Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Rabbi Adrienne P. Scott
January 26, 2018
11 Sh’vat 5778
There is no denying that our traditions are vast and rich. Sometimes, we might wonder how did all these traditions begin? Where did they come from and how were they developed? One of our most beautiful traditions is the art of chanting Torah, or cantillation. Torah itself is the crown jewel of our faith. It contains the stories and lessons of our people. It is also full of their challenges and difficulties. When we read the words we can understand some of these intricacies but the true message comes out in the chanting of each word. The cantillation marks are like secret codes that truly enhance our understanding of these deep and moving texts. But if you open a Torah scroll and look inside – these marks are nowhere to be found.
The word cantillation comes from the Latin “cantare,” meaning to sing. In fact, the practice of chanting Torah dates back to the time of Ezra, the biblical scribe, who lived around the year 510 BCE, not long after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. It was one of the saddest periods of our history. With no central place to worship, Ezra and the leaders of the Jewish people became concerned that Judaism was going to be lost forever.
For certain, Jewish life was very different back then. To be Jewish was risky and many people were scared to follow the Torah. Following Jewish law instead of the law of the land could have disastrous consequences. Even further, the people had little awareness of why the risk was worth it. The stories were ancient, they were not about themselves and they took place over a thousand years before. Why bother? Ezra was a leader and a staunch advocate for a return to tradition. He felt the risk was worth taking and that Torah needed to be heard. To that end, Ezra devoted himself to sharing words of Torah with his community. He instituted the public reading of Torah, a practice we still follow every single Shabbat. And, Ezra didn’t limit it only to Shabbat. Whenever the people would gather in the market place, he would sing parts of the Torah. Ezra wasn’t following a musical score. He didn’t know how to read music. He found the kavannah, the intention from within, to create this style. He improvised and he changed the tone of all that had come before.
It was truly remarkable. By setting to music words that had once seemed irrelevant, outdated, and even ancient, Ezra found a path back to Torah. As he sang, people stopped to listen. This was all without amplification, no microphones or megaphones. He projected the holy words in a combination of speaking and song that formed the beginning of the first phase of the cantillation system we still use today.
It’s hard to know exactly what it sounded like. It could be that Ezra’s version may have only had a slight inflection to help highlight the beginning, middle and end of each Torah verse. But over time, others took over the art. It became more widespread, more nuanced, and more elaborate. It was the famous Rabbi Akiva who lived five hundred years after Ezra who is recorded in the Talmud to have taught that Torah study was only authentic if it was chanted. It is absolutely fascinating that this oral tradition – that was merely stumbled upon and introduced without fanfare – has withstood the test of time and is still something we do today.
Torah chanting is an opportunity to hear the text in its purest form. Reading the words of Torah can be difficult because there are no vowels and no punctuation marks anywhere in the physical Torah scroll. To prevent one long run-on sentence, we have to create pauses, literary cues, and periods so that we can understand what’s going on. While our tradition teaches us that every word is significant and important to the meaning of Torah, some sections demand greater attention than others. It’s the way the musical notations are sung, known as trope that helps us hear the text better. The development of these tropes occurred 1,000 years ago between the 9thand 10th centuries. The Masorets were Jewish scribes who lived primarily in the areas of Tiberias and Jerusalem. They were responsible for creating the vocalized Masoretic text that we still use today.
Because of our oral traditions, the trope melodies vary depending on the particular minhag of any single congregation. While the system of chanting can be challenging to learn, there are only a finite set of notes and with enough practice, chanting can become fluid and comfortable. Today, many different trope systems exist. The Torah cantillation is different from the Haftorah chanting of the prophetic readings. Shabbat trope is different from what is heard on the High Holy Days, which is different from the chanting of other scrolls like the Book of Esther on Purim.
One of the special tropes falls on this Shabbat. In Parshat Beshallach, from the book of Exodus, we read “shirat ha’yam,” or the Song of the Sea. It tells the important story of the Israelites’ redemption from Pharaoh and Egypt. It details the safe journey for the Israelites as the Sea split and they arrived on dry land. This section of Torah stands out for many reasons. It is written in a unique way. Unlike most of Torah, the columns aren’t fully justified. There are a few words with large spaces in between. Perhaps it looks like the two walls of water on the sides with the path for the Israelites being marked in the middle. Not only is the layout unique, the way the words are sung is different from the rest of Torah. Known by the term, “shirat hayam trope,” each verse in this section that contains the name of God is highlighted with a special melody. Why? As the liturgical scholar of music, A.W. Binder notes, “these musical detours are known as festive tropes. They share expression to a text that is rich in meaning and depth.” The Israelites were grateful for the gift of freedom. They were overcome with emotion and wonder as they witnessed a vast body of water splitting to make a path for them. In the most vulnerable state, our ancestors knew they needed to mark this miraculous event. They offered a series of praises, which we to recall in our liturgy today. Among them is the phrase, “Ozi V’zimrat Yah, “God is my strength and might” in verse 2- and the well-known prayer of Mi Chamocha, “who is like God” in verse 11, which is included in every single worship service and is uttered by Jews every day around the world.
Since we have our own resident chanting expert, I would like to invite Cantor Trompeter to lend her voice as she demonstrates the differences in these trope systems.
We begin first by turning to the prayer supplement. You will note that we have the Hebrew text presented as it is written in the actual Torah scroll. We begin with verse 1 in Exodus 15. In the middle of the first verse, we hear the special trope for this section. (Cantor Chants) This section reminds us of God’s intervention at just the right moment to help save our ancestors. Its melody is beautiful and soulful, sharing a rich and heartfelt response as the people see a change in status from slavery to freedom.
We move forward to verse 11 now with the familiar words, “Mi Chamocha.” (Cantor chants) Moses helps to lead the people in asking the question of ‘who can be compared to God?’ If there was ever any doubt of God’s sovereignty and power, that skepticism has disappeared. In this moment there is nothing but love and exaltation for the one God, Adonai.
The Song of the Sea reminds us of the true partnership and covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish People. It is a new beginning of hope and promise that continues as Torah carries forth. Now, the people have the chance to express their religious faith in an open, safe and secure space.
Torah learning is at the center of all that we do. In our day, we find great comfort in the words-both as they are chanted and read, by linking us to our past and providing hope for the future. We should never forget the contributions of Ezra the Scribe – and how his innovations and his risk-taking allowed generations of Jews who followed him to merit greater understanding and greater meaning in their faith.
May the study of Torah always be sweet and enriching for us. May we always find the strength we need as we return to new passages and familiar ones. And may our search for inner peace be found when we balance our own strength with the songs and praise of God.