Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Ladi
“The Alter Rebbe
5505 - 5573
1745 - 1812

“An animal that wears a haltar can go out with it on Shabbos ....”

There are many stories of the wonderful things which the Baal Shem Tov did, helping and encouraging Jews in their times of trouble.

Not everyone knows that the Baal Shem Tov was also a tremendous scholar and teacher, who revealed an inner life and soul in the Torah itself.

This teaching is called Chassidus.

One the main followers of the Baal Shem Tov was Rabbi Schneur Zalman, a brilliant Torah scholar who attracted many of the brightest young men of his time to become his students.

Once, it happened that there was a scandal in the town of Shklov over one of the things that Rabbi Schneur Zalman had taught.

In a well-known Mishna in Shabbos, it says that animals which usually wear a collar or a haltar may may do so on Shabbos. And if you lead the animal by a rope, it is not considered ‘carrying’, which is a major form of work.

In Hebrew, the word for a collar is “shair”. This can also be read as “shir” which is the word for “song.”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught that this double meaning is not an accident. The Mishna refers not only to animals, but also to lofty angels and neshomos (souls) whose deepest service of Hashem is through melody and songs of praise.

Some souls serve Hashem through learning Torah. Some serve through doing Mitzvos with great care, or through acts of kindness.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught that this Mishna is about neshomos that cleave to G‑d through melody and song.

And so the Mishna may be understood as saying, “they go out with a song, and are led by a song.”

When the Torah scholars of Shklov heard of this, they were shocked. “How can you say this!” they cried.

“Since when do you know what’s going on with angels?”

“That’s not what the Mishna says! You’re twisting things around!”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman decided that he would travel to Shklov to prove that his words were true.

It was not the first time that he had been to Shklov. In the past he had been there often. Many times he had been asked difficult Talmudic questions, and had helped people to resolve their difficulties.

So now, everyone was excited to hear that he was coming. Everyone knew that Rabbi Schneur Zalman was a brilliant scholar, and they looked forward to asking him all the new questions that had come up.

Even his opponents had questions which they hoped he would be able to resolve. Their plan was that after he would answer their questions, they would take him to task for his unusual explanation about the angels.

When he arrived however, he surprised everyone by refusing to answer any questions.

Disappointed, a group of scholars went to ask respectfully if he would consent to give a lecture in one of the large study halls. After the lecture they hoped there would be time for questions and a discussion of other issues.

They were very happy when Rabbi Schneur Zalman graciously accepted, and even more so when when he announced that in addition, he would answer all questions.

They wondered how he would do that.

The news spread like wildfire. Everyone was anxious to be present, and the lecture hall was packed. Everyone wanted to see how Rabbi Schneur Zalman could possibly answer hundreds of questions on so many different topics, in one lecture.


“Instead of delivering a long lecture,
I will sing a niggun ...”

Finally the Rebbe arrived and walked through the crowded hall to the bima. He looked around and began:

“You have surely all come with Torah questions which you want me to answer. But I am not going to give you a long lecture. Instead, I will sing for you a niggun (a soulful melody), for it says in the Mishna in Shabbos, ‘kol baalei shir yotzim b’shir v’nimsho-chim b’shir.’ Certain neshomos serve Hashem through music. They are led by song and are elevated by song.”

Then the Rebbe began to sing a niggun that seemed to come from the depths of his heart, a song without words, which seemed to express how the soul yearns for G‑d.

The notes of the song entered the hearts of everyone present. People felt themselves carried away, elevated to a world of unity and calm, where the heart is filled with love. Everyone forgot where they were, and became totally absorbed in their innermost thoughts.

Remarkably, by the time the Rebbe finished, no one had any more questions. It was as if each person realized the clear and obvious answer to their problem.

Everyone saw that here was truly a deeper and higher level of learning and understanding than they had ever known before.

Many of the people present at this time became closely connected to the Rebbe. The most famous of them was the great Torah scholar, Rabbi Yosef Kolbo. He had come with to the lecture with four perplexing questions, all of which were immediately resolved as he heard the Rebbe’s melody. In later years, he used to call it “The Mattan Torah Niggun - the Melody of the Giving of the Torah.”

Today it is known today as “The Alter Rebbe’s Niggun,” and is sung on holy occasions, such as at a wedding, at the chupa of a chosson (groom) and a Kalla (bride).

Based on The Alter Rebbe, by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon, Brooklyn, 2005