Chanting the Bible

Posted on March 15, 2021 by Cantor Risa Wallach

Temple Beth-El recently hosted a film about and presentation by Rabbi Kevin Hale, a sofer, or Torah scribe. The film is called “Commandment 613,” because the six hundred thirteenth commandment is understood to obligate each Jewish person to write a sefer Torah, or Torah scroll. Rabbi Hale’s presentation was given for the religious school and later in the week, for the whole congregation. As those of us who attended it discovered, gaining insight into the mechanics of how a Torah scroll is made is such an enriching experience, and makes one all the more curious about what motivates a Torah scribe. We wonder how they learn their craft, what kind of kavannah, or intention, is required of them when they write a sacred Hebrew text, and what traditions inform how they live their lives.

Similarly, chanting the texts of the Hebrew bible is a profound, complex and multisensory experience. For one thing, there are the trope symbols, this ancient code that serves as punctuation, grammatical emphasis and a memorization device. Then there are the many systems of those melodies, which vary across geographical Jewish communities from Yemen to the United Kingdom – Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, and the six different Biblical categories of chant. We have Torah trope, Haftarah trope, Eicha (Lamentations), Esther trope, megillot (Ruth, Kohelet or Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs), and High Holy Day trope. The symbols are always the same, but the melodies are different, and reflect the mood of each occasion.

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, a sociologist as well as a rabbi, wrote a study of Biblical chant in contemporary Judaism called “Singing God’s Words.” He writes:

Torah reading enables the individual to position him- or herself at the epicenter of the worship service, proximate to the most venerated religious symbols in the Jewish tradition. The material culture of this ritual has a mysterious, abiding power, one that moves and surprises many contemporary Jews. As much as these men and women are enamored with sophisticated technology, the parchment handwritten scroll of Torah has an inverse power. Its sacred nature is enhanced by the painstaking human connection of the scribe with the parchment, the use of organic material for the scroll, the meticulous nature and ancient process of production. It is a fitting medium for an ancient narrative.

I always get a thrill out of calling people to the Torah. By accepting this honor and chanting the blessing, they play as important a role in the service as the service leader (usually the cantor) and the darshan, the person giving the sermon (usually the rabbi). Simply by being a member of Am Israel, the Jewish people, they build on and perpetuate an ancient and highly symbolic tradition.

The Torah service itself is an elaborate ritual that is meant to re-enact the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Coming up to the Torah is an honor given for special occasions, such as the day before one’s wedding, the naming of a baby, the observance of a yahrzeit, and recitation of birkat gomel (a blessing for surviving danger or illness), and of course, bar or bat mitzvah.

For me, the chanting of Biblical text is a lifelong discipline that never ceases to bring me joy and the fulfilment of discovery. If you read Hebrew, know how to chant Torah and would like to do so on Shabbat, this is an invitation. We have begun to include Torah and Haftarah chant in our Shabbat morning services on Zoom when we don’t celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah. If you would like to be called for an aliyah, you may contact me to be scheduled for an upcoming Shabbat. Or, you may join the service and experience the chanting of Biblical text along with an engaging Torah discussion. I hope to see you there.


Cantor Risa Wallach

Originally published in the March-April 2021 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.