Shalshelet

I think it was in November 2014 when I first heard a shalshelet during a Torah reading. The shalshelet is a particular cantillated melodic phrase, or trop, that stands out from all the others. You know, when you hear it for the first time, that you have never heard it before. It goes rapidly up and down; its symbol (which appears below above the middle letter of the Hebrew spelling of “shalshelet,”) looks like lightning, and it goes right into your soul. There are different theories about why it appears where it does (four times in Torah, seven times in Tanakh), but many commentators believe that it suggests some kind of internal struggle.*

Immediately after the service, I ran up to Shoshi, who was then the cantorial intern at B’nai Jeshurun, and asked her what I had heard. She knew exactly what I was referring to. “It’s a shalshelet,” she said. The young woman who had chanted it also loved it and wore a pendant in its shape. After Shabbat ended, I wrote to a cantor from another synagogue, who sent me a fascinating article about it: “The Shalshelet: Mark of Ambivalence” by Mois A. Navon, published in Jewish Thought, OU Publications, Vol.4, Num.1 (5755-6). The article discusses each of the four occurrences in Torah. I could not wait for the opportunity to leyn a passage with a shalshelet; this happened about a year and a half later, on Shabbat Tzav, March 26, 2016. That is the passage where Moses slaughters the sacrificial ram for the consecration of the high priests, Aaron and Aaron’s sons. (See Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s commentary. Rabbi Sacks died on November 7, just a week and a day ago; may his memory be a blessing.) According to commentators and to basic intuition, this is a difficult moment for Moses because he is about to consecrate his own brother and nephews for a role that he is not destined to have.

Today, at our online Szim Salom service that I led, I got to leyn a shalshelet again–this time, the one in Parashat Chayei Sarah. (The shalshelet can be heard in Genesis 24:12; here’s a recording I made of just that verse.) To my joy, I was asked about it afterward. Also, as it happens, the rabbi’s D’var Torah focused on Jonathan Sacks’s writings; then tonight I found his article on the shalshelet. Many things came together.

Here Abraham is sending his servant (unnamed in the text, but traditionally identified as Eliezer of Damascus, whom Abraham mentions as the inheritor of his possessions in Genesis 15:2) to find a wife for Isaac. According to the sages, the servant has a moment of struggle precisely because he knows that if Isaac has a wife, and if they have children, then he will lose any chance of inheriting the wealth. Indeed, he had even hoped to marry his daughter into Abraham’s family. So after Abraham has given his order, and Eliezer has set off on his way, and then, at eveningtime, made his camels kneel on the ground and begun to pray alone, the text says, “Vayomar….” (“and he said…”). This is where the shalshelet occurs, in this private prayer to God, where everything in him shudders.

But his fears may have a different source. Going to find a wife for his master’s son is no easy task, especially given Abraham’s stipulations: this must be from among Abraham’s kindred, and the mission must be successful. The servant asks Abraham whether, in the event that the woman will not come with him, he should bring Isaac there to meet her; Abraham says no; if she will not come with him, then he is clear from his oath, but he must not bring Isaac there.

Now alone in prayer, the servant asks God to give him a sign, and explains in detail what this sign should be: that when he asks a woman for water, and she says, “Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also,” this will be the one that God has decided on (“hochachta”) for Isaac. According to Navon, commentators in the Talmud and the Midrash view this as an extremely inappropriate request.

But the servant does not even think of God as “his” God; he refers to him as “God of my master, Abraham” (“Elohei adoni Avraham”). Might he not feel helpless, not having a God of his own? Might there not be a more forgiving interpretation of his words?

Couldn’t it be that he wants with all his heart to do this well and knows that he needs help? I am not convinced that he expects to inherit Abraham’s wealth, or that he is even Eliezer of Damascus. If he were acting pridefully here, wouldn’t there be a sign? A hint of a punishment?

It seems possible, rather, that he is acting in faith, even in humility, asking God for a sign that he can recognize and will not get wrong. Especially since this is not his God, and he is not on this journey for himself, he needs this assistance. Not only that, but the sign itself has meaning. The one who gives water not only to a stranger but to the stranger’s camels, knowing nothing about him, must be not only generous but brave. (I am not original in thinking this; many have associated these actions with chesed, or lovingkindness.) In addition, the one who gives water not only to the man, but to his animals may have a long view of what is necessary for survival.

If all of this is so, then the shalshelet could signal that moment of needing help, of being on the verge of asking for help, from his master’s God. The servant (Eliezer or not) realizes that if he relied entirely on himself, he could make a mistake, and then it would all be over; there wouldn’t be a second chance. And not only he, but Abraham and Isaac would suffer.

Indeed, some commentators describe him as the quintessential servant, but maybe that’s a bit extreme. He does employ some trickery: for instance, he changes Abraham’s words slightly when quoting him. Could he be devoted and imperfect, terribly alone in this moment, and in need of help?

It’s a truism that we all need help at times. Of course we do. But there are moments of great importance, once in a great while, where asking for help is both necessary and terrifying. We may ask for it in imperfect ways; that hardly matters, unless we turn to the wrong person or entity. Just before the asking, everything lights up and rumbles, as in a private shalshelet. That is partly how I imagine the servant; that is partly how I hear the verses.

I would normally include Hebrew text in here, but with the new version of WordPress, Hebrew words do not copy correctly; I will have to find a solution.

Art credit: Unidentified artist, Rebecca and Eliezer, lithograph on paper, undated.

According to some scholars, including Joshua R. Jacobson, author of Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation (a wonderful and massive book that I brought with me to Hungary because I could not think of leaving it behind), the shalshelet indicates a particular syntactic structure, not a textual meaning. See Chanting the Hebrew Bible (1st ed.), pp. 105-109.

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5 Comments

  1. I have a “Classic Editor” option on my “All Posts” page which allows me to use the old editor.“ Do you have that?

    Reply
  2. Oh, that’s where it is! Thanks. I knew the option existed but didn’t know where it was.

    Reply
    • If you do a lot “Copy Post” operations using old posts as templates for new one, the Copy function will create a post in the new editor.  But you can save that draft, then go back and manual copy your old page into it, then use the classic editor on that, since the formatting will usually have gotten messed up.  I chatted with one of their “happiness engineers” and she said they were aware of the problem and working on it.

      Reply
      • Thanks! I rarely do “Copy Post” operations, so I can probably stay in classic mode once I get there. But I’ll keep this in mind just in case. “Happiness engineer”? That calls for a satire at some point….

      • Well, there’s eudaemiurges and cacodaemiurges
        Choose wisely Grace Hopper …

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