Rav Brazil: How to Know if a Song is Rooted in Kedushah


rav-shmuel-brazil-1Of the kosher animals listed in this week’s parsha, zemer is one of them. The Radak and Rav Saadia Gaon that the zemer is a giraffe. I find it very fascinating that the word for giraffe describes Jewish song – zemer. The interpretation is suggested as follows.

Notice that, in the Alef Bais, the letters following zemer is nachash. For after the letter zayin is a ches, after the letter mem is a nun, and after the letter raish is a shin. To go yet a step further, the letters in the Alef Bais preceding zemer spell kol. For before the letter zayin is a vov, before the letter mem is a lamid, and before the letter raish is a kuf.

Song and music can go two ways. It can elevate the spirit and even the body if the source is from “Hakol kol Yaakov.” Yet, on the other hand, it can lower the neshama and body if the source is from the nachash and tumah. It can either bring out divineness within man or bestiality. It can stir one to yearn for closeness of Hashem and the heavens, or it can gravitate one’s soul and body to gratify the cravings of physical appetites and fleeting earthliness.

Rav Shimon Susholtz from Beis Medrash Keren Orah shared with me the observation that especially when bochurim dance, one can tell whether the accompanying song is rooted in nachash or kedusha. The litmus test is to look at the position of their heads. If the heads face downwards towards the floor and feet, it is non-kedushah material. If their heads are straight, then it is holiness, for it arouses the soul and not the body. When I first heard this, I couldn’t believe that this was the barometer of the music’s source. Well, guess what? I found it to be true every time. [First observe the phenomenon before you start writing any commentary to the opposite.]

While we are on the topic, here’s another revealing observation. All the disco tech stuff awakens within an individual the desire to dance by oneself with oneself . It suddenly becomes show off time even if you don’t find yourself in the center being mesameach the chosson. With this type of music, the circle in which one was once holding hands with other Yidden peters out. Not so with the more traditional beats and chassidishe music. Why?

Kedusha, by definition, brings to unity and wholesomeness, while tumah, by its very nature, accommodates separateness and fragmentation. For if the soul is dancing, then all Yidden naturally tend to connect, since in the world of soul we are all one. If the body alone is dancing, then we tend to dance alone, for each individual has his own individual body.

We now might be able to answer why the giraffe is the symbol of the Jewish kosher zemer. The giraffe is unique by the fact that its head is so raised above the rest of its body. The head of the giraffe towers towards the heavens to symbolize that the Jewish niggun must raise one’s head towards Hashem, bringing man to a consciousness to distant himself from the pursuit of material lusts that lie close to earth.

The word zemer itself – identical to the letters of remez – hints┬áto this concept. For zemer also spells ram zayin. Ram translates “to be lofty and high.” The letter zayin symbolizes nature, for nature was created in seven days. The zemer must raise one above the seven to yearn to be otherworldly even though these feelings might only last for a few moments. However, impressions do last forever!

Chazal say concerning Adam Harishon that before the sin, he was able to see from one end of the world to the other. His head and daas were clear and incredible. After the nachash seduced them to eat from the Eitz Hadaas, he lost that madraiga of daas. Hashem placed His hand on man’s head and dwarfed his dimensions. The nachash brought sadness into the world, as evidently seen from the curses given to Adam and Chava. The purpose of the zemer is to bring happiness, the opposite of which was brought by its neighboring letters nachash. But specifically, it refers to the happiness that brings about clarity of mission and not the cloudiness of mind; the light of meaning, not the darkness of chaos; and the direction of purpose, not the choreographic fluff that lead to dead ends.

Gut Shabbos.
Rav Brazil
Next Shabbos from Yerushalayim, iy”H.

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  1. If the heads face downwards towards the floor and feet, it is non-kedushah material. If their heads are straight, then it is holiness, for it arouses the soul and not the body.
    WADR I would submit that this is not a barometer of the cheftza(music) but of the gavra(the dancer)

    KT and next Shabbos from Yerushalayim for all of us BE”H

  2. If it’s a baraometer of the gavra, then the same music should not produce the same results every time (which acc to R. Brazil it does…)

  3. Whenever the dancing is in a circle, holding hands round and round (Machol is a circle from the word mechila) it is a jewish song. Whenever the dancers are separate, or not is a regular circle (such as Hora) it is usually not a Kadish song.

    heard this from an Adam Gadol. Check it out next wedding.

  4. joel – that’s simply not true. chazal say lashonos all thre time ‘ain lecha’, ‘ain X ela beshvel X’ and so on – they’re almost always laav davak, and atys my mashgiach, an expresion of intensity; the moshol he gives is a kid in a candy store who is asked what s favorite candy is – he says ‘this is my favrite’, the next say he’ll say a different one, and so on – same with chazal and rishonim(acrhonim too, especially those like rav nachman – if he meant davka in everything he said, then nothing would make sense in the whole sefer) – simanim are just that, simaninm; they’re powerful elements, but not absolute indicators. there’s a uge cheshbon – like lehavdil when doctors say smoking causes cancer, yet we all know people who smoked and lived to 90. It’s an expression of power and intensity of the inyan, not an absolute mathemtcial formula. it could be the guy is depressed that day, or is trying to see if his shoe is stained, or whatever – he just meant as a derech klal thing.

    for instance ‘klal yisroel were exiled just to get gerim added to them’, but we know there were many reasons from galus – one is to be mesken sinas chinom, and so on – and chazal use a seemingly davka lashon over there – that’s one of dozens of examples.

  5. In a number of women’s dances, women don’t haold hands. What does it say in Shulchan Aruch about the position of the head while walking-why doesn’t this apply to dance?

  6. I guess that we’re fortunate that all of the folk tunes, drinking songs, marches and waltzes that have been incorporated into Jewish music over the past hundreds (thousands?) of years were all rooted in Kedusha.

  7. I know what nano-technology is. It is a field dealing with stuff at a nano (very very) small scale. If you were to give me a number of items or even their descriptions I would be able to tell you if it is nano-tech or not.

    I would not talk about how, why or details of nano-anything because I don’t understand it. Not even a little.

    To talk about music it seems to me that one should be a mayvin in music. That doesn’t have to be a PhD, but I would expect someone expressing an opinion (and vadai a “psak”) regarding music and music styles to understand music beyond the level of “If I hear it I know it”.

    I expect someone talking about music to understand some basic music history, basic music theory and musical structure. I expect them to be familiar with a few different styles of music and to understand the differences.

    I feel the same regarding commenting on forms of dance. Also regarding the interplay between music and dance.

    Now it may be that Rav Brazil or Rav Susholtz understand music. I do not see this understanding reflected in the above article.

    The questions of how to test music and how to understand today’s Jewish music are not simple ones. I hope that the people who address them are people with knowledge of both Torah, Jewish society and music.


  8. maybe the guy’s head is down b/c:

    1) he is in a deep state of dveykus, but doesn’t want to attract attention? and/or

    2) he is concentrating so hard on his kavanos, and he doesn’t want to be distracted by other people (eg sort of like covering your eyes during shema, or one of the deepest reasons for wearing a tallis, or the kallah’s veil, etc etc)

    honestly, you and i know deep down that *any* song, sung/played the right way, and/or in the right context, and/or with the right chevra, can bring out incredibly deep feelings and dveykus. and the opposite is unfortunately also true.

    why can’t we acknowledge this and move on, rather than trying to sell CDs at someone else’s expense? and producing music that is so stale, only because it remotely sounds like music that was sung by holy people?

    love to all
    ben yissachar dov