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.

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

What Can You Find in the World’s Oldest Yiddish Letter? Exactly What You Would Expect

Looking for proof that nothing ever changes? In this ancient letter a mother complains to her son that he doesn't write to her often enough… Sound familiar?

The letter in the photograph is stored in the Cambridge University Library, TSMISC36. Line 5: I was, lo aleinu {may it not happen to us}, very sick, lo aleinu, from the first day of the month of Tamuz until the first day of the month of Av…

Among the treasures discovered in the Cairo Genizah are also documents written in Yiddish.

In fact the Cairo Genizah is the source of the oldest Yiddish texts in the world – an anthology of midrashim and parables, and even a German folk legend about a valiant duke who performs acts of gallantry to win the heart of a Greek princess.

But daily life interests us more than legends of knights and princesses, so we decided to present excerpts from a series of letters from Rachel Zussman, an elderly widow who lived in Jerusalem, to her son Moshe, who settled with his family in Cairo for business reasons. The letters were written in Yiddish in the mid 1560’s, and eventually made their way to the Cairo Genizah. They teach us much about the composition of the community in Jerusalem, its economic state, and communication and travel between Jerusalem and Egypt, as well as a mother-son relationship dating back 500 years.

From what we can tell, Rachel Zussman seems to have been a comparatively educated woman who was relatively financially stable. Nonetheless, she appears not to have written the letters herself, but instead dictated them to a professional scribe, who may have incorporated verses and proverbs. Her husband died in Jerusalem, and it was there that her financial situation deteriorated, as we will see.

As typified by the stereotype of the “Jewish Mother”, Rachel complains about the lack of letters from her son (and a letter from her son explaining why he didn’t write back was even found in the Genizah). Less stereotypically, her son Moshe married a woman named Masuda, in other words a Jewish woman who originated from the Arab countries, and Rachel was very satisfied by the match, even suggesting that his daughter Beila (her granddaughter), who had reached marriageable age, be married to a young man from Masuda’s family.

Here are excerpts from Rachel Zussman’s letters, translated into English from the Hebrew translation of Chava Turniansky, who translated and published the letters:

“My dear son, may you live and be well…I, lo aleinu, am very sick, lo aleinu, God Almighty knows what will be my end due to our sins…my dear son, do not be distressed. I also ask the faithful doctor (in other words, God) for you not to be sick – for me to suffer instead of you. And I also ask that He not let me die until I see you once again and you place your hand over my eyes and recite Kaddish after me. And so, my dear son, do not be distressed, live and be well…

I do not know where to obtain money from. Poor people have no money. My dear son, bring me a linen garment with you. I do not have, due to our many sins, a sheet on my bed, or a cover for my pillow. If I was, God forbid, to die I would not have a sheet to be covered in when they remove me from the bed. I am ashamed before other people. I do not have a turban for my shrouds to put on my head. If you are able to buy me one there cheaply, do so. And bring barley with you. I could not find any here at all. Bring two.”

A reply from Moshe to his mother was also discovered in the Genizah:

“Know, my dear mother, that we are all healthy and invigorated… therefore, my dear mother, I was unable to even send you a letter throughout the above period, and I was also unable to buy the things you wrote to me…”.

Further on in the letter he also reports about the boys’ studies with their teacher, and about the idiotic son, about whom he says that talking to him is like “talking to a plank”.

Moshe’s letter was sent to his mother Rachel in Jerusalem, so how did it end up back in the Cairo Genizah? Because his mother wrote her reply on the blank spaces on the page, and sent it back to Cairo. She had much room to write, as her son Moshe’s letter was relatively short… Here is a quotation:

“To my beloved son, my dear Moshe, and to your dear and modest wife my daughter-in-law Madam Masuda. I understand that you did not receive all my letters… My dear son, I am very very hurt and distressed that you distress me so much due to our sins with your deliveries… my dear son, God will forgive you for distressing me so much. Had you at least sent me the [the page is torn here] and the barley for an entire year…” However, the letter is also full of motherly good advice, from the way every loan should be meticulously recorded, to the following:

“Go and bathe in the river as little as possible. In this way it will not be able to harm you.”

Which is true.

(The seven letters discussed in this article were published and translated into Hebrew by Chava Turniansky in an article in volume 4 of the ‘Shalem’ journal. They are all in Cambridge, except for one which is in the National Library in Jerusalem. A decade ago, more excerpts from letters in Yiddish to and from Rachel Zussman were discovered in Cambridge.)

American Pride and Prejudice at the 1936 Olympics

​The story of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics is well known. What is not well known is that Jesse Owens nearly didn't compete in one of his gold medal wins, just so his Jewish teammates could...

Photographer unknown – Reproduction of photograph in “Die Olympischen Spiele, 1936” p.27, 1936.

​The story of Jesse Owens, the African-American athlete whose mere presence was an affront to Hitler in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is perhaps the most well-known story to come out of those games. The fact that he won four gold medals was a stark counter to the Nazi propaganda machine and a slap in the face to the Nazi organizers.

What is perhaps not well known is how Jesse Owens almost didn’t compete in one of his gold medal wins, the 400 meter relay race.

While it is obvious that Nazi Germany would be prejudiced and biased towards black and Jewish athletes, it must be said that within the United States there was also prejudice towards Jewish athletes at the time.

A short report from Berlin in The Sentinel shows the overt prejudice. Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman were the only athletes on the U.S. team not to participate in the games. They were also the only Jewish athletes on the team. To add insult to injury, they were only told on the day of the event that they would not be able to compete.

“Prejudice Hinted in Dropping of Jewish Athletes from U.S. Olympic Track Team”, published in The Sentinel, 13 August 1936. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Jesse Owens’ sense of justice came to the forefront and he offered to give up his spot in the relay race in order to let his teammates run in the competition. The solidarity between Owens, Stoller and Glickman is an example of how the time period created an alliance between minorities within a society that was biased against them on the basis of their race.

At the time both Stoller and Glickman denied there was anti-Semitism involved, though later in life, Glickman would say that it had in fact been fueled by anti-Semitism. This fact becomes starker when you consider that Avrey Brundage, then-chairman of the American Olympic Committee, was unapologetically pro-Nazi and admired Hitler himself.

Avery Brundage Lauds Hitler at German Rally: ‘U.S. Can Learn Much,’ He Says“, published in The Sentinel, 8 October 1936. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The 1936 Berlin Olympics, possibly the most contentious modern Olympic event in history, was a symptom of the conciliatory policies towards Nazi Germany.

At the time there had been demands to boycott the Olympic games by various amateur athletic groups, such as the Committee on Fair Play in Sports in America. The Committee even released a booklet detailing the ways in which Nazi Germany went against the ideals of the Olympic games. The boycotts were not successful, thanks to the work of Brundage and others to get the American team to the Olympics in Berlin.

It is no secret that Hitler’s intention was for the Berlin Olympics to prove the racial hierarchy he tried to implement.

Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman’s story during the 1936 Olympics remains a footnote to the history of those turbulent times, and to the inspirational story of Jesse Owens, who became a symbol of audacity and courage, embarrassing Hitler and the Reich at their very own games.

The Viral Nature of Anti-Semitic Imagery

The Dreyfus Affair that divided France and risked the Republic is not just the story of the sham trials, it is the story of the first viral hate campaign of images in mass media brining to the surface the most ancient of hatreds in a brand new way.

While anti-Semitic imagery and iconography has existed and was promulgated for centuries, it was the eruption of the daily newspaper and the popularity of the postcard in the mid-19th century that enabled the dissemination of the images faster than ever before.

The Dreyfus Affair that brought to the surface the division of France is not just the story of the sham trials and Emil Zola’s “J’Accuse”; it is also an example of one of the first image campaigns in the press, instigated by Zola’s famous publication.

“J’Accuse” hit the papers on January 13th, 1898, in L’Aurure, the famously Dreyfusard publication, at the height of the Dreyfus Affair. It is arguably Zola’s most famous piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction. However, it initiated what might be termed in contemporary language the first viral campaign. A war of images regarding Alfred Dreyfus as either  innocent or traitor, human or monster, was battled between newspapers that had a wider distribution than ever before.

While Zola and his Dreyfusard allies were caricatured by the anti-Dreyfusards, the truly vicious images were of Alfred Dreyfus himself. The anti-Semitic depictions published by La Libre Parole in a series named the Museum of Horrors showcased Dreyfus as a snake, to give but one example. The series was published during Alfred Dreyfus’ new court-martial in 1898, and the caricatures were clearly aimed at all French Jews whoever they were.

“History of a Traitor”, 1899 Central Archive for the History of the Jewish People, Jerusalem, F/261
“History of an Innocent”, 1898 National Library of Israel

The so-called viral nature of the image exchange indicates how close to the surface the hatred towards Jews had bubbled during that period of time. The blunt racism and anti-Semitism depicted in the caricatures published at the time threatened to destabilize the state, using the Jews as a tool of division by the right as a perfect scapegoat.

“Dreyfus is a Traitor” November 1898 Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Paris

It was a golden age of caricatures. This art converged along with the daily newspaper and the Dreyfus Affair. It enabled the slew of images of hate aimed towards a minority to be engaging, entertaining, and viral. The idea spread to other European countries, all the way to the United States.

The stereotypes and canards perpetuated in the caricatures drew from both the antiquated ideas of Jewish usury and greed, but also modern ideas of conspiracy, as well as industry domination and control, which had been made popular by the publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Those ideas rose in prominence through the publication of caricatures showcasing Jews attempting to disguise themselves as non-Jews, Jews being portrayed as world dominators, and manipulators of finance and politics.

Caricatures of Jews committing election fraud from “Hatemail: Anti-Semitism on Picture Postcards”

This article was written with the help of Dr. Betty Halpern-Guedj from the Library Collections.

Information for the articles was gathered from Dreyfus and Zola: A Moment in the Conscience of the World, Dryfus: The History of a Jewish-French Family, and Hatemail: Anti-Semitism on Picture Postcards.