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Is There Mystical Meaning in Klezmer?

Is There Mystical Meaning in Klezmer?

Why Jewish music is (so often) in minor



It seems that Hebrew music is always in minor. Is that correct, and if so, is there a spiritual significance?


I also found this intriguing. Even more intriguing is the explanation I found in Shaarei Teshuva, a mystical work written by Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch in the early 19th century.

First of all, some preface: Western music is generally divided into major and minor modalities. Music in minor can express sadness, yearning, bitterness or some such dark mood, whereas music in major expresses joy, victory, strength and the like. (To keep it simple: major modes are those with major thirds, while minors have minor thirds.)

Generally speaking, you are right about the repertoire of Jewish music with which most of us are familiar. While there are many traditional melodies in the major modes, the minor modes (including something called Dorian and another called Moorish) certainly seem dominant.

On the other hand, Arabic and East Indian music have many more of those qualities that give the minor modes their melancholy and yearning tone. Thinking about it, the music with which Jewish people generally identify seems to fall somewhere smack in between European and Arabic culture. It's true that this is where we have been for the past 2000 years—dancing back and forth between these two mega-cultures. And it's true that much of Jewish-identified music comes from southeastern Europe, an area occupied by the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and heavily influenced by Turko-Arabic culture. Yet it's hard not to think that there must be much more to it than that.

Music & Soul

The music of a people reflects its soul. Plato and Aristotle believed that you could overturn an entire nation simply by changing the modalities of its music. The music with which we identify as a people should give us some major clue as to who we are at a soul level. This is where the commentary from Shaarei Teshuva comes in:

The Zohar tells us that the souls of the Jewish People are split into two branches: Those related mostly to Abraham and those most related to Isaac. The Abraham souls descended into exile among the spiritual descendants of Esau—meaning Christendom and European culture, while the Isaac souls are exiled among the spiritual descendants of Ishmael—meaning the world of Islam and Arabic culture.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob reflect the three principal modalities of the sefirot: Abraham embodies Chesed—a positive, giving flow of light . Isaac embodies the Divine aspect of Gevurah--a negative, powerful restraining of light. Jacob, who embodies the entire Jewish People, also embodies the middle path of beauty, compassion and truth, which harmonizes and synthesizes Abraham and Isaac as one.

Here's how Ishmael and Esau fit into the picture: They are the modalities of their respective fathers gone wild. Ishmael is the son of Abraham, so he takes this positive flow to an extreme, being "a wild man, his hand on all others and their hand on him." Esau is the son of Isaac, and he takes Isaac's negative, restraining power to its extreme, with a powerful drive to conquer and subdue.

It would seem then, that Ishmael should love upbeat, joyful music and Esau should be attracted to harsh and bitter music—yet in fact, we see the opposite. But this is the way things work: Enjoyment always comes from opposites. Just like on a hot day, an ice cream is pleasurable, and on a cold day, a hot chocolate does the job, so too the hot, exuberant soul of Ishmael finds pleasure in cold, bitter music and the cold, harsh soul of Esau finds pleasure in hot, sweet music.

Now, you ask, what are the positively charged souls of Abraham doing among the negatively charged souls of Esau, while the negatively charged souls of Isaac are stuck within the positively charged souls of Ishmael? The answer is that they are there to heal them, and healing can only come from an opposing force.

After all, the problem of Esau and Ishmael is that they are extremists. Placing their opposites among them is meant to temper and heal that extremism. The other, related problem is that their joy and pleasure is by nature directed selfishly. This too, can be healed through their music.

The Abraham souls living with Esau, take his music and play it in a deeper, tempered way. Esau is rejoicing over his own happiness and wealth, and Jews play back that music rejoicing in the sweetness of the soul and of life, tempered with a touch of melancholy. Meanwhile, the Isaac souls living among Ishmael take his unending bitterness over the tragedies that affect him and play it back to express the bitterness of the soul over the tragedy of its descent to this world, far from its home—tempered with hope that its longing will be fulfilled and it shall return.

Diatonic World

Although the U.N. lists 192 nations, the Torah lists seventy families of humankind. This, R. Dov Ber writes, is because there are ten facets of seven different modes of emotion. Each people has its particular facet, reflected in its flavor of music. In order for the world to reach its ultimate messianic state, each nation's music must be uplifted and refined. Esau and Ishmael are simply the two branches of chesed and gevurah upon which all these smaller branches grow.

Ultimately, through a refinement of Esau and Ishmael and all their branches, the mission of the Jewish People for which they entered exile is complete, and their time of redemption arrives. The Shaarei Teshuva concludes:

"With all this, we understand how at the end of this era, the ultimate redemption is not through the seed of Abraham, but through the seed of Isaac who are in the exile of Ishmael, singing their melancholy melodies…"

"Even though most of the exiles live among the nations of Edom and Yavan [Rome and Greece—meaning Western culture] etc., nevertheless, the main redemption depends upon the fall of the angel appointed over Ishmael, as written in the Zohar. And this is sufficient for those that understand."

I can't say I am really among "those that understand," but what I do get is that:

  1. Jewish music is the music of the nations among whom we live, invested with a Jewish soul to temper that music. If so, the music of Ashkenazi Jews, living in Europe, will be slightly more minor than the music of the people around them.

  2. The principal purpose of Jewish music is to refine and transform humanity, thereby bringing the messianic era. This is accomplished chiefly through the minor mode, which elevates the side of gevurah and transforms Ishmael.

Let me know if this is as fascinating to you as it is to me.

If you are looking for selections of Jewish music on our site, you'll find that at our music site. And here's a list of more essays on music, including the Kabbalistic perspective.

Source: Shaarei Teshuvah 89d

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 .
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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stephen victor USA January 21, 2015

Thank you, Rabbi Freeman. Makes perfect sense. Perhaps I misread it the first time around. Reply

Tzvi Freeman January 21, 2015

For Stephen Victor Sorry it's taken so long to get to it, but it's important to answer your question.

If I understand your question correctly, I believe it was answered within the article, when I wrote: "Now, you ask, what are the positively charged souls of Abraham doing among the negatively charged souls of Esau, while the negatively charged souls of Isaac are stuck within the positively charged souls of Ishmael? The answer is that they are there to heal them, and healing can only come from an opposing force."

As I answered in the article, Ishmael takes the chesed of Abraham to the extreme, while Esau takes the gevurah of Isaac to its extreme. Therefore, each must be tempered by their converse counterpart in kedushah. Abraham souls temper the extremism of their opposite—Esau, while Isaac souls temper the extremism of their opposite—Ishmael. Reply

Aaron Winnipeg January 19, 2015

G-d's all around us, Rabbi Freeman. Even in our music. Thank you for the fascinating article. Reply

Anonymous Omaha, Nebraska January 16, 2015

Super Interesting So glad I read this article, helps explain my own music to me and understand it better. From what I can understand it is like music is it's own holy language to a point and that it can bring healing and such on it's own, added to it the holy language of Hebrew then great spiritual renewal can come about. It is like the music of Peter, Paul and Mary helping to bring about social reforms during that period of time in the 60's and other music of that era as well. I totally see how music can assist in bringing in the Messianic era. When I hear the Shema I hear it in song form and envision G-d calling the whole Jewish people back to him and see them returning and knowing again who they are in G-d and that they are one again, all in agreement. Makes me wonder if songs of this type are more in the lines of a different version or manner of prayer. Reply

Anonymous 36265 January 16, 2015

I found this fascinating also! In my journey to Torah study, I became aware that songs in minor keys elevated my ability to meditate and ultimately understand Torah better. They also drew my heart to yearn to know Him more. This article also gave me a clearer perspective of some very puzzling relationships as well! Thank you.
MGC Reply

GreensteinGreenstein Honk Kong January 15, 2015

Thank you Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. A good good Shabbos:) Reply

Malka Ft Myers via January 15, 2015

fascinating! Music is always a hot topic...what's Jewish music, what is not, what is "pareve," what affects the soul, etc. etc.
I'll have to re-read this, to more fully understand the concepts you've presented, but thank you so much! Reply

José F Orozco Ayuso Texas January 15, 2015

What about us, Sephardic Jews? Reply

Nick Los Angeles January 15, 2015

Elevating Ishmail How is this elevating gevurah? If Ishmail is chesed, then Israel should be fixing up the side of chesed! What does uplifting their music of gevurah have to do with that? Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel January 15, 2015

Klezmer and the Soul I have often wondered how to get in communication with my soul and perhaps undo all the bad influences that it probably contains due to my irreligious nature. The only way seem to me to be through music, klezmer in particular so I would like to know how musicians are able to do it. Reply

Anonymous New Mexico January 15, 2015

Wonderful, wonderful:) Thank you Rabbi. I am a Jewish musician (who plays jazz and other kinds of music in addition to klezmer) and I have struggled with this question of spirituality and modes in Jewish music, and even just within the last few days have thought about writing ask the Rabbi, but woke up this morning to find this staring me in the face. Thank you so much:) Reply

Thabisa Qase South Africa January 15, 2015

Good day Rabbi. I am Black, a woman an South African and Christian and subscribed to this page because it fascinates me so much. Some of the discussions are above my head, but some just fascinates me so much that after my nightly read of my Bible I switch off the lights only to continue my reading on on my cell phone, then will I fall asleep, and had broken the arm of my reading glasses more than once in the process.
For me, you make my Lord, my G-d more alive, and my faith stronger. In my naïveté, how I wish that the peoples of the world can be who they chose to be, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem, Jew, Christian, etc. and etc. and still love and respect each other's way of life..

And I thank you very much Reply

Hanalah Austin January 15, 2015

What about Jewish music often being in Pentatone? I do not see anyone mentioning Pentatone.

Instead of being based on the octave (eight) it is based on a five-tone scale. that is why it often SOUNDS like music in a minor key. Actually pentatone is not a minor key of the octave. It's based on a different musical system, five instead of eight.

Where can I learn more about Jewish music being in pentatone than what I've just said? Reply

Yoel Leib Bnei Brak January 14, 2015

Excellent, excellent bit. I always love to learn about connections between torah and music or torah and science...and you sir always seem find good connections in the Chassidus. Thanks for writing about this and bringing some excellent torah of the Mittler Rebbe to the spotlight! Reply

Stephen Victor USA January 14, 2015

fascinating article. But it seems counterintuitive to me that Abraham's soul would be transmitted in exile through Esau and Isaac's soul through Ishmael. The other way around (Abraham through Ishmael, Isaac through Esau) seems to make more sense since the father-son relationship is stronger than grandfather grandson and nephew uncle? Reply

EZRA NY January 14, 2015

KLEZMER MUSIC PERFECT CONCLUSION BY MR. FREEMAN. -YES WE ARE IN GALUT. EXILE-so that is the reason why our "neshama-" / parts given us by H'Ashem of our Human soul / Not animals part of out body/- feels the spirit most of the jewish klezmer music in Minor- sound!/ #For THE ANIMALS-sound of MuSIC JUST WAVEs!-For us, klezmer music been brought & inspired by Allokhim!
However, all klezmer music been assimilated to the region of Europe were its been taken and played! with some even copy & similarity to local music!
EZRA/NY/ ex-director of Folk Musical Jewish theater /Kiev./. Reply

EstherAsna Montreal January 13, 2015

2 points contradictory? Fascinating article! If point number 1 is true, then wouldn't 2 be contradictory to that? Then wouldn't the Jewish music in Ishmaelite countries be more major-ish? Would like to hear other opinions on this! Great discussion too! And I am totally interested in the comment about Jewish modes - I learned a bit about the Western modes but where can I learn about the Jewish ones? Thank you! Reply

Laura Melnicoff New York November 23, 2014

more please!! I see that this article is years old, but this is so fascinating that I really hope there's more material like this! I shared this with all my musician friends, jewish and non-jewish alike, and they (and I) definitely found it as interesting as you do, Rabbi. Is there more from Rabbi Dov Ber on music? Or other sources? Reply

Bernd Willimek Bretten May 13, 2014

Why do Minor Chords Sound Sad?
The Theory of Musical Equilibration states that in contrast to previous hypotheses, music does not directly describe emotions: instead, it evokes processes of will which the listener identifies with.
A major chord is something we generally identify with the message, “I want to!” The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, "No more." If someone were to say the words "no more" slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.
The Theory of Musical Equilibration applies this principle as it constructs a system which outlines and explains the emotional nature of musical harmonies. For more information you can google Theory of Musical Equilibration.
Bernd Willimek Reply

james chicken gateshead November 28, 2013

I am not an expert but I wonder Is it somehow a reflection of Judaism's conservative nature and a reflection of the misfortunes that Jewish people have faced in the past i.e. loss of temple is search of a homeland etc. Reply

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