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:
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.