The early Chassidic movement attributed profound importance to the power of music. “If words are the pen of the heart,” taught Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidism, “then song is the pen of the soul.”

Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian peasants were a source for beloved songs, which were infused with new chassidic meaning but kept in their native languages, sometimes with Hebrew or Yiddish added. Thus a peasant rhyme about a troublesome fellow named Mark was reinterpreted as a parable for the meddlesome nature of the evil inclination. Paired with the solution—a Biblical reference to the soul-quenching power of Torah study—a Chassidic song was born.

This concept connects closely with the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching to find the Hand of G‑d—and a lesson for our personal lives and Divine service—in everything we see or hear. Surely, the words and thoughts of our neighbors could be mined for meaning and elevated through application.

Inspired by an email exchange with fellow editor Menachem Posner, we culled the trove of Chabad Chassidic tradition for some of those songs, along with the history and stories which give them their power and spirit.

Ech Ti Durin (Tzamah Lecha Nafshi) - эх ты дурень

One of the oldest Chabad melodies, this song typifies what’s known as a macaronic, where the words or inflections from one language (in this case old Russian) are blended and played off the context of another (here a verse from Psalms). The first section is sung with the Hebrew words tzamah lecha nafshi, “My soul thirsts for you,” and the second section is rendered in rhyming Russian with the following parable:

Oh you foolish Mark, why travel to the fair?

You don't buy, you don't sell, you only cause trouble.

We demand of the evil inclination and our human animal instinct, comparable to a silly villager going to the market, “Why do you go to the fair, i.e., the mundane and materialistic world? You don’t buy and you don’t sell, you only create trouble!”

Art by Rivka Korf Studio
Art by Rivka Korf Studio

Stav Ya Pitu - став я питу

Another macaronic, Stav Ya Pitu blends a simple Ukrainian drinking song - “I started drinking on Friday, on Friday” - and follows through with Yiddish and Hebrew lyrics that transform a bitter song about drinking away life’s troubles into a deep soul-stirring contemplation of the spiritual stocktaking with which one can be freed from the shackles of bodily indifference and human limitations.
This melody was taught by the Rebbe on the holiday of Simchat Torah, 1962.
Click here to read the full lyrics and their meaning.

Nye Zhuritze Chloptzi - не журицй хлопцы

Don't worry, guys, about what will become of us. We will travel to an inn; over there will surely be vodka.

This joyous song in Belarusian dates to the time of the second Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Dovber. It was originally sung by his Chassidim as they traveled the road to Lubavitch on their way to visit the Rebbe. Symbolically, the words reveal the deep devotion of the Chassidim to their rebbe. When they arrive at Lubavitch, they will be able to imbibe words of Torah from the Rebbe. You can see a transliteration of the lyrics here.

Nye Bayus Ya - не боюсь я

I fear no one

and believe in no one
except the L‑rd alone

There is no one besides Him
the Only One.

This song, in Russian, is a bold declaration of Jewish faith, expressing the chasidic principle of ein od milvado - that there is truly nothing aside from G‑d. Most likely a refrain sung by Russian peasants, it was beloved by Rabbi Michoel Dvorkin who worked with non-Jewish lumberjacks in the forest and would often speak and sing in Russian.

When the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, was released from his exile in the Russian city of Kostroma, Reb Michoel (who was known for his exuberant nature) celebrated by dancing around the house, a closed flask of vodka in hand, singing this song.1

The Rebbe often sang this song, usually beginning with the second, more lively verse: “There is no one besides Him, the Only One.”

Kol Bayaar - קול ביער

The text and the melody of this supplication were composed by Rabbi Arye Leib, one of the followers of the Baal Shem Tov. He was known as the Shpoler Zeide, after the town of Shpola, Ukraine where he lived. This soulful niggun, which tells the story of a father looking for his lost child in the woods, is a parable for the cosmic dialogue between G‑d and the Jewish people. The Shpoler Zeide sang it each evening.

The text is divided into four stanzas. Each stanza is repeated in Hebrew, Yiddish and Ukrainian. Learn more about the song, and the Shpoler Zeide’s life, here.

Hopp Cossack - гоп козак

Also attributed to the Shpoler Zeide, this largely wordless tune ends with the Ukrainian words Hopp Cossack - “Jump Cossack!” The tune and associated dance are similar to the Hopak, the National Dance of Ukraine. The song accompanies a story about the Shpoler Zeide using the tune, taught to him by Elijah the Prophet, to outdance a Cossack in a competition, thus saving the life of a Jewish family.

This lively song is often performed at the end of large weddings. The Rebbe also notedthat it's customary to sing it on Purim, Simchat Torah and Acharon shel Pesach - due to the Shpoler Zeide's message of love for his fellow Jews and miraculous efforts to help free them. Some also sing it at a Brit Milah."

Ech Ti Zimlak Эх ты, земляк

This Russian song is an adaptation of Echad Mi Yodea (Who Knows One?), a cumulative song that counts various important numbers in Judaism. While not incorporated in the Chabad Passover liturgy, other Jewish communities sing the song after the Seder, translating it into Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, Bukharian and other Jewish languages.

At the Rebbe’s request, Russian immigrants sang the song at public farbrengens.

See the song performed with an added verse about the 14 Books of Maimonides.

Mi Armia Admura - Мы армия Адмура

This song which recounts the Great Escape of Chabad Chassidim from the Soviet Union was adapted by Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov from the Soviet “March of the Red Cavalry.” The new words subvert a Communist march, instead declaring that the soldiers of the Rebbe’s army will march forth under the banner of Torah study and the motto of serving G‑d, without fear from the vicious attacks of the NKVD.

Ve Vodye Mi Nye Patonim - в воде мы не утонем

No water can drown us,
no fire can burn us.

The Russian lyrics communicate fierce determination and was often sung in conjunction with spiritual and financial appeals on behalf of Soviet Jewry. It was popularized by Rabbi Hersh Gansburg, who sang it on Simchat Torah 1969, shortly after experiencing tremendous personal tragedy.

In 1974,2 the Rebbe gave a Chassidic interpretation to the song, playing upon the words of the sages that “Anyone who says ‘I only have Torah study [but not performance of mitzvos],’ does not even have Torah study.”3 As such, the Rebbe explained the lyrics to mean that when desiring to immerse oneself in Torah, which is compared to water, the chassid does not ‘drown’ and combines study with performance of good deeds. Likewise, someone involved in doing good deeds, does not become burnt out, but still has time to immerse in the cooling water of Torah study.

March of the Mitzvah Tanks - марш хабадских танкистов

This song, adapted from a Soviet march about the Tanks of the Red Army, was adapted and performed by the late chassid, Rabbi Yisrael Duchman, who, shortly before his passing, recorded a collection of songs he treasured. The lyrics subvert the paean to Zhukov’s tanks in the Second World War, transforming the song into an ode to the Mitzvah Tanks.

Lyuba Bratzi Lyuba - Любо, братцы, любо

Lovely, brothers, lovely, lovely 'tis to live.

With our brave leader who has time or will to grieve?

This traditional Cossack song was beloved by the chassid Rabbi Mendel Futerfas, who would often sing it at Chasidic gatherings. He can be heard singing the refrain on the recording here. The song recounts a bloody battle on the banks of a river. Reb Mendel likely learned the song while in a Siberian Gulag, where he spent 9 years for his clandestine activities strengthening Judaism in the USSR.