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Better Late Than Never - Mo's Journal
August 21st, 2009
09:53 am

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Better Late Than Never
I'm on my shul's Shabbat leyning rotation. I leyn generally once a month.

What does that mean? Each Saturday morning, we read a section of the Torah out loud to the congregation. It's chanted, not spoken, using a special set of cantillation notes as indicated with little marks in the Masoretic version of the text. The actual notes associated with the marks vary across Jewish communities in different parts of the world. In Yiddish, chanting Torah is called "leyning" and that's what we call it in my shul.

The leyner reads directly from the Torah scroll, which does not have the cantillation (trope) marks in it. It also has no punctuation, no page breaks, and no vowels (in Hebrew vowels aren't letters; they're diacritical marks). Here's what Hebrew text looks like, with the vowels and the trope:


The red parts are the vowels and the blue are the trope marks. The black are the letters themselves and that's all you see in Torah reading. Since the same sequence of letters can be more than one word, you have to get the context to know which it is. Think for example if we didn't have vowels in English, and the word "ct" could be:
cat
cot
cite
cote
coat
coati

etc. Torah can't be misread - if you chant the wrong word (e.g. "cat" instead of "coati") there's someone following along with the text with the vowels (called the gabbai) who stops you and you do that part over.

My guess is that trope was originally invented to make reading Torah easier. Many people find that singing something helps to fix words in memory.

I'm a truly dreadful leyner. I'm tone deaf, so music is just an added burden to me, not a help. And I just find the whole process of learning my section to leyn (and I only do 4 or 5 verses at a time) excruciating. Once in a while I get through without the gabbai stopping me to fix a word I chanted wrong, but usually not. And even when I get all the words right, the singing is as out of tune as all my other singing.

So why do I do it? A few reasons:

- I think it's good for me to stretch myself by doing something that isn't easy or natural to me. I spend a lot of time doing things I'm really good at. I have a variety of talents and abilities. I'm smart in the academic sense; I'm very professionally competent; I write well; I'm good at public speaking. I'm also a really good cook and a pretty good raconteur (this is starting to sound like a personal ad). Those are all things that come easy to me, but there's something very satisfying in a different way in accomplishing something that is really, really hard from complete lack of ability :-/. Okay, so by Thursday night I'm in tears and asking myself why I agreed to do this, but on Saturday morning I do feel a real sense of accomplishment most of the time.

- It's an extremely warm and accepting environment to work on something I'm not good at. Corrections are necessary but the gabbai does it in such a gentle way. Everyone wishes me "yasher koach" after I leyn no matter how badly I do. And on those occasions when I'm somewhat less dreadful than usual I get huge congratulations. There's something so lovely about the acceptance and warmth I'm subject to, that I certainly wouldn't get doing something I'm not good at at work or out in the world in general.

- I think it's good for my kids to see me struggle to master something difficult for me. Kids have to do a lot of things they don't choose to do - they generally don't choose what subjects they study until college, and even then there are required courses. I always tell them that it's worthwhile to work on the subjects that aren't as easy for them, but I think it's important that I show them by example that I mean what I say.

But probably the main reason that I leyn is: I can, and I remember when I couldn't. In our shul (and many of its ilk) boys and girls leyn for the first time on their bar/bat mitzvah. They leyn the "maftir" aliyah, which is the last part read that day.

In the point in the space/time continuum in which I was bat mitzvahed, though, girls and women weren't allowed to leyn. So at my bat mitzvah - Parsha Ki Tavo - I chanted haftarah and said prayers and gave a dvar (speech) but I didn't leyn, since apparently in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1968 somehow a penis was necessary to leyn. I leyned for the first time at Kendra's bat mitzvah, and felt great joy to be able to do so. And at Zara's bat mitzvah, my family and friends covered all the leyning: me, Doran, Kendra, my sister Sharon, my cousin Al, Zara's tutor Justine, and - of course - Zara. I found that extremely moving and a source of great pride and I like to keep that feeling by leyning every few weeks.


Well, I got my leyning assignment for September and - coincidentally - I'm leyning Ki Tavo, maftir aliyah. So I'll be doing what I would have done 41 years ago if it hadn't been forbidden me. Better late than never.

Here's a picture of what leyning looks like:




The young woman in white with the yad (pointer) is the one leyning.

(11 comments | Leave a comment)

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From:ringthebells
Date:August 21st, 2009 04:02 pm (UTC)
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And on those occasions when I'm somewhat less dreadful than usual I get huge congratulations.

Aw, that made me smile! I'm sure you're not that bad. :)

Anyway, good luck with your September leyning!
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From:mofic
Date:August 21st, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC)
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You're kind to be sure, but you're wrong! I really am that bad. I aspire to one day be a mediocre leyner but it will be an uphill battle.
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From:hitchhiker
Date:August 21st, 2009 08:25 pm (UTC)
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why does the torah not have vowels?
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From:mofic
Date:August 21st, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC)
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They're not really part of the language - they're aids to punctuation. They're not in modern Hebrew books either.

Modern Hebrew books have punctuation, though. At the time the Torah was canonized, punctuation didn't really exist, at least in Hebrew. The vowel signs and the trope signs were invented later as aids to learning reading and cantillation. And the Christians invented the system of dividing the books of the Torah into chapters and verses, and we use theirs.

If you buy a "Chumash" or "Pentateuch" it's the text of the Torah in codex form and with vowels and punctuation and chapters and verses. Plus, in English speaking countries, with English translation and English commentary. You can also buy something called a tikkun that has on the same page or on facing pages the text as it looks in the Torah and the same text with vowels and trope. That's what the gabbai uses to check as the leyner leyns. A lot of people use them to study, too, but I use this.

More than you wanted to know?
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From:hitchhiker
Date:August 21st, 2009 08:46 pm (UTC)
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fascinating. wonder how the ancients managed, with that level of ambiguity in the written language. on the other hand, there must be lots of wordplay in the ancient texts - i know i wouldn't have been able to resist :)
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From:mofic
Date:August 21st, 2009 08:51 pm (UTC)
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on the other hand, there must be lots of wordplay in the ancient texts - i know i wouldn't have been able to resist :)

Yes, there certainly was. And remember, these books have been copied by hand for over 2000 years, so there's also potential to perpetuate mistakes. Think of Hamlet's "too too sullied" or "too too solid" flesh but with a hell of a lot more time between original composition and printing.
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From:blue_meridian
Date:August 22nd, 2009 12:58 am (UTC)
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This is fascinating - thank you for taking the time to write it up!
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From:mofic
Date:August 22nd, 2009 01:42 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for reading!
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From:stirsmn
Date:August 22nd, 2009 01:29 pm (UTC)
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It's your Bat MItzvah! I'm crying. I wish I could be there! Which Shabbat in September will it be?
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From:mofic
Date:August 22nd, 2009 01:44 pm (UTC)
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Labor Day weekend. I wish you could be there, too.

Hey, I sent you guys a package of some little miscellaneous stuff. Well, it was intended to be a package for all of you, but when I look at the content (pirates, trains, Lightning McQueen) I guess it's more for Ian...
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From:stirsmn
Date:August 22nd, 2009 02:03 pm (UTC)
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Thanks! We will excitedly anticipate its arrival.
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