ESSAY: The Origins of Jewish Music
The Origins of Jewish Music
Tishrei 11, 5773 · September 27, 2012

A distraught Jew visited the Rebbe and complained that his children were assimilating. "What have I done wrong? Why have they strayed from the path I taught them?" The man sighed, "Ay, vi shver es iz tzu zein a Yid," repeating an old Yiddish saying meaning, "How difficult it is to be a Jew!"

The Rebbe asked him, "Do you often express yourself this way?"

"In stressful times – and there are many – yes, I do," said the man.

The Rebbe gently told him, "Then that is the message your children hear, and that is the impression of Judaism they have." With a twinkle in his eye, the Rebbe continued, "There is another Yiddish saying: S'iz gut tzu zein a Yid, 'It's great to be a Jew!' Switch your refrain, and you will notice a difference in your children's appreciation for their heritage."

The very last request G‑d made of Moses went something like this: "Moses, dear, please write Me a song."

The minutes of their last earthly meeting are well documented.

Now, write for you a song, and teach it to the children of Israel…1

In his final hours, he is commissioned by G‑d to write and teach music
But isn't the timing a bit off? Surely, Moses had lots of things to do on his last living day, and yet, in his final hours, he is commissioned by G‑d to write and teach music.

Moses came and spoke all the words of this song into the ears of the people, he and Joshua son of Nun.2

Devoted servant of G‑d that he was, the last memory he left his beloved people of their dynamic leader and faithful shepherd was of him singing, not preaching, the word of G‑d. His last words still singing in their ears, they watched him ascend Mount Nebo on his final mission, to return his holy soul to its Maker.

The scene is powerful, the soundtrack moving, and the lesson profound.

The Torah had thus far been thought of in many ways and as many things. G‑d's wisdom, His will, the marriage contract between Him and His people, the blueprint of existence, a manual for earthly life, secrets and prophecies of the world, a code of morality and ethics, "and much, much, more."

Never before, though, had it been seen, or heard of, as a song.

It had been prophesied, expounded on, and preached, but never sung.

On that memorable day, however, two of Judaism's greatest leaders faced their beloved people, one to bid farewell and the other to say hello, and sang a duet together called Ha'azinu, redefining for all of time how Torah was to be perceived: not as a sermon, but as a song.

A sermon, generally speaking, is a religious or moral argument, calling, or appeal.

It's often associated with words like obligation and responsibility, and regularly draws on emotions like guilt and remorse. It speaks solemnly of purpose, personal role, and national mission. Commitment, covenant, and loyalty are just a few popular sermonic buzzwords. Talk of a chain that dates back to Abraham inevitably makes its way into any serious conversation about intermarriage. We link our parents to our children as our children link us to theirs. The past and future is frequently stressed, less so the present…

Music is both the soul of language and the language of the soul
A song, conversely, denotes deep expression, genuine delight, and inner identification. The tune of a song bursts forth spontaneously; the precise wording of a sermon is carefully prepared. A song can be sung time and again. A sermon, on the other hand, can barely be listened to once.

Words are the building blocks of language; like a vehicle, they shuttle ideas between minds and hearts. Music, on the other hand, is both the soul of language and the language of the soul, able to cross vast gulfs of ideology, culture, nationality, and personality.

Place it [Ha'azinu] into their mouths, so that this song will be for Me as a witness to the children of Israel.3

Moses' last lesson and Joshua's first, to parents, teachers and leaders to come, was that for Ha'azinu (a code word for the entire Torah4) to be "a witness to the [authenticity and continuity of the] children of Israel," for it to engage the recesses of the Jewish spirit, to stir the soul of every Jew, it must be "placed into their mouths." Judaism would have to be musicalized and sung – not sermonized – into their ears.

"If Judaism will be celebrated rather than commemorated," sang Moses, "and allowed to work its music over you and your families, you will not be able to help but dance to its tune.

"And like any good song, you won't be able to get it out of your system."5

Romance and Ecstasy

That lesson did not go unheeded.

The greatest men of Israel were spirited poets.

That extraordinary trend began with Moses' Haazinu6 and continued in Temple times with the Levites, who, accompanied by the Temple orchestra, chanted Ha'azinu every week, as the additional offering of Shabbat was brought.7

Song of Songs by King Solomon contains some of the best romance written to date
Song of Songs by King Solomon contains some of the best romance written to date, describing his love affair with none other than G‑d!

The sages of the Talmud followed his lead, extending the notion of romance to a full day every week! According to one Talmudic account8 this is how the sages would welcome the Holy Day: Rabbi Chanina would wrap himself in his cloak and say, "Come, let us go and greet the Shabbat Queen." Rabbi Yannai would don his robe and say, "Enter O bride! Enter, O bride!"

Talk about spiritual romance.

This is the type of spiritual rapture that led the great Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel to rejoice at the Sukkot Water Drawing Festival as he did, masterfully juggling eight lighted torches. He would also prostrate himself on the ground, bend down, do a head-stand, kiss the ground and draw himself up again, a feat which no one else could do. This was a man truly in love with his faith.9

And then came the Kabbalists who took things to a whole new level. They were men of spirit not just letters of the law.

Hot on their heels were the Chassidic masters, legendary embodiments and exponents of exuberant Judaism.

Indeed, a little known fact about original Chassidim is that before being named Chassidim, "pious ones," these spiritual ecstacists were called "di freilichers," or "the happy ones." Apparently there is a connection between piety and joy.

On a personal note:

There was no one in our time who so embodied the value of joy and living Judaism like the Lubavitcher Rebbe
There was no one in our time who so embodied the value of joy and living Judaism like the Lubavitcher Rebbe, known throughout the world for his broad smile and twinkling eyes, for his now famous swinging motions of encouragement, for the singing and dancing he encouraged at farbrengens (Chassidic gatherings), for making Judaism synonymous with celebration, excitement, and delight; for taking the last, dying notes of the haunting melody of European Jewry and transforming them into the lively, booming Jewish song of today.

What's in It for Me?

If what you want for your children

Is a burden to you,

They will wish to be free of it.

If what you want for your children

Brings you great joy and vitality,

They will wish to outdo you in it.


Deuteronomy 31:19.


Ibid., 32:44.


Ibid., 31:20.


See Maimonides (Laws of a Torah Scroll 7:11) where he says that the mitzvah that each Jew write a complete Torah scroll is derived from the verse "write yourselves this song"—alluding to the fact that that the song of Ha'azinu is connected to the entire Torah. Additionally, Ha'azinu spans the whole of the 32nd chapter of Deuteronomy. In Hebrew, 32 has the numerical value of the Hebrew letters lamed and bet (לב). This alludes to the fact that Ha'azinu is connected to the whole Torah—which begins with the letter bet and ends with a lamed. Additionally, the lamed and bet spell out lev, which means heart. This teaches that not only is Ha'azinu connected to the whole Torah, it is central to its survival like a heart to a body. This might explain why of all the passages in the Torah, the only recommended to be memorized is Ha'azinu. Doing so, according to the Maharal of Prague, purifies the mind and heart, and leads to longevity and success in business (see Memoirs of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe ch. 29; Sefer Hasichot 5701, pg. 56; Sefer Hasichot 5796 pg. 149).


Based on the Rebbe's teachings, recorded in Likutei Sichot, vol. 24 pg. 236-7.


The Az Yashir (Song of the Sea) is the first piece of Biblical song/poetry. But Ha'azinu is the longest.


See Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 31a.


Shabbat 119a.


Similarly, the Talmud says, Rabbi Levi used to juggle in the presence of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi with eight knives. Shmuel would do the same with eight glasses of wine, without spilling any of their contents. Abbaye would juggle before Rabbah with eight (or some say four) eggs.

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By Mendel Kalmenson    More articles...  |   RSS Listing of Newest Articles by this Author
Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson has traveled Europe, Asia and South America, reaching out to Jews in the remotest areas. He now resides in Crown Heights with his wife Chanale, daughter Geulah, and son Dov.
Mendel is an editor at the Judaism Website—
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