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Chabad in a Song: How Rabbi Schneur Zalman Captured the Soul of His Teachings in a Melody

Chabad in a Song: How Rabbi Schneur Zalman Captured the Soul of His Teachings in a Melody


A Talk by Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn of Lubavitch, Transcribed by His Son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak

Translated by Eli Rubin and Tzvi Freeman

Translator’s Preface:

A year after the Tanya was published in 1796, a group of chasidim came to its author, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, with a problem: They couldn’t understand the Tanya. Said Rabbi Shneur Zalman, “You can’t get half of anything. To understand the Tanya you need the music that comes with it.” It was from that point on that he began to teach the chassidim his melodies.1

"To understand the Tanya you need the music that comes with it."

The most exemplary of these melodies is the “Four Portals,” otherwise referred to by its Hebrew name, “Arbah Bavot,” or simply called “the Alter Rebbe’s melody.”

In the talk translated below, the fifth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn of Lubavitch, explains the message that this melody carries, delineating the role and place of each note in the the composition’s scheme, and in the devotional path it represents. According to Rabbi Shalom DovBer, Arbah Bavot is the musical embodiment of the Chabad ideal, depicting a synthesis of deep introspection and orderly down-to-earth practicality.

The talk was delivered on the 19th of Kislev 5663 (December 1902) in the great hall of the Yeshivah Tomchei Temimim, during the festive meal hosted by the Yeshivah faculty in honour of the festival of redemption (Yud Tes Kislev), in the presence of all the faculty, and in the presence of all the students of the Yeshivah. As they sang the melody, piece by piece, together with Rabbi Shalom Dovber, he would explain each part in depth. It was transcribed by Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.2

The transcript paints a picture of the rarefied atmosphere and the inner fire burning in the souls of those singing the melody and imbibing the Rebbe’s words as he drew a connection between the four portals and the four supernal worlds, the four letters of the divine name, and the five levels of the soul.

For this translation, we’ve chosen to pick out a thread of commentary on how the melody gives voice to the journey of the human soul as it strives towards the divine. Rabbi Shalom DovBer concludes this thread by explaining how Rabbi Schneur Zalman encapsulated the entirety of the Chabad path within the nuanced phrases of this four part melody.


An instrumental rendition of the Alter Rebbe's melody:


At half past five in the morning, my father, the Rebbe, instructed that the melody of the Alter Rebbe should be sung... [Here, Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s talk begins:]

We should sing the Rebbe’s melody, which is known by the name “the melody of four portals.”

When you repeat something in the name of the one who first said it, it's as though that author of that statement is standing there before you. Saying something means drawing it out of concealment. So when we repeat something in the name of the one who first said it, we’re drawing out the original author of the saying, and we bond with him.

We need to connect ourselves to the Rebbe with our inner faculties—emotion and intellect—and with our transcendental faculties—desire and pleasure. But we can only make that connection if we work in an orderly progression, through the practical faculties of thought, speech and action.

Early chasidim would say: When you tell a story about the Rebbe, you bond yourself to the Rebbe’s faculty of action. When you repeat a teaching of the Rebbe, you bond with the Rebbe’s faculty of speech. When you sing a melody composed by the Rebbe, you bond with the Rebbe’s faculty of thought.

"Each of the four portals of this melody has its specific effect, both an internal effect and an encompassing effect."


Each of the four portals of this melody has its specific effect, both an internal effect and an encompassing effect.

The first portal brings you to a state of detachment, and then into deep thought. The beginning of the melody shakes you up. It shifts you from your place, so that you break away from the mundane environment, from mundane worries and concerns, from all the things you need. Then it continues, taking you into a yet deeper state of thought. You begin to ponder why you are needed, what is the purpose of being in this world.

The second portal of the melody is connected to the first. At its opening you can sense a taste of bitterness. But immediately it moves on upward, toward hopefulness.

The bitter nuances and the hopeful, uplifting nuances both come out of the shakeup and the introspection of the first portal: When you are shaken up and detached from your place, there’s an element of bitterness—the discomfort and embitterment over your spiritual situation. When you meditate profoundly on the divine purpose for which you are here in this world, that brings a ray of hope, and a movement upwards.

The bitterness and the upward movement are two opposites.

Bitterness is brokenness. It causes lowliness and meekness—a downcast spirit that breaks your entire being and tears it into tiny pieces. The uplifting movement, however, emerges from a sense of your essential self-worth—from the sense that after all, regardless of your lowly spiritual state, you are a human being, the chosen of all creations, and you can always return [teshuvah] and set yourself back in the place where you belong.

These two opposite themes, bitterness and ascent, are fused together through the theme of hope. When you contemplate the divine intent that brought you into the world, hope emerges. The very introspection into your failings—the very sense of deficiency, the feeling that you are lacking in some way—that itself is the beginning of the remedy.

"All the ill people and all their illnesses will be healed by the messiah—except for a fool. For the fool is completely unaware that he is ill and that foolishness is a fault."

There is a well-known saying: All the ill people and all their illnesses will be healed by the messiah—except for a fool. For the fool is completely unaware that he is ill and that foolishness is a fault. The very awareness, the very fact that you know that you have some fault—that already is an antidote. It’s not only your intellectualor emotional lackings that are fixed via such knowledge, but even knowing and becoming sensitive to a lack of enlightenment, that itself is the beginning of healing.

The third portal of this melody, although in essence connected to the fourth portal, follows, nevertheless, after the second portal.3The second portal contains that upward movement, and functions like the koreich-sandwich of Passover: the sense of hope that unites the maror—bitterness—with the matzah—uplifting faith. It is then that you come to the third portal of the melody.

The third portal lifts the soul above and beyond. Yes, it follows after the second portal, and in the second portal you feel a powerful bitterness. Nevertheless, in the third portal the emphasis is on the sense of transcendent elevation along with an outpouring of the soul.

[The third portal will be returned to after the nature of the fourth portal is better understood.—translator]

The fourth portal: In the progression upward, the fourth portal comes after the third portal. But in truth, the fourth portal is in its essence entirely removed from the third portal. You can see what a qualitative leap lies between the third and fourth portals by the very particular effect the fourth portal achieves. The fourth portal brings out euphoria of the soul (עליצת הנפש). Not mere elevation of the soul (רוממות הנפש), but euphoria of the soul.

* * *

[In the next few paragraphs “elevation of the soul,” as expressed in the third portal, is discussed in more detail. The fourth portal, and the euphoria of the soul expressed therein, will be returned to later —translator.]

Elevation of the soul is a very lofty experience, a product of the purity of the soul—the essential, pristine clarity of the soul. Nevertheless, however lofty an experience it may be, elevation of the soul is produced by a cause, and that cause is of lower quality than its effect: Just as the bitterness, hope and ascent of the second portal are a result of the detachment, shake-up and introspection of the first portal, similarly the elevation of the soul expressed in the third portal is the collective result of the bitterness, hope and ascent of the second.

* * *

Certainly, there is a huge difference between the way in which the effect is built in the second portal, and the way in which the effect is built in the third portal. The effect in the second portal is a positive, inductive one (חיובי); the second portal has a direct relationship with the first. The effect in the third portal, however, is a negative, deductive one (שלילי); the third portal has no direct relationship with the second.

Those who study chasidic teachings know that the concepts “positive” and “negative” (חיוב and שלילה, inductive and deductive) are equivalent to the concepts of “investment” and “divestment” (הלבשהand הפשטה, tangibility and abstraction). The second portal follows the first and has a relationship with the first. Therefore, the effect comes in the form of investment4. The third portal, although it too follows the second portal, nevertheless has no direct relationship with it, therefore the effect is in the form of divestment5.

"You can’t start with utter abstraction; step by step progression entails that you must first begin with vested induction and only afterwards proceed to divested abstraction."

Investment and divestment are two utterly distinct qualities. Divestment does not mean simply to strip away the vestments of a tangible concept. That is no more than the negation of the positive (שלילת החיוב)6. Divestment means absolute negation (שלילה עצמית). Absolute negation is an entirely distinct form of knowledge than knowledge arrived at through positive, inductive reasoning7.

[It follows that “elevation of the soul” is an experience so abstract that it cannot at all be conceived of in the same terms as the tangible experiences (bitterness, hope and ascent) expressed in the second portal —translator.]

Nevertheless, the elevation of the soul expressed in the third portal flows from the concepts contained in the second portal, just as divested abstraction follows after invested tangibility. You can’t start with utter abstraction; step by step progression entails that you must first begin with vested induction and only afterwards proceed to divested abstraction.8

Elevation of the soul is an experience of divestment. Nevertheless, it comes by way of investment. It’s that investment that is the catalyst for divestment. Therefore, even as you experience such a lofty elevation of the soul, there lingers this sense of dissatisfaction with yourself. You crave and thirst to reach yet higher. That thirst is the outpouring of the soul that stems from elevation of the soul.

[Here, we continue to discuss euphoria of the soul as expressed in the fourth portal.—translator]

Euphoria of the soul, on the other hand, does not follow from anything at all. It is the quintessential holiness of the soul as it is a part of the quintessence of the divine. Of this it is said, “the quintessence, when you grasp a part of it, you grasp all of it.”9 The quintessence cannot be divided into any parts and from there the soul’s euphoria is derived—a quintessential euphoria born of the quintessential delight that derives from the quintessence of the soul (עליצה עצמית פון תענוג העצמי מצד עצם הנשמה).10

The fourth portal has a connection specifically with the first portal. There are two reasons for this and one cause.

The first reason why the fourth portal has a connection with the first is because the higher something is, the greater its potential to descend downward when it needs to be drawn downward.

The second reason why the fourth portal has a connection specifically with the first is because “the beginning is implanted in the end;”11 the planting of the beginning is in the end. These two reasons both result from one cause: because G‑d desired for Himself a dwelling in the lower realm through the service of man…

* * *

"In this melody Rabbi Schneur Zalman articulates his approach to chasidism and illustrates the Chabad chasid’s path of divine service."

In this melody Rabbi Schneur Zalman articulates his approach to chasidism and illustrates the Chabad chasid’s path of divine service.

There two types of tzadikim, with two different paths: There are tzadikim who are removed from the world, and tzadikim who are involved in the world.

These two types of tzadikim both toil in the paths of divine service, and both are occupied with carrying out the supernal intention—that G‑d desired for himself a dwelling in the lower realm through the service of man. Nevertheless, they are distinguished in the ways and manner of their service.

The tzadikim who are removed from the world follow a top-down path. They serve G‑d by elevating earthly matters to a higher spiritual level (העלאה).

The tzadikim who are involved in the world follow a path that moves from the bottom up. They serve G‑d by working with the matters of this world, refining them to reveal their innate value (בירור).12

Rabbi Shneur Zalman revealed and founded the Chabad chasidic path in the second manner, a path directed from the bottom up, through a labor of distilling and refining. One of the conditions of this path of service is that, regardless of how high your station may be, your service must always be connected to the lower realm. This means that the one doing the refining must invest himself into the situation of the one who is to be refined and only in that way does he refine him and raise him up.13

In all four portals of the melody, this affinity to the lower realm is always apparent. Even in the fourth portal, which is essentially distinct from the previous three portals, the affinity with the lower realm is apparent.

This is the true path of Chabad: Even the loftiest and most profound thought and the deepest concept must result in a practical application in divine service—making the physical lower realm a vessel fit to receive the essential loftiness of divinity.

* * *

A video of this melody being sung in the presence of the seventh Rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson:


Sefer Ha’Sichot 5703, page 93.


The transcript of this talk is appended to a letter published in Igrot Kodesh Ha-rayatz Vol. 2, p. 208-220, and in Ha-tamim Vol. 5, p. 58 [482]. A more cryptic version of this talk can be found in Torat Shalom Sefer Ha-sichot, p. 23-25. Both versions of the talk were transcribed by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. Where relevant, selections from the Torat Shalom version will be cited in the footnotes below.


In Torat Shalom (p. 23) this point is connected to the idea that the second portal corresponds to yetzira and the third to briyah:

[3]“One who is sensitive and has a musical ear, senses that the third portal is different from the first two portals, having more of a connection to the fourth portal specifically. The intention in this relates to the connection that briyah has to atzilut specifically, for briyah does not have such a connection to yetzirah and asiyah. Yetzirah and asiyah have a relationship with one another, whereas briyah has more of relationship to atzilus then it does to yetzirah and asiyah. Although elsewhere it is explained otherwise, here it is explained in this way. For so one sees tangibly that although thought [a parable for briyah] relates to speech [a parable for yetzirah], and that speech gives expression to thought, nevertheless, thought is closer to the soul [the inner self] than the manner in which it is close to speech. Thought is the garment of the soul [the soul’s most direct and ready form of expression] as is known. Therefore, it is tangibly seen that those who by nature are given to thoughtfulness are essentially removed from speech. They are withdrawn from speech...


I.e. the cause is tangibly discernable in the effect it produces and therefore a direct relationship exists between them


I.e. the cause remains removed and cannot be discerned in its transcendent, or abstracted, effect


I.e. the inversion of the direct and tangible form of expression


I.e. it is not simply the absence of tangibility, but rather an entity in its own right.


To elaborate: While the vested and tangible experiences pave the way for transcendental abstraction, their effect is not directly vested, nor apparent, in the divested experience of elevated abstraction. The latter experience is in a category unto itself, but can only be arrived at and have meaning in the context of the earlier induction.


This statement is recorded by Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonne in the name of the Baal Shem Tov. Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Yitro, Mitzvat Anochi.


In an earlier section of this talk (not reproduced here) Rabbi Shalom DovBer explained that the essentiality of the soul is itself a part of G‑d’s essential whole, and therefore carries an absolute and intrinsic value that can never be compromised.


Sefer Yetsira (The Book of Formation, an ancient Kabbalistic text)


Elevation centers around lifting things up to a higher level. It is limited in that it can only deal with that which readily disposes itself to such elevation. Refinement is a process of discovering the good within each thing, separating it from the dross and then reconnecting that spark of good to its origin. This is a “longer-shorter” path, in that it requires much more labor, but ultimately results in a broader and lasting elevation.


In Torat Shalom, p. 24:

[13]“We find great and true tzadikim who drew away from the world (they withdrew from the world) for twenty years or more, not speaking at all. This is because they rose up into the ascent of thought... and became entirely removed from the world, like Rabbi Meir Perishlaner who was in truth a great tzadik. However Chabad cannot tolerate such conduct. For in Chabad, regardless of one’s place and station, one’s influence must be directed specifically downwards. Someone who talks of those tzadikim mentioned above, in a non-flattering manner is a complete fool. Only that the true way of Chabad is that in every place and station that one has attained, the influence should be directed downward.”

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The life, teachings and works of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad.
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