TheThree Cardinal Sins of Singing

by Aron White – A Young Writer contribution

Singing is part of many areas of Avodas Hashem. The Gemara refers to a Shul as a “Makom Rina,” and place of singing. The Medrash says that there are 9 songs in Tanach, and a tenth will be sung at the time of Mashiach. At our most special Simchas, our summer camps, our Shabbos tables – music and songs accompany us.

However, sometimes this wonderful way of expressing our emotions is cheapened and misused. Here are the three sins that we currently commit in some of our songs.

Sin One – The totally inappropriate song

Sometimes, in the interest of a good tune, we sing words that are totally inappropriate to the current mood. A great example is a favourite wedding song, Mordechai Ben David`s “Zachreini Na”. As Shimshon sits in captivity of the Pelishtim, his eyes having been gouged out, he prays to Hashem to allow him to go down fighting, and avenge his killers as he dies – “Remember me, and give me strength this one time, and I will avenge (my death) from the Philistines.” (Hashem grants this request, and he brings down the building on top of himself, killing thousands of Philistines as well) How singing such a song contributes to the joy of the bride and groom on their most special day is anyone`s guess. We should not sing songs that are inappropriate or antithetical to the event where we are in.

Sin Two – The fake, frum song

Sometimes there is the opposite problem. Sometimes we sing a song, and focus on it`s message – but it`s message is not really relevant to us, but it is frum to pretend so. A song that has become popular in the last few weeks is “Niggun Hastara.” The song is a line of Rav Nachman of Breslov. He says that in a time of Hester Panim, even a time of “the hiding within the hiding,” Hashem can still be found.
That idea is deep, profound and very meaningful. Crusades, pogroms, Holocaust, the wars in Israel all provided challenges to Jew`s faith, yet Jews always looked to find Hashem despite the hiding of His face. However, over this Sukkos I heard the song sung in a very different context. I am at a loss to explain how at a quite jovial meal in the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem (the fact that a room costs about $1000 a night says enough) there is a hiding of Hashem`s face that one must look beyond. It is totally fake to pay lip service to faith in the face of adversity as one sits, in Yerushalayim, surrounded by family and friends in the lap of luxury. ( One could even go further and say it is a lack of religious sensitivity or Hakarat HaTov to not recognise the great “Gilui Panim,” revealing of the face, that that situation represents.) It is simply not our Nisayon – our challenge is to be able to move beyond the Kochi VeOtzem Yodi, not to find Hashem in the midst of turmoil. We should not sing songs because they are frum, if it is hypocritical or fake.

Sin Three – the insensitive, or cheapening song

The third sin is when songs are sung that cheapen a religious message. One of the most beautiful songs of the past few years is Simcha Leiner`s “Kol BeRama”. This takes one of the most powerful images of Judaism, the idea of Rachel crying for her children, and puts it to the most beautiful tune. (Rav Avraham Pam said that in his view, Perek 31 of Yirmiya, the Perek with this Passuk, is the most inspiring chapter of the whole Tanach). This summer on camp, during supper, that song was played, and I frequently hear it at Onegs on Shabbos, even weddings. How can you play that song in a jovial atmosphere? That song speaks of the tragedy of the children killed in the Holocaust, the tragedy of the young soldiers killed in Gaza – to play it during a barbeque, just because Simcha Leiner`s voice is stunning? We cannot allow singing to destroy some of the most powerful images in Judaism, and turn them into background music.

I believe that each problems stems from one root cause. Singing has become something that is only horizontal, not vertical. Singing is about creating a certain atmosphere – At the Shabbos table, we want to sing Jewish songs and tunes. At weddings, we want to sing songs we can dance to. At camp, we want to sing and put our arms on each other’s shoulders. This is very good, and creating an atmosphere is certainly a major part of singing – but sometimes we only focus around us, not above us. We are not using the singing as a way to connect to Hashem, but only as a way of connecting with others around us. Therefore we sing songs that don`t really have a message that fits, or that is suitable – if the song is quick, it is still good for dancing. If the song is slow, it is still good for a tisch.

I think the way of getting used to singing as a way of connecting with Hashem is to sing in a more localised, individual way. When one finishes a Chavrusa, they can/should sing or hum to themselves Shwekey`s Vehaarev Na. If one is raising money for poor people, one can sing to themselves Shwekey`s V`Na. When one is on the road to the airport to head to Eretz Yisrael, one can sing Yerushalayim Oro Shel Olam. Choosing a song to fit the moment, and singing it, helps us use songs to connect with Hashem. In fact, if one sings by oneself, it is all about connecting with Hashem, rather than creating an atmosphere! (Note – one should be aware of their surroundings before they begin singing loudly to themselves in a public area…….)
This context for singing means that we are using the song to express our feelings of gratitude and prayer. By learning how, what and when to sing better, we can recapture singing as a way of connecting ourselves emotionally to our Avodas Hashem.

Aron White is in his fifth year at Yeshivat HaKotel, whilst also studying for a degree in Politics and International Relations through the University of London International Program (Lead College LSE). He has been the head of the Beis Hamedrash on various summer camps in England, and also gives Shiurim in Yeshivat HaKotel.

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27 Responses

  1. Toby Katz says:

    My father, R’ Nachman Bulman z’l, sang beautifully and had a special feel for old-time Jewish music. He used to go to the tish of the Modzhitzer Rebbe zt’l when the latter lived in NY after WWII. He loved the complex, holy and emotionally stirring melodies he had learned at the Rebbe’s tish.

    My father disliked much of what passes for Jewish music in our modern age. Something that particularly irked him was when the music did not fit the mood of the words — when mournful words, for example, were set to a quick-tempo hoppy jumpy melody. I don’t want to embarrass any individual or group by naming specific songs that he disliked.

    It also bothered him when a singer had to do violence to the Hebrew language in order to make the words fit the melody — e.g., when the words of a particular phrase or pasuk were divided in an unnatural way or when the stress was placed on the wrong syllable of a word.

    There was a fad some decades ago — I hope it has passed — of playing the music to the secular song “Delilah” at many Jewish weddings. Even though the song was played without words, anyone who knew the words couldn’t help hearing them in his head. What kind of song is that for a wedding?! My father did not approve of playing any secular music at a wedding.

    Perhaps surprisingly, there was some secular music that he did like (not for weddings though). For example, he thought that some of the melodies of Simon and Garfinkel had a very Jewish sound to them — “Sounds of Silence” for example.

    He would certainly have agreed with this writer that the songs you sing — the music and the lyrics — should fit the occasion.

  2. SA says:

    I admire the madreiga of this writer. Perhaps those responsible for the music/singing at any given gathering could be more attentive.

    My gut feeling, however, is that when Hashem looks down and sees us horizontally connecting in appropriate settings, it gives him so much pleasure that he will ignore the dissonance described here.

  3. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    Your points are well taken but what makes these THE THREE cardinal sins of singing? There are other tunes and words that are just as or more problematic than the issues raised above. Here are three for good measure.

    1) The Mishna Berura states that l’halacha one should not sing any pesukim period. This is based upon the explanation of rashi and other rishonim of the gemara that הקורא פסוק משיר השירים ועשאו כמין זמר, וכן הקורא פסוק שלא בזמנו מביא רעה
    לעולם, מפני שהתורה חוגרת שק ועומדת לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ואומרת, רבונו של עולם עשאוני בניך ככנור

    2) Songs that force the words of Torah in to tunes by repeating the words over and over (often out of context) just to match the jingle and tune, or to sing words of torah that sound like the name of the artist etc.. are often a bizayon to Torah and are unfortunately a true fulfillment of עשאוני בניך ככנור.

    3) Songs that try to imbue a nationalistic or militaristic hashkafah counter to Torah values. (I believe that the song “zachreini nah” mentioned above is meant to work us into a excited frenzy of revenge against the modern day philistines)

  4. Steve says:

    To place the credit (or blame) where its due: Zochreini Na is not an MBD song. It is Dov Shurin’s & was covered by Dedi & Lipa Schmeltzer.

  5. Avraham Marks says:

    If you’re going to talk about this, you need to at least mention Sanhedrin 101a.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    Maybe, in situations where a Jewish tune is fitting but the words are not, the solution is to do it as a nigun.

  7. YD says:

    Nicely written but I disagree with the premise. Human beings are complex and can experience more than one emotion at a time. Regarding sin two, I would assert that even at a “jovial meal … surrounded by family and friends in the lap of luxury” there often are broken people there who are feeling Hester Panim and לב יודע מרת נפשו.

  8. joel rich says:

    All very true (my favorite example is the catchy tune to “Adam doeg al ibud domov, v’eino doeg al ibud yomov. Yomov, yomov einam chozrim. Domov, domov eimam ozrim ” (Jewish version of sha na na na na live for today and don’t worry about tomorrow?)) however I think we will be more succesful if we try to educate (best if done experientially)folks as to the power of the match of the tune and the words (I always think of a particular version of yedid nefesh (Beloved of the soul) especially when one reaches maheir ehov ki ba moed(hasten, show love, for the time has come,))rather than telling them that what they are doing is wrong.

  9. Miriam A says:

    Interesting. I would love to hear the writers thoughts on songs, even tefillos, that are sung to tunes that are not Jewish in origin.

  10. Shmuel says:

    I agree with the overall sentiment concerning strengthening our sensitivity to what/how/when/where/why particular songs are appropriate, as a corollary for increasing our overall sensitivity towards avodat HaShem. With that said, there are a few points I’d like to make, some of which address factual errors, others that suggest a different approach or perspective:

    1) “Zochreini na” is a composition of – and made famous by – Dov Shurin, one of Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky’s grandsons; to the best of my knowledge, MBD has never been associated with the song unless he sang it at a wedding somewhere at some point. That said, I find it mind-boggling that this has become a staple at many dances. A brief anecdote: Chaim David performs in the Rova most years for hakafot shni’ot and refused to play “zochreini na” at the event. Not all is lost.

    2) The author’s paragraph concerning “sin two” smacks of cynicism and judgement. While it may be somewhat accurate there are more positive ways to approach the subject. The outward hypocrisy of contentedly singing about challenges and adversity can be perceived – ala Rebbe Nachman – in the light of a true “hastara b’toch hastara”, in this case the banality of a life of material excess without spiritual progress. Indeed, when a song has such an effect, perhaps it’s to the lyrical content’s credit that those whom we might write off as being “fake” and superficial find themselves singing the song at every opportunity. That’s the power of niggun, of shira, chipping away at the callus surrounding people’s hearts. Perhaps. But we shouldn’t always assume the worst.

    “It is simply not our Nisayon – our challenge is to be able to move beyond the Kochi VeOtzem Yodi, not to find Hashem in the midst of turmoil.” This is not true nor fair to be stated in such a blanket generalization. Turmoil is a fluid concept when it comes to Jewish existence; for some it’s physical neccessities, for many it’s safety and security, for others it’s “Kochi v’otzem” – but it is always about finding HaShem – “u’bikashti misham”. Who are we to comment on others’ challenges?

    3) The song “kol berama” may seem inappropriate taken out of context, but then it’s not really doing justice to the verses. No doubt Rav Pam held the whole chapter in such high regard because of its theme of redemption and restoration of the Jewish people – in merit of Rachel’s steadfast, heartfelt crying for her children. We sing tribute and thanks because Rachel is the only one of the Avot/Imahot who is positioned to make such a plea, in such a manner. And we should take comfort in the knowledge that we have advocates on high (of course we need to do our own work as well); these verses are not sad even though they are tinged with centuries of tragedy. To maintain focus on the negative is equally subversive on the spiritual power of that particular song.

  11. dr, bill says:

    I agree wholeheartedly; niggunim must match the occasion and the text. Frankly, almost every Shabbos in many shuls during kedusha (in mussaf), the misuse of niggunim has reached new heights. 1) Kevodo, 2) Mimkomo and 3) Hu Elokeinu 1) declare God’s majesty, 2) pray for his mercy and 3) praise and thank Him for his Kingship of am Yisroel. Declaring His kingship in plaintive tones, a rousing/festive melody to ask for mercy, or a sad declaration of thanks, are frankly comical. I suspect that we would be better off if the offending shaliach tzibbur went to the Kiddush club and stayed there.

  12. Tati says:

    Not that I have ever stayed in the Citadel Hotel, but, before you dis those who do and still sing… Know that you DON’T KNOW what goes on in their private lives. Although they may have money to spend on hotel and luxuries, you don’t know what illness, sholom bayis, children, depression, etc issues they may have. Internally, they may be suffering much more than those who stay in 2 star hotels or don’t get to Israel at all. You may be a fifth year talmid in yeshiva, which is great, but you may not yet have experienced enough in life to judge and criticize as you do.

  13. Shades of Gray says:

    “We cannot allow singing to destroy some of the most powerful images in Judaism, and turn them into background music.”

    Re. Simcha Leiner’s “Kol Beramah”, I came to know it before I was aware of the video or the reason for its composition, so I happen not to have associations that are any different than I have when hearing the older, Yossi Green/London Kol BeRamah.

    “I believe that the song “zachreini nah” mentioned above is meant to work us into a excited frenzy of revenge against the modern day philistines”

    I wouldn’t go that far, but “Zachreini Nah” does have its roots in Arab terrorism. From a 2003 Haaretz article:

    “There is also a fringe minority of musical extremists whose message extends beyond love. The anthem of Yirmiyahu from Yitzhar, and Dov Shurin, who recently released a disk entitled “Revenge,” is the song “Zachreni Na” (Remember Me, Please), which appears on the disk, whose words are from the Book of Judges (trumpets blasting in the background, Shurin sings “And I will take one revenge from two eyes of the Philistines”), is a big crowd-pleaser in the hilltop outposts and Hebron. Now the song is getting played in non-settler circles, thanks to a well-known wedding band that has been performing the song”.

  14. Simon says:

    I like how this article didn’t mention secular music. Obviously most non-Jewish music is worse than these ‘sins’ however as Rebbetzin Katz mentions, some like Sound of Silence are a lot better. (Of course, Simon and Garfunkel were Jewish, but the point remains.) Ultimately each song must be judged on it’s merits, not by it’s composer or popularity. Kudos to tje author for taking issue with an oft neglected topic.

  15. Nachum says:

    The funniest/saddest example to me is from a recent haftarah: “Ish et re’ehu yaazoru uleachiv yomar chazak.” Very popular song encouraging people to make avoda zara. Look it up.

  16. Aron White says:

    Thank you to everyone for their feedback on this article. I wish to respond specifically to a few points that have been raised by a number of people.

    1) Avraham, Crazy Kanoiy – a number of reasons have been suggested to justify what is clearly the common practice, which is to sing Pessukim. A very good article on this was written by Rabbi Jachter –

    2) YD, Tati, Shmuel – I wish to clarify the story I was referring to, and thinking you for pointing out the problem in how I told the story. I do not mean to generalise, and imply that anyone staying in an expensive hotel does not experience Hester Panim. Nor do I ignore the tremendous power of what Chassidus and Rav Nachman did, by showing how the concept of Hester Panim, which in the Torah refers to Hashem`s relationship with Klal Yisrael, also applies to each individual. I do not mean to imply that because Klal Yisrael are in a better place no-one can reach out to Hashem from their place of trouble.
    I should clarify the details of the story – the song was sung by the Yeshiva Bochurim there, with the mothers proudly listening in to the harmonies etc. and it came in between the standard repertoire of Yom Tov songs. I apologise that I did not clarify that the story I referred to was when this song was sung with all the ambiance and Simcha of any other song on Yom Tov. When sung in such an atmosphere, and compounded by the ambiance of the luxurious surroundings, the song really felt callous and incorrect.

    3) Simon and Miriam – I think there are a number of different issues with non Jewish music
    a) I think that we can certainly agree that there are large percentages of non Jewish music that are inappropriate for any person, and certainly frum Jews.
    b) If we are to discuss those songs that are appropriate I think that there are two complicating factors. Firstly, often there are conflicting messages – namely, a singer will release an album on which some of the songs are uplifting and inspiring, and some are the opposite. However, it must be said that there are certain genres that do not have this problem as much – for example, country artists are less likely to release low and treif songs than standard pop music.
    But a second point is that even if certain songs are appropriate, the culture that exists around the songs, and particularly, the singers, is rarely positive. For example, even if one believes that Michael Jackson`s song “Man in the Mirror” has a very positive message, the culture around Michael Jackson was certainly not one that we would to be part of. It is often hard to split between the music, and the culture around the singer, and I think that that must be taken into account.

  17. Aron White says:

    Tati, I want to pick up on one the points you made, although it is a tangent to the main point of the article, but because it offers a chance to reconsider how we look at yeshivos.

    “You may be a fifth year talmid in yeshiva, which is great, but you may not yet have experienced enough in life to judge and criticize as you do.”

    I am not going to doubt that being young means I have experienced less in life etc. However, I think the implication you make in mentioning 5 years in Yeshiva is working with a premise that is not true of Hesder Yeshivot. I wish to describe to you my experiences, as someone who is in a Hesder Yeshiva. This summer, one of the Bachurim who sits in the row on front of me was killed in Gaza. Another has returned to Yeshiva now, on crutches from a broken leg sustained in the war. I cannot think of a stronger example of not judging people by the externals than seeing a Chavrusa learning in the Beis Hamedrash – one, a young american teenager, the other, a young American Israeli who killed multiple terrorists this summer.

    I bring up this point as a tangent to the point of the article – nevertheless I think that it is important to clarify and understand that experience of those who go to Hesder Yeshivot. On the one hand, they are immersed in the world of Rabeinu Tam, Rambam, Reb Chaim and Reb Shimon, but they are still very much engaged in the real world, with all of it`s difficulties.

  18. Shades of Gray says:

    Yerachmiel Begun also composed a “Zachreini” that is on the Miami “Bederech Hatorah” album, released in 2001(one can sample it on the “Mostly Music” website). It is very different than the one discussed here in that both the tempo and the mood of the Miami version are such that it could never be danced to at a wedding! Also, the lyrics in the song stop right before וְאִנָּקְמָה so it can’t be called a song of “revenge”, even if that is implied by the continuation of the pasuk.

  19. Y. Ben-David says:

    A rav I know complains about how at the huppa after the hatan breaks the cup in memory of the hurban of Yerushalayim, the crowd immediately starts cheering and says “Mazal Tov”. He finds that very inappropriate.

    BTW-Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” is a very powerful song which very clearly illustrates the alienation of modern society. It is interesting that they wrote it while in their early twenties!

  20. Eli Julian says:

    Aharon, as a current resident of Jerusalem, I would encourage you to spend a Shabbos (or many) in Ramot Polin and to attend the davening at the Yekke shul there. The nigunim of the Yekke davening are specifically tailored to the mood of the particular element in the teffila that they come to enhance, e.g. rejoicing at the entrance of Shabbos, serious Kaddish before Amida, royal tune for Kel Adon, excitement when the Sefer Torah comes out, sadness when it is returned, etc. Also depending on the time of year the niggunim are altered appropriately. I became more sensitive to many parts of the davening just from the half a year that I was zocheh to daven at that shul.

  21. Jon Baker says:

    Mr White speaks of “sins”, although he doesn’t cite any sources, so I’m assuming these “sins” are rhetorical devices, like “maaleh alav hakatuv”, or personal opinions.

    I’m curious, since he seems to have studied this a good deal, what does Mr. White think of borrowing tunes which were originally used (or were also borrowed by others) for non-Jewish purposes? Some examples, which have bothered myself or others over the years:

    1) Erev shel shoshanim for kedushah on Shabbat: the original lyrics clearly imply a message not too different from Jonathan Coulton’s “First of May” – let’s go off to the flower garden, where we can sleep together (wink wink nudge nudge) and wake with the dawn.

    2) Greensleeves, originally a secular song attributed to Henry VIII, which was reused for a Christmas song in the 1890s, being used for Adon Olam. How about the Scottish national anthem, “Scotland the Brave”, for An’im Zemiros? (two tunes from my old shul, which bothered some people)

    3) Mordechai ben David’s “Yidden” – a great dance song in Yiddish about the coming of Moshiach, also parodied by Lenny Solomon, who made it about all the guests at weddings who want him to sing in Yiddish, a language he barely knows. So far so good. But read the original lyrics to the tune, which was a disco-style song at Eurovision in 1979: Is this what we want to think about at weddings, goyish warlords spreading death and destruction, and their mighty prowess with women?

    To some extent, it seems (from talking with chazonim), that like the long-running argument over repetitions of words while leading the tefillot, it comes down to: chazonim have their own mesorah, which doesn’t always shtim with the rabbis’ mesorah.

    Eli Julian: that’s what a good chazan will do. Unfortunately, as shuls move more towards baalei tefillah, fewer and fewer chazonim are trained in this. And we wind up falling into what my mother calls “camp songs” – Carlebach, etc., that don’t necessarily suit the mood of the prayers, but which get everybody singing along. Carlebach wrote so much that it shouldn’t be impossible to match the tune to the words, but most people don’t seem to think that way.

  22. Aron White says:

    Y Ben David – my Rosh Yeshiva refuses to be Mesader Kiddushin unless they sing Im Ashkechach, and break the glass in the middle, so that it maintains the message it is supposed to have. (Although even during the song, there still are those who shout Mazel Tov!)

  23. Jon Baker says:

    Re breaking the glass at a wedding – that’s because in the modern (postwar) world, the symbolism of the glass has changed. Before the War (and still in some Chasidic circles; I saw this at a Karlin-Stolin wedding), the Hurban was memorialized by putting ashes on the chosson’s head at the beginning of the ceremony, when he gets to the chuppah.

    Breaking the glass comes from the story in the Talmud of someone being at a party, and the simcha was getting too wild and raucous, so he deliberately broke an expensive glass. The loud crash brought everyone back to their senses. The message there is, excess in anything, even simcha, is not praiseworthy, so don’t get too excited.

    For some reason, the ashes have disappeared, so the Hurban was remapped onto the glass. Breaking the glass just before dancing off to the party makes sense in its original symbolism. Commemorating the Hurban, injecting a note of solemnity, fits the beginning of the ceremony, when people are coming in slowly, thinking about the giant step they’re about to take, much better than the end. Y. Ben-David’s rabbi friend should try re-instituting the ashes at non-Chasidic weddings (a Mod-O friend who was into minhagim also did it at his wedding).

  24. R Weiss says:

    In my experience, most Baalei Teffilah do match the mood of the niggun they choose to the words of the tefillah they are leading. And, when the tzibbur sings along, it enhances the tefillah tremendously. Come daven in my shul (a yeshivish-chassidish mixture) and you will see what I mean.

  25. Aron White says:

    Jon Baker – I think that it generally is more about the atmosphere that is created by the tune. Certain tunes embellish the words being sung, whereas certain ones “take over” the song. For example, there are certain beats one hears in contemporary Jewish music that have clearly come from RnB and hip hop – those beats are so effusive of a culture that is not in line with the Torah`s that one cannot focus on the words anymore. I think that when looked at in this light Greensleeves is pretty mild, and does not really have much of an impact on one`s ability to connect with the meaning of the song.
    There is the argument made by Rav Schachter that tunes emerge from a person`s soul, and a person who is not a refined person will express that in his tunes. I personally am inclined to give a somewhat “Chabad” response to that, and to claim that every person has a spark in them, which can be reflected in their music, which is genuinely beautiful.

  26. Steve Brizel says:

    I think that a tune should fit the words-not vice versa-The best Nigunnim by R S Carlebach ZL and other classical Baalei Neginah like the composers of Devekus ( Abbe Rotenberg) always adhered to this rule of thumb. A good Baal Tefilah should know that a tune that you dance to at a chasunah is not necessarily a tune to daven to.

  27. Bob Miller says:

    “Tunes mismatched to words” also include tunes heard in shul that are grossly mismatched to the number of syllables in the words. The words get stretched beyond recognition or compressed beyond recognition to make a bad fit “work”. It’s an embarrassment.

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