By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
The sixteenth day of Kislev, 5707, (November 29, 1947) was a difficult day for the Jewish people. It was the day of the U.N. decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories, and the old yishuv in Jerusalem was under intermittent bombardment and sniper fire. Tel Aviv, the command center for the nascent state, was hopeful and alive with anticipation, but tense and anxious. The small Chassidic community there, remnants and survivors of the recently-ended war in Europe, had suffered a new, shocking loss: the sudden death of the Modzitzer Rebbe, the master composer of Chassidic melodies, whose music had promised to sooth their grief, and who had arrived from America, his wartime refuge, just a few months earlier.
In this dramatic environment of optimistic visions mingled with desperate fears, the Chassidim planned a fitting funeral for their beloved Rebbe. Knowing his love for Eretz Yisrael and particularly for Yerushalayim, they began to consider burial on Har Hazeisim. This plan was, however, fraught with danger: reports of attacks on Jews at the cemetery were already confirmed. An old Modzitzer Chassid made his way to Bnei Brak to consult the Chazon Ish, who felt confident that the Rebbe’s commitment to Eretz Yisrael would assure him the merit of a safe, undisturbed funeral. The procession made its way from Tel Aviv to Har Hazeisim, with fear and trepidation, but confident in the Chazon Ish’s assurances. The Rebbe was buried where he would have wished, the last person buried in that cemetery until it was recaptured almost 20 years later.
Rav Taub was actually the second rebbe of the Modzitzer dynasty, born to his father, Rav Yisrael, on Hoshana Rabba of the year 5647 (1886). Rav Yisrael, the founder of the dynasty, was himself descended from numerous major Chassidic personages, including the legendary Rav Yechezkel of Kuzmir. Rav Yisrael authored the classic Divrei Yisrael, Chassidic homilies on the portion of the week, and other works, but was primarily known for his emphasis on song as a central component of Jewish worship. He left us with many hundreds of melodies, including the famous “Ezkerah,” a searing melody he composed during the surgical amputation of his leg, which he had to undergo without anesthesia. This lengthy and intricate melody expresses the profound agony he experienced looking at the thriving metropolis of pre-war Berlin from his hospital window, while remembering the far sadder state of unredeemed Jerusalem.
Although Rav Shaul was not the eldest of Rav Yisrael’s many sons, he was chosen by his father as the successor to the leadership of Modzitz, at least partly because of his considerable musical skill, already apparent in his father’s lifetime. Interestingly, several of his brothers, especially Reb Yechiel Alter, who perished in the Holocaust, were famous composers in their own right, but only Rav Shaul fully mastered the intricate Modzitzer nusach, and inherited his father’s creative depth and originality.
Rav Shaul experienced great personal tragedy even before the Holocaust, with the death of first one wife, and then another, leaving him with a number of children for whom he had to be both father and mother. During his early career, he served as the rabbi of two towns in Poland — Rakov and Karczew — but by the mid-1930s, he was established by his Chassidim in Otwock, the resort suburb of Warsaw. Hundreds, if not thousands, thronged to his court there, to hear him lead prayers to the tunes he composed, in his magnificent tenor voice, which has typically been described by those who heard it as the “voice of a lion.”
For Modzitzer Chassidus, music is no mere ancillary to worship. It is not simply a mode of liturgical expression. Rather, it is viewed as the very essence of true spirituality, and the primary path to achieve avodah sheb’lev, “worship of the heart.” The mid-nineteenth century forbearer of Modzitz, Rav Yechezkel of Kuzmir felt that he could not commence the Shabbos until he had composed a new nigun, so essential was song to his Shabbos experience. Rav Yisrael, the first Modzitzer Rebbe, was so convinced of the transformative powers of neginah [melody] that he would say: “The world sees the heichal [celestial sphere] of neginah as being adjacent to the heichal of teshuvah. But I see that the heichal of neginah stands even higher than the heichal of teshuvah.” Indeed, the Modzitzer lore knows of many stories of individuals, far from Jewish life and observance, who were inspired by the music of Modzitz to return to the ways of tradition.
The Torah teachings of the rebbeim, throughout the generations, emphasize the centrality of music to prayer, worship, and devotion. Some of this material is scholarly, often kabbalistic and mystical; hence Rav Yisrael’s Chanukah essay, printed in Divrei Yisrael, which relates the notes of the musical scale to the eight nights of Chanukah. Other examples of this material are short, pithy, and quite powerful, such as Rav Shaul’s observation that God is referred to as Bocher shirah vezemirah, “He who chooses music and song,” just as He is described as a Bocher beTorah, “He who chooses Torah” — indicating that both music and Torah are “chosen” by the Almighty.
The Modzitzer mode of worship, incorporating melodies new and old within an ecstatic experience of prayer, struck a powerful chord in the hearts of thousands of Chassidim in Poland, and in Eretz Yisrael, which the Rebbe visited three times before the Second World War. Witnesses to Rav Shaul’s tisch* and the audiences who heard his davening tell of the gamut of the profound emotions they experienced as the Rebbe would introduce soul-searching contemplative tunes, alternating them with dazzling dance tunes, mellifluous “waltzes,” and stirring, inspiring marches.
One of the spiritual climaxes to the Modzitzer calendar was the first Selichos service. Here are some excerpts of a firsthand description of such a Selichos night by M. Kipnis, a noted pre-war musicologist and chronicler of Chassidic musical history:
I came to see, to experience what I had heard so much about. I came by train from Warsaw, late Saturday night, with so many others — Chassidim, but also a surprising number of men like me who looked at the old ways from a distance…We waited, we waited…the Rebbe walked in, younger looking than I had imagined…He walked briskly to the amud, and began immediately with “Ashrei.” And then, his voice — an exquisite tenor. And the melodies — unique, distinct, different, and so varied. Gradually the tunes were picked up by the crowd, who joined in, as a choir untrained in music, but skilled, so skilled, in devotion and ecstasy.”1
The impact of the Rebbe’s music was felt by an unusually wide range of individuals and by the general Eastern European Jewish society. The nigunim, and their spiritual sound context, have the ability to touch layers of the psyche that words cannot touch. These melodies range from lengthy, reflective pieces that require expert singing ability, to lively marches and dance tunes that are so much a part of contemporary Jewish music that few any longer know their origin.
The Rebbe, true to the teachings of his predecessors, saw neginah as the language of the soul. When asked about the wellsprings of his own prodigious creativity he responded: “My songs come from an overflowing heart.” Indeed, his songs came from his inner emotions, from bereavement, from wandering across Siberia and crossing the Pacific, from his years of exile and loneliness in America, and from the knowledge that much of his family and almost all of his followers were consumed by the furnaces of Treblinka. His songs also came from the deep longing for Eretz Yisrael which are reflected in his writings, and by his ahavas Yisrael which was so remarkable that those who heard his booming “Gut Shabbos Yidden!” greeting after Kabbolas Shabbos remember it well to this very day.
Although most famous for his music, the Rebbe was also a first-rate Torah scholar, an inspiring writer, and a proponent of settlement in Eretz Yisrael and the establishment of a Jewish state. These accomplishments were so overshadowed by his musical reputation that Rabbi Yosef Kahanaman, the Ponevezher Rav, jokingly told the Rebbe’s children: “Your father and I have much in common. Ich ken a bissel lernen, [I am ‘a bit’ of a Talmud scholar], but I am known only as a great fundraiser. Your father was a Talmud scholar of renown, but he is fated to be remembered for his singing.”
The Rebbe’s scholarship is a blend of expertise in the standard Talmudic texts, unusual familiarity with Jewish philosophical works, and broad knowledge of kabbalistic and Chassidic literature. His published works encompass this diversity. They include explanatory notes to his father’s Divrei Yisrael, a commentary on the Passover Haggadah, a collection of essays published by his followers in Israel entitled Imre Shaul, and the recently-published five volume collection Yisa Brachah, on the portions of the week, edited and published by his distinguished grandson, Rabbi Yisrael David Taub, of Brooklyn.
His activist stance during the 1920s and 1930s, openly advocating immigration from Poland and settlement in then Palestine, was well-known and is documented by contemporary historians. While often critical of other Orthodox leaders, scholars single out the Rebbe as being almost alone in this political position.2
The author of this memoir is in possession of a privately circulated essay in Yiddish, written by the Rebbe in 1941 and entitled, Cheshbon Hanefesh. In it, the Rebbe criticizes the harsh anti-Zionist stance of certain other Chassidic leaders, and re-evaluates the passive attitude of some of his contemporaries to the establishment of a Jewish state. Some translated excerpts follow:
“Just as there are Yomim Noraim, Days of Awe, so are there Shanim Noraim, years of awe…and just as the individual’s special time for teshuvah occurs during the Yomim Noraim, so must the community do teshuvah during the Shanim Noraim…
“…the individual’s teshuvah must directly confront his faults and shortcomings…the community too must address its faults…
“…these are Shanim Noraim…and the community must redress its failure to adequately support Eretz Yisrael…to move there and to develop it…
“In this respect we have all sinned, without exception. Every party, every section, every stream, each in its own way, did not do what it could. And some, not only did not do enough, but waged total war against those were at least making efforts for Eretz Yisrael.
“Many refrained from making efforts because of the anti-religious nature of those who settled there…in my discussions with the rav and gaon, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, he told me about the time he visited the health resort of Marienbad and was approached by a new arrival who wondered out loud: ‘They say that Marienbad is a place for curing and healing, yet look at all the sick people here.’ To which Rav Kook responded, ‘Don’t you understand? These people are now ill, but with time they will become healthy. So too will all who come to Eretz Yisrael become spiritually healthy in time…’
“Before my first trip to Eretz Yisrael, in 1925, I traveled through Vienna, and visited the Czortkover Rebbe, Rav Yisrael. He shared with me his plans to move to Eretz Yisrael with a group of his Chassidim. He agreed that the non-religious nature of the Jewish population there was not a factor to prevent moving there. He quoted the verse (Lech Lecha 12:6) ‘And Avraham entered the land…and the Canaanite was there then’ to indicate that we cannot allow the presence of the ‘Canaanite’ to prevent us from moving there…
“…Now is the time for national teshuvah. Each party must cast aside its egotism, and each person his self-interest, when it comes to the matter of Eretz Yisrael…As my great-grandfather, Rav Yechezkel of Kuzmir would say: ‘The Temple was destroyed because of sinas chinam, undeserved hate; we must rectify it with ahavas chinam, undeserved love.'”3
The teachings and musical inspiration of Modzitz continue to this day. There are several Modzitzer shtieblach in Eretz Yisrael today in Tel Aviv, Yerushalayim, and Bnei Brak. They were founded by the Rebbe’s son and successor, a prolific composer of nigunim in his own right, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu Taub, zt”l. Rav Shmuel Eliyahu’s son, Rav Yisrael Don, is now the Modzitzer Rebbe in Israel. Currently serving as Rebbe in the United States is another grandson, Rav Yisrael David Taub, who regularly publishes his grandfather’s works, accompanied by his own erudite comments. Mention must be made of Ben Zion Shenker, the famed Chassidic singer and composer of his own classic nigunim, to whose great credit the survival and perpetuation of Modzitzer nigunim must be attributed.
This year, 5758, the descendants and Chassidim of the Rebbe are commemorating his fiftieth yahrzeit. Fewer are those who remember him personally now, but many are those who sing his tunes. The music he created continues to inspire, and to offer an approach to worship which is spiritual, joyous, and uplifting. May his memory continue to be a blessing.
Rabbi Weinreb is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, Maryland.
* Literally “table,” i.e. the gathering of Chassidim at his communal table.
- Kipnis, M. Quoted from the work of Geshuri, M. L’Chassidim Mizmor: Music and Melody in Chassidism. Tel Aviv, Israel, 1952.
- Piekarz, Mendel. Chassidut Polin: Megamot Raayoniyot Bein Shtei Hamilchamot. Jerusalem, Mosad Bialik, 1990.
- “An Aktueler Maamar Fun Modzitzer Rebbe“, from Cheshbon Hanefesh. Privately circulated mimeograph, 1941.