Chanting, Dance, and Divinity
Music is an essential part of Hasidism. Each Hasidic sect, of which there were and are many, developed its own music both in terms of formal prayers said in the synagogue and in less formal settings. The development and use of niggunim, melodies, both with words and without, is an important part of the contemplative and ecstatic life of the Hasid.
A niggun is often sung without words and the two or more musical motifs in the particular niggun are repeated, often for as long as twenty minutes or more. There are also tish niggunim (table melodies) sung in between teachings of the rebbe at communal meals. The niggunim are a form of meditational chanting. Some are referred to as devekus niggunim (mystical union melodies), makhshove niggunim (contemplative melodies), and moralishe niggunim (moral melodies).
Through the writings of the Mitnagdim, those who most opposed Hasidism, we learn much about Hasidism itself. In their writings, the Mitnagdim criticized the importance of singing and dancing among Hasidim and the displays of ecstatic behavior. Some Hasidim were known to even do somersaults in the streets of their towns.
Along with niggunim, dance is a very important part of Hasidism. Both music and dance can express and induce elements of ecstasy and contemplation that are different from traditional prayer and study. Often a formal prayer session will end with a dance.
There are also many tales in which music plays a role. The Besht apparently sang to the children when he brought them to kheder (their study “room”). There are a number of niggunim sung to this day attributed to the Besht, to Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, to Schneur Zalman, and to other early Tzaddikim. Rebbe Nachman taught that every truth in the world has its own niggun.