On the High Drama of Torah Cantillation – Simchat Torah 2014 / 5775

I’ve posted before that I think there is a place for Simchat Torah in humanistic approaches to Judaism; the SHJ thinks so, too, of course. I’m just a lot more of a nerd about subversive readings, and so my own approach is very history-nerd-ish.

One aspect of Simchat Torah–and in fact, of the public Torah reading generally–that I think is particularly interesting is the performance of the reading itself. I think the way public Torah reading is usually done in synagogues is pretty much the opposite of how it was “supposed” to be done (that is, how Jews of Late Antiquity and the early Medieval period envisaged the affair). And the reading of the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, which occurs on Simchat Torah as the annual reading cycle is completed, is an excellent way of leveraging into that vision.

This is Your Brain on Leyning (Chanting Torah)

First, a brief description for those unfamiliar with public Torah reading (or who have seen it but don’t know what is actually happening) of what one ordinarily sees in a synagogue, particularly on Shabbat and holidays, which is when most Jews encounter Torah reading (it happens during certain ordinary days of the week, too, but most Jews don’t see this):

The Torah service starts with opening prayers, and the scroll(s) are paraded through the congregation. On Shabbat and some holidays, the scheduled Torah reading is divided into eight readings: seven readings with an eighth (called the maftir) reading repeating some of the verses from the seventh reading. (In many synagogues, bat/bar mitzvah students learn the maftir because of its shorter length.)

The Torah is generally read in Hebrew. But it is not simply read in a monotone. Rather, the Torah is chanted in a kind of sing-song tone. The Torah scroll itself contains only the Hebrew text in consonants; there are no vowels or other marks. To learn the proper pronunciation of the words and the proper cantillation (the “tune” of the reading), typically each person reading a portion will have used a book (or a copy from a book) called a tikkun, which has in facing columns the Hebrew text as it appears in a Torah scroll and a more typically printed Hebrew that also includes vowels and what scholars often call “diacritical marks.” These marks are more ordinarily called “trope” or cantillation marks. They appear in patterns, and the marks indicate certain melodic changes (you can buy books that show on a five-line musical staff the proper melody for each mark).

Here’s a photo of a tikkun page; it’s fuzzy, but if you look closely you can see the difference between the right column (with vowels and other marks) and what the Torah scroll’s text looks like in the left column.

Photo of a tikkun page, under Creative Commons license

Photo of a tikkun page, under Creative Commons license

Experienced Torah readers can put these together without much (or any) assistance and learn, practice, and ultimately memorize the melody for the chanting of the reading. Newbies, those who are less confident, and bat/bar mitzvah students are usually also given a recording of their portion to aid in learning and memorization. (You’ll find many people who can no longer read Hebrew letters but remember long chunks of the Torah reading from their bat/bar mitzvahs 40 or 50 years in the past.)

What does this sound like? Here’s a YouTube video with someone chanting, with the corresponding melodic shifts, the names of the cantillation marks themselves:

So, now: imagine you don’t know Hebrew (most people don’t need to imagine this bit), you are sitting with the rest of the congregation, and you are now going to sit for about a half hour while one person after another goes up, recites a chunk of text in Hebrew using these notes in specific patterns, and sits back down. You don’t know what’s being read and, for that matter, the melodies mostly follow specific patterns. Everything lapses into a kind of continual, lulling sing-song of Hebrew (which, remember, you don’t actually know), with occasional punctuations from changing readers and the accompanying blessings or the occasional bit of cantillation that has some significant deviation in melody from the usual patterns.

High drama, no?


There are a few things “wrong” with all this from an audience-engagement perspective. But there’s also something “wrong” about this from a historical perspective: it wasn’t meant to be quite like this.

Yes, of course, the text was supposed to be chanted using these melodies–or, better, their predecessors, since it’s not like we have five-line staff from the 10th century with How You Chant The Torah in bold lettering across the top of the page. But the text was also translated aloud, a verse at a time, into a vernacular language understood by the congregation. Books were really, really expensive because there were no printing presses, and people didn’t really, you know, read so well (or at all!). The only way anyone “in the crowd” knew what was happening was to have someone orally translate the verses as the reading progressed.

Guess what happens when you break up the Hebrew reading like that? You don’t have quite the same monotony of cantillation occurring. And that means the melodic changes are more noticeable–especially when there are especially dramatic notes hit.

Any Questions?

So…back to Simchat Torah, since by now you must be asking, “Um…what the heck is your point?!”

I have an iPad app that includes recorded audio cantillation of all the Torah portions for the year, including holidays. Since Simchat Torah is happening…oh, now-ish…I was looking over Genesis 1 (which is read on Simchat Torah and this coming Shabbat) and listening to the app’s chanting.

As you listen to the chanting of Genesis 1–the first creation narrative–there are a number of “peak” moments where something “big” happens. In verse 7, the Torah states, “And god made the firmament, and divided the waters that were under the firmament from the waters above the firmament; and it was so.” (The Hebrew of “And god made the firmament” is vaya’as elohim et hrakiya.)

The three italicized words–“god,” “firmament,” and “divided”–in the Hebrew have cantillation marks that somewhat break the typical cantillation pattern. “God” and “firmament,” which are immediately next to one another in the Hebrew, have marks that impart complex melodic flourishes. (The mark over “divided” is much more commonly used, but has a multi-step descending melody that is more sonically “interesting” than the typical pattern.)

The marks over “God” and “firmament” appear only one more time each in Genesis 1–together, in verse 28, which states, “And god blessed them,” in Hebrew, vay’varekh otam elohim. The mark that had appeared over elohim in verse 7 now appears over otam in verse 28; the mark over ha-rakiya in verse 7 now appears over elohim in verse 28.

What’s happening in verse 7? The critical act of dividing the universe into the stuff of the heavens and the stuff of the earth! In the cosmology of Genesis 1, the waters below the firmament are human-occupied creation, while those above the firmament are the stuff of the divine or heavenly realm. It is at that moment in the text that Genesis 1 envisions our world (as the writer of Genesis 1 understood it in its basic nature) being created. The words with the most melodic variation–the most audible drama–are “god” and “firmament.”

What’s happening in verse 28? Not the creation of human beings: that happened in the prior verse. Rather, the narrative tells of god blessing human beings. The words with the most drama in the verse–the ones with the most sonically complex cantillation, sharing that pattern with the words of verse 7–are “them” and “god.”

These are the words with the most complex cantillation in the entirety of Genesis 1. They mark the most significant points of the narrative in the text: the creation of the inhabitable world, and the blessing given to humanity to fill and rule over the inhabitable world. The point of the most complexly chanted words? This world is created for you to occupy.

So What?

What does this have to do with reading Torah in synagogues today? Imagine that, instead of chanting line after line of Torah uninterrupted, we broke up the reading to allow the chanting to provide the emphasis it was originally intended to convey. Maybe breaking things into paragraphs, or even using the cantillation marks to guide what it is we do with public recitation of the text. (Yes, I know, if you’re a dedicated Conservative or Orthodox Jew you’re not going to deviate from whatever halakhic thing it is you’re up to–but you’re kind of the choir in this preaching: you may be someone who does Torah leyning anyway, and you’re not exactly clamoring to see changes in this facet of Jewish life.)

We could genuinely heighten the drama of public Torah reading, and use it to allow people to “get into” the text, focusing on and translating key passages and asking questions.

But in the typical American synagogue, we’ve let all that die a quiet, sing-song death of a thousand cuts, relegating translation to paper.

Simchat Torah should remind us that we can do better, whether it’s about interpretation of the text of the Torah in whatever tradition you belong to, or engagement in the pursuit of a connection to any facet of Jewish tradition. Thus, as a humanistic Jew, I reject the premises of the dramatic passages we’ve just discussed in Genesis 1–but I would be falling short in my engagement with the text and tradition were I not to recognize the meaning that public chanting of the text traditionally imparted.

Engagement with the text is the point of cantillation. It’s supposed to be high drama.

If we are creative–if we “select” texts based in part on their chanting to give the public reading of Torah the intended drama–we can do better.