Julie Arnold, Congregation Ner Tamid, Las Vegas

The Voice of Torah

Image: Julie Arnold chants Torah at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV. At her side is Rabbi Sanford Akselrad. Photo courtesy of Julie Arnold.

The first record we have of anyone reading Torah from the scroll to a congregation is in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 8:

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose… They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. – Nehemiah 8: 1-4, 8

The Hebrew phrase sefer Torah [the book of the law] is still the way we refer to a Torah scroll. The sefer Torah from which Ezra read to the people was very similar, if not identical, to the Torah scrolls in synagogues worldwide today.

A Torah scroll has only consonants and spaces in it: imagine reading this article without vowels, capitalization or punctuation:

trh scrll hs nl cnsnnts nd spcs n t mgn rdng ths rtcl wtht vwls cptlztn r pncttn

Between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, in Tiberias and Jerusalem, a group of scholars called the Masoretes worked to make sure that the text was preserved properly. Part of their work was setting up a system of markings to show vowels, punctuation, and emphasis for the Torah text.  These markings are called te’amim. They are not written in the Torah scroll – nothing is ever added to a Torah scroll! – but instead they are available in a book called a tikkun korim [correction for readers] which the Torah reader uses to prepare – think “notes for homework.”

The te’amim function as punctuation and emphasis and they are expressed by the Torah reader in musical tunes called “trope.” Those tunes are established by tradition and will differ depending on where one’s teacher learned the craft. My te’amim teacher, Cantor Ilene Keys, uses one of the Lithuanian traditions for trope. (For more about that tradition, and about its place in my life, see The Chain of Tradition.)

So when we sit in synagogue and listen to a Torah reading, we are hearing not only the text itself but also the generations of effort to safeguard that text:

Ezra the Scribe copied down the scroll with great care;
his heirs are the soferim [scribes] who make each new Torah scroll
with such great care that it is usual for it to require a year of work.

The person reading the text “stands on the shoulders” of their teachers,
who guarded the text by teaching the te’amim and the proper use of the tikkun.

And each reader has spent significant time in the past week,
studying and preparing to vocalize the text:
learning the trope, learning the words,
practicing to say each word clearly and correctly.

Thus is the ancient text transmitted from generation to generation.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

15 thoughts on “The Voice of Torah”

  1. I love the idea of standing on the shoulders of those who taught us and those who worked to transmit the Torah from generation to generation. I started chanting Torah at the time of my second son’s becoming bar mitzvah because it had become a minhag (a local custom) in our temple that the parents could chant an aliyah at the Friday night service (when there was a short Torah service for that is when the congregation would actually attend the most – and not on Shabbat morning services…).

    I enjoyed it so much even for a tremendous amount of learning and three minutes of chanting. The next summer a dear friend died and in her memory, I decided to take upon learning the few aliyot across the liturgical year she used to chant – including the ten commandments.

    I am now more confident to learn by myself with the Tikkun (the book that helps to learn the tropes) and not by heart only, and I really love this adventure. Several years ago, I published, at least, two articles about what it feels like to chant Torah, in our congregation’s bulletin, now you make me want to find them!

    1. Otir, if you could find those articles, I would love to build a blog post around them. A first person account from someone who has done what you have would be a wonderful resource for people who are considering learning.

    2. I learned when a friend’s eldest daughter became bat mitzvah. The Conservative shul to which they belong reads according to the Triennial cycle, and the family was responsible for providing chanters for the majority of that day’s reading (the young lady was responsible for Maftir and Haftarah only), and her mom, who is a colleague of mine, asked if I’d be interested. I’m a musician by trade, so turning funny little black squiggles on paper into melodies is what I do all day long. I used the UAHC Press Portnoy/Wolff books, which include CDs and show all the tropes written out in Western musical notation, and I found it pretty easy to learn, although it was years before I’d venture to chant anything without running it by Cantor Keys first. My biggest stumbling block is that my Hebrew vocabulary and reading speed are so pitifully minimal!

      I really enjoy the process of learning and doing this; it’s one of the things that makes me feel the most Jewish.

        1. Reading trope is very much akin to reading music. The same trope symbol means one thing if you’re chanting Torah on Shabbat, something else if it’s the High Holidays, still a third thing if you’re reading Haftarah, and on and on. It’s like different clefs in music. A note on the middle line of the staff is a B above middle C if there’s a treble clef at the beginning of the line, a D below middle C if there’s a bass clef instead, and if there’s an alto clef, which I spend most of my time reading as a viola player, it *is* middle C. Eventually you develop different “file drawers” in your brain, one for each clef.

          I’m still a little afraid that I don’t have my trope file drawers solidly enough insulated from one another, though. So if I’m reading Haftarah that day, I usually won’t follow along with the Torah reading in the Chumash, so I don’t associate the symbols I’m about to see when I read with the “wrong” tunes.

  2. And you never refer to illuminating texts of our times? We are living today, not 3,000 years ago, so a lot of things have changed in the time being. My question of the beginning refers with the same relevance also to Christian and Muslim beliefings – established also in very old books – who have alltogether the same roots, refer to the same prophets, a.s.o.

    1. The article is about Torah. If you look around the site, you’ll see that I write about many texts. This one has special status for a my community: if you aren’t interested, why waste your time?

  3. Very good read. I’ve taken a course in Jewish law, and although it takes time to get used to the ancient legal system it is quite interesting and surprisingly relevant. The system tries to encompass all aspects of life, very much like current continental systems.

    I’m based in Israel so it probably was easier for me;)

    would love if you have some time to read about my journey through Israel and the world.

    שבת שלום

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