Contact Us

Words of Song

Words of Song


In the year 1884 or 1885, when I was four or five years old, I was learning in cheder (Jewish day school). My classroom was adjacent to the study hall, and my teacher was Reb Zusia. My father would pray all three daily prayers in the study hall, and he prayed at length. He would sing in prayer and walk back and forth here to there, snap his fingers and wave his hands in the air. The tallit (prayer shawl) wasn’t covering his face–it was just over his head—so that the tefillin (phylacteries) remained uncovered. Except on Shabbat—then his face was covered as well.

I was a small child, four or five years, and so I grew up understanding that prayer means singing. I’ll give you an example: My father at that time would eat at Grandmother’s home. My uncle ate by himself. Many times, my uncle would grab me playfully and ask, “What’s your father doing?” Once, when he did this, I remember answering, “My father is praying and eating.” You see, at the Shabbat meal my father would sing a chassidic melody at every opportunity. And my understanding was that prayer and singing are one thing, so I said he was “davening (praying) and eating.”

Once upon a time a chassidic melody was a something.

—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe
(Sefer Hasichot 5705, p. 17)

There are words of speech and words of thought. Words of thought have more meaning. If we could tune into each other’s words of thought, it would be very enlightening (although not necessarily in things we want to be enlightened about). Words of speech, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch said, reveal to others but hide your own self. Words of thought hide from others, but reveal yourself.

Words of thought glow with light. Yet words of speech are more powerful. In the Kabbalah, they are Leah (thought) and Rachel (speech). And, as the story goes, “Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.” And so we find in the Zohar, “Words of thought accomplish nothing. Words of speech climb above and have an effect.”

But then, there is another kind of word which wins on all counts. A kind of word that speaks to others and speaks to you as well, without compromise. A word where speech and thought fuse as one. And those words are the words of song.

No, no, I don’t mean words that are sung. I mean the words that music speaks on its own. The nuances and motifs of every melody. Those, too, have the quality of words: they are sequential, and the sequence is crucial. They communicate. And they emerge naturally from the soul just as do words. But from a deeper place. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi said, “If words are the pen of the heart, song is the pen of the soul.”

The difference is that words of thought and speech carry from inside out, from up to down, from the abstract and ethereal to the tangible, defined and concrete.

Song, on the other hand, carries upwards. Song takes the discrete, defined boundaries in which we have boxed ourselves, our feelings and our ideas, and transports them upward to a place where essences are more important than their containers, and the inner oneness of things is revealed, and all merges in magnificent harmony.

So, our prayers are made of these three forms of words, and if one is missing, the prayer is incomplete. You can’t think prayers without speaking them, or speak without thinking them. And they aren’t prayers until you sing them.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Painting by Chassidic artist Hendel Lieberman.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1000 characters remaining
Anonymous Qr November 8, 2013

Those were the days when our parents taught us by example. There are remembrances attached to us forever; customs, traditions, habits inherited from our parents who in turn inherited from our grandparents. Surely Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn loved the traditions of his home, those traditions permeated his being and he grew up to become like his father. To me that is the lesson of this article -- forget what my parents taught to me while I was with them would be a terrible mistake. Reply

sheiraley westlake vill, ca May 8, 2011

singing thank you for trying altho i really love Chassidus and the community and so many families i have to move on
I am also a Chosen Daughter of the Most High
I cannot be stifled anymore the women's groups do not listen well they seem to have ADD or perhaps jealousy and envy issues and these gatherings do not happen very often either Reply

Anonymous Tzfat, israel April 25, 2011

Dearest shirley Honey, you are a musical tune!
All women are! even when we are silent, we spread our beautiful tunes of inner beauty and sincerity wherever we go...You can be a beautiful niggun wherever you go, just by your countenance and presence. And it's all in the mind...Sure there are some sour pusses out there who dont sing and just sulk all the time. But there are plenty plenty of strong, joyous, charming Jewish young ladies out there who love to sing to Hashem and do...they find a way to do it without singing in front of men. And they inspire many others to as well! singing is a gift! use it to light up the darkness...don't just go where you'll be appreciated....if you're really a star you'll make others see and appreciate you and their own gifts wherever you go. just like that.
G-d bless you wherever you decide to go! Reply

shirley westlake vill, ca January 17, 2010

never my family I go to people's home who have families on Shabbos. Unfortunately i never had children.
but I play and have fun with the children of the tribe anywhere.
I also bang on the table and clap my hands and encourage the children to sing when I am there.
On my own I sing to G-d
I tried singing for the women; and I found it draining. there is so much jealousy.

I decided this Saturday will be my last time to be part of the Chassidic community.
i am going to go to the Presbyterians who love to hear me sing
and to the Catholics
and the Baptists
who realise it raises everybody's spirits when i sing Reply

Tzvi Freeman Tribal Encampment January 17, 2010

Re: so I lose out then Shirley, I know this is a real issue. I know it's a pain. Until the moshiach comes, we have to find ways to work around it.

If it's only your family sitting at the table, it's okay to sing. Also, in our community, there are women's groups that meet regularly to say tehillim, sing and tell stories. There are also women-only concerts.

You should sing as much as you can when you pray and otherwise. You should use your voice to serve G-d. The halacha is a constant reminder that your voice has a purpose to serve G-d. Reply

shirley westlake vill, ca January 16, 2010

so I lose out then I love Chabad and Chasidis but for 20 years I have gone in and out of the community
I am a singer, too. But I cannot sing at the shabbos table and welcome the King of the Universe because I am a woman
too many times I have had to stifle this joy rising in me and not permit use of all my talents and faculties.
Who knows what damage that is doing to me or how it has cost me to be stunted in this area.
I also want to bring light and joy into the world
I can only do that if I visit the Christian churches where they love to hear me sing Reply

vedaal April 20, 2004

words of song what are your views about the spoken prayers of the Jewish Deaf,
who were formed by the Creator as He saw fit,
without them needing this dimension of audible song,
to express the fervent feelings


Related Topics
This page in other languages