Tuesday, October 23, 2018

“Adir Ayom vi-Nora”: The Story Behind a Breslov Melody

From Otzar Nachmani, Vol. I, sec. 64
Collected Talks of Rabbi Nachman Burstein, zatzal
Translated by Dovid Sears (unedited)
In honor of the yahrtzeit of my grandfather Yitzchak Yaakov ben Chanokh Zundel, a”h
20 Marcheshvan (niftar 5714 / 1953)

“Adir Ayom vi-Nora”: The Story Behind a Breslov Melody

Our master, Rabbi Avraham Sternhartz (circa 1862-1955), of blessed memory, usually used to teach Lesson 27 (“R’tzitza”) from Likutey Moharan, Part II, during the shaloshudes meal of Shabbos Shirah. At the end of the lesson, the Rebbe cites the verse, “Va-yar batzar lahem bi-sham’o es rinasam … And He looked upon their distress when He heard their cries (rinasam, which can also mean ‘their songs’)” Psalms 106:44)—on which the Rebbe remarks that when there is a harsh heavenly decree on the Jewish people or misfortune befalls us, due to a hostile nation, G-d forbid, it is beneficial to sing a melody of that hostile nation. Reb Avraham would then tell the story of Rabbi Ephraim b’Reb Naftali (circa 1800-1883), of blessed memory, who personally went through such misfortune and saw for himself how singing such a melody saved his life.

After making aliyah from Uman, Reb Ephraim nevertheless used to travel from Eretz Yisrael back to Uman for the annual Breslov Rosh Hashanah gathering, and then return again to Jerusalem. (It is known that he did so nineteen times.) While he was aboard the ship, sitting in a corner engaged in Torah study and prayer, a group of Arabs began to pester him, asking that he join their dancing and sing a melody for them—something with which they could have a good laugh, according to their hearts’ desire. It would be especially entertaining if this elderly Jew, graced with a long white beard and peyos, were to dance and sing for them. This would provide them with an object of laughter and derision well suited to their taste for wildness and folly. However, Reb Ephraim paid no attention to them and simply went on with what he was doing. On the holy Shabbos, while he sang the zemiros, they continued to disturb him, insisting that he sing a melody for them. But he adamantly refused. What did he have to do with these Arabs and their melodies? 

However, when Motza’ei Shabbos arrived and he began to sing the zemiros of Melaveh Malkah, they fell upon him again and would not leave him alone. In their insolence they began to pressure him, and finally started pulling him by the beard and bullying him. He saw that he was in serious trouble, and that they might do him harm—or worse. (Sometimes Arabs would work themselves up into such fervor during their dances that they would pick up their swords and spears and become violent.) Therefore, when he came to the song “Adir Ayom vi-Nora (Mighty One, Tremendous and Wondrous),” he suddenly remembered the Rebbe’s advice and thought to himself, “The time has come to put this into practice!” Since the Arabs were singing many songs, he had a chance to learn one of their melodies, a few parts of which expressed longing and yearning. However, he didn’t understand the words to this melody. So he began to sing it to these Hebrew lyrics. And in their mirth, the Arabs began to sing along with him and dance in front of him, making all sorts of loud and strange sounds, as was their wont. Reb Ephraim too began to cry out and sing, “Hein atah tikvasi, vi-liyeshu’asekha kivisi … behold, You are my hope, and Your deliverance I await! … mi-pachad le-hatzili, nahaleini le-zion kodesh gorali … from terror, save me! Lead me to Zion, my holy destiny!” Thus did he scream with all his might, again and again—“nahaleini le-zion kodesh gorali … Guide me to Zion, my holy destiny!”—according to their melody. He sensed that a certain awe and dread had fallen upon them from his screaming these words; but he continued until his strength was spent. Then he returned to his berth. From then on, they avoided him and never set a finger on him again, until they all disembarked from the ship. He reached his destination in peace, whole in his body, whole in his money, and whole in his Torah, in the merit of the Rebbe’s advice.

In commemoration of this miracle, Reb Ephraim began to sing these lyrics to the Arab melody regularly. Even in Uman, when he went there for Rosh Hashanah, he used to sing it together with Reb Nachman Tulchiner, of blessed memory [who took responsibility for all Rosh Hashanah arrangements after Reb Noson’s passing, and led the Musaf service]; for he always stayed with Reb Nachman Tulchiner. And afterward, the tune was picked up by the Breslover Chassidim.


When Reb Levi Yitzchak Bender repeated this story to me, he added that he too had heard it from [Reb Avraham Sternhartz]; however, he had also heard a different version that attributed the melody to Rabbi Mendele Litvak, of blessed memory. Yet [Reb Avraham Sternhartz] had heard directly from Reb Ephraim b’Reb Naftali that he had taken it from the Arabs, as described above. It is possible that Reb Mendele may have learned it from [Reb Ephraim] or from Reb Nachman Tulchiner, with whom Reb Ephraim had stayed in Uman, and then sang it himself. Those who first heard it from him may have assumed that it was his original composition. Thus, there is no contradiction at all.

In any case, everyone agrees that the song “Adir Ayom vi-Nora” combined with this melody is most wondrous and a delight to the ears. For it contains many passages of passionate feeling, spiritual awakening and profound yearning for G-d. Additionally, I heard from Rabbi Hirsch Leib Lippel, of blessed memory, that many times he practiced hisbodedus in the forest, singing this melody in a loud voice in supplication to G-d. With this melody he would express all of his feelings in Yiddish: his pain and feelings of alienation, due to the Evil One, begging that he be redeemed from the evil trap into which he had fallen. And he also used to sing it on Motza’ei Shabbos Kodesh in the streets of Moscow, with thunderous loud cries.

The chassid, Rabbi Dovid, son of the Rav, Rabbi Yechiel Yuda Schlessinger, of blessed memory, who was the son-in-law of the illustrious Rabbi Velvel Mintzberg, of blessed memory, chose this melody for this zemer above all the melodies that were suggested to him, in order that he could sing it during the Melaveh Malkah meal that he established here in Katamon [a section of Jerusalem], in the shtieblach. He attested that it moved him deeply, imbuing him with thoughts of teshuvah and an outpouring of the heart to G-d. Many times he would sing this melody to himself, even during the week, in order to experience a taste of deveykus and spiritual yearning.

I remember that many years ago I was in chutz la’aretz, in a certain place, for the Melaveh Malkah meal, and they honored me to sing “Adir Ayom.” When I sang for them a small part with sweetness and feeling, I saw how the eyes of many of those present filled with tears, due to the emotional power of this niggun. They asked me about the origin of this wondrous melody, and I told them the whole story, as above.

I mentioned to them that this chassid [Reb Ephraim] had been a dealer in jewlery, precious stones and precious things made of gold. However, due to his righteousness and his Torah scholarship, he was better known as a “tzaddik vi-lamdan,” as well as a God-fearing man and philanthropist. He also developed beautiful and profound chiddushim (novel insights) on the Rebbe’s teachings and authored two holy books: Likutey Even and Tefilas ha-Boker. And when such a chassid garbed with this wondrous melody the awesome words of the song “Adir Ayom vi-Nora”, which was written according to an alphabetical acrostic, and each and every word begs and entreats and cries out to the Holy One, Blessed be He, from the depth of the heart and soul over the personal and collective travail of the Jewish people and the exile of the Shekhinah—and over the coming of our Righteous Redeemer and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple and ingathering of the exiles—automatically all the words sing of their own accord and pierce the depths of the soul, and awaken the heart to complete teshuvah and love of G-d, and longing and yearning “to behold the pleasantness of G-d and frequent His palace” (Psalms 27:4). Many of those present asked me at that time to repeat the zemer, again and again, as they were enraptured by the sweetness of the melody. I even requested that they record it on tape, so that they could hear it whenever they wished, but this didn’t come to pass. Blessed be the Merciful One who helped us thus far!

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