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Torah Commentary
Tzav (March 26, 2016)

Stephanie Crawley,
Rabbinic Intern

One of the beautiful things about reading Torah is that there is meaning to be found not only in the words themselves but in how you read them. The Masoretes — a group of sixth through 10th century C.E. Jewish scribes and scholars — developed the vowel notation system as well as the system of cantillation, known as trop, that we use to this day. As a result, the Torah, when it is chanted, is not so different from other forms of music. Both the words themselves, and their accompanying melodies, convey meaning and emotion.

One such notable example is in Parashat Tzav, where we find the trop symbol Shalshelet. Its appearance here is particularly significant, as the Shalshelet occurs only four times in the entire Torah. Thus, when we hear its extended and complex string of 15 notes, we know that something especially important is happening in the narrative.

The first appearance of the Shalshelet is in Genesis 19:16. Abraham’s relative, Lot, has been warned of the impending destruction of his city, Sodom. Despite knowing that he must leave his home before it is destroyed, the text tells us that he lingered. It is precisely on the word VaYitmah-maH — “Yet he lingered” — where the Shalshelet appears.

Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi comments that the trop here evokes a sense of uncertainty and hesitation. The notes of the Shalshelet allow for the reader to linger on the word, going up and down the musical scale three times, and its trop symbol physically takes the shape of a zigzag, evoking the idea of going backward and forward.

The Shalshelet is a note of uncertainty — an expression of feeling torn between
the past and the future.

We see it again in Genesis 24:12, as Abraham’s servant searches for a wife for Isaac. The servant addresses the women at a well, and here, the Shalshelet appears on the word VaYomar — “He said.” Abraham’s servant expresses hesitation, perhaps on behalf of his master, knowing that once Isaac is married, Abraham’s generation ends and Isaac’s begins.

The Shalshelet appears, again representing an internal struggle, in Genesis 39:8. As Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, he refuses her advances. The Shalshelet on the word VaY-maen — “He refused” — indicates Joseph’s existential crisis, as he has to overcome physical temptation, while also knowing that the repercussions could be severe for refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife.

The final instance of the Shalshelet is in our parashah, Tzav, and it appears as Moses is about to anoint his brother, Aaron, as the High Priest. The trop symbol is placed over the word VaYishkhat, meaning “And when it was slaughtered.” It describes Moses taking the blood of a slaughtered ram and placing it on his brother in order to anoint him.

But what is the internal struggle present here?

The Rabbis tell us that Moses had sought the position of Kohein Gadol, High Priest, for himself, and that the use of the Shalshelet here connotes a hesitation out of jealousy. The midrashist explains that Moses had been acting as the High Priest up until that point and now must pass the position’s prestigious responsibilities to his brother. This leadership transition signifies the next stage in the story of the Israelites — one which does not rely only on Moses.

Whether a signifier of Moses’ jealousy, or simply his acknowledgement that he must leave something behind in order for his people to step into the future, the Shalshelet here gives musical emphasis to this watershed moment. Perhaps without this musical pause, we would overlook the significant emotional aspect of Moses’ anointing of Aaron.

The Shalshelet symbolizes a feeling of anxiety that many of us have experienced: a desire to stay in a place of comfort, even with the knowledge that we must step forward. It is the last glance around an old home, soaking in the memories of that familiar place before we lock the doors and move somewhere new. It is the extended airport goodbye, knowing that the person you are waving to will return changed. And it is looking out the back window of a car as the horizon shrinks in the distance; unable to look away, wanting to imprint the details of that vista in your memory.

These moments are both sad and hopeful, and the Shalshelet gives us the opportunity
to linger in those places for just a little longer.

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