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A tiny step toward leyning

For the last few years, I've been one of the baalei kriyah (Torah readers) at my shul on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Each year I've grown more comfortable with the task. The first time I rose to the occasion it was terrifying; in contrast, last year I wasn't nervous at all. By that point I was reading from Torah pretty regularly, so the scroll felt like a comfortable friend rather than an intimidating stranger.

So last Rosh Hashanah, I made myself a promise: that by the time this year's holiday rolled around, I would take a new leap in my Torah reading. This year, I wanted to chant the text using the traditional trope.

Some of you may be thinking, "What kind of rabbinic student doesn't know how to leyn?" (Answer: the kind who hasn't had occasion to do it in nineteen years, and hasn't yet gone through Hazzan Jack's crash course "Leynen in the fast lane.") Others may be wondering, "Trope? Leyn? Is she still speaking English?" Perhaps an explanation is in order...


Traditionally, Torah is chanted according to a system of cantillation. (The Hebrew term is ta-amei ha-mikra; the Yiddish word for it is trope.) Although the Torah scroll bears no diacritical marks, in printed texts the words of Torah are adorned not only with vowel markings, but also with symbols that indicate cantillation. Each little symbol has a set of musical notes associated with it. So once you know what melody goes with each symbol, you can scan the printed text and know how to sing the words.

According to the Ashkenazic system, there are six basic kinds of trope. There's the regular year-round trope used for Torah reading, and the one used for the Haftarah/prophetic reading. There are three special versions of trope used for reading the five Megillot: one for Esther, one for Lamentations, and one for the scrolls read on the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals of old. And there's the trope used on the High Holidays. A discerning ear can tell all six of these easily apart. They have different tones, and their notes evoke different emotional resonances.

I promised myself, last year during the Days of Awe, that by this Rosh Hashanah I would be capable of chanting my portion of Torah. In a perfect world, I would have remembered that promise sometime around midsummer, and set myself to learning the system of High Holiday trope. Of course, this isn't a perfect world, and in typical fashion I got distracted by other things. I didn't start learning my Torah portion until Elul had begun, and by then I wasn't sure I would have time to learn the High Holiday trope from scratch. So I asked a friend to record my verses for me, and popped the mp3s onto my iPod. I listened to my Torah portion nonstop every time I was in the car, and sang along until I knew it by heart. And the work paid off; although I had some moments of anxiety early on Rosh Hashanah morning, when I stood before the scroll the words evoked the melody for me, and all was well.

The first time I ever chanted Torah was on Shabbat Chanukah in 1987, the weekend I became bat mitzvah. As it turned out, that was also the last time I chanted Torah; immediately thereafter we moved from a Conservative shul to a Reform one, where the custom was to speak the words of Torah (rather than chanting them) and to offer an interlinear translation (so that the congregation can understand what's being said.) That's the custom at my current shul, too, so all the times I've read from Torah over the last few years, I've been doing precisely that: reading. Not singing. So this Rosh Hashanah was a real milestone.

Why did I decide to chant this year? In part because last year a few of my fellow baalei kriyah learned to chant their portions, and they inspired me to follow suit. And for the sake of hiddur mitzvah, "beautifying the mitzvah" -- I wanted to heighten the beauty of the words of Torah on Rosh Hashanah, and the specialness of the day. And because I'd promised myself I would, and I'll be reliving a lot of missed promises at Kol Nidre and didn't want to add one more to the pile.

Some day I intend to be competent enough at leyning to be able to read Torah the way my teachers and colleagues in Aleph do: chanting both the Hebrew, and the translation, according to the traditional cantillation. It's a feat of multitasking which requires the ability to read the text in the scroll (which includes neither vowels nor cantillation marks nor English words); to draw all three of those things out of memory; and to combine them on-the-fly into a reading which flows naturally in two languages. When done right, it's a powerful blending of the two sets of priorities I value in Torah reading: the English translation speaks to the intellect, and the chanted melody speaks to the heart.

That's a long way off. For now, I'm glad to have made it through the milestone of my first chanted Torah in almost two decades. What a way to kick off the new year!

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