Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

17 Cheshvan 5767 - November 8, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Music in Our Day: Shiru Lo Zamru Lo

by Binyomin Y. Rabinowitz

Weddings—bands—music. Harsh, discordant notes have infiltrated the world of the Jewish yeshiva. The Torah ear has lost the feel of the pure sound and has let dissonant notes change the notes of the heart and cut it to the quick.

The musical ladder, instead of serving as a ladder upwards has become a downhill slope. Under the cover of these notes, a link has been formed with the streets, and important barriers have been broken down. The consequences are likely to be severe from a spiritual standpoint.

How do we prevent the danger? What is genuine Jewish music? To find out, we arranged a meeting with three people who are involved in genuine Jewish music, chassidic — the real thing — to assess the danger, and put up warning signs.

Part I

It gets worse by the day. The dreadful negative influences are seen all over. Educational experts state unanimously that this issue is a major constituent in the decline of our young people.

There is no need to rush to the streets in order to go downhill. The cheap, bestial atmosphere of the streets has already permeated inside. If in the past it came through the back door, and was latent and concealed, today it is starkly apparent for all to see.

An on-site examination makes it manifestly clear that the community is not immune to this serious plague of modern life. Even if there are certain circles where the situation is less serious, it has still infiltrated and continues to infiltrate and cause harm. In short, we are facing a most dismal situation that pervades the world of song and music.

It is now the season of simchas and weddings. It is a fitting time to tackle this severe plague. And not only that. We feel it deeply ourselves. There is no doubt that this situation forces everyone to go to war. Not, choliloh vechas, against people — but against the system. To erect walls, as thick and high as possible. Because otherwise, we are getting close, we have already come close—no, we are already at the bottom rungs of the ladder. On a slippery slope that it will soon become very difficult to extricate ourselves from.

One day, we met with Rabbi Yirmiyohu Deman, who is well known as the musician at the Belzer Rebbe's court, and Rabbi Shlomo Kalish (famous for "Tehei haSho'oh hazos") at the Zemiros Recording Studio of Rav Chaim Banet (among others, "Machnisei Rachamim"). All three personalities are very much involved in chinuch and the dissemination of Torah, as well as in musical composition, singing and musical arrangement.

All three have been very well known for many years not only as singers of songs of kedushoh, but also as major chinuch personalities. They are therefore more aware than most of both the positive impact of authentic Jewish music, and of the negative impact of music that derives from the other side of the fence. From the streets.

Rabbi Deman has been involved in chinuch for many years. He started working in the field right after he got married, in a variety of distinguished positions: as meishiv in a yeshiva and in the administration of a Belz talmud Torah in Yerushalayim, to name but a few. Today, he serves as mashgiach, or rather as the rosh yeshiva of young bochurim, in Telz Stone.

He became known in the musical field even in his childhood, when he stood beside his father who led the davening at the Belzer shul in Bnei Brak, during the High Holidays, during the prayers for dew and rain, and on other occasions. His late father had been numbered among the few who were close to the Chazon Ish, who came specially to Tel Aviv to be the sandek for his son, Reb Yirmiyohu.

The Belz chassidim were not known as a musical group of chassidim, and throughout the years they never put much stress on this area. Rabbi Chaim Banet recalls that the Rebbe, the author of Mekor Boruch, who was the son-in- law of the elderly Belzer Rebbe, Rebbe Yissochor Dov, would speak of his father-in-law's divrei Torah every Friday night, and would often remark that there were no more than three niggunim in Belz.

However, more than thirty years ago a dramatic change occurred in this area, when the Belzer Rebbe began to develop and introduce the area of song and music into his chassidus, when he saw how imperative it was in our generation so that the younger flock would not be tempted to graze in foreign pastures.

Rabbi Deman, right from the first moment, was at the forefront of this venture, as the central musician. The older people still remember how he would sing "Ma Yedidus" at the tish on Friday nights to the famous tune of the Prayer for Rain, that moving creation of the Chazan Yossele Rosenblatt.

He composed quite a few songs himself, though most of the tunes are the original creations of Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Breier— the principal of the Belz Yeshiva of Beis Chilkiya — and of Rabbi Shlomo Kalish. The latter is also a veteran chinuch personality in a number of yeshivos, and today serves as principal of the Novardok Yeshiva Gedoloh in Bnei Brak, and also as head of the educational organization of Torah VeChesed, which corresponds to the Leiv Shomeah, of the Belz chassidim.

His father, HaRav Avrohom Yaakov Kalish, a talmid chochom who learned Torah diligently day and night, was also an educator, and served as a mashgiach in a number of yeshivos.

Rabbi Kalish fell into the world of music and composition quite unexpectedly. Yet today his songs comprise a major link in the chain of Jewish music worldwide. He recalls how, during the years when he was studying in yeshiva, one of the bochurim came up to him and told him that there was a very unique chassidic singer in Haifa, whose niggunim were genuinely Jewish and chassidic. And he began teaching him Rabbi Chaim Banet's old and famous song, "Refo'oh nafshi ki chotosei leCho." Rabbi Kalish remembers this song to this day; it arouses listeners and musicians in a special way.

Rabbi Banet has also been working in education for many years, as a mechanech in a Chinuch Atzmai Talmud Torah in Haifa. His late father, Rabbi Yosef, lived in Klausenberg before he immigrated to Israel, in close proximity to the home of the Rebbe. He himself was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Italy. When they immigrated to Israel, they were caught by the British and held in Cyprus until the day came that they were able to immigrate to Israel, to Hadera.

In his youth, he studied in the yeshiva of Hadera, and he still vividly remembers the Rosh Yeshivas, HaRav Y. Galinsky and HaRav Elchonon Perlmutter.

When he finished eighth grade, he had no thoughts of learning at the chassidic yeshiva in Haifa. However, on one particular Shabbos, the Sereter Rebbe of Vishnitz, author of Mekor Boruch, came to pay a visit to Hadera. When Shabbos ended, the young boy Chaim came in with his father to hand in a kvittel. The Rebbe looked at his father and asked him, "Rebbe Yosef, I want you to please send him to me for a year. Only one year. After that you could do whatever you want."

And Rav Chaim Banet has remained in Haifa, in Seret- Vishnitz, ever since that `year.'

He entered the world of music and song even as a young boy. When the chazan Rav Aryeh Subar decided to organize a choir to accompany him as he walked in front of the Ark in the Great Synagogue in Hadera, the young Chaim was chosen together with five children "and from then on the music bug got into me." The famous composer, Rav Yitzchok Ungar would often arrive in Seret-Vishnitz in Haifa, and always with a new melody. Rav Chaim, who was very attached to him, had already begun to compose songs by then, but he was embarrassed to sing them in public.

In order to camouflage his songs, he would sing a song he had composed to other bochurim, and attribute it to Rav Yitzchok Ungar ("When I later told them quietly that the song was mine, no one believed me . . . ").

After his marriage, on the advice of the Rebbe, he made the music field into an established framework. Alongside this work, he educated and taught Jewish children in Haifa. For a good many years he kept up his simultaneous involvement in both music and chinuch.


At the start of the conversation, we asked our speakers about the power of the Jewish song, whether it has the power to strengthen and elevate the Jewish spark inside us, and if so how. And we asked them about the Jewish roots of singing, and when it all began.

Rabbi Deman: It started when the Jews came out of Egypt — Oz yoshir Moshe uvenei Yisroel es haShiroh hazos laHashem . . . oshiro laShem ki go'oh go'oh . . .

Rav Banet: Well, the whole purpose of the singing of the Leviim in the Beis Hamikdosh was to arouse to teshuvah the people who brought korbonos. When the owner of the korbon came out of the Beis Hamikdosh, overjoyed that his sin had been atoned for, they sang so that he would, ivdo es Hashem besimchah.

What is the function of music in our times? Is it meant solely for simcha, or does it have other purposes?

Rabbi Kalish: Music is a vehicle to express oneself, and is not just for simchah. Music can also be for sadness; it can arouse a person. Prayer is in words and they provide a means for a person to ask for his needs and intents to the A- lmighty. However, there are times when words no longer have the power to express what you feel deep in your heart, and when you come to a place where words end and there is nothing left but the feeling in your heart. Then that feeling can only be expressed in song.

Even when you dress the song in words, and think about the words that you sing, the tune—if it is rooted in kedushoh and gives proper expression to the words— will bring you to greater heights than the words themselves. This is expressed in the movements of the musician, who cannot stay glued to his spot. The song moves him; it spurs his heartbeat. It comes from within. He does not need to purposely initiate the movements. In the same way, no one needs to tell the huge crowd that stands at the tish and sings, to sway back and forth.

In the posuk of Dovid Hamelech, Veyeid'u ki Ato Shimcho Hashem, le'ovdecho, Elyon al kol ho'oretz, everyone praises the Almighty. Everyone had said this posuk hundreds of times. But when HaRav Eliyohu Eisenbach — also a famous mechanech in Belz — composed the song, "Veyeid'u Veyeid'u", it became a vehicle to bring people to a higher plane, to arouse their soul, and permeate their consciousness—Veyeid'u veyeid'u . . . and now it goes in deeper: Veyeid'u veyeid'u . . . ki Ato Hashem!

And that is how it is with every song. One brings a person to great simchah, another arouses him to teshuvoh. Even the chassidic marches have a function. They express a certain royalty and militarism. Militarism denotes rulership. A legion of the King dedicated to performing the Will of the Creator . . .

Here the question comes up that people commonly ask. How do you distinguish between genuine Jewish music and the imported, foreign kind?

Rabbi Deman: Just recently I heard that one of the great and prominent mashgichim defined it like this: "If I need to figure out whether the music I hear is kosher or not, I just take one look at the movements of the person who is singing and dancing, and I know the source of the music he has been hearing. Does the melody impel him to movements of prayer? Or does it propel his body and his legs to motions that are inappropriate and disclose a breaking- away from Judaism? That is the difference between treif and untouchable music, and kosher music that is fit to be brought into a community of G-d-fearing Jews."

That is the difference between a song that derives from the depths of the soul and one that comes from the nether regions. "I only see feet here, not bochurim," that same mashgiach would say when he saw dancing at weddings. It was something you can really sense.

In a case where the person is not proper, and the song does not come from a pure source, can that song be brought into the beis hamedrash, to a tish?

Rabbi Kalish: That question can be divided into two. The poskim relate to this question, that was apparently more common abroad where Jews took songs from the goyim. In the responsa of the Bach, he answers this question and rules that it is forbidden to sing songs of avodoh zora, but the other songs of goyim are permitted.

I haven't asked the poskim today, but one could reasonably make a distinction between the songs of those days and the songs of today. Apparently, the songs of the goyim in those days were not as cheap in quality, and the question was whether to take such songs and sing them in the shuls or not. But today the songs are taken from a world of licentiousness and low desires, and therefore I would think that today it is really forbidden to use them. The spirit that is latent inside the melody is invasive and influential!

You ask how can we tell whether the song can be brought into a beis hamedrash or a tish?

But the question itself is the answer! Listen to it and you will know whether it is fit to be sung in a beis hamedrash or a tish. If it is not fit, then it is defective and treif, plain and simple! And if it cannot be sung then it is forbidden to sing it!

Rabbi Deman: These songs, and not only those of the goyim, are songs that Chazal already designated as songs which awaken negative influences. The melody and the notes carry along with it an evil spirit. That allows the streets to invade our midst, it dampens spiritual fervor, lowers the ear's sensitivity and breaks down mechitzos.

Rabbi Kalish: When you hear a song, you can right away recognize where it came from, the roots, the source, the mood, the way of life. You can instantly know if it is meant to make a person sway his head in humility and bend his heart, or to just get his feet moving . . .

Back to halocho lema'aseh. The fact is that the Bach allows everything aside from songs of avodoh zora. In my humble opinion, in those times no one dreamed or imagined that if they sung songs of the goyim, they would end up imitating the lifestyle of the composer of the song, and the like. It was simply not an issue. But today we really feel it: that a group of people—and I do not know what leads to what—when they start going downhill and degenerating, they sing certain specific songs of certain singers and composers.

Rabbi Banet: Chazal said at the end of Sotah, that when the Sanhedrin was abolished, singing at wedding houses was also abolished. Rashi comments that at the time that the Sanhedrin ruled, whenever there was singing at wedding houses the Sanhedrin and the tzaddikim of the generation had the power to prevent anything negative emanating from the songs.

Without the Sanhedrin, without their power and influence, songs could be potentially dangerous! Therefore, when the Sanhedrin was abolished, the rabbis also abolished singing at wedding houses!

It was well known that the tzaddik Rebbe Hillel of Kolomia came out vehemently against participating in chazonus concerts of any kind, more than a hundred years ago.

With regard to the following pesukim, "And Ada bore Yovel. He was the father of those who dwell in tents raising cattle. And the name of his brother was Yuval. He was the father of all who play harp and pipe. And Tziloh—she, too, bore Tuval-Cain . . . ." (Bereishis 4), he asks the question: What does it mean, "she too?" What is the connection between a person who makes weapons and one who constructs musical instruments?

He goes on to explain that Tuval forged iron weapons for murder. Yet his instruments could only murder the body. Yuval posed a much greater danger because he prepared musical instruments, "the harp and the pipe," and he used those instruments to kill souls as well.

Rabbi Kalish: I saw the connection between chinuch and music in HaRav Sholom Schwadron's book She'al Ovicho Veyageidcho. The book tells of how HaRav Sholom once stayed at the Slobodka Yeshiva, and was called in to the rosh yeshiva.

As they were standing by the window, the Rosh Yeshiva told him that what he could see below him was a graveyard. When he expressed his surprise in that he could see no graveyard, the people were alive and walking around, he was granted an immediate explanation:

"You see that man down there, he certainly has a good head to learn but he is on his way to the stock market. By doing so, he has buried a talmid chochom! Let us take someone else: Here, you see that person? He certainly has a great sensitivity and he could have become a principal of a yeshiva, but instead he became musician!"

From what he said, I realized the connection between yeshiva principals and people in chinuch, and musicians . . . it is the same sensitivity. For even those who are involved in music need to work to be, intend to be, and think of themselves as, "spiritual principals." In other words, to educate, infuse with Jewish feeling, elevate, imbue with yiras Shomayim, and not, choliloh, do the opposite.

Rabbi Deman: It is well known that the Baal Shem Tov ruled that chassidic Rebbes should lead the davening. The reason for this was to prevent unworthy chazonim or leaders of the davening from doing so, so that they should not have a detrimental effect on the congregation.

Rabbi Kalish has already spoken of how singing and melodies come in where words end. I have seen this quite often, that one can arouse Jews to teshuvoh through song. It does not have this impact on everyone, but there are many people who are powerfully affected.

Before we discuss how serious is the damage—how would you define and distinguish authentic Jewish music, that is pure and traditional, from the other kind of music?

Rabbi Deman: The difference is very fine. It is difficult to make the distinction and define the parameters of where it starts and where it ends. There is also a fine line between simchah and licentiousness. I once heard that if you want to know whether the song is a Jewish song, take a Jew who is yirei Shomayim who understands a bit about singing, and play the song to him. There is no doubt that "the feet songs" will mean nothing to him. Nothing at all.

Rabbi Kalish: Rabbi Yirmiyohu Deman has already made it clear, but I can add another criterion for measurement. Let's take a song and introduce it into a Rebbe's tish, if it passes the test, it is a Chassidic song, and if not then not. At tishes, they sing stirring songs as well as songs of simchah, all types of songs. You do not need to explain it or try to understand it, you just see instantly how it is accepted.

There are definitely songs which are not suitable for tishes but are very suitable for yeshivas, and there are major composers who have composed songs to fit that mode, many fine Jewish songs which are very appropriate. Here also, we can see how well they go over in the yeshiva world.

In Belz we enjoy a special privilege. All the songs have to pass the Belzer Rebbe's examination. Incidentally, he himself has composed a few tunes, which captivated people's hearts and are played in chassidic courts, in chareidi halls and in yeshivas (`Yehi haChodesh haZeh,' `Chesed Hashem Mei'olom ve'ad Olom,' and other songs). He keeps a very close guard to make sure that the songs truly are holy songs. There have been more than a few incidents where songs were presented to him and were disqualified right away. That is how we maintain our guard over the `pure vial of oil,' and ensure that the songs are genuinely holy, without any defect or fault.

Rabbi Deman: In the early period, he had many comments and clarifications to make. But at the time we were not yet aware of all the connotations. When it got to a certain stage he would stop us when he felt that we were close to crossing the border of the wonderful, old Jewish taste.

Rabbi Banet: The same thing happened to me in the early period, when I had to cut out all kinds of musical arrangements that I saw were unsuitable. In our circles too, the Rebbe hears the songs and sets the parameters to ensure that the songs are kept within the traditional Jewish framework.

Once, one of the talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov gave a rousing talk to some Jewish soldiers who were on the way to the army. One of the soldiers jumped up and said to him: "Rebbe! You do not go to a war with tears, you go with a march."

Upon which the Rebbe replied: "You are right. That is the role of a soldier who goes out to war. He just has to follow orders. But the commander, the one in charge who sees the entire battlefield, he goes out with tears as well."

I go into the Rebbe with songs, and sometimes he admonishes me, though I always daven for siyata deShmaya that I should not fail in what I do. However, our leaders see everything much clearer than we do.

End of Part I


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