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The Nigun (The Melody)
By Peninnah Schram
[Peninnah's introduction to this story is
included separately, under the title The Nigun in a Hasidic Story. It
includes a brief Hasidic story about the effects of a melody.]
A long time ago, in a small town in Russia,
there lived a wealthy textile merchant. Yankev ben Moishe sold
cloth to the people in this town, and it was well-known that he
had the very finest cloth - silks, velvets, lace, wool, and
cotton. He was a respected man who gave generous amounts of money
to the synagogue. Yankev ben Moishe, however, was not a learned
man, so for his only daughter Rivke he wanted a young man who
would be eager to learn the textile business, but would also be a
talmudic scholar and a Hasid.
One day, Yankev ben Moishe went to the yeshiva
and spoke to the rabbi who headed the school.
"Sholom Aleikhem, Reb
Yisrael," said the merchant. "I have come for a very
special reason. I would like to find a good husband for my
daughter Rivke - someone who will continue to study but
will also want to work with me and learn my business."
As the rabbi listened, he stroked his gray
beard. Then his face brightened and he replied, almost to
himself, "Hayim - of course, Hayim." Then he turned to
Yankev ben Moishe and said, "There is a young man here who
comes from a nearby village. He sings nigunim with a
sweet voice that brings light to the heavens and joy to the
heart. He walks in the garden and listens to the melodies of the
birds, and then he composes melodies by interweaving the songs of
the birds. It is well-known that each creature has a song of its
own but, as Rabbi Abraham Yaakov said, 'The Children of Israel
make melodies out of all of their individual songs in order to
bring them to God.' On Shabbos, when Hayim sings a nigun,
everyone listens at first, but then the students join in. They
sing for hours, and their voices are truly filled with religious
fervor. But the voice that is heard above them all is that of
Hayim. He often says the joy of the Shabbos is more complete with
a new nigun. He is a poor boy, however, and he will
welcome the opportunity to be a part of your family, Yankev ben
And so, Yankev ben Moishe and the rabbi shook
hands and agreed that Hayim and Yankev ben Moishe were to meet
that very day. Hayim was called in, and Yankev ben Moishe looked
him over - as if he were a piece of merchandise to be bought and
sold. He looked at Hayim's straight black hair, his payes,
his thin short frame, his long slender fingers, and his large
Hayim's cheeks were flushed as he stammered a
"Sh-Sholom A-Aleikhem." After telling Hayim
why Yankev ben Moishe had come to the yeshiva, Rabbi Israel asked
if Hayim had anything to say. Hayim looked down at the floor and
said nothing, but gave a nod of agreement to what he had heard.
Then Yankev ben Moishe said to Hayim, "I
would like to send you on a journey to buy some cloth in the
city. I will give you 100 rubles and for that money you will
bring back enough good satin for the wedding coats."
Again Hayim nodded in agreement, took the 100
rubles and put the money in his pocket, feeling a little scared
at the whole idea of becoming a merchant and leaving the yeshiva.
But he decided that he would leave on his journey early the next
Early the following day, Hayim prepared to
leave. Since he had not been given money to hire a carriage and
driver, he began walking to the city, which was quite distant. He
took some food with him so he would not have to stop at an inn
for food, especially since he had no extra money.
After walking for several hours, Hayim saw an
orchard with a stream nearby. He washed his hands and then sat
down under an apple tree in the orchard to rest. When he had
recited the blessings, Hayim ate some bread and cheese and drank
some wine for his midday meal. As he was reciting the grace, he
heard a melody that was hauntingly beautiful. Hayim could not
move; he did not want to miss a single note. He held his breath
and hoped the melody would not stop.
Recognizing the sound as that of a shepherd's
flute, Hayim gathered his bundle and started to walk in the
direction of the music. His heart beat faster, and he felt the
delicious excitement of hearing a melody that touches one's soul.
Hayim started to run, and then he saw, in a clearing on the other
side of a stone wall - a shepherd. The shepherd sat on a rock,
playing the lilting melody,
and he continued to play until the end of the
melody. Then the shepherd rose and started walking in the
clearing, with eyes and ears only for his flock, which obeyed his
every gesture and whistle. Hayim, breathlessly running up to the
shepherd, wide-eyed, gesturing wildly, and barely getting the
words out in an order that made sense, begged the shepherd to
teach him the melody. The shepherd agreed, but added, with a
mischievous smile, "I will gladly teach you this melody for
Hayim nodded his head in a wide up-and-down
arc, indicating agreement, and at the same time reached into his
pocket for 50 rubles. The shepherd, with a surprised expression
on his face, accepted the money and taught the tune to Hayim.
After that, they parted.
As he continued his journey to the city, Hayim
kept singing the melody over and over so that he would not forget
Toward evening, Hayim grew tired and hungry. He
sat down in a field to eat and to spend the night. Again he
recited his blessings and started his meal of bread and cheese
and wine - when he heard another melody played on a shepherd's
As he listened to the lively, rhythmic melody,
Hayim felt excited - full of joy and fervor. He must learn this
melody, too. So he quickly recited the grace, as he ran toward
When he found the shepherd, Hayim pleaded with
him to teach him this melody. The shepherd gladly agreed, then
added, "But I want 50 rubles as payment for the
Without a moment's hesitation, Hayim reached
into his pocket for the remaining 50 rubles. The shepherd taught
him the melody and they parted.
"How wonderful," thought Hayim, as he
sang both melodies together for the first time.
"How these melodies are both part of one
tapestry. It seems as though they were woven on the same loom, as
part of the same cloth! CLOTH? CLOTH?"
Suddenly, Hayim remembered that he no longer
had the 100 rubles given him by his prospective father-in-law to
buy cloth in the city for the wedding coats.
After a moment he said to himself, "Since
I no longer have the money, I cannot buy the cloth. Since I no
longer have the 100 rubles and cannot buy the cloth, I have no
reason to go into the city. In that case, I can now return
Hayim didn't care about cloth. Instead, he felt
strangely happy, for now he had two melodies that belonged
together like alef and beis, or like a lulav
and an esrog, or like halla and honey. He
suddenly felt happier than ever, for now he had a wedding gift
that was better than cloth. It was priceless and more worthy for
a wedding. It was something he could share with everyone. Hayim
could not wait to sing the melody to his prospective
father-in-law. Surely he would see how wisely Hayim had spent the
Forgetting how tired he was and how late it
was, Hayim started to go home. As he walked, he sang first one
melody, then the other, and together they blended into one
complete melody. With each note, he danced a little and ran
toward his town with joy in his heart.
It was the middle of the night when Hayim
arrived in town. Instead of going to the yeshiva to sleep - for
how could he sleep? - he went directly to the home of Yankev ben
Moishe and knocked loudly on the door, forgetting - or rather not
caring - that everyone was asleep.
A sleepy voice called out, 'Who is there?"
Instead of answering, Hayim began to sing the first melody.
In a few minutes, everyone in the house had
come to the windows to see who was singing. For who wakes up
people in the middle of the night and sings - unless he is crazy
When Yankev ben Moishe himself came to the
window and saw it was Hayim, he understood that he had not gone
to the city. But what did this strange behavior mean? Yankev ben
Moishe did not open the door, but said to himself, "In the
morning I shall go to the yeshiva and see the rabbi. But one
thing is certain - this Hayim is not for my
After a while, Hayim realized that no one was
going to open the door. He decided to return to the yeshiva
instead, still singing the melody over and over. What did he care
that they didn't open the door? "I will teach the nigun
to my friends at the yeshiva and they will surely appreciate it.
Besides, I have plenty of time to get married - and perhaps to a
girl whose father is also a Hasid."
What was more important was that he,
Hayim, had a new nigun for Shabbos.
As published in Jewish Stories One
Generation Tells Another, retold by Peninnah Schram. Copyright © 1987.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson, Inc.,
Northvale, NJ. Permission was also obtained from the author. To
order: The Jason Aronson Home Page
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