Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rabbi Chazat Bono is hungry, so he pulls a nigun

It's always an honor when the rabbi (Adam Bernay of Beit Tefillah Messianic Fellowship) joins us for Sunday worship gatherings....all congregations would be better off with a resident rabbi.

Today, the band played the "i can't live with or without you"chorus of U2's "With or Without You," (amazing job, team).

That lyric may not seem to make sense in a church.

 And I have not heard of another church doing it..

Though the Christian band Third Day  has been covering it in worship about that. They segue the next lyric (the "and you give yourself away" refrain) splicelessly into a medley of "obvious" worship songs ("Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus," "All I Have to Give" and "Your Love, O Lord") at 3:16-4:22 in this clip:

But said song it may only make sense in a church context. Remember, this is the song of which a bassist Adam Clayton once said:

"To get 'With or Without You' on the radio is pretty good. You don't expect to hear it there. Maybe in a church."

We talked about the song a bit, and in the afterglow time, we projected a live version of the song from Slane Castle (a concert loaded with prophetic moments).

At the 3:55 point (time on the video posted here), I said to  Rabbi Adam and a couple others, "Watch this, he's about to move into a prayer zone. See him wave his arms there...what he says next (4:11-4:32) is kind of a Spiritaneous bit of tongues...English tongues, that is"

Adam listened for a bit and said, "Oh, that's a nigun!"
First time I had heard the term.
"How do you spell that?" (:

"ניגון," he said. (:

When he explained it, he described it, it was...well, something like these online definitions.

  1. nigun (Hebrew: ניגון‎ meaning "tune" or "melody", pl. nigunim) or niggun (pl. niggunim) is a form of Jewish religious song or tune sung by groups. It is vocal music, often with repetitive sounds such as "bim-bim-bam" or "ai-ai-ai!" instead of formal lyrics.
  2. Nigun - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

And it felt quite like what Bono was doing...what he often does in the "drop-down box" section (Martin Smith's term) of a song.

The section, if you listen attentively, doesn't fit the definition exactly (see below, though other live U2 moments in the leitourgia do) as it seems to be chanted in "English tongues," can almost discern what he says, and this time it is in English. One guess:

Sing my song (soul?)
It's You I feel
Come and sing me
This is real
From my soul
Come and heal
I can feel
My senses reel

...but Rabbi Adam seemed to think the vibe, meter, atmosphere felt


Of course Bono has moved in Jewish prayer forms before... whether or not he has studied them...most notably the song "Elevation," which is named after, and the lyrics incarnate, the Chasidic "prayer of elevation of strange thoughts" (See this
(last five paragraphs, beginning with "Sex Leads to Elevation")
and here is a description of elevation-prayer by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen).

But this was a fresh connecting of dots for me.
Do the following three descriptions sound like Bono /Bongolese or what?
(Bono talks in U2 by U2 how he thinks/hopes he is of Jewish stock ....on his mother's side.
He is also not unfamiliar with glossolalia; he once said of another song "I think it expresses ..this thing of speaking in tongues. Looking for a way out of language. ")


Nigun definitions:

1)The first is from the same book quoted above (on "elevation"):

Chasidic music is that of the nigun, the impulsive and simple rhythmic tune, to the accompaniment of which the priests would clap their hands and sway their bodies, singing along in joyful ecstasy...Those Chasidic tunes, conceived in spontaneity and allegedly composed under the influence of the Holy Spirit, constituted a totally independent and variant concept of prayer. It was a collective expression of joy in a higher union in which all the initiated were emotionally and spiritually interrelated.
(p. 252)..{The leader of this liturgy was} called a chazat.



Nigun (pl. nigunim, Hebrew: ניגון‎) is a Hebrew term meaning “humming tune.” Usually, the term refers to religious songs and tunes that are sung by groups. It is a form of voice instrumental music, often without any lyrics or words, although sounds like “bim-bim-bam” or “Ai-ai-ai!” are often used. Sometimes, Bible verses or quotes from other classical Jewish texts are sung repetitively in the form of a nigun. Nigunim are largely improvisations, though they could be based on thematic passage and are stylized in form. Nigunim are also sung as a Jewish prayer in the form of a lament. Other nigunim may be joyous or victorious. Niggunim are especially central to Jewish worship in Hasidic Judaism, which evolved its own structured, soulful forms to reflect mystical dveikut and joy. Hasidic niggunim capture the Hasidic popularisation and internalisation of Jewish mysticism, centred around the mystical charisma of the Rebbe and their teachings.

3)And this:

What's A Niggun?When does a Jew sing? a Hebrew writer once asked. His answer:

when he is hungry.

Truth is, a Jew is always hungry, and to most observant Jews the niggun (a wordless song, but not necessarily) is the fastest way to feed his hunger. Hungry, a Jew searches because his Jewish soul won't let him rest until he has come to hear what he needs to hear and to say what he needs to say. Hungry, he turns to music when words fail and he looks up to Him and sings his heart out. With the right intent, any Jew who sings a niggun always reaches his Creator.

In a sense, a niggun is a combination of parent-child sounds that no one else can understand. "Ya--na--na--ya--na--pa--pa--yaya--ya"--a stammering infant language G-d created for us when our feelings are too delicate or too intimate for others to hear. "Ya--na--na--ya--na--pa--pa--yaya--ya." A child speaks this perfect language, but forgets it when he learns his parent's language. Yet nothing is lost to a Jew. One day, when he is at his wit's end, the parent rediscovers suddenly, in singing a niggun, the language of the child in him. Then he speaks to his Father, and all becomes right. This is what a niggun is for.

...Because a niggun means one thing to its singer and another thing to its listener. "

... Countless religious scholars have written much about niggunim, and you can look it up--provided you read Yiddish or Hebrew, the languages the scholars wrote in. This book, niggun, written in English, is not scholarly, although I've kept to the facts and managed to tell the stories behind these unusual songs. And what stories they are!

For centuries, Jews have sung these niggunim every chance they had--in synagogue, at farbrengens (Chasidishe get-togethers), around the Shabbos dinner table, and surely in the privacy of their own worlds, including the shower. The songs are very special. Some have words, many others don't. But each has a story, expressing an inner state of the soul, that must be told, and must be heard. So now come with me into the ancient and modern worlds of the niggun. Niggun centers on stories, truth and poetry, that connect Jews to G-d through specific niggunim. Each chapter generally deals with one niggun. Once you take a look at my table of contents you'll see the variety of religious experiences, which, hopefully, will encourage at least one person, besides me, to reclaim his inheritance and share the Jewish legacy. With that in mind I began my book and with that in mind I ended my book. My "look it up" sections, at the end of the book, include a glossary, a genealogy of outstanding chasidic rebbes, a discography of available chasidic niggunim on cassettes, and a final word, "My Swan Song, Kosher, Of Course."

See also:

  • Tongues at One Tree Hill, 12/26/89: Normal Church (Beth comments on this video: "Probably the best performance of that song ever, and it closes with about 20 seconds of glossolalia (mixed with some English I think) in very impassioned, public, declaratory mode. (One half-expects Edge to offer the interpretation.)"

And very relevant comments #1-9 beneath this article:


Also.. fascinating what happened at the exact same moment (5:25ff) in the song in Paris, 1987.And what does Bono say at 4:27 there?..

"Tear gas? I thought there were enough tears in this song?"

UPDATE: You'll definitely want to watch an emotional rap-nigun from
"Moment of Surrender here:

"Moment of....Prayer Rap"


  1. I think this song was a cry of spiritual loss as in "God, I'm losing my way. I can't do what you want, but I can't go on with out You." Interestingly enough, "The Joshua Tree" was U2's last "religious" album. Beginning with their next album, they kinda went into some (in my opinion) weird things, losing their godly edge.

  2. Kevin, that is an amazing take on the song. That is almost exactly what Bono sang,,in niggun-like rap on Saturday night Live., Video here:

    On U2 doing weird things in the 90s, they actually ministered through irony for that whole era. So the weird things (Bono dressed as devil etc) were risky and misunderstood..but still at heart just as religious or Christian.

    Many posts here on that topic for any interested.. Click the tags at right for "U2 1990s", "macphisto," and "zoo tv"

  3. Bono is the best nuggin (nugginer, nugginier?) in the world!


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!