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.