Punctuation. Punctuation! Or Punctuation? – Va-Yeshev 5777


words too on their own prove mostly unhelpful without some form of punctuation guiding our way we are left in the world of guesswork trying to piecemeal together the intentions of the writer

Even a simple usage of capitalization can aid our pursuits This added piece of information allows for rudimentary organization of words into phrases


And so the language English embarks

To find a way in which to say it all

We set in place systems and rules that lead

To clearly write, expressing all we mean                               [Iambic Pentameter]


We put a comma where we would like a pause,

Or to combine two different types of clause.

When it comes time to stop

We end with a dot

O the joy of grammar’s many laws!                                          [limerick]


Punctuation, rhythm, and meter all have, but one aim.  They come to add emphasis and clarity for a reader to proclaim.  Chanting the Torah works really quite the same.  The Masoretes (6th-10th c. Israel) added a system of cantillation to our text game.  These marks provide more than mere punctuation and song like frame.  When their intentions are understood, clear new meanings are easily claimed.

Some cantilations are rare and some are mundane.  There are those that form verse and others the refrain.  While there are many in all, to the shalshelet we give reign.  Only four times do we hear it’s cord of notes song out in a chain.

These are they:

God came to destroy

All the wickedness in S’dom

And still Lot . . . L I N G E R E D   (Breishit 19:16)


As if not knowing

Just what to ask for, he turned

To face God . . . A N D  S A I D    (Breishit 24:12)


When Potiphar’s wife

Comes soliciting for sex

Joseph . . .  R E F U S E S    (Breishit 39:8)


In his last act as

Ministering priest, Moses

. . . S L A U G H T E R S the ramling   (Leviticus 8:23)           [Haiku]

Looking at the four, it is not feign or disdain, but hesitation the text wants to disclose – that much is quite plain.                                                              [Rhyme Patterns]


When Joseph refuses the advances of his master’s wife, we sing it with a hesitant shalshelet.  I am not certain what motivated our young hero’s momentary delay.  However, I do know that if we listen closely, the Torah’s song will reveal droves of secrets and new interpretations.

Antithetical to what most  b’nai mitzvah students believe, chanting the Torah is much more than something to be merely memorized.  The cantillations are a complex form of punctuation holding the keys to hidden meanings.  Put another way, ‘trope’ is its own form of poetry waiting to be opened, dissected, and enjoyed.  Each rise and fall of notes – every pause, accent, and flourish – all come to paint a brilliant narrative.  If we listen carefully the Torah is not merely telling a story, but singing an opera full of emotions.

With the seemingly infinite forms of human expression, I bless us all with the prayer of our morning liturgy: that God should put in our hearts the ability to listen so closely that we are able to accurately discern the deep meaning and intentions of all our interactions.


One thought on “Punctuation. Punctuation! Or Punctuation? – Va-Yeshev 5777

  1. I have such a smile on my face you wouldn’t believe. All those years of encouraging good writing and punctuation which caused you frustration and now they bring you joy. You make me proud.


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