The Book of Niggunim

On the secret behind the Chabad Book of Niggunim and about the Chassid Shmuel Zalmanov who was selected for the mission of rescuing the niggunim from oblivion.

Tamar Zigman
The Book of Niggunim
One who has a good sense for music,
has a better understanding in Chassidut”
(The Chassid Rabbi Hillel Paritcher)


The scene is the 1960’s, America, in a typical recording studio. On one side of the glass partiain, a professional technician prepares for the recording, on the other side are the performers – a singer and his accompanying pianist. No, this is not a celebrated pop singer or a new up-and-coming “star”, but a thickly bearded Chassidic Jew, whose uniquely timbered voice has a singular blend of intermingled Russian and Yiddish accents. “On one, no name,” the technician declares. “And you…ah?” the Chassid wonders. “Take one, take one.” A slight sigh is heard, the piano begins to play, the Chassid joins in “Oy oy oy ay yoy, yoy yoy”. A break. “On two,” the technician declares, the piano is heard once again, the Chassid clears his throat, the recording continues.

The scene described above, one of many, was taken from copies of magnetic film that belong to the Zalmanov Collection from the National Library’s National Sound Archive. These reel to reel tapes include various recordings made by the Chassid Shmuel Zalmanov, who was appointed to carry out the project known as “Sefer HaNiggunim [The Book of Niggunim]” of the Chabad Chassidic group.



What is the Chabad “Book of Niggunim”? The Book of Niggunim is effectively a three-volume anthology of hundreds of Chabad niggunim, which were compiled and edited at the command of the Sixth Rebbe of the Chabad dynasty, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (the Rayatz). The book compiles transcriptions of notes of various Chabad niggunim, along with a foreword and explanations about the different niggunim.

In the article: “On a Mission from the Rebbe Rayatz: Collection and Preservation of Chabad Niggunim” [Hebrew], the musician Lev Leibman reviews the background of the creation of the Book of Niggunim. He relates that in 1935, the Chabad chassid Shaul Dov Zislin wrote to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who served at the time as the Rebbe [spiritual leader of a Chassidic group sect], that perhaps the time has come to record the notes of the various Chabad niggunim in writing:

“It causes me great sorrow to see members of our sect beginning a niggun at their parties, and there is no one who can end it, or they do not even know how to start from the beginning and they only start playing from the middle, and God forbid, if they are not saved from this now, God forbid, there will be no one who knows them. And Yechiel Galperin said to me that if he had permission from our Rebbe, he would fulfill my request to document them all [and not only the beginnings], and even if they were not published, at least they would be saved from being lost God forbid.”

And indeed, in response to this letter, notes written by the Chassid Yechiel Galperin were sent to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. In response Schneersohn wrote that, “Those who know how to play here were not able to read them,” and asks that Galperin, “Buy good paper and make an orderly sketch, and and perhaps someone in your community knows how to write notes, in which case I would ask him to write under your supervision.”

Nine years would pass, and in 1944, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn would appoint the Chassid Shmuel Zalmanov “To arrange a booklet of niggunim of the Chassidic Jews of Chabad in order to gather the old niggunim of Chabad, to clean them of errors with the help of the Tmimim [Chassidic students], elderly chassidim who learned in Lubavitch and to have them written in musical notes by an expert, according to a supervising committee, and to arrange them in print.”


A letter from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn to the Chassid Shmuel Zalmanov, the picture is from the family collection


Shmuel Zalmanov was not randomly selected. Zalmanov, was an erudite intellectual, a Chassid, widely educated, and a Torah scholar. He was the director of the Chabad yeshivah in Warsaw and Vilna, a “chozer” [“chozer” lit. repeater, in Chabad terms is a Chassid with a good memory and deep understanding of the Chassidut who repeats teachings of the Rebbe which were delivered on Shabbat and festivals when they cannot be recorded in writing], and had a well-developed musical talent. He was methodical and meticulous and enjoyed a very close relationship with Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. Zalmanov was chosen to carry out the musical mission. The work included collecting the material from the elders of the Chassidut who were familiar with the niggunim, and transcribing them into notes.

The first volume of the Book of Niggunim was published in 1948 in New York by “Nicho’ach” (an acronym for Niggunei Chassidei Chabad – Niggunim of the Chabad Chassidut). This volume contained 175 Chabad niggunim. After the first volume was published and accepted, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn encouraged Zalmanov to publish another volume. It was not long after that that Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn passed away.

His son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the seventh Rebbe of the Chabad dynasty, requested that Zalmanov continue the project as: “One who starts to perform a good deed is told to complete it”. After extensive efforts, the second volume of the Book of Niggunim was published with a relatively small number of niggunim (35 in total), with the intention of publishing similar small booklets from time to time.

In the final years of his life, Zalmanov worked on publishing a third volume of the Book of Niggunim; work which was abruptly cut short by his death in Jerusalem in 1975. Zalmanov’s son, Rabbi Yisrael Yosef Zalmanov, understanding the significance of the project, completed the work, and so the third volume of the Chabad Book of Niggunim was published in 1980, containing another 137 niggunim.


Reb Shmuel Zalmanov, editor of the “Book of Niggunim”, a photograph from the family collection

From the very first volume, the niggunim were recorded in writing by professional musicians. The musical notes of the first volume were transcribed by the cantor Yehoshua Wieser, and the notes of the third volume were written by the musicians Eitan Avitzur and Yaacov Mazor. Yaacov Mazor, a researcher of Chassidic music, worked for many years in the National Sound Archive (then the Phonoteque) and in the Jewish Music Research Center and reminisces about meeting Zalmanov, his personality and the precision with which he insisted the niggunim be performed:

“One day, I was asked to play the violin in one of the ‘Nicho’ach’ productions. I was contacted by Chaim Zur, who I knew from my days in the Music Academy. Yosef Marton was the conductor of the orchestra. Zalmanov also attended one of the rehearsals. While one of the niggunim was being sung he interrupted, turned to Marton and cried, ‘That’s not the way it should be sung!’ Marton claimed in response, ‘But that’s how it’s written in the notes.’ But Zalmanov dismissed his claim and said, ‘Sing how I tell you to,’ and sang the mistaken part.”

Regarding the transcription of the musical notes for the third volume, Mazor recalls: “Sixty percent of the notes for the third volume of the Book of Niggunim were written by Eitan Avitzur, and I wrote the remainder. Zalmanov heard about me from Andre Hajdu. When we met, Zalmanov asked me, ‘Do you know how to write musical notes?’ I answered in the affirmative. When he asked me to provide details (he knew about my role in recording Chassidic dance niggunim in an article together with Andre Hajdu), I told him that I had transcribed the notes of Arabic music and Yemenite songs.

He was impressed and said: ‘I have recordings. I want you to transcribe several tunes as a trial. You have to return the recordings to me and promise not to copy them.’ He then asked: ‘How long do you think it will take you to transcribe the notes?’, I replied that it depends on the type of tune; I can transcribe a dance tune within a few minutes, or a quarter of an hour if it’s long, but in cases of slow niggunim or devekut niggunim [contemplative niggunim], which are long and complex, it could take a long time. I emphasized that it depends on the level of detail he requires. ‘And especially,’ I said, ‘you need to decide about the ‘kneitschin‘, in other words, about the ornaments.

I asked him what level of detail he wanted and if all the ornaments should be transcribed, as this will affect the transcription time, and it could take as long as six hours to transcribe one niggun. From his reply I understood that there is no need for musical detail, but when the “ornaments” are part of the melody and are stylistically significant – it is important to transcribe them. We agreed on the number of niggunim and arranged to meet in two weeks’ time.

At the meeting, I presented him with the musical notes. He skimmed over them (I did not know how proficient he was at reading notes) and said: ‘Now sing them. But sing the way it is written and not as you remember from the recording.’ I commented that I have never been a singer and do not have a clear voice, and he said, ‘Sing anyway. I want to understand what you wrote.’ I sang several excerpts from the transcriptions according to his instructions, after which he said ‘OK, that’s enough. That’s fine.’ And I got the job.”


The niggun “The Soul Descends into the Body” performed by Shmuel Zalmanov


Concurrently to recording the niggunim in writing, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn asked Zalmanov to document the repertoire of Chabad niggunim by audio as well. The goal was to record the various niggunim and to release them as records. In this manner, the musical tradition will be documented both orally and in writing. “In the Book of Niggunim, a tradition which was originally transmitted orally is documented.

This is a dialectic which stems back to the very first days when the Oral Law was first written down. Should I write something down or transmit it orally?” says Matan Wygoda, a researcher of Chassidic song and a member of the staff of the Music Department and Sound Archive in the National Library. “It is important to understand the context in which the Book of Niggunim was created,” Wygoda explains. “In my opinion, it is impossible to detach this enterprise and project from its context and from the connection to the war, to the Holocaust. The tragedy was so deep, and it was feared that whole traditions would disappear into oblivion, or would be distorted or sung in an incorrect manner which led the book to be written. The Book of Niggunim was published with the strong feeling that is was a rescue mission. In addition, it is important to understand the unique Chabad context.

The Chassidic group of Chabad was always up to date – what is less well known is that even in the past, they did not hesitate to use modern tools for publicity – viewing it as a necessity and compulsion. It is important to understand that this project of the Book of Niggunim is not just a rescue and preservation enterprise, as Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn and Shmuel Zalmanov emphasized, but more than that, it is a thorough, almost scientific work, which seeks to compile and collect all the niggunim in an orderly fashion according to various criteria. In other words, to create a complete and comprehensive product of the repertoire of Chabad niggunim.”


A portrait of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, initiator of the “Book of Niggunim” project, from the Schwadron Collection in the National Library of Israel

What then is the great significance of compiling the repertoire of the niggunim? Can a similar phenomenon be found among other Chassidic groups?

“There is no doubt that this says something very inherent about the role of music in the Chabad movement”, Wygoda says. “From the very early days of the Ba’al Shem Tov [the founder of the Chassidic movement], and even beforehand, Jews sang. Despite this, this, there are differences in the significance of song and music among the different Chassidic groups. The Belz Chassidic group is the prime example of this. If we were to ask a Belzer Chassid from the previous generation, or from the pre-war generation, about the significance of the world of music in Belz, we would say that it never had a significant place .

The ethos was that Belz is a group focused on Torah study and not on song. It is important to emphasize that they sang in Belz and that Belz too have niggunim which were sung and are still sung to this very day, but song was not given a supreme status, it remained secondary. By contrast, there are Chassidic groups, such as Modzitz, in which music is the lifeblood. The fact that each of the Rebbes of Modzitz themselves composed songs shows how the world of song was especially significant and central.

A Chassidic Rebbe is not a person with extensive leisure time. The Chassidic assumption is that the Rebbe deals with holiness. That is his mission. This does not necessarily mean that he sits all day studying or praying, but that even his everyday actions are connected with holiness, this is the Chassidic viewpoint. Music has a holy role, as it is part of godly worship. In the teachings of Modzitz we can find similes taken from the world of music. And despite this great significance, that Chassidic group did not see the need to compile and collect all the niggunim in an orderly fashion and to publish them.”


Lists in the handwriting of Shmuel Zalmanov, from the Zalmanov Collection, Sound Archive in the National Library of Israel

Wygoda relates to the Chassidic niggun as a kind of Chassidic teaching. “A niggun,” he says, “Must be studied, just as a Chassidic teaching is delved into and studied.” He says that the project of the Book of Niggunim essentially reflects Chabad’s unique approach within the general Chassidic approach: “I am not surprised that no other Chassidic group saw fit to establish such an enterprise. It is true that recent years have seen the establishment of institutes of different Chassidic groups, which release music scores, but they are not an enterprise on a scale comparable to the Book of Niggunim which claims to encapsulate the Chassidic group’s full musical tradition. There is a good reason that Chabad were the first Chassidic group to take it on as a project, an enterprise, which I see as characteristic to the Chabad Chassidim.

It is important to emphasize that other Chassidic groups have a very strong oral tradition of the world of music. The order, the approach which is an almost unfathomable combination of extreme pragmatism and a precise spiritual arrangement is characteristic of the Chabad Chassidic group. In the early generations of the Chassidic movement, the Rebbes did not often publish books of their teachings – most of the books were published by the Rebbe’s disciples or successors after his death. Likewise, many Chassidic groups studied what was known as the teachings or philosophy of the group, but they did so through sermons, which were usually short, on the weekly Torah portion or the festivals. The book of the Tanya is the first, and in my opinion the only, systematic book which does not present its ideas as sermons on the weekly Torah portion or the festivals but as a step-by-step philosophy. A thorough examination of the Book of Niggunim reveals that this is not simply an anthology of Chabad niggunim, but a project which teaches about the world of Chabad music.”

As mentioned, Shmuel Zalmanov was not randomly selected to edit the book of Chabad niggunim. Despite having a well-developed musical sense, it seems that he did not know how to read notes in a professional manner. His family members confirm that they believe that their grandfather did not excel in reading notes. How is it possible that a layperson in the field of music would be appointed as responsible for compiling a musical anthology of this type?

“Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn made a very interesting choice”, Wygoda says. “Zalmanov was not chosen arbitrarily at all. The Rebbe knew and was well aware of Zalmanov’s capabilities when he assigned the mission to him, and he certainly knew that he was not proficient at reading musical notes. The choice of a person who holds the oral tradition in his head is a conscious, intentional choice, only such a person can reach the most exact results. Transcription of notes can never be absolutely precise and reflect the tune as it is sung. Just as a written language is limited in comparison with speech, so writing notes is inherently limited. In contrast, a person who works mainly with his ears, who hears the tune all the time, will reach the most exact results.”


My thanks to R’ Yirmiyahu Zalmanov for his help in preparing the article


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