The Meaning of the Shalshelet

Hayyei Sarah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 22, 2003 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

In 1981, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) published The Torah: A Modern Commentary, admirably edited by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut. The first of the denominational commentaries, it combined an unflinchingly scholarly perspective with a reverence for traditional readings. Conspicuously absent, from the Hebrew text, however, was the trope, the musical notations by which the Torah is chanted in the synagogue. The omission reflected Reform practice: in most Reform synagogues where the Torah is read, it is literally read and not chanted. But the omission triggered a storm of criticism and the UAHC quickly put out a second edition that included the trope.

This long forgotten story is a tribute to the numinous power of our ancient system of cantillation. Sacred texts are to be sung; only profane texts are spoken. Rabbi Yochanan, a third century Palestinian Amora, went so far as to assert that anyone who studied Torah or Mishnah without chanting the text conformed to the dark words of Ezekiel: “Moreover, I (God) gave them laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live” (Ezekiel 20:25; BT Megillah 32a). Indeed, there are Babylonian manuscripts in which the mishnaic passages are marked by trope as are some of the early printed editions of the Mishnah itself (Sabbioneta).

Music does not only remove a text from the numbing effect of ordinariness; it also facilitates memorization, and rabbinic culture was largely oral. Professor Yochanan Muffs of the JTS faculty, one of the top Bible scholars in the world, loves to recount that when he was a youngster trying to learn passages of the Tanakh by heart, he would sit at the piano and put them to music. Prior to the invention of printing, Jews in the synagogue prayed and listened to the Torah reading without benefit of written texts. Music served as a medium of transmission.

To be sure, different Jewish communities developed different renditions of the cantillation. ForShabbat Lekh L’kha , JTS’s H.L. Miller Cantorial School in conjunction with the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, performed a service as it might have sounded in a colonial Sephardic synagogue. The barely inflected Torah trope was far less melodious than the Eastern European trope that we are used to in our Conservative synagogues.

When I arrived at Camp Ramah for my first summer in 1955, I was still chanting both the Torah andhaftorot (prophetic portions) according to the German cantillations of my father. That summer, I was counselor for a bunk of unruly twelve-year olds. The most rambunctious was also the most learned Jewishly. Intuitively, I decided to co-opt him by having him teach me his Eastern European Torah trope. The ruse worked. I mastered a new trope and he grew more manageable. To this day, though, I am a divided soul. I continue to chant the haftarah according to the lovely German trope of my childhood.

The Hebrew term for trope is te’amim, a plural form for accent marks. Like vowels, they appear only in printed editions but never in the Torah scroll from which we read. A musical notation accompanies every word of the Torah. The function of the te’amim goes far beyond music. The location of the mark indicates the syllable to be accented. When one chants in public or studies alone, it is important to get the pronunciation of the words correct. The te’amim also provide the text with a system of punctuation, which sets off such units as a sentence, clause or phrase. Somete’amim are joiners while others are separators. Finally, the most distinctive te’amim add nuance and interpretation to the words to which they are attached.

Our parashah contains a wonderful example of this interpretive function. The particular mark is called a shalshelet or chain. With its wiggle shape, it actually looks like a worm, always appearing above the word it serves. Its extended sound, longer than any other mark, matches its form, that is, it wavers going up and down the scale twice before finishing on a third ascent. The music connotes emotional turmoil as it does in our instance.

Abraham, advanced in years and eager to arrange a marriage for his son Isaac, has sent the steward of his household back to Mesopotamia to find a suitable mate. The narrative is full of tenderness. The steward arrives and goes to the well at which women tend to congregate. Utterly alone, he turns to the God of Abraham for help. Over the introductory word in the narrative, “vayomar” (and he said) appears a shalshelet, conveying all the angst and trepidation felt by the steward in the face of his impossible mission (Genesis 24:12). What an inspired choice to enliven the reading!

Not surprisingly, the shalshelet, which occurs but seven times in the entire Torah, punctuates the book of Genesis. We met it last week in the rescue of Lot by the divine messengers from the doomed cities of Sodam and Gomorrah. Despite their urging, Lot is paralyzed by ambivalence: “Still he delayed. So the men seized his hand and the hands of his wife and his two daughters.”(19:16). A shalshelet is affixed to the rare verb for delaying, underlining Lot’s emotional state.

And we will meet it again in the failed seduction of Joseph in Egypt by Potiphar’s wife. He spurns her advances: “After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said: ‘Lie with me’ but he refused” (Genesis39:7). The last word is unpacked with yet another shalshelet, suggesting that Joseph’s resolve came only after inner struggle.

In sum, to read the parashah without the trope is akin to reading but a third of it. Both dilutions do violence to the multifaceted intricacy of the text. The real value of Etz Hayim, the new Conservative Torah commentary, is to give us a marvelous vehicle for home study. In the synagogue, we should be touched by the music of Mount Sinai as well as its message. Let’s mobilize the products of serious Jewish education in our midst, both young and old, to create an ever expanding pool of competent Torah readers.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Hayyei Sarah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.