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Parshas Vayeishev (5773)

Shalsheles: Another Link in the Chain

As anyone who has ever had a Bar-Mitzvah can tell you, the Torah that we read publicly in the synagogue each week must be read with special musical chants (often called cantillation, or trop.) The chants are written and notated in accordance with the special marks printed in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) to complement the letters and vowel points. These marks are known in English as accents and in Hebrew as ta`amei ha-mikra or just ta`amim.

A primary purpose of the cantillation marks is to guide the chanting of the sacred texts during public worship. Each word of text has a cantillation mark at its primary accent and associated with that mark is a musical phrase that tells how to sing that word. These marks also provide information on the syntactical structure of the text, and help us understand the breakdown of the words and ideas expressed in the verse.

But they are far more than that. The cantillation marks are the very neshamah, the soul, of the text. They animate the letters, words and phrases of the text, and add new layers of meaning and nuance (as we shall soon illustrate).

As Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749 –1821) writes in Nefesh HaChaim 2:16 (translation courtesy of Simon Firestone on “The Nailed Shoe” blog):

It is known that a person's soul has three levels, known as Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshamah, that are connected to three aspects of existence: actions, speech, and thought. These three aspects are the complete human being. So, too, each word (of Torah) has three aspects related to deed, speech, and thought, as well as Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshamah. They are the letters, vowels, and cantillation marks. The letters have the aspect of action, for the letters can only come into existence by means of action, such as writing a Torah scroll (without the vowels). A word cannot come from the mouth without the vowels. Thus letters alone, without vowels, relate to the soul's aspect of Nefesh, and with regard to existence, letters relate to the aspect of action. Vowels relate to Ruach, for vowels come with letters by means of words from a person. A person lives by means of the Ruach within him or her, and when the Ruach leaves, the person is dead… So, too, the essence of the life and motion of letters is the vowels, for without them letters cannot come out of the mouth... The cantillation marks of the words are related to the thought and the heart's intention, which are the Neshamah. They move the vowels and letters (and give them meaning)… It is for this reason that they are called ta’amim (which literally means “reason” in Hebrew), for they are the reason and explanation of the text, (carrying within them) the depth of meaning behind each word and phrase…

One the rarest cantillation marks is the shalsheles. It appears only four times in the entire Chumash (Five Books of Moses): Genesis 19:16, 24:12, 39:8; Leviticus 8:23, and only three times in the rest of the Bible (excluding Psalms, Proverbs, and the Book of Job, which use a different system of trop): Isaiah 13:8; Amos 1:2; and Ezra 5:15.

The shalsheles looks like a zig-zag lightning bolt and resembles a chain. According to Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi (in his commentary to Genesis 19:16), the shalsheles note conveys a state of uncertainty and indecision.

One of these rare shalsheles marks is located in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayeishev, where we find the exceedingly handsome Joseph in charge of Potiphar’s house, and the beautiful wife of Potiphar is trying to seduce him with no success.

When Potiphar’s wife says to him “Lie with me!” the Torah records Joseph’s reaction: “Va’yema’ein – and he adamantly refused” (see Genesis 39:8). According to Masoretic tradition, the cantillation mark on the top of the word Va’yema’ein is a shalsheles.

With the rare shalsheles mark strategically placed above Joseph’s adamant refusal of Potiphar’s wife’s amorous advances, the Torah is not merely teaching us how to chant the word Va’yema’ein or how to read the sentence properly.

Rather, the Torah here is giving us a deep and profound insight into Joseph’s amazing ability to remain true to his faith and his Jewish values in the face of tremendous temptation and adversity. When Potiphar’s gorgeous wife tried to seduce him, the young and attractive Joseph could easily have given in and had his way with her – and, in the process, thrown away everything Jewish that he stood for until now. After all, he was all alone in Egypt, far, far away from the influence of his holy father Jacob.

So what was it that gave Joseph the courage and strength to stick to what he believed in at all costs? It was the shalsheles.

You see, the shalsheles resembles a chain with many links. When Joseph was about to give in to Potiphar’s wife – marrying out of the faith, so to speak, and rejecting the Jewish values he grew up believing in, he remembered the glorious “chain” of Judaism that had begun so many years earlier with his great-grandfather Abraham, carried on by his grandfather Isaac, and faithfully transmitted to him and his siblings by their father Jacob – and he just couldn't bring himself to sever that chain. Joseph realized that he was another link in that chain – and all the hard work and sacrifice that his holy ancestors had put in to creating this beautiful religion and way of life would be wasted if he allowed the chain to be severed and his link lost forever to the Jewish people.

Would that all our dear brothers and sisters around the world who are intermarrying and assimilating themselves out of the Jewish people at an alarmingly high rate remember the lesson of the shalsheles – for each and every one of them is yet another link in the glorious chain of Judaism – and may they come to realize that all their holy grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ efforts to remain Jewish in the most difficult of times will have all gone to waste if they sever that chain, G-d forbid.

This is the powerful lesson about Jewish courage and continuity that we learn from that rare zig-zag mark named shalsheles. Who knew?

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