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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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Discussion (24)
January 21, 2015
Thank you, Rabbi Freeman. Makes perfect sense. Perhaps I misread it the first time around.
stephen victor
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.
Tzvi Freeman
January 19, 2015
G-d's all around us, Rabbi Freeman. Even in our music. Thank you for the fascinating article.
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.
Omaha, Nebraska
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.
January 15, 2015
Thank you Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. A good good Shabbos:)
Honk Kong
January 15, 2015
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!
Ft Myers
January 15, 2015
What about us, Sephardic Jews?
José F Orozco Ayuso
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?
Los Angeles
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.
David Chester
Petach Tikva, Israel