How Trope Strengthens Our Connections to Torah
B’reishit bara Elohim (breath) eit hashamayim v’eit ha’aretz.
In the beginning, God created (breath) the heavens and the earth.
-- Genesis 1:1
It’s all in the breath. The breath of creation. The breath of life.
For me personally, as a singer and a cantor, the foundation of everything I do musically relies on the breath.
The Torah opens with a statement, and our natural inclination to breathe between these two chanted phrases also provides a lively embodiment of everything it is trying to say. That breath of creation may be implicit, but it is provided by the Torah reader in the two perfectly arranged phrases that begin our cycle of Torah anew.
Several years ago, I became entranced by the way our system of trope, the cantillation that goes hand-in-hand with our texts, connected with the text to add its own voice. The trope system is a system of interpretation much older than many of the classical commentaries we turn to regularly. The system began as an oral tradition in the Talmudic and post-Talmudic eras but was not codified fully until the 9th and 10th centuries C.E. by the Masoretes, scribes living in Tiberias. Based on this history, I often wonder what our texts sounded like when they were chanted before they were ever written down. Nonetheless, our ability to chant our texts owes great gratitude to the work of the Masoretes in their efforts to save this tradition in perpetuity.
Trope does three things: it provides a musical soundtrack for what we read; it acts as a memory device to help us remember what we are reading; and, perhaps most important, it divides the verses in our texts into phrases. Trope causes us to make certain words stand out and establishes the essential places we need to pause. Conventionally, we would call this last function “punctuation,” but I would go further to say that punctuation signals the points at which we breathe. When we breathe, we separate, for just a fraction of a moment, one idea from the next. We allow our brains to process what we are hearing as listeners and seeing as readers, and we quickly prepare to move on as the next verse approaches.
Trope sometimes works with this flow, and at other times works against it to redirect our attention. I believe the inventors of the trope system made conscious decisions about how they parsed the melodic elements, matching them to each individual word. And, just as when we study Torah and its commentators, we are free to accept, question, and challenge the interpretation trope hands us.
In this week’s Torah portion, B’reishit, we are introduced to one of the most basic methods trope uses to emphasize words. This is a technique that has been a part of modern musical composition ever since its ancient introduction. Known as “text painting,” it uses melody directly connected to the meaning of the words. For example, ha’aretz is often sung descending, thus in the direction of its meaning: the earth. I am sure you can subsequently guess how the word hashamayim, “the heavens,” is treated. The musical elevation of the word hashamayim makes it stand out to our senses. The word literally jumps out of its phrase, affecting us both consciously and unconsciously, no matter how many times we hear the passage chanted. A few paragraphs later in the portion, in Genesis 1:21, the word haromeset, meaning “creeping things,” is vibrantly highlighted by an elaborate series of ascending and descending notes – 11 to be exact. It speaks to me as the many steps these creeping things would take as they…creep.
As we begin this Torah cycle anew, I challenge you to approach each portion with open ears, listening intently for how the trope adds its own voice to the text. Find unique moments in which the trope breathes and sings its own interpretation and let it inspire you to find new, hidden perspectives in our tradition’s ancient text.