The Power of Song

The Power of Song

It is Friday and I am conducting my monthly Kabalat Shabbat service with a small group of Jewish residents at an outlying nursing home.  We recite blessings over candles, wine and food, enjoy a snack, sing some songs, usually learn about a holiday and spend some time together. My regulars include several Russian speakers, and a few residents suffering from various impairments which makes conversation difficult.
Typical of nursing homes, transition is constant and on this visit, Deborah, a new resident, has joined the group.  The staff has shared with me that Deborah has had two strokes.  She is young, in her sixties, and has no family to visit her. Bound to her wheelchair with a blank expression on her face, she is minimally responsive to what we are doing. Until I begin singing.  She looks up, meets my gaze, and begins to sing with me.  She doesn’t use words, just sounds, but clearly Deborah recognizes the tunes and eagerly follows along. I choose a few more melodies from the Shabbat service, and she knows them all.  With each prayer, her voice grows stronger, and her blank expression disappears behind her smile.  If only for a brief moment, Deborah has found her way back.

The use of nigunim, wordless melodies, can be traced back to the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, who stressed the importance of singing as an expression of spirituality.  He saw the nigun as a means by which to directly communicate with God as well as a way for even the simplest of Jews to be able to pray.  The nigun has boundless potential to move the soul, beyond words. 

I’ve learned that there is some science at work here.  It has been proven that singing has positive effects on the mind and the body. As a physical activity, singing releases endorphins into the bloodstream, making you feel positive.  For those who sing in formal choral or group settings, the warm up breathing exercising can bring relaxation, and singing with others produces self-confidence, empowerment and connection to a communal spirit.

Studies show that for those with mental impairments, songs and melodies are embedded in their deep memory, which is why people with dementia often respond to music and songs. I firmly believe that this is what was happening for Deborah. While her words now fail her, music still unlocks a door through which she emerges both aware of and immersed in the world around her.

I would venture a guess that singing has a place in most of our lives. This must be why worship involves so much singing.  While the words of prayer have meaning, it is more often the act of singing with the congregation that impacts our bodies, moves our souls and opens our hearts to G-d. 

The Rabbis of the Talmud ask:  “Which is the service of joy and happiness?  The answer:  It is song.  Deborah would most likely concur.

Written by Rabbi Judith Beiner, Posted in Counseling Services

About the Author

Rabbi Judith Beiner

Rabbi Judith Beiner

Rabbi Judith R. Beiner is the Community Chaplain at JF&CS. Rabbi Beiner’s core duties are visitations at area hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and assisted living facilities.  She supports local  Rabbis when their members are hospitalized, works with the team of Bikkur Cholim volunteers,and conducts indigent burials. Rabbi Beiner is on the board of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.