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The Rebbe's Melodies

The Rebbe's Melodies

The "Nigunim" the Rebbe Taught

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Art by Zalman Kleinman
Art by Zalman Kleinman

The melody is an integral part of the chassidic way of life. "The tongue is the pen of the heart," noted the first Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, "but melody is the pen of the soul."

Melodies abound in Chabad tradition. Those that were either composed or adopted by any of the seven Chabad rebbes are especially cherished and sung regularly at chassidic gatherings and special occasions.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, taught thirteen melodies in the ten years from 1954 to 1963. In addition to teaching the actual melody, the Rebbe would also often explain its significance. Below we present each of the melodies the Rebbe taught, as well as some of the Rebbe's explanations in abbreviated form. (In the links below to the respective songs, you will also find additional information and explanations.)

"The tongue is the pen of the heart," noted the first Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, "but melody is the pen of the soul." The previous Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, stated, "A melody should be sung with the same care that one would employ in citing a Torah commentary learnt from one's teacher or rabbi." For this reason, we have chosen to present the Nichoach recordings of these melodies. While these recordings are old and their sound quality is not the best, they were made with great care to adhere as much as possible to the precise nuances of the original melodies.


My Soul Thirsts for You: Tzamah Lecha Nafshi (1)

My soul thirsts for You / my flesh longs for You / in a dry and weary land without water. / So may I look for You in the sanctuary to see Your power and Your glory. (Psalms 63:2-3)

This powerful melody, which the Rebbe taught on May 1, 1954, describes the powerful thirst for spirituality that one feels when finding oneself destitute—the thirst that everyone, whether scholar or layman, feels on his or her own level.

Prior to teaching the melody, the Rebbe explained the verse: "When there is a thirst for G‑dliness, the actual thirst for spirituality quenches, in part, the spiritual desire to connect to a Higher source, for as the founder of chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, said, 'In the place where a person's will is, there he is found.'" As such, the one who thirsts to be in G‑d's presence is already in fact there.

Click here for the notes and transliteration of this song.


G‑d Who Protects Us: Vehi She'amdah

And this has stood by / our fathers and us. / For not just one / rose against us to annihilate us. / But in every generation / there are those who rise to annihilate us. / And the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands. (Haggadah)

For many years, following the second Passover seder (ritual feast), the Rebbe would conduct a farbrengen (chassidic gathering). On these occasions, the Rebbe would discuss portions of the Haggadah, the seder text. In the course of this farbrengen in 1955, the Rebbe declared, "I do not know why at the seder tonight the Haggadah was recited with such melancholy and lowness of spirit. Let us, therefore, sing the joyous melody of Vehi Sheamdah."

The crowd did not know the tune the Rebbe was referring to, so the Rebbe sang it several times, until the assembled began to sing it together with the Rebbe.

Click here for the notes and transliteration of this song.


The Way of G‑d: Darkecha Elokeinu

Your way, our G‑d, is to be forgiving toward the evil and the good; and that is Your praise. [Grant our request] for Your sake, not for ours. See how we stand before You, humble and lacking [in virtue]. (Yom Kippur eve liturgy)

The Rebbe taught this melody in 1955, on Simchat Torah, one of the most joyous holidays in the Jewish calendar. It was in the wee hours of the morning, following the nightlong traditional dancing with the Torah. The Rebbe used the opportunity to urge all of the assembled to add in their study of chassidic teachings.

He then explained that just as G‑d forgivingly overlooks our faults, going beyond that which is naturally expected of Him, so, too, must we exceed our self-created limits, even in the realm of good, and resolve to be even better tomorrow.

Click here for the notes and transliteration of this song.


The Shabbat Meal: Asader Lesudasah

I shall offer praise at the Shabbat morning meal, and shall herewith invite the holy Ancient One…. (For the rest of the words, click here.)

The Rebbe taught this song on Shabbat, July 6, 1957.

Although it is not the custom in the Chabad community to sing zemirot (special Shabbat hymns) during the Shabbat meals, there were three hymns that the first Chabad Rebbe included in the prayer book he compiled, one for each of the Shabbat meals.

The Rebbe noted that for the songs of the night and afternoon meals there were already well-known Chabad tunes, but for the day meal there were no known tunes. He therefore said he would teach one from a Ukrainian/Lithuanian source.

Click here for the transliteration of this song.

For We Are Your People: Ki Anu Amecha (1)

For we are Your people, and You are our G‑d; We are Your children, and You are our Father. (Yom Kippur liturgy)

The Rebbe taught this melody, to the words from the Yom Kippur services, on Simchat Torah 1956.

The Rebbe explained that this song encapsulates the bond we all need to feel with each other, as we are all the children of G‑d. We need to treat our fellows as brothers, and the ultimate love between brothers is when there are no strings attached.

Click here for the notes and transliteration of this song.

The Story of the Foolish Peasant: Tzama Lecha Nafshi (2)

My soul thirsts for You, my flesh longs for You. Hey, you, foolish Marko! Why are you going to the market? You don't buy. You don't sell. All you do is "stir the stew" [cause strife].

In life, we face obstacles that are created by our evil inclination, referred to as "the foolish one." The lyrics of this song tell us that "the foolish one" comes to the marketplace – our world – only to create strife between us and G‑d. However, as a result of the obstacles it places before us, we develop a thirst for G‑dliness.

The Rebbe taught this Chabad melody on Simchat Torah, 1957.

Click here for the notes and transliteration of this song.

The Story of the Caucasian Leader: Shamil

Shamil was a leader of a group of tribes that lived in Russia's Caucasian Mountains over a century ago. The Russians would frequently attack these tribes, but as long as their leader, Shamil, was in the mountains, the Russians were unable to overcome them. So the Russians deceptively proposed a peace treaty so that the tribal warriors would lay down their arms. They then lured Shamil out of his stronghold and imprisoned him.

Staring out of the window of his narrow cell, Shamil reflected on his days of liberty in the mountains. Helpless, in exile, he bewailed his plight and yearned for his previous position of fortune. He consoled himself, however, with the knowledge that he would eventually be released and return to his previous position with even more glory.

All of these sentiments are expressed in this wordless, yearning melody.

The Rebbe taught the melody on Simchat Torah, 1958. He explained that the story of Shamil's imprisonment is a metaphor for the soul as it descends to this world and is clothed in a human body. The body is the soul's "prison cell," and the soul constantly longs for its heavenly home. It strives to free itself from its exile in the human body, with its earthly desires, by directing the body to follow G‑d's teachings and mitzvot.

Click here for the notes of this melody.

The One Who Answers the Broken-Hearted: Rachamana

O Merciful One, Who answers the poor, answer us; O Merciful One, Who answers the broken-hearted, answer us.

The Rebbe taught this melody on Simchat Torah, 1959. It starts off at a slow tempo and then picks up speed.

The Rebbe explained that at first one beseeches G‑d with a broken heart. As the melody continues, and the individual feels that his heart is broken, he is then filled with faith that G‑d will do what is best for him, and he becomes joyous. "And when we are 'broken hearted,'" the Rebbe concluded, "we will certainly be answered by G‑d."

Click here for the notes and transliteration of this melody.

You Chose Us: Ata Vechartanu

You chose us from all the nations, You loved us and wanted us. You elevated us over all tongues and sanctified us with Your commandments, and You proclaimed Your great and holy name over us.

This melody is composed of two distinct, yet related, melodies. The full text of the prayer is sung with the first melody and then repeated with the second melody.

The soft, tranquil tones at the beginning express the unburdened way of life of the righteous, who live a full existence in the holy service of G‑d, governed by a serene moral sense and spiritual satisfaction.

In contrast, the stormy, raging tones of the second melody express the deep feelings of remorse of the repentant one, who, returning to G‑d, stormily casts off the shackles of his previous mode of living. He grasps the rungs of the Heavenly Ladder with all his might, thereby transcending into boundless ecstasy.

Each phase of the second part of the song is repeated, for the returnee is not secure in his new way of life and strives to solidify his bonds with G‑d. The song has no final ending, just as the returnee is never content, and seeks to go higher and higher in his perpetual striving for spiritual perfection.

The Rebbe taught this song on Simchat Torah, 1960.

Click here for the notes and transliteration of this melody.

I Sing Songs: Anim Zemiros

I sing hymns and compose songs because my soul long for You. My soul desires Your shelter, to know all Your ways.

It happened once in a European shtetl that on the day after Yom Kippur the community arrived to the synagogue for morning prayers, only to find a member of the community dancing around the podium at the center of the synagogue, singing Anim Zemiros with great fervor. It turned out that the Jew was so engrossed in the melody that he had danced the entire night, not noticing that the fast had ended and that he hadn't eaten for more than a day and a half!

The Rebbe related this story and taught this melody on Simchat Torah, 1961. He explained that when a Jew completes the Yom Kippur fast he is joyous, having fulfilled G‑d's commandment; however, he still feels a strong longing for the holiness of Yom Kippur.

Click here for the notes and transliteration of this melody.

I Started Drinking...: Stav Yapitu

I started to drink on Friday, on Friday. / I had drunk, had drunk, my calf away. / One must, must know, how to be merry. / One must, must know, how to talk. / Oh, how to give a just reckoning! / Before the Landowner, G‑d, O justify yourselves. / But we drink, we drink, and we revel. / And we drink wine like water, and we say l'chaim together. /And You, please listen to us from heaven.

This deeply moving melody, taught by the Rebbe on Simchat Torah of 1962, is composed primarily of Ukrainian and Russian words interspersed with sentences in Hebrew and Yiddish.

The Rebbe explained that the basic melody was adopted by Ukrainian chassidim from peasant shepherds. In the tradition of the founder of chassidism, the Baal Shem Tov, the chassidim adapted the lyrics and melody of this shepherds' song to the theme of serving G‑d, giving us a pastoral chassidic melody.

The Rebbe taught that the inner meaning of this song is that the two months of Elul and Tishrei – the month preceding the High Holidays and the month of the High Holidays – have passed, yet we have not mended those areas of our actions that need improvement. Therefore, we must "drown" our body and animal spirit in moral stock-taking, so that they do not impede our striving to be better people.

By making an accounting of his deeds, the chassid endeavors to free himself from his human limitations, and break though his body's indifference to spirituality. He pierces through these obstacles to the broad path of love and fear of G‑d and joyful worship.

Click here for the notes and transliteration of this melody.

For We Are Your Children: Ki Anu Amecha (2)

For we are Your nation, and You are our L‑rd. / We are Your children, and You are our Father. / We are Your servants, and You are our Master. / We are Your congregation, and You are our portion.

When the Rebbe taught this melody on Simchat Torah of 1963, he said that the melody refers to one who is striving to repent and return to G‑d. He breaks out of his boundaries and declares that although he has sinned, G‑d is still his Father.

The Rebbe taught that the returnee never stops his journey; he is constantly bettering himself. Therefore, the Rebbe explained, the song has no end and is sung repetitively.

Click here for the notes and transliteration of this melody.

He Will Redeem Us: Hu Elokeinu

He is our G‑d. He is our father, He is our King. He is our Redeemer. He is our Deliverer. He will deliver us, and redeem us once more, shortly; and in His mercy He will let us hear, in the presence of all living, proclaiming; Behold, I have redeemed you at the end of time as in the days of yore, to be to you for a G‑d.

The Rebbe taught an additional melody on Simchat Torah, 1963, based on the words recited in unison during the Shabbat prayers. The words express the steadfast faith of Jews throughout the generations in the final Redemption. Just as G‑d redeemed us from the exile in Egypt, so will he redeem us with the coming of Moshiach.

The next day, when the Rebbe asked one of the Chassidim to begin the song, he said that he had not yet mastered the melody. The Rebbe responded, "In this song, the central focus is the text—not the tune!"

Click here for the notes and transliteration of this melody.

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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rachel besserman noho July 4, 2016

Yes! Reply

Z 11213 July 10, 2015

Thank you for this! Learned lots of new things about these nigunim. Reply

Menuchah Harris novato ca January 15, 2013

Nigunnim Todah Rabah. Reminds me of my father z"l singing niggunim on Shabbat and also as a teenager at B'nai Akivah in Williamsburg we learned a new niggun every Shabbat
Baruch Hashem Reply

Anonymous Solon April 20, 2010

Re: updete Those versions are all by singers making it sound professional, this is "the real thing". Reply

lyr ny April 2, 2010

updete there are newer and better versions of these songs Reply

Rucheli Orlando, FL March 28, 2010

Thanks! Its great to have a list of some of the best niggunim in one place! Thank you! Reply

Anonymous Sydney July 16, 2017
in response to Rucheli:

Not necessarily,
These are just the ones taught by the Rebbe Nossi Doreinu. Any niggun/im one finds soul touching are his/her favourite and best niggunim in my humble opinion. Reply

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