Note of Doubt and Hesitation (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The Torah portion Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36, is read on Shabbat March 22 Priests take out the garbage each day, carrying the ashes of the sacrifice "outside the camp to a clean place" and donning different garments to remove the ashes. Details matter. Tzav is a portion concerned with carrying out the divine service to the point of a punctiliousness that seems to imply utter certainty in their actions. Yet at the heart of the portion is a musical notation which gives a listener an impression of hesitation and doubt. The cantillation notes, placed in the text by the Masoretes in the 8th century, lend an additional meaning to the text as it is written. The word with this sense of reluctance is vayishhat, "and he slaughtered," which comes in the context of the sacrifice of a ram in Aaron's ordination ceremony as high priest (Lev.8:23) and the cantillation note is the enigmatic shalshelet, the "triple chain note," whose sound and threefold repetition are structured to convey doubt or hesitation. The shalshelet appears a scant four times in the Torah. One is When Joseph refuses the sexual advances of his master's wife (Gen. 39:8). The shalshelet gives the word "refused" a hesitancy which the language of the text does not. So, too, in the case of the servant of Abraham who is hesitant about praying to God to ask for a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24:12), with the sign appearing over the word vayomer, "and he said." The servant is not entirely certain this is a prayer which he wants answered because, according to the midrash, if there is no wife for his master's son he himself could inherit Abraham's wealth, or Isaac could marry his daughter. And Lot delays in leaving Sodom (Gen. 19:16) as it is being destroyed; here the shalshelet appears on the word "lingered," emphasizing its meaning. In our portion, the note on the word "slaughtered" conveys a hesitancy about performing the act of sacrifice. Moses sprinkles the blood of the ram and Aaron and his sons lay their hands upon it; it is not clear who does the actual killing. What is fascinating about the way the Torah is conveyed to a congregation in a liturgical setting is precisely the combination of legal duty with human emotion. The cantillation allows readers and listeners to gain a different understanding of the struggles underlying obedience. Carrying through the slaughter is challenging, as is resisting the advances of a superior for Joseph and requesting divine assistance for Abraham's servant. Dr. Beth Kissileff teaches in the department of English at the University of Minnesota. She is editing an anthology of Jewish academics writing on Genesis, "No Empty Matter," and completing a novel, "Questioning Return." Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.