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Music to the Tune of Judaism – Stories of a Musical Mishna

Here are two enlightening stories that help us understand the capabilities inherent in music. The protagonist of both is Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, better known as the Baal Hatanya or the Alter Rebbe.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman had a disciple named R’ Moshe Feldman, who had a uniquely beautiful voice. This R’ Moshe would go out into the fields with a sefer, and study and sing to Hashem; hence his name, “Feld-man,” or “man of the field”.

Once R’ Moshe was sitting in the Beis Medrash of Liadi along with R’ Pinchas Reitzes. The two were studying with younger Chassidim, when the Baal Hatanya himself walked into the room. He sat down at the table with the group, and after a few moments of quiet introspection, he said, “There is a mishna in Tractate Shabbat that reads, ‘With what objects may an animal carry outside a domain, and with what objects are not permissible for the animal to carry out of the domain?’ On a mystical level, we may interpret this mishna as follows: Our daily prayer time is the Shabbat of the weekday. Accordingly, the mishna is then asking, with which divine service is it possible to draw one’s animal soul upwards? There are many types of animal souls – camels, horses, donkeys, etc. Every level of the animal soul needs its own service, but the general service that applies equally to them all is hinted to in the mishna, which continues, ‘All animals that wear collars (Baalei Sheir) may enter and exit with collars.’ The word ‘Sheir’ is the same as the word ‘Shir’, which means song. By singing during prayer, one has the ability to draw the animal soul upwards, to refine the goodness within it, and to awaken within oneself a state of inner comprehension.”


Another time, the Baal Hatanya explained this mishna slightly differently. He explained that Baalei Shir means “Masters of Song”, referring to souls and angels, which experience their spiritual ascents through music.

This statement was ridiculed by the opponents of the Chassidic movement, and the Chassidim of the town of Shklov found themselves under verbal attack due to it. Some time later, the Baal Hatanya himself visited Shklov, and owing his reputation as a great scholar, all the local scholars brought Torah questions for him to answer. To everyone’s surprise, he simply listened to all the questions, and told everyone that he would answer them publicly at a later time.

And so it was – the entire town gathered in the town’s largest synagogue, and the Baal Hatanya ascended the dais. Surveying the crowd, he said, “You would like me to answer your questions. Very well, I shall do so by virtue of a niggun. After all, the mishna states that all Masters of Song ascend through song!” And with that, he began to sing a niggun with great ecstasy.

Nothing could be heard in the synagogue other than the Rebbe’s voice. The onlookers felt themselves bewitched by the tune, as a sense of deep spirituality descended on all present. Without realizing it, all the knotty problems and questions they had brought fell apart in each individual’s own mind!

Rabbi Yosef Kolbo was one of the great scholars present, and he told this story to Rabbi Avraham Sheines, who himself repeated it to the Baal Hatanya’s grandson, the Tzemach Tzedek – Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch. Rabbi Yosef said, “I had four serious questions that I had been working to solve for many months. I presented these problems to all the scholars of Vilna and Slutzk, and no one gave me any satisfying solutions. When these questions answered themselves in my mind after this experience, I felt just like a child! But it was that experience that brought me to the point of becoming a Chassid – I thought to myself, if this man can open my mind to Torah like that at the dais, he certainly can open my heart at the shtender, during prayer!”


So this Shabbos, when you sit down to pray, do so with a tune. Let it take you somewhere else – upwards and outwards, and you may very well find that all the problems of your week  are then answered by themselves.

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