Shlomo Carlebach: A Tribute


The Jewish people arose as a nation many millennia ago. From the dawn if its birth, at the time of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, events occurred that influenced the march of its history and were indeed the hinges that changed the course of our nation. At these junctures, people arose who became, sometimes unwittingly, the instrument of those historical changes. To pave the way for our later analysis, let us point briefly to some of these occurrences in different settings and discover the personalities who were instrumental for these history-changing moments.

Our tradition tells us that our Oral Law (Torah she- baal peh) was given to us together with the Written Law (Torah she- beksav) at Mount Sinai. For 1,500 years, the Oral Law remained just that, a set of laws transmitted orally from generation to generation. Until Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi put all these sayings in writing and codified these laws into its written form, thereby authoring the Mishneh. It was a momentous change from past traditions but it saved our laws for posterity and clearly changed the course of our history. Who knows how our nation and its traditions would fare today without the benefit of the written word. It certainly would look very different.

In another setting, think of the request that Menasse ben Israel made to Cromwell, the English Protector in 1655. He asked him to open the doors of England to Jews who had been expelled from England since 1290. The request was granted and Jews started moving back to England and, later, to its North American colonies. These colonies, as we know, became the United States of America. An occurrence in 1655 became the cornerstone for our vibrant and thriving Jewish life in our country today. Menasse be Israel only wished for the Spanish and Portuguese Jews to find another safe haven but his efforts paved the way for this haven to become the home to millions of Jews today.

In more recent times, one of the hinges of our Jewish history undoubtedly occurred in the early eighteenth century. At that time, Jews in Eastern Europe were oppressed by its Polish and Lithuanian overlords, often ignored by its own rabbinic leaders and led astray by messianic movements. The common Jew was buffeted by the winds of war and poverty, desperate for some recognition and some hope for a better future. Enter an obscure Jewish teacher, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. He exhorted the common Jew to live his life with joy, to appreciate that his life had meaning and to instill into him the belief that the Almighty valued his simple faith as much as those of the learned Jews. Hasidism was born. Today, a great section of religious Jews follow these teachings. The early efforts of the Baal Shem Tov became a mighty flood and his message became the beacon to millions of Jews across the globe. Jewish life today would be radically different without the birth and the ultimate triumph of Hasidism.

Fast forward one hundred and fifty years and another great hinge of our history takes shape. The yearning to return to our ancestral home, Israel, was always a pillar of our faith as we pray for the rebirth of our ancestral home every day. Throughout the centuries, thousands of Jews made their way to Eretz Yisroel to live out their lives in our homeland. However, it was just a trickle and its implementation was subject to the vagaries of the political situation in Israel. Surprisingly, to effect the new momentous chapter in our history, the Almighty chose an unusual messenger. Theodore Herzl was born an assimilated Jew, barely knowing his own background. Steeped in Austrian culture, he could have continued his career as a journalist without bothering one bit about his own people. Witnessing the Dreyfus trial, however, something moved him and he embarked on his life mission to re-establish the Jewish homeland. He never saw the fulfillment of his dreams but his early steps ultimately led to the re-establishment of our Jewish homeland and to the great rebirth of Jewish life, religious and otherwise, in Eretz Israel. Modern anti-zionists may rail against Zionism all they want but Jewish life would be immeasurably different today and much poorer in every sense, if the Medinah would not have been established. A hinge of our history indeed.

And now, I come to our great rebbe, R’Shlomo Carlebach zz’l. It may seem incongruous to put R”Shlomo amongst all these great historical personalities. Yet, I believe that R’Shlomo effected a revolution amongst us that will be long lasting and has already shown its enduring breadth and scope. Before R’ Shlomo arrived on the scene, Jewish liturgical songs were the property of Chazzanim. Majestic as these songs may have been, they were inaccessible to the common man. Popular Jewish songs were haphazard and actually reflected more of the surroundings, be they Russian or Hungarian, than of their true Jewish origin. And then R’Shlomo arrived on the scene. Armed only with a guitar and never having learned to read musical notes, he transformed the Jewish musical scene singlehandedly. Since his early appearances, Jewish music has been totally transformed. All the many newcomers own their success to R’Shlomo and to his pioneering efforts. In spite of the proliferation of new Jewish songs and music, R’Shlomo’s own songs continue to captivate the multitudes and we see the grandchildren of the early Shlomo followers, being as entranced by his songs as their own grandparents.

There is something more to this and why I believe that R’Shlomo effected a musical revolution that has become a true hinge in our musical history and why his legacy may live for a very long time. R”Shlomo not only composed hundreds of beautiful songs, thereby changing the Jewish musical scene but he also changed the way we pray and the way we approach our tefillos. His Kabbalat Shabbat nusach has spread across the globe and at the Kotel, every minyan sings his nusach. His music of that tefillah has instilled into us the joy and the vitality of the early Kabbalists. When singing his songs erev Shabbat, we truly go towards “greeting the Queen, Shabbat”. There is more. R”Shlomo brought back the customs of the Levites in our holy Temple when he started using real instruments on Hoshana Rabbah. Attend such a service and you will understand a bit how our forefathers rejoiced in the Temple on Sukkot.

Lastly, his pioneering way of saying Selichot on the first night. The world still cannot understand how a service that has always been so tearful and so mournful, could become an occasion where songs dominate and where joy rules. R’Shlomo, however, understood that we live in different times. In this, he learned from the Baal shem Tov whose message was to reject the pessimism and the defeatism of history. In today’s world, R’Shlomo thought, one must rise above the din of materialism and of negativity and we must embrace hope and joy. Even services that were mournful in the past have to be raised to a level of joy and happiness that only a musical approach warrants. Look around you and you will see this approach spreading everywhere.

R’Shlomo started a revolution that is influencing everything musical, from songs to nusach, to ways of praying. Like other history-changing events in the past, he changed history. On his yahrzeit, let us pray for his holy neshama and continue to spread his legacy.

Yahrzeit  Cheshvan 16, 5777

 Shlomo Carlebach: A Tribute (PDF)

Author: 009


  1. Excellent, succinct overview of some the great changes in Jewish history. Deserves its own paper (or papers). Spot on.


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