The Tale of a Niggun

  • Review
By – January 6, 2021

In a ghet­to, on the evening before Purim, in a non­de­script place (“some­where in the East,” we’re told, because this night­mare could have occurred in any num­ber of places), a rab­bi faces a har­row­ing choice. The ene­my,” also unnamed, but with lit­tle doubt of its iden­ti­ty, will hang ten Jews on Purim to avenge the death of Haman’s sons. Which ten is up to the rab­bi and, if he doesn’t choose, the whole com­mu­ni­ty dies.

Through­out the night the rab­bi search­es for guid­ance. He turns to his book­shelf and from book to book, from cen­tu­ry to cen­tu­ry, from guide to guide,” he con­sults the spir­its of the rab­bis who came before him.

In the sages’ respons­es we see endur­ing Jew­ish themes. The Ram­bam advis­es a unit­ed front, No com­mu­ni­ty … may sac­ri­fice one of its mem­bers; rather per­ish togeth­er than hand over to the ene­my … one of its chil­dren.” The Besht tries joy in the face of despair as if, through the pow­er of song — nig­gun — good­ness will pre­vail. Rab­bi Eliyahu does a lit­tle lan­guage analy­sis: The ene­my demands ten names, right?” So, he writes his own name ten times. None of these sug­ges­tions sat­is­fies the rab­bi. In the end only the nig­gun survives.

The text was first pub­lished in 1978 in a col­lec­tion of essays that has long since gone out of print. It was a book­seller and for­mer stu­dent of Elie Wiesel’s who found the essay and brought it to the publisher’s attention.

Elisha Wiesel, Elie Wiesel’s son, writes in the Intro­duc­tion to the book that the tale is based on events that occurred in Pol­ish ghet­tos dur­ing the war. Elisha finds him­self won­der­ing where, in his father’s sto­ry, are the resis­tance fight­ers? Where are the hero­ics? My father…fought by infus­ing his sto­ries with hope…my father fought for mem­o­ry,” he concludes.

The tale itself is a trib­ute to mem­o­ry: that of the sages and their endur­ing wis­dom, that of com­mu­ni­ties of Jews who per­ished. It unfolds as a mem­o­ry in the mak­ing, end­ing with a col­lec­tive song that sur­vives in perpetuity.

The sto­ry is writ­ten as a short nar­ra­tive poem with dev­as­tat­ing impact. It is beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed and accom­pa­nied by a help­ful glos­sary con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing ref­er­ences to his­toric rab­bis, cities, and con­cepts, includ­ing that of nig­gun, a mys­ti­cal song, which one rab­bi called the pen of the soul.”

Discussion Questions