🕯 R’ Ben Zion Shenker z’l (1925-2016) – 19th of Cheshvan

November 6, 2020

Today, the 19th of Cheshvan, is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Ben Zion Shenker, zt’l. Widely considered the greatest modern-day composer of Jewish music, Shenker has hundreds of original compositions to his name. These include tunes such as Eishes Chayil, Mizmor L’Dovid, Hamavdil, Layehudim Hoysa Orah, Hatov (hatov, hatov) Ki Lo Chalu Rachamecha, Haneiros Halalu, Yosis Alayich… just to name a few – songs that are heard in practically every Jewish home, shul, and simcha hall at any given time.

Shenker is a name atop a short list of composers whose songs are in fact, so well known, that most are not even aware of their origin – let alone that they were composed in the last century! Many assume his compositions are traditional; as in older-than-Moshe-Rabbeinu, pre-date-chicken-soup, or at the very least, are from some prehistoric era. That kind of traditional.

R’ Ben Zion was a master of melodies. Besides contributing his own music to Klal Yisroel, he helped popularize the exalted niggunim of the Modzitzer Chassidus, especially those of the second Modzitzer Rebbe, Reb Shaul Yedidya Elazar Taub, zt’l, the Imrei Shaul. The Imrei Shaul (1886-1947) was considered the most prolific Chassidic composer of niggunim with some 1,000 magnificent operas to his credit, and until his passing, R’ Ben Zion served as his personal musical secretary. Subsequently, Shenker had close relationships with each of the succeeding three generations of the dynasty’s Rebbeim and served as the voice par excellence of Modzitz for more than 50 years. It was a role he took very seriously and a privilege that he never took for granted.
[Now, it should be noted here just so we have some perspective, that the world of Modzitz and its Chassidim has always been inextricably tied to their musical legacy, making them true aficionados of Chassidic music. So getting to know Modzitz means inevitably getting to know their most prolific singer, and vice versa.]

So let’s get to know him just a bit more, shall we? As usual, the extremely abridged version:

Ben Zion was born in Williamsburg, NY in 1925 with an innate propensity for music. As a 3-year-old, he wasn’t interested in the normal things that children that age did, like playing with toys or running around outside. He loved music. His mother would sit him in the living room, crank up the Victrola, and little Benele would listen to chazzanus records for hours on end.

By the age of 5 he was able to imitate his icon, Chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt, and the neighbors would come over just to hear him sing! As he grew older, the 12-year-old Shenker caught the ear of famed choirmaster and composer Chazzan Joshua Weisser. After some insistence from Weisser, the Shenkers agreed to allow their son to join the choir – this is back when all the big shuls had choirs, but it was very rare for a yeshiva boy to be among its members.

At the age of 13, Ben Zion had his own weekly 15-minute spot on the local radio station. But before accepting the gig, he first went to his Rebbi, Rav Avraham Pam, zt’l for permission. Rav Pam, who was in his first year in Torah Vodaas, deferred to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt’l. R’ Shraga Feivel eventually acquiesced – but on two strict conditions: that Ben Zion returned for second seder, and that he did not make any friends at the radio station! Those were the terms, and the young, impressionable Ben Zion Shenker upheld his end of the deal.

Two years later, in 1940, Ben Zion began a relationship that some might call “a match made in Modzitz heaven.” The Modzitzer Rebbe had fled Europe, and with the assistance of a Brooklyn family, was able to gain entry into the United States. Very soon after arriving, the Rebbe established a shtiebel in Williamsburg, however, he would occasionally visit other communities for Shabbos as well. On one such occasion, he visited the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where the Shenkers had since moved, and Ben Zion and his father went over to say good Shabbos. They had never spoken before but the Rebbe recognized them from their attendance at several Melave Malkah’s so he invited them to eat together with him after davening.

As the men were seated at the table, Ben Zion’s eye spotted a book off to the side. It was a book of sheet music of Chassidic compositions, some of which were composed by Reb Shaul himself! Picking it up, Shenker leafed through the book and, having learned to read musical notation from his earliest youth, began to hum a tune from the piece of music on the page. Within moments, the Modzitzer Rebbe turned to see who was singing one of his niggunim.

Shenker froze.

With a fatherly smile, the Modzitzer Rebbe asked him if he read music. “Du kenzt leinen?” Shenker found his voice quickly enough to say ‘yes.’ “Well, don’t stop. Sing on. Sing on!” “Lomer herr, lomer herr!” the Rebbe encouraged him. Ben Zion started to protest – he had never read the notes before! But in the end, he would sing one song after the next, enthralling the Rebbe and all the other guests, who by then had joined the Rebbe and his new protégé singer in the living room.

A few years later, Ben Zion was called upon when the Rebbe received a song from someone who had escaped a Treblinka-bound cattle car. As the only one there who knew how to read the music, he was asked to sing it – to really sing it – and he did. Ani Ma’amin…Ani Ma’amin…Ani Ma’aaaaamin…..
It was a powerful moment, an inspiring moment. The eerie air was a testament to the faith of the Jewish people and those in the room listened and cried. The song became world famous – and reminded R’ Ben Zion just how powerful music really is.

Music is emotion; it bypasses your brain and goes straight to your heart. Music gives a voice to your neshoma and allows your soul to speak. R’ Ben Zion now understood that music was bigger than the person who wrote it – it takes on a life of its own.

With this newfound appreciation in mind, Shenker would go on to compose more than 500 songs and, in the process, permanently reshape the Jewish music landscape forevermore. He did this by showing us what a musical life is all about. He taught us that learning Torah and serving Hashem is most important and that music is just a tool – an important tool – but a tool nonetheless, that makes it easier to serve the Ribono Shel Olam. This is what he learned from Modzitz, and in turn, it’s what we learned from him.

ר׳ בן-ציון ב״ר מרדכי שענקערYehi zichro baruch.

Undoubtedly, one of R’ Ben Zion’s most famous masterpieces is Eishes Chayil, which he composed in honor of his wife in 1953. Interestingly, the tune actually evolved from the nusach in which Reb Shaul would recite the words of Eishes Chayil. It wasn’t an actual tune, but more of an intonation that fit perfectly with the words that the Rebbe hummed as he made his way around the room. Over time, the Rebbe’s family and chassidim learned to hum along with their Rebbe, and after his marriage, R’ Ben Zion transformed the Rebbe’s intonation into a full-fledged song that has graced Shabbos tables across the globe ever since.

So for today’s erev Shabbos post, we will feature this song – maybe THE most recognizable Shabbos song in the world – so that when we sing it tonight, we can do so with these great composers in mind.

Wishing all of you a delightful Shabbos!

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