Today is June 4, 2020 -
By Hazzan Michael Krausman
On Shavuot, in anticipation of which we carefully count seven weeks from Pesach, we celebrate the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Moses accepted the Torah on behalf of a grateful Jewish People who proclaimed, “Kol Asher Diber Hashem Na’ase; all that the Lord has spoken we will do.”(Exodus 19:8). Although we achieved our physical freedom on Pesach, our spiritual redemption did not occur until we received the Torah – the blueprint for living a life in harmony with the Blessed Creator. This year, Shavuot was celebrated on May 28. It is traditional to celebrate the festival of Shavuot with dairy meals and an evening study session. These are reminiscent of the time when, out of eagerness to receive the Torah, the children of Israel stayed awake all night. Centuries later, in Temple times, people would express their thankfulness to God by bringing the first fruits of their orchards to the Cohen Gadol, High Priest. This presentation gave them an opportunity to feel close to the Blessed Holy One by expressing gratitude for the bounty of Creation, and by sharing with the community.
Perhaps the best way for present- day Jews to strengthen our relationship with the Torah is to learn how to read from the sacred text. Ezra the scribe (480–440 BCE) was a member of the priestly class who led the return of the Israelite people that had been exiled to Babylonia following the destruction of the first Jerusalem Temple (70 BCE). He established the practice of public Torah reading, first on Shabbat and festivals and subsequently on certain weekdays as well. The wise scribe realized that it is Torah which unifies and spiritually fortifies each member of the Jewish people and draws them together as a community. The ancient sages mandated that in order to make the text more appealing when read in public, it must be set to music. Thus, the Torah, like all of the Hebrew Bible, is chanted according to an ancient system of music known as either cantillation, Ta’ame Ha Mikra or trope. Stemming from the 10th century, this system uses graphic symbols to represent short musical phrases. The symbols emanated from a system of hand signals known as “chironomy” which were given by an assistant to the Torah reader to indicate the musical interpretation of the text. In an effort to codify these hand signs, each word in the Bible was given a cantillation symbol. These cantillation marks not only represent music, but also indicate punctuation, identify accented syllables and serve as a grammatical analysis of the text. In order to master the technique of Torah chanting, all one needs to do is to learn the cantillation symbols and practice joining them to the words of the text. Anyone who has ever chanted the V’Ahavta paragraph of the Shema has already experienced using cantillation.
At Beth El, we are fortunate to have a dedicated crew of Torah readers who are part of the Beth El Yad Squad. We also have a wonderful AAA Yad Squad for students under Bar/Bat Mitzvah age who demonstrate an advanced ability to read Hebrew. Especially given current circumstances, I encourage people of all ages to join the Yad Squad in order to learn this
delightful and fulfilling skill. No great musical ability is required, just a little time and a sincere effort. A reading ability of Hebrew is also important.
Plan on taking advantage of the opportunity to receive the Torah for yourself, and to develop the unique relationship with our most Holy Text by learning to be Ba’al Koreh. Traditionally the Torah is around 3,000 years old. Every Torah scroll is an original that is hand crafted by a specially skilled scribe to be exactly the same as every other Torah that exists and was ever written. On a given Shabbat, the exact same portion is read in every synagogue on the planet, using their version of the same cantillation system that has existed since the 10th Century. Thus, when you read Torah you instantly are connected to every Jewish community around the globe, throughout time and, God willing, into the future. The rewards that can be gained from learning to read the Torah will enrich your life, delight your soul and remain with you forever.
If you would like to learn to read Torah or chant a Haftara, feel free to email me at email@example.com. We can learn by Zoom or phone until in-person learning is safe.
Hazzan Michael Krausman