until that very moment.

To the chasidim, the followers of the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1700), founder of Chasidism, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chasidism, the 18th century mystical song was an integral part of the prayer experience. Many chasidic rabbis felt that words were an impediment to spiritual expression, a wall standing between the communion of the individual and his G-d. Consequently, many niggunim were sung without words.

There's a legendary story about Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. In his time there were anti-chasidic scholars who lived in a town called Shklov. All reasonable intellectuals, they never opposed anything without a rationale. So a group of them confronted the Alter Rebbe with questions concerning Chabad philosophy, and he entertained each one's question but did not answer it. Then he took them all in one room and joined them. There, he sang one of his famous wordless niggunim.

Everyone heard the same niggun, but everyone heard his own answer to his own question. It didn't end there, however. For many years, they continued--as followers--to ask him many more questions.

Who can explain that?

In Chasidus there are two kinds of questions. One kind is a purely intellectual question. It could be a simple request, such as, 'How do I get to Lincoln Center?' When he receives, with a certain mental understanding about how to go from one place to another, his answer, the question is over. There's another question that's called a "heart question." Not a question of the intellect, but a question of the heart. The difference is that when you answer that question, the next day the person will have another question--or even the same question.

"I recall when I first became an Orthodox Jew," said Chaim Binyomin, "one of my closest friends asked me every question on his mind: Why was I doing this? Why was I doing that? And in the beginning I'd answer them and explain and explain. I remember once, as I was preparing to go back to my yeshivah, this same friend suddenly raised the same questions again. Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that? That is when I realized that you can explain why for an eternity. The questions are emotional and they aren't satisfied with an intellectual answer."

Wherever he goes, Chaim Binyomin holds classes or musicales to promote his special arrangements of wordless niggunim, which he also has produced commercially on audio cassettes. After playing a few niggunim, he found, Jews--some who have musical appreciation from Yehudi Menuhin to Heavy Metal--will have more emotional questions than intellectual questions.

"When people bring their emotional resistance to a regular class," Chaim Binyomin said, "then you can intellectualize, you can explain, and after a while you hope they're satisfied and affected. But when people come to a class centered around niggunim--in other words, not intellectual by and large but filled with emotionality--where the music is purely Jewish, and in a different dimension altogether that reaches straight to the heart, it does something that intellect cannot necessarily do."

A niggun plays like a prayer. When a person davens, he mouths words. When a person reads a newspaper, he's also mouthing words. Both, of course, are utterances involving the mouth, the lips and the teeth. What's the difference? The difference is that in the davening there is a koach--a strength. Every Jew who davens uses this koach in his words to send them to Yerushalayim, where they are picked up by angels and brought to G-d. With the words of the newspaper, that is as far as they go.

A niggun also has its koach. Once you hear a niggun, you know it's more than music. "The beauty of them is that they're profound and simple at the same time," Chaim Binyomin said. "As Chasidus tells us, 'The highest level of G-dliness is simplicity.'"

Worth mentioning is another story of the rhapsodic fame and simplicity of niggunim, again involving Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. A man of unconventional ways, he filled his homilies with folk tales and wise sayings of the Jewish People. One day, as he preached in the shul, he noticed the bewildered look of an old man who was trying hard to get the drift of his words. After he had finished his sermon and the congregation was departing, he said to told man:

"I saw by the expression on your face that you did not understand my sermon."

"Yes, you are right, Rebbe," confessed the old man.

The modest Rebbe apologized, saying, "It may have been my fault. Perhaps I was not clear enough. At any rate, I'm going to sing to you now, for melody goes right to the heart and the understanding where words fail."

And so he threw his head back, and closing his eyes, sang with ecstasy a niggun, the song of return. As the old man listened his face lit up.

"I understand your sermon now, Rebbe!" he exclaimed happily.

According to Nathan Ausubel, the author of A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, "there are an astonishing number of Hasidic songs and dances, representing probably the most distinguished and original element in the musical creation of the Jewish folk. Like their lyrics, Hasidic tunes are steeped in mystical rapture. . . . The lively, the ecstatic ones, usually served as vocal obligati to the famed dances of the mystic circle."3

Comparatively of slower movement are the cadre of ten Chabad niggunim with a distinctive character and temperament of their own, created by Rabbi Zalman. Although he didn't write the first niggun nor did he write the last one, his ten are greatly revered as the classics of Chabad niggunim the world over.

Chasidic and liturgical music, known as neginah, can be traced to the Divine service in the Temple of old, where the Levites accompanied it by vocal and instrumental music, which was absolutely essentially to the service. Sound and rhythm, beat and movement, meter and tempo--all had their place in the Temple service in those days.

That was way back then. Today, niggunim have generally been consigned to proper places in shuls, before, during and after davening, and farbrengens (informal chasidic gatherings). Which means not too many people are exposed to them, unless they happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Many people are not interested in going to a formal class or to a shul for a night of Yiddishkeit where a rabbi is speaking. But to hear via a friend about a musical experience, a mystical transportation, where there's going to be a live concert atmosphere and food served, they come in ever-increasing numbers to hear Chaim Binyomin perform niggunim.

The first person in the Torah who invented musical instruments was Yuval (Jubal). In Genesis, it says he was the father of the flute, the wind instruments, and the harp, the strings. Now what is the etymology of Yuval? It means "to transport." The whole idea of music is to transport the person's soul. However, it's really not only a matter of being transported, but also a matter of where you are going--and in what shape you'll return.

Are niggunim New Age music?

Admittedly, in the way Chaim Binyomin performes niggunim, they come off, in a certain sense, very much New Age, because people listening to them get the feeling of being transported and raised through meditation to an elevated state.

But niggunim listeners quickly learn that these Jewish melodies are hundreds of years old, in a very pure musical form, with melody that is extremely meaningful to them.

Where does a niggun come from? It is a pure Jewish song that has its roots in holiness composed by a rebbe, or a chasid who's on a high level of attachment to G-d.

"A niggun," Chaim Binyomin said, "is conceived at a time of inspiration in a Jew's davening or other G-dly experience. Through him, but not from him. He is a vehicle for the niggun from a higher source; as it says in Chasidus or Kabbalah, there are different palaces, there are certain divine realms of influence above; there's the source of teshuvah [repentance] above, there's the source of different kinds of berochos [blessings] above, and there's also a certain spiritual realm of niggunim above, where all the niggunim exist from the beginning of time, waiting for the right Jewish soul to go up into this realm and bring down a niggun like a blessing from the upper world to the lower world."

Niggunim, as recorded in the three tapes by Chaim Binyomin Burston, are truly the music of return. "In Jewish tradition," Chaim Binyomin said, "elevation without return is not valid. The essence of Judaism and G-dliness is the combination of opposites.

"Elevation and return are one such combination of opposites. Go up, take your inspiration, come down and translate it into deeds for everyday life. That is the Jewish point of view."

"After all this, Chaim Binyomin, how does your old school friend feel about your Yiddishkeit now?"

Chaim Binyomin grinned.

"Well, you know, he still asks countless questions, but that is the nature of all searching Jews. What pleases me most, however, is that we're closer than ever. He's come to love niggunim and through them has involved himself in his own search for answers. Which means he too is well along the path to Yiddishkeit."

That is what the haunting music of return--the deep calling unto the deep--is all about.


1. Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch, the "Mitteler Rebbe." 1774-1827.

2. 1745-1812. Founder of Chabad Chasidism. Also known as the Alter Rebbe and the Baal Hatanya.

3. Nathan Ausubel, ed., A Treasury of Jewish Folklore (New York: Crown Publishers, 1948).

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