The Trope of Esther

Rembrandt_EstherOn Purim (this Saturday and Sunday) I will be chanting Chapters 7 and 8 of Megillat Esther at a synagogue in Long Island. These are momentous chapters; Esther reveals to King Ahasuerus that Haman intends to destroy her people; at the king’s command, Haman is hanged on the very gallows that he prepared for Mordechai; then Esther entreats the king to reverse all Haman’s letters ordering the destruction of the Jews; the king orders letters to be written in his name, sealed with his ring, and sent out all over the land from India to Ethiopia; his order is executed; Mordechai goes forth in royal apparel; and all the Jews are joyous.

Purim is often known for its costumes and noisemakers, wine, food, and music–and rightly so. But underneath that, something serious is going on: the reading and hearing of the entire Scroll of Esther, at both the evening and the morning services. Every Jew (male and female, young and old) is required to hear the reading of Esther; the catch is that you can’t hear much, because of the noisemakers and general brouhaha. Every time Haman’s name is uttered, people are supposed to drown it out. The noise extends beyond the name. But that makes it all the more exciting to discover the text and melodies. They cry and rejoice below the festivities.

The Hebrew sacred texts have six distinct trope sets (codified by the tenth century, and probably much older), all with the same basic principles and symbols but distinct melodic phrases. These are: Torah trope, Haftarah trope, High Holiday trope, Esther trope, Festival trope (for the Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes), and Lamentations trope. Trope–the melodic system underlying the art of cantillation–brings out the structure, meaning, and beauty of the text.

I will give a brief sense of Esther trope through Chapter 8, verses 5 and 6. Verse 5 is in regular Esther trope; because of the sentence complexity, it is especially ornate. Verse 6 makes a diversion into Lamentations trope; it has a simple melody and a plaintive feel. (The Esther text has  many melodic diversions–some into Lamentations trope and some into special melodies.)

Biblical verses typically divide into two parts; from there, they subdivide into still smaller phrases. The first division is indicated by the trope called “etnachta,” which looks like a caret and comes with a pause. Further subdivisions and connections are marked by other melodies.

Here’s the Hebrew-English text of 8:5-6 as it appears in the Open Siddur Project (except that I have bolded and colored the word in each verse that contains the etnachta: “be’einav” in verse 5 and “et-ammi” in verse 6). This has both vowel and trope marks; the actual scroll has neither (the reader must learn the trope patterns beforehand).

הַ5 וַ֠תֹּאמֶר אִם־עַל־הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ ט֜וֹב וְאִם־מָצָ֧אתִי חֵ֣ן לְפָנָ֗יו וְכָשֵׁ֤ר הַדָּבָר֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וְטוֹבָ֥ה אֲנִ֖י בְּעֵינָ֑יו יִכָּתֵ֞ב לְהָשִׁ֣יב אֶת־הַסְּפָרִ֗ים מַחֲשֶׁ֜בֶת הָמָ֤ן בֶּֽן־הַמְּדָ֙תָא֙ הָאֲגָגִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֣ר כָּתַ֗ב לְאַבֵּד֙ אֶת־הַיְּהוּדִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּכָל־מְדִינ֥וֹת הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ 6 כִּ֠י אֵיכָכָ֤ה אוּכַל֙ וְֽרָאִ֔יתִי בָּרָעָ֖ה אֲשֶׁר־יִמְצָ֣א אֶת־עַמִּ֑י וְאֵֽיכָכָ֤ה אוּכַל֙ וְֽרָאִ֔יתִי בְּאָבְדַ֖ן מוֹלַדְתִּֽי׃

In the JPS translation, Esther 8:5 reads, “And [she] said, If it please the king, and if I have favour in his sight, and the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to reverse the letters devised by Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews which are in all the king’s provinces.”

The long subordinate clause occupies the first part of the verse–and the main clause, the second. The etnachta, dividing the two parts, occurs at the phrase “in his eyes.” There are more subdivisions from there. Here is my recording of the verse; here’s verse 6. (I posted recordings of verses 5 and 6 only, to give a sense of the trope.)

Verse 6 (still Esther speaking) is simpler in structure; through its Lamentations trope and clear parallelism, it contrasts with verse 5. It translates, “For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” The verse’s symmetry holds sadness.

In Esther trope, the etnachta sounds different from the sof pasuk trope, the melody at the very end of the verse. In Lamentations trope, the two are nearly identical. You can hear this difference in verses 5 and 6. Lamentations trope feels in some ways like swinging on a swing, all alone, in the courtyard of a crumbled city; you feel the repetition and rhythm, but everything is bare.

These two verses hold complexity and simplicity; they combine art and soul into a cry. It is this combination that defines Esther for me; with all her cunning, she lives and speaks for her people and their survival. Her plea rolls the story to its conclusion.

There is much more to say about cantillation–but the discussion gets more technical (and beautiful) from here. Of course there is much more to say about Megillat Esther too. The best book I know  on trope is Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation. I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. Of course the best book to read on Esther is the Scroll itself. In that spirit, happy Purim and almost-spring!


Image credit: Rembrandt, Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther (1660)

Note: I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Literature Class Is Not Reading Class

The StudentOne of my greatest concerns about the Common Core is that it will do what so many other reforms have done: drag everything toward an average, be it a high or low one. This may well happen if literature class is turned, once again, into reading class.

Reading class emphasizes the process of reading. The Balanced Literacy versions focused on “reading strategies” and “just-right” books. A Common Core version goes something like this: During class, the students read a “complex text.” Then they answer “text-dependent questions.” Then they write an argumentative piece that uses concrete textual evidence.

In reading class, the teacher is not supposed to give presentations—or, if she does, she is to keep them brief. Instead, she assists the students as they read and write. Class time is work time.

In literature class, by contrast, students do the reading at home and come to class to discuss it. The teacher does give presentations, the length and substance of which will vary. Class discussion may focus closely on certain passages or relate different passages to each other and to the whole. Questions may move from simple to complex, and they may also take unexpected directions. For the most part, basic comprehension is assumed;  the class discussion focuses on interpretation. Of course there are exceptions; certain texts present exceptional difficulties and must be read slowly in class. On the whole, though, one assumes that the reading has been done and that the class can now tackle the subtleties of the text.

In a literature class, it is understood that the teacher will offer knowledge and insights. She presents context, background, interpretations that illuminate class discussion (without taking anything away from the students). She poses questions that build on each other and that draw on past discussions. She uses judgment in this regard, weighing the good of presentation against the good of elicitation. The proportion will vary from lesson to lesson, text to text, and course to course.

That’s how it works in college courses (in literature, history, and philosophy). You don’t spend time reading in class, unless you are focusing on a particular passage. Nor do you expect the professor to refrain from offering knowledge. Some professors choose to talk very little. Others give extended (and brilliant) lectures even in seminar. The different styles provide different angles on the subject. Certain lecture courses and lecture-style seminars are continually oversubscribed because (gasp!) the students value what the professor has to say.

Now, many students in grades K-12 (and even in college) lack the practice of reading for class. They may benefit initially from classes where the main task is to read and write. Yet this is a state of disrepair. In a more robust situation, students (from middle school onward) would be responsible for poring over the reading, on their own, until they understood it. Where, when, and how they did it would be up to them. True, many students don’t have a quiet place to study. Yet it isn’t that difficult to make quiet places available (in libraries and even in the schools), provided students shut off their devices and actually study.

Poring over the reading! That is one of the most important things a student can learn how to do. I have had English-language-learner students who made drastic progress in a single year, mainly because they had grappled for hours with difficult texts at home.  Every day they came to school with more vocabulary, grammar, and grasp of idiomatic and figurative language. This enhanced their speaking in class; they were thoroughly acquainted with the subject of the lesson and could thus join the discussion.

Maybe schools need two kinds of classes: reading classes for those who don’t have the practice of reading on their own, and literature classes for those who do. If this is so, then there should be a sturdy bridge from one to the other, so that the students in reading class don’t get stuck there.

After all, liberal education involves the exchange of ideas. You can’t exchange ideas until you have ideas about something. To have those ideas about something, you need to have spent time thinking about the subject. To think about it, you must know what it contains. Not all of this can take place during class time—so, for students to exchange ideas in class (in a way that isn’t superficial), they must study more on their own.

Independent, “unscaffolded” reading—one of the end goals of the Common Core—should be the starting point, whenever possible. Provide the “scaffolds” for those who aren’t there yet, but don’t make the advanced students descend.