Singing at Sinai: Yitro 5778

Seeking inspiration to spin faster on a stationary bike, I recently searched Spotify for an old song and came up with “Swingtown” by the Steve Miller Band. I don’t think I had heard it in decades, but I was instantly taken back to my 15 year old self, at least in my mind. Tedious exercise became joyous transportation as the music summoned memories of the Canadian Rockies, where I biked for a month that summer. The sense of smell is often associated with memory, but I find music to be equally powerful. Perhaps this is why we emphasize the chanting of our sacred texts. Singing the words of Torah adds another layer of association, lending drama to the narrative and connecting us to earlier recitations, both in our lives and in those of our ancestors.

At the end of Bavli Megillah (32a) Rabbi Yohanan is quoted: “Whoever reads [Torah] without melody, or studies without song, is the target of the verse, ‘Moreover, I gave them laws that were not good, and rules by which they could not live (Ezekiel 20:25).’” Elsewhere in rabbinic literature this verse is associated with ways that a person might ruin the majesty of the divine word. Music is not a mere ornamentation but an essential accompaniment to the experience of Torah. Rabbi Yohanan’s terse statement is arguably the foundation of our system of singing scripture, though it likely reflects much older traditions that had developed over the centuries. It wasn’t until the time of the Masoretes in 9th century Tiberias that the system of “accents” was fully established, but the musical traditions associated with them developed both before and after that time. While there are many different melodies for chanting an accent such as “gershaim,” depending on the book of Bible and the community of origin, the notations themselves play a role in adding meaning to the text.

For example, this week I noticed that the beginning of Parashat Yitro features “gershaim” three times in the opening passage, each time over a verb associated with Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses. The accents are scattered across verses 1, 5 and 12, but they can be read as a type of musical midrash, linking three verbs. First Yitro heard, then he approached, and then he acted. He taught by example that one must be attuned to extraordinary events, position oneself into a place of influence, and then take action, in this case, by offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God for the remarkable events of the Exodus. I wonder if the accent gershaim is used to such effect in this passage due to the appearance of the name Gershom, the older son of Moses, whose name recalls the experience of being estranged from people but embraced by God in the same moment. Moses and Yitro are linked by this boy—their son and grandson respectively—and by the experience of being both strangers and leaders in the ways of God. The musical accent emphasizes their connection.

The Masoretic accents are even more significant in the most dramatic passage of our portion, and arguably of the Torah altogether, the Decalogue in chapter 20 (and its parallel in Deut. 5). Our Bibles preserve two different accent systems for these verses. The so-called “upper melody,” reflects rabbinic understanding of the Decalogue, with each “utterance” enclosed within a verse (for example, the Sabbath command is one verse, instead of 4). The “lower melody” divides the verses according to the tradition of Hellenistic Jews. In our practice, the upper melody is used for public recitation, as when we read the Decalogue in synagogue tomorrow, whereas the lower melody is used for private reading and study of the Torah. In printed Humashim the two systems are printed separately, but in old manuscripts such as the Leningrad Codex, the notes are superimposed, leading to much confusion. A double-trope version is presented below from the Bar Ilan collection.

This confusion may explain an oddity of the “upper accents,” the fact that the Decalogue is divided into NINE verses, instead of ten! In a 1974 article, Miles B. Cohen and David B. Friedman examine this topic thoroughly, going back to the Ben Asher tradition as the source of the confusion. You will notice that verse 2, 3 has both an “etnahta” and a “siluq” under the word עבדים, making that word either the end of the first utterance, or its middle. They speculate that the blending of what would normally be considered the first and second utterances is not a random error, but is influenced by an famous midrash. In Bavli Makkot 23b-24a, Rav Hamnuna states that 611 commandments were given by God to Moses, but the first two commandments of the Decalogue were revealed directly to Israel. Thus the musical accents reflect a rabbinic midrash that pairs the first two utterances as one revelation. But this is misleading, since they were, after all, two utterances, and deserved to be demarcated as such by the accents. The correct version of the “upper accents” should have a verse-end accent (siluq) under עבדים, which would allow the Decalogue to be recited as intended, in ten utterances. Unfortunately, I doubt that any of us will hear the recitation in this way tomorrow. In other words, music is a powerful tool for conveying information—both accurate information, and misinformation!

What is certainly true is that orality is essential to the recreation of revelation. We will stand tomorrow and chant evocative sentences that speak of thunderclaps and shofar blasts and the mighty voice of God addressing the assembled people beneath the mountain. We will sing these awesome words according to ancient melody, guided by mysterious musical markers, and the experience of hearing the Torah sung will transport us back to Sinai. When the verse says that “Moses would speak, and the Lord would answer him with VOICE,” I imagine God singing to Moses these great words of instruction. We will sing them tomorrow, and listen for an echo of revelation, for the great voice that never ends.

May the words of Torah be sweet in our mouths, sung with emotion and intelligence, so that they can enter our hears and inspire our actions with reverence and love.


יחזקאל פרק כ פסוק כה

וְגַם־אֲנִי֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לָהֶ֔ם חֻקִּ֖ים לֹ֣א טוֹבִ֑ים וּמִ֨שְׁפָּטִ֔ים לֹ֥א יִֽחְי֖וּ בָּהֶֽם:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף לב עמוד א

ואמר רבי שפטיה אמר רבי יוחנן: כל הקורא בלא נעימה ושונה בלא זמרה – עליו הכתוב אומר וגם אני נתתי להם חקים לא טובים וגו’.

שמות פרק יח, א-יב

(א) וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ כֹהֵ֤ן מִדְיָן֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֵת֩ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא יְקֹוָ֛ק אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם: (ב) וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ: (ג) וְאֵ֖ת שְׁנֵ֣י בָנֶ֑יהָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאֶחָד֙ גֵּֽרְשֹׁ֔ם כִּ֣י אָמַ֔ר גֵּ֣ר הָיִ֔יתִי בְּאֶ֖רֶץ נָכְרִיָּֽה: (ד) וְשֵׁ֥ם הָאֶחָ֖ד אֱלִיעֶ֑זֶר כִּֽי־אֱלֹהֵ֤י אָבִי֙ בְּעֶזְרִ֔י וַיַּצִּלֵ֖נִי מֵחֶ֥רֶב פַּרְעֹֽה: (ה) וַיָּבֹ֞א יִתְר֨וֹ חֹתֵ֥ן מֹשֶׁ֛ה וּבָנָ֥יו וְאִשְׁתּ֖וֹ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֗ר אֲשֶׁר־ה֛וּא חֹנֶ֥ה שָׁ֖ם הַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִֽים: (ו) וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֲנִ֛י חֹתֶנְךָ֥ יִתְר֖וֹ בָּ֣א אֵלֶ֑יךָ וְאִ֨שְׁתְּךָ֔ וּשְׁנֵ֥י בָנֶ֖יהָ עִמָּֽהּ: (ז) וַיֵּצֵ֨א מֹשֶׁ֜ה לִקְרַ֣את חֹֽתְנ֗וֹ וַיִּשְׁתַּ֙חוּ֙ וַיִּשַּׁק־ל֔וֹ וַיִּשְׁאֲל֥וּ אִישׁ־ לְרֵעֵ֖הוּ לְשָׁל֑וֹם וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ הָאֹֽהֱלָה: (ח) וַיְסַפֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ לְחֹ֣תְנ֔וֹ אֵת֩ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְקֹוָק֙ לְפַרְעֹ֣ה וּלְמִצְרַ֔יִם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֣ת יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֵ֤ת כָּל־הַתְּלָאָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר מְצָאָ֣תַם בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ וַיַּצִּלֵ֖ם יְקֹוָֽק: (ט) וַיִּ֣חַדְּ יִתְר֔וֹ עַ֚ל כָּל־הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה יְקֹוָ֖ק לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הִצִּיל֖וֹ מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרָֽיִם: (י) וַיֹּאמֶר֘ יִתְרוֹ֒ בָּר֣וּךְ יְקֹוָ֔ק אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֥יל אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרַ֖יִם וּמִיַּ֣ד פַּרְעֹ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִצִּיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת יַד־מִצְרָֽיִם: (יא) עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּֽי־גָד֥וֹל יְקֹוָ֖ק מִכָּל־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים כִּ֣י בַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר זָד֖וּ עֲלֵיהֶֽם: (יב) וַיִּקַּ֞ח יִתְר֨וֹ חֹתֵ֥ן מֹשֶׁ֛ה עֹלָ֥ה וּזְבָחִ֖ים לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וַיָּבֹ֨א אַהֲרֹ֜ן וְכֹ֣ל׀ זִקְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לֶאֱכָל־לֶ֛חֶם עִם־חֹתֵ֥ן מֹשֶׁ֖ה לִפְנֵ֥י הָאֱלֹהִֽים:

Double trope of Exodus 20:2-6:

שמות פרק כ, א-ו

(א) וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֵ֛ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לֵאמֹֽר: ס (ב – ג) אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽ֥ה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗י: (ד) לֹֽ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֨ה־לְךָ֣֥ פֶ֣֨סֶל֙׀ וְכָל־תְּמוּנָ֡֔ה אֲשֶׁ֣֤ר בַּשָּׁמַ֣֨יִם֙׀ מִמַּ֡֔עַל וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר֩ בָּאָ֖֨רֶץ מִתָּ֑֜חַת וַאֲשֶׁ֣֥ר בַּמַּ֣֖יִם׀ מִתַּ֣֥חַת לָאָֽ֗רֶץ: (ה) לֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֣֥ה לָהֶ֖ם֘ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒ כִּ֣י אָֽנֹכִ֞י יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲוֹ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָֽ֑י: (ו) וְעֹ֥֤שֶׂה חֶ֖֨סֶד֙ לַאֲלָפִ֑֔ים לְאֹהֲבַ֖י וּלְשֹׁמְרֵ֥י מִצְוֹתָֽי:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מכות דף כג עמוד ב

דרש רבי שמלאי: שש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות נאמרו לו למשה, שלש מאות וששים וחמש לאוין כמנין ימות החמה, ומאתים וארבעים ושמונה עשה כנגד איבריו של אדם. אמר רב המנונא: מאי קרא? תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה, תורה בגימטריא

[דף כד עמוד א] שית מאה וחד סרי הוי, אנכי ולא יהיה לך מפי הגבורה שמענום. (סימן: דמשמ”ק ס”ק).