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Torah Trope 101

04/09/2023 01:08:10 PM


Guest contributor: Rabbi Allen Darnov

     Adath Shalom can boast a host of Torah readers able to leyen (read) Torah on sabbaths and holidays.  These individuals have not only superb Hebrew skills, they have also mastered the “accents” or ta’amim attached to the Torah’s words which have crucial importance. Look at a line of Hebrew in the Bible: the signs that don’t appear to be vowels are musical accents.

     What are the purpose of the accents? The accents have several functions, but chiefly two.  Sure enough, the Talmud mentions that they elevate the text by giving it musical charm. But the original and most important task of the accents was to enhance understanding of the reading.  In the Book of Nehemiah (8:8), Ezra conducts a public reading of the Torah: “They read from the book, from the law of God, translating and giving the sense so they would understand the meaning....”  Our Sages understood the phrase “and giving the sense” as referring to the musical accents.

      The ta’amim or musical accents give the sense of the reading through punctuation, much like we separate clauses through commas, periods and colons.  For example, Exodus 17:5 states, “Moses said to Joshua, ‘Pick men for us and go out to war against Amalek tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill....’”  Does the word “tomorrow” indicate that the Israelites are to go to war “tomorrow” or that Moses will stand on the hill “tomorrow”?  The Torah accents place a pause, like a semicolon, after “Amelek”, indicating that Moses instructs Joshua, “...Pick men for us and go out to war against Amelek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill.”

     The accents often prevent confusion in the narrative of the Torah.     Let’s look at Genesis 24:34.   Abraham’s servant speaks to Laban and his family. “He said, ‘The servant (of) Abraham am I’.”  The accents serve as a comma after “He said...”   Had there not been a comma there, the sentence would read “The servant said ‘I am Abraham’,” an unintended mix-up implementing the servant in identification theft.

     Many times the accents protect us from readings that would be offensive to God.  Consider Genesis 18:3. Three visitors approach Abraham.  Abraham runs toward them, bows, and then speaks, “He said, ‘Lord, if I have found favor in Your sight, do not pass by your servant....’”  The Torah accents place a major rest or comma, after “He said”.  Had the Torah not done so, the verse would yield a reading highly disrespectful to God: “and the Lord said, ‘If I have found favor in your sight....’”

     Jewish sages from ancient to modern times have consulted the accents of the entire Hebrew Bible for interpretative purposes. Modern biblicists also consult the accents on a regular basis.  The medieval scholar Ibn Ezra  said it best: “Any interpretation of scripture that fails to follow the accents, do not listen or even consider it.”

     Want to learn more? A Torah Trope class will be starting in May on  Wednesday evenings at 8:00 PM at the synagogue. Please contact me if you are interested.


Wed, April 17 2024 9 Nisan 5784