As a twelve year old I loved my thrice weekly Hebrew School experience that was associated with the conservative synagogue my family belonged to. However, when given a choice as to whether or not I wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah (yes, an unusually progressive conservative shul to offer Bat Mitzvah in the 1960’s) I emphatically said “no!” The reason for that response was clear in my mind. I was terrified to stand up and “sing” in front of a room full of people. End of story, or so I thought at the time. Years later, as I approached my 40’s, I decided I wanted very much to become an adult bat mitzvah, and with that decision I took on the challenge of learning to leyn or chant from the Torah scroll.
As someone with no musical background, learning to leyn was one of the more challenging things I have attempted as an adult, and also one of the most gratifying.
What I didn’t appreciate at age 12, was the power and connection that came from learning to participate in this ancient ritual, and the ways in which it brought me closer to Torah, both physically and spiritually. Early in my learning process I was able to move beyond a fear of “performance” to a sense of connection to the sacred nature of these words I was learning to chant. I found deep satisfaction in making the words alive and connecting to their vibrancy melodically and physically on the hand scribed parchment of our Torah.
So, what is involved in this process and how does one master it?
Trope signs are a set of symbols arranged in the text. Just as the Hebrew vowels in the text help us with pronunciation, the trope signifies the melody. If you look closely at the Hebrew text in the Chumash- the printed version of the Torah, such as the Etz Chayim that we use during services, you will notice these symbols above and below the text. Trope symbols are generally arranged in patterns and the reader learns the melodic patterns associated with each symbol and sequence. Functionally speaking, the trope also serves to help shape the grammar and punctuation of the text. Personally, I found that learning to leyn helped me understand the text better and improved the accuracy of my Hebrew.
Just as vowels are not included in the Torah scroll, the trope symbols are also not included. Chanting a section for an aliyah from the Torah scroll requires the reader to learn the text well enough so that it can be chanted without vowels and trope marks. While it is customary and preferable to chant directly from the scroll, in our sprit of inclusiveness at Dorshei Tzedek we also welcome members to chant from the Chumash if they prefer, while someone follows along on their behalf in the scroll.
The reader uses a yad – a pointer with the shape of a hand with an outstretched finger,to follow the text as it is read. The yad is one of the many ceremonial objects of hiddur mitzvah- beautifying or embellishing the mitzvah of chanting Torah. In Exodus 31:18 we read: “When He finished speaking with him, on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God” Reading the text with the yad, we are an extension of the sacred experience that brings the Torah to the Jewish people. The yad has a practical function as well; helping the reader track the text, and ensuring that our fingers do not directly touch the parchment, which could be damaged by the oils in our skin.
At Dorshei Tzedek we have held many series of classes to teach members to leyn Torah over the years. Our first classes were taught by Chayim Herzig-Marx and currently Rabbi Elaine Pollack regularly holds sessions to train new leyners. If you find yourself wondering about embarking on this journey, intrigued about developing a deeper connection to Torah and Jewish ritual, you may want to consider learning to leyn in one of our classes. You’ll want to first make sure you have a fair degree of fluency and accuracy in your Hebrew reading skills and that you are ready to put in the investment of time and energy to practice. Like all new skills, leyning becomes easier and more natural the more you do it.
Over the years we have trained more than 40 adult members to leyn or chant Torah, and many continue to do so at our Shabbat morning services. Some chant regularly, some less frequently, some from the scroll, some from the Chumash, and all are welcome and appreciated for their efforts on the bimah.