When Rabbi Mordechai Becher taught in Yeshivas Ohr Somayach, he took a talmid who was a professional classical musician to visit his rebbi, Rav Moshe ztz”l. Rav Moshe described the talmid’s musical career as an umnus nekiyah v’kalah, a Talmudic phrase roughly meaning “an honest and refined profession.” When the talmid asked if he could play Bach’s music, Rav Moshe replied that it was permitted because music cannot be mekabel tumah, cannot receive spiritual impurity.
The talmid then went on to vent, complaining that it annoyed him when people sing out of tune at a Shabbos meal or an oneg. Rav Moshe smiled and said, in English, “Me too!”
Rav Moshe’s talmidim knew that he was musical and that he considered music an avodah. On several occasions he commented that our generation does not have the ability to gain anything meaningful out of a niggun without words. We need the “hook” of words for the music to make an impact.
During his years as rosh yeshivah in Stamford (1977–1979), Rav Moshe would eat his Shabbos meals with the yeshivah. His talmidim there fondly recall how he would sing zemiros with great regesh and kavanah. When one of the bochurim tried to introduce a new version of “Keil Mistater,” Rav Moshe rejected it, not because it was new, but because he felt the tempo was not suited to the words.
Why did Rav Moshe believe music to be so central to avodas Hashem?
Important note: As with everything I write from what I gleaned from the Torah of my rebbi, this piece is based on my understanding and written in my style, and most certainly does not convey the full depths of what he taught. In this article there are a few points that I no longer remember whether I heard them directly from Rav Moshe or whether I presented the ideas to him and he allowed me to say them over. I’d also like to thank the family of Rav Moshe Shapira for approving the dissemination of his Torah in this format.
Also note that this article does not address possible halachic issues of music, such as inappropriate lyrics [see Sefer Chassidim 238 and 768].
How do you define music? A music professor once described it as “a rhythmic sequence of sounds and silences.” Rav Moshe would probably say this is only a half a thought: The essential nature of music is that it takes one on a journey. Perhaps Rav Moshe’s full-sentence definition of music would be “a rhythmic sequence of sounds and silences that takes you on a journey from one state of mind to another.”
The Hebrew word for music is zimrah, which has the same root as zomer, prune. When you prune a rose bush, you cut off the extraneous side branches so that the nutrients in the soil can give maximum nourishment to your prized rose. Similarly, music removes all distractions and takes you on a journey to its intended destination.
On a simplistic level, the music in a hotel lobby calms us down as we wait to be noticed by the concierge; loud, thumping music makes us drive more aggressively; slow, downtempo music makes us move more leisurely through the mall so we end up buying more. These are musical journeys that alter our moods.
But there are thousands of musical genres from cultures across the globe that take us on journeys that literally change who we are. Rav Moshe explained that civilization can ultimately be divided into the three fundamental cultures that were created when the sons of Noach stepped out of the Ark and confronted a pristine new world. Everything we need to know about these cultures and their music can be seen in their names: Sheim, Yefes, and Cham.
Sheim means “name.” Your name is your essence. This is alluded to by the gematria of shemo —his name — which is 146, the same numerical value as mekor, essence.
Your essence can be found in that mysterious place where your outer self touches your inner self, in the interface between your gashmiyus (physicality) and ruchniyus (spirituality). One powerful way to be in touch with your essence is to go on an internal journey.
The music of Sheim will take us along that journey.
Every morning we wake up and are confronted with the demands of our bodies. We are determined not to spiritually drown in our physical needs. We say our morning brachos and celebrate every small physical action of waking by expressing hakaras hatov to the One Above.
But we want to go higher. We want to praise Hashem in the world of angels and declare the Shema in their company. We want to access our inner selves so we can take three steps forward and have a private audience with the King of Kings. How do we get there? In the language of the siddur, how can we take a journey from the world of birchos hashachar to the worlds of the Shema and its blessings and the Shemoneh Esreh?
Dovid Hamelech, the great naim zemiros Yisrael (II Shmuel 22:1), shows us the way. The genius of Pesukei D’zimra, the section of Verses of Song, is that it acts as a pruning device for our overwhelmed selves to be in touch with something higher. The zimrah becomes the zomer, removing distractions so we can focus on reaching a place of “kol haneshamah tehallel Kah,” a place where our souls can fully praise our Creator. It is the music of Pesukei D’zimra that allows us to be in touch with our shem, our essence.
The music of Sheim reached its zenith with the shiras HaLeviim in the Beis Hamikdash. At the annual Simchas Beis Hashoeivah, the music would allow every Jew to access ruach hakodesh. When Elisha wanted to regain the spirit of prophesy, he asked a musician to play for him (II Melachim 3:15). Tragically, the music of the Leviim was lost with the Churban (see Sotah 48a). But the echoes of it remain for those who yearn for it.
I sometimes get asked to define “Jewish music” in contrast to the “music for Jews,” which often fills Jewish radio station airwaves. Perhaps we can answer by asking ourselves a simple question: On what journey does the music take us?
If after listening, we feel compelled to do something quintessentially Jewish (and I don’t mean eat cholent), we know we have heard the music of Sheim. The music leaves us with a feeling of spiritual elevation. True Jewish music touches our essence.
The Beauty in Music
Rav Shaul Miller ztz”l was a beloved rebbi at Machon Shlomo until his untimely passing in 1992. Rav Moshe, in his exceptionally glowing haskamah to his sefer Imrei Shaul, described him as an amun mutzna, mufla umechuseh me’od, hagaon hatzaddik. Rav Berel Gershenfeld, a senior talmid of Rav Moshe, relates that Rav Shaul asked Rav Moshe how he could take so much pleasure in classical music when its source isn’t Jewish. Rav Moshe confided that in his youth he had also asked the same question to Rav Dessler ztz”l.
Rav Dessler answered, “Hazemer shel Sheim halach l’galus, umatzah bayis b’ohel shel Yefes —The music of Sheim has gone into exile and found refuge in the tent of Yefes” (see Megillah 9b). Indeed, the baalei tefillah of chassidic courts and the Sephardic paytanim often take ideas from local non-Jewish music and elevate them to holy niggunim. It is hard to find a l’Sheim Shamayim writer of Sheim music who is not influenced at some level by the local music of Yefes.
Yefes means beauty. Where do we find the beauty in music?
Rav Moshe explained that it is found in harmony. The sensation of audial pleasure is directly proportional to the complexity of the harmony. The beauty is experienced when the notes are distant from each other and yet somehow blend. It is majestically expressed in a symphonic orchestra. But harmony can be found in any choir, musical band, or even a duet.
Today, the music of Yefes has been “hijacked” by his son, Yavan, and is expressed in the darkness of Greek culture. The darkness is expressed by the creation of beautiful, harmonious music that often gives an allusion of ruchniyus, but is fake. After going to a classical concert, most listeners are barely inspired. In New York they go out and eat, and in London, it’s time for a beer. (Note that in the two millennia of galus we lived with the music of Yavan taken hostage by Yefes. The music of Cham only infiltrated Western civilization in the 20th century).
Nevertheless, a Torah Jew can anchor the music of Yefes to the tents of Sheim. Rav Moshe felt that classical music is probably closer to the tunes of the Beis Hamikdash than much of contemporary Jewish music. Similarly, Rav Gershenfeld shared that he heard from Rav Shimon Schwab ztz”l that classical music is more likely to bring yeshivah bochurim to adinus hanefesh than much of today’s Jewish music.
The Descent into Cham
When I returned from one of my trips, Rav Moshe asked me, “Mah chadash b’America? [What’s new in America?]”
I answered that I was shocked at what extent “hatarbut shel Yefes yoreid l’tarbut shel Cham” — American culture is descending from Yefes to Cham.
Rav Moshe looked at me incredulously and said:
“Yoreid? Zeh kevar yarad! [Descending? It has already descended!”
Cham is the culture of heat. As a metaphor, our bodies generate heat from our outer selves to the world beyond, in the opposite direction of our inner selves. Whether the heat is sensual or aggressive, Cham represents something that takes us away from our essence and anything ruchani. Its music is lowly and addictive.
The tents of Sheim can never find refuge in Cham.
I once had a talmid who, after hearing a shiur klali from his rosh yeshivah, put in his earphones and plugged in his music. It was sufficiently loud that it was obvious he was listening to “Cham music” in all its contentious glory. He was the kind of talmid who knew I loved him and who could take a bit of mussar. I gave him a mashal to what his neshamah was going through: Imagine someone relaxing on a hammock in a Caribbean island, cocktail in hand, savoring paradise — and then without warning he’s dragged into a sewer.
In his last years, Rav Moshe made several comments lamenting the descent of Western civilization into the culture of Cham. In particular, he was worried about the next generation. It pained him to reflect on the challenges facing today’s youth trying to survive in such a spiritually hostile environment.
Before my son’s wedding, I asked Rav Moshe what I should be thinking while dancing. Rav Moshe responded by noting that the Hebrew word we use for dancing at a wedding is rikkud or meraked. The Hebrew word meraked also describes one of the 39 forbidden melachos of Shabbos, where it refers to sifting flour. How do we sift flour? We place the flour on the sifter and, with an upward motion, make the flour jump into the air. The fine flour falls through the holes while the coarse flour remains on the surface of the sifter.
This serves as a metaphor for what we are trying to achieve when dancing. We jump into the air and jettison the coarse part of our physicality as we reach for something higher. In other words, dancing, like song, takes us on a journey. It may be a split-second journey, yet it allows our whole body to transcend the physical. When Dovid Hamelech danced in front of the Aron Hakodesh (II Shmuel 6:14) or when the chassidim v’anshei maaseh danced with torches of fire at the Simchas Beis Hashoeivah (Succah 5:4), they used the medium of dance to reach unfathomable spiritual heights.
Rav Moshe was teaching me that the secret of Jewish dance is not what’s happening with one’s feet. It is what’s happening in one’s mind. At those significant moments in our lives when we explode with simchah and express it through dancing, we can reach a level of unparalleled dveikus.
Once again, it’s painful to reflect how today, in the final chapter of history before we greet Moshiach, the non-Torah world has embraced the rikkud of Cham, using those same jumping movements to create a sensation of disconnection and “anti-dveikus.”
There’s another word in Hebrew that describes music: shir. The word shir in Mishnaic Hebrew connotes something circular (see Shabbos 5:1), implying that the journey has come full circle in that the last note reconnects to the first note. Most Jewish songs that we sing are actually structured that way, where the song ends and naturally segues into the beginning.
Similarly, there’s a type of dance called machol. Everyone forms a circle that has no beginning and no end. Everyone dancing is unique and yet equal with everyone else.
When Klal Yisrael sang shirah at the Yam Suf, they reached a level where they understood how 210 years of suffering in Egypt had all been part of Hashem’s greater plan. The Shiras Hayam was an expression of a world where all questions are answered, where all tears are explained. All that was left was to sing to the Redeemer, Whose infinite love had now been revealed as having been constant and unwavering.
Shiras Hayam begins with the famous words Az yashir, which literally mean “then he shall sing,” implying the song will be sung in the future. When will we celebrate that moment? Chazal teach us that is a reference to the shirah at the End of Days (Sanhedrin 91b). At that moment, everything from Creation until techiyas hameisim will be exposed as a melody of consummate perfection. We will become aware of the Pirkei Shirah, the music of all of Hashem’s creations, singing in perfect harmony. The Creator of the world will reveal Himself as the Grand Conductor.
And the name of the symphony will be Hashem Echad.
At that awesome moment, HaKadosh Baruch Hu will make a machol, a circle, and we will take our place in the circle (Taanis 31a). We will then point and say, “Zeh Hashem kivinu lo, nagilah v’nismechah biyeshuaso — This is Hashem for Whom we have longed, let us exult and rejoice in His salvation” (Yeshayahu 25:9).
In Real Life
The Purim Gift
In the first year of Yeshivas Mishkan HaTorah (1981), the month of Adar was filled with our hectic preparations for our Purim play, The Wizard of Unsdorf. The play was greeted with irrepressible laughter and critical acclaim. The next year, when Rosh Chodesh Adar rolled around, we clicked our heels and got working on a new play.
But that year was Rav Moshe’s first year at the yeshivah. He found out about the play after it had already been written. He called us into his office and gently explained that in his opinion, a play was not compatible with kedushas Purim. When he saw the pain in our eyes he said, “In the zechus of canceling the play, I’ll give you a brachah.” He gave us a most extraordinary brachah.
(As an aside, our mashgiach, Rav Asher Zelig Rubinstein ztz”l, was not happy with the cancelation. He claimed that the Purim play was a holy minhag that had its roots in Volozhin. It gave bochurim the chance to use humor to subliminally communicate with the hanhalah what they felt needed fixing. He asked to see the script so he could learn through our artistic expression how the yeshivah could be improved.)
That Purim night was truly magical. Perhaps Rav Moshe sensed our disappointment and wanted it to be special. When the mesibah was over, we squeezed into his shiur room and he mesmerized us with divrei Torah for over an hour. When the shiur was over, he took one dveikus-filled song and sang it with us. When the song was over he sang it again. And again and again, for what seemed like forever.
He never switched to another song. Rav Moshe did not belong to the era of people who sing a song for three minutes and then discard it for a fresh one. He wanted the song to be savored and experienced until it became one with our essence. The words would take on new levels of meaning and penetrate every fiber of our being.
He had taken away our play and replaced it with the gift of music.
A Thousand Words
Look carefully at the picture of Rav Moshe dancing at the wedding of his youngest son. He is surrounded by chashuve yedidim who had come to share his special moment, yet he seems detached, as if in a different world. His eyes are closed, his aura intense, his very essence in a state of exalted elation.
Rav Moshe once shared a childhood memory of a chaburah of Gerrer chassidim, Yidden from Warsaw who had survived the war. They would gather together on Shabbos afternoon to share Shalosh Seudos vertlach at the local shul in Tel Aviv.
One of the zekeinim, quiet by nature, shared an exquisite idea that would have a major impact on the young Rav Moshe. He explained the seemingly bizarre exchange between Dovid Hamelech and his wife Michal when the Aron Hakodesh was returned to Klal Yisrael (II Shmuel 6:14-23).
Dovid was “mecharker b’kol oz lifnei Hashem,” dancing with all his strength before Hashem.
Michal found his behavior abhorrent and chastised him saying, “Is this the way the King of Israel behaves, k’achad hareikim, like one of the empty commoners?”
Dovid responded, “Unkalosi ohd mi’zos, I would gladly lower myself further in honor of Hashem.”
The Gerrer zakein explained that Michal was accusing him of something much deeper than just behavior unbecoming of a royal. His dancing was so ecstatic that he revealed his soul. She was censuring him for revealing that inner world.
For every layer expressed, there must be wellsprings of layers that are suppressed.
Michal compared him to k’achad hareikim, which can be translated as someone who has emptied himself completely. By doing so, her husband had cut himself off from the hidden wellsprings that should nourish him in the future.
Dovid Hamelech’s response was emphatic. Do you really think I exposed my inner worlds? Unkalosi ohd mi’zos — there are layers upon layers that remain hidden. For the honor of Hashem, I exposed a fraction, but my true self remains unfathomably concealed.
In his hesped for Rav Moshe, his talmid muvhak, Rabbi Akiva Tatz, retold this story. He marveled at how Rav Moshe had internalized such a subtle idea at such a young age. He was only ten years old!
To us, this vort truly reflected Rav Moshe. In Rabbi Tatz’s words, we always felt we were standing in front of a mountain where all we could see were foothills. We were fortunate that Rav Moshe revealed what he chose to allow us to see. Occasionally, we would be reminded of his tzniyus, hiding worlds of depth and dveikus that were reserved for his Creator.
Like when dancing at his son’s wedding.
Originally featured in Family First, Issue 633. Rabbi Menachem Nissel is a mechanech in Jerusalem and is the author of Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah. He is a talmid of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l.