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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 Moishe."

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 black eyes.

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 morning.

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,

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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 50 rubles."

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 it.

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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 flute.

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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 the music.

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 melody."

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.

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"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 home."

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 100 rubles.

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.

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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.

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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 or drunk?

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 daughter."

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.

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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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This page was last updated on Monday, March 10, 2003