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Music, Spirituality and Transformation

Music, Spirituality and Transformation

The centrality of song in Chabad

''King David'' by chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman
"King David" by chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman

Nigun (ni-gun): n., plural: nigunim, a song of the Kabbalistic/Chassidic tradition, generally without words. Considered a path to higher consciousness and transformation of being.

“If words are the pen of the heart,” taught Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “then song is the pen of the soul.” The soul’s pen, however, writes in the opposite direction from the heart’s. While words carry meaning downwards from G‑d’s own primal consciousness into the minds of sages and the lips of prophets to inscribe them upon human hearts, song carries the soul upwards to be absorbed within the Infinite Light.

That is why nigunim generally have no words. Words limit and define, but the nigun tears the soul beyond all bounds. Beyond words.

A tzaddik (“righteous person”) is one who has mastered the animal inside and achieved a higher state of being. In a nigun, a tzaddik encodes his soul. When we sing a nigun of a tzaddik, we connect with the innermost garments of the tzaddik’s soul, and from there come to union with the light that tzaddik has found.

That is why each note and nuance of a nigun must be precise. As the words of a sacred text, they must be learnt and repeated in perfect form. Because the tzaddik’s mind and soul are held within them.

The parts of the nigun are called “gates”—entrances from one spiritual world to a higher one. Each demands not only new breath, but a new state of consciousness. The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer, taught, “Each gate must be repeated twice. The first time only traces a form; the second time carves deep into the soul.”

That is why a nigun must never be rushed. The pace, the silence, the mindfulness—all must be preserved in order that the nigun reach deep inside.

The holy rebbe Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch taught: “A nigun opens windows in the soul.” First there must be deep contemplation, focusing the mind upon the oneness of the cosmos and its Creator, to see that unity within each thing until it becomes more real than even your sense of self. But the contemplation may remain frozen in the realm of cold intellect. With a nigun, what is held imprisoned deep in the soul pours down into the mind, and from the mind to the heart. Meditation may enlighten the intellect, but a nigun can uplift and transform all of your being.

That is why the ancient prophets would sing and play musical instruments as they awaited the gift of prophecy. In this way they would strip themselves of the barriers of body and mind, opening themselves as channels of the Infinite Light. Not for the sake of transcendence alone, but to draw that transcendence down to earth, to awaken the hearts of humankind to the inner truths of life on earth.

“Song,” wrote the second Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Dovber, “lies at the core of life; its source is in the most supernal ecstasy.” And he explained:

“A river went out from Eden to water the garden . . .” (Genesis 2:10): from the source of all delight, the river of life flows downward, branching outward to each world and every created being. Each thing thirsts to rejoin with its source above, and from that yearning comes its song, and with that song it comes alive. The heavens sing, the sun, the planets and the moon; each animal, each plant, each rock has its particular song, according to how it receives life. Until the entire cosmos pulsates with a symphony of countless angels and souls and animals and plants, and even every drop of water and molecule of air, singing the song that gives it life.

That is why a nigun brings a surge of new life and healing, sweetens the bitter soul and fills a home with light—like the songs sung by David for King Saul, which healed his bitter spirit.

A song is oneness. A song turns around upon itself in a circle of oneness, until there is no beginning or end. And as the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, taught, a song unites those who sing and hear it: When words are spoken, we each hear the words according to our understanding. But in song, we are all united in a single pulse and a single melody.

That is why it is said, “All the world will sing a new song,” in the messianic era coming very soon upon us—a song of the essential oneness expressed throughout our world.

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 .
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Michael Cambridge, MA April 20, 2017

Dear Rabbi Freeman,

What is the exact source (book and page) of:

“If words are the pen of the heart,” taught Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “then song is the pen of the soul.”

I see it repeated over and over on the internet, all without citation.
Please advise.

In addition, would you please cite for "Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch taught: 'A nigun opens windows in the soul.'"


Student Reply

Zalman NYC May 23, 2016


That we know of, he didn't compose. But there were Nigunim that he particularly liked and were sound often by his farbrengens.

One such Nigun, the "Beinoni", was composed by R' Aaron Charitonow, and was very much endeared by the Fridiker Rebbe, and we ascribe that Niggun to the Friediker Rebbe

Check out "the Beinoni" on this website or Google. Reply

Anonymous USA May 22, 2016

question Did The Rebbe Rayatz (the Friediker Rebbe) compose or present any nigunim? Reply

Zalman NYC November 17, 2014

Thank you! Thank you Rabbi Freeman for your quick response.

I was just wondering if you have that letter printed somewhere if it could be referenced or if it could e viewed online. I would love to see it!

Thanks again!


Tzvi Freeman November 16, 2014

Re: Source (Zalman) Very sorry I did not provide sources. In more recent articles, we've been trying to source everything.

Everything quoted above can be found (with a reference) in the preface to Sefer Hanigunim. All except for the last one. That was a letter the Rebbe wrote to concert at which I performed with the Baal Shem Tov band, in Vancouver, in 1977 (or 78). Reply

Zalman NYC November 16, 2014

Source BH

Hi and thank you for your beautiful article!

I wondered if you had sources for these - specifically I wondered if you could provide a source for the last one - the one from the Rebbe regarding oneness that is in song/singing. I would like to write this on our music school's cover sheets tomorrow and it would be proper to provide a source.

Thanks very much in advance,

Anonymous Ny July 4, 2014

Music Bh. Rabbi Freeman I believe plays guitar very well. Maybe he can share some of his compositions/arrangements with us Reply

Anonymous March 18, 2014

Sources Please Reply

ezra Brooklyn. NY January 7, 2014

music meditation Rabbi Freeman. As Always impressed with your article, question: do you play any music instruments your self?

Ben Palo Alto November 7, 2012

Sivan! Sivan!
I love your comment!
and I urge you to move closer to a Chabad and to sing nigunim with other Jews more often!
Many blessings!

Anonymous January 12, 2011

question As regarding "A song is oneness", is audible prayer considered reading (we hear) or singing (we unite)? Reply

Lyle Lexier Vancouver, Canada December 6, 2010

Nigun I enjoyed your essay on Nigun (of Chassidic tradition). Reply

S March 15, 2010

music notes You can find the notes to chabad nigunim (melodies) on
When you click on any of the songs, besides playing it for you, it gives you the notes as well. Enjoy! Reply

Chani Benjaminson, December 7, 2008

notes Some of the notes are available at this link in the Jewish music section. Reply

thekla slan zürich, ch December 5, 2008

i would be interested in the notes for the music of the songs where can i find them? Reply

masha raizer san diego, CA February 13, 2006

I LOVE YOUR SITE! Thank you so much for posting these up. I really enjoy reading them. They are perfect for Judaica classes. Reply

Sivan ben Asher washington, indiana November 3, 2005

site I love your website!!! My wife and I live in washington, Indiana and are probably the only Jews here! No shuls at all. The nearest is Chabad (this is on a campus....we are a little out of place because we arein our 50s!) which is about 70 miles away. Thank Hashem and thank you for being here for us in this way. Reply

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