This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The High Road and the Low Road to Sinai *

Jewish tradition celebrates the holiday of Shavu'ot as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is therefore appropriate that the designated scriptural reading for the festival is the passage in the book of Exodus that describes that event.

The Hebrew text of the "Ten Commandments"; is unique in the cycle of Torah readings, in that it appears in the Jewish Bibles and festival prayer books with two different sets of cantillation signs (trope). Many older editions have the two sets written or printed together, one of them above the line of text, and the other below the line. For this reason, they have come to be designated as the Upper Trope and the Lower Trope. Other editions attempt to lessen the confusion by printing out the complete text twice, one for each of the respective cantillation systems.

As you may be aware, the cantillation markers are a form of rudimentary musical notation that indicates the traditional manner of chanting the Bible in the synagogue. Like any good musical rendering of a text, the cantillation reflects the meaning and logical structure of the sentence, and hence it should be viewed as an important form of textual interpretation.

The differences between the Upper and Lower versions of the trope affect both esthetics and content. The Upper Trope reading is a fancier and more dramatic one, with a greater concentration of elaborate melodic patterns.

More significant, however, are the differing approaches that the two systems take to the division of the text into verses.

Notwithstanding the Torah's explicit designation of this revelation as the Aseret Haddibberot, the Ten Statements (or: Decalogue), the Lower Trope version divides up the divine message into twelve verses. This is done by disregarding the number of Statements or Commandments, and instead creating verses that conform to normal biblical standards of length. In some instances, this involves the subdivision of single precepts into multiple verses, such as the four verses that are assigned to the Sabbath. At the other extreme, the multiple prohibitions of murder, adultery, stealing and bearing false witness are combined into a single verse.

The Upper Trope system, on the other hand, corresponds precisely to the division into ten Statements according to the traditional classification.

In the Upper Trope version, the Sabbath section has been amalgamated into a single, extended verse; while murder, adultery, stealing and false witness are sliced up into separate units of unprecedented shortness: Some of them consist of only two Hebrew words apiece.

Thus, when they are read according the Upper Trope, our passage comes to include both the shortest and the longest verses in the entire Bible.

The evidence indicates that what we have here is a conflation of two independent traditions for reading the Torah. The Upper Trope originated in Babylonia, and the Lower in the Land of Israel. For this crucial reading, the Tiberian system of Masorah, which has been adopted by all Jewish communities, preserved both options.

By the Middle Ages, the Ashkenazic communities developed their own way of dealing with the dual traditions. Since the story of the revelation at Mount Sinai is read from the book of Exodus twice each year, once as part of the weekly cycle of Torah readings, and again on the festival of Shavu'ot, the Lower Trope was used for the regular Sabbath reading, and the Upper for the holiday reading.

The respective divisions into verses have some minor impact on the intonation of the words, since the pronunciation of some vowels and consonants is subject to change when they are at the beginning or end of a clause. These changes are slight, but they can lead to a crowding of the page with tiny diacritical marks that are likely to confuse readers who are not well versed in the intricacies of biblical grammar.

Such confusion was rampant in some eastern European Jewish communities, and it aroused the ire of the influential 16th-17th-century halakhic authority Rabbi Benjamin Slonik. In one of his responsa, he was asked to explain the mysteries and apparent inconsistencies of the two different cantillation systems.

While acknowledging that they might have some more mysterious esoteric significance, Rabbi Slonik took pride in his ability to account for all the apparent anomalies in a logical manner.

He accepted the premise that "the custom of Israel is to read the …Decalogue on Shavu'ot…in order to honour the day on which the Decalogue was given, and for this reason it is read with the grander cantillation [i.e., the Upper Trope], which reflects the division into ten Statements.";

After presenting an orderly outline of the relevant information, Rabbi Slonik launched into a vehement diatribe against the Torah readers of his day who (he charged) were incapable of reading the passage correctly. Because the congregations selected their cantors based on their vocal artistry and their repertoires of gentile melodies, rather than their competence in Hebrew grammar, the Torah readers were constantly mixing together elements from the two distinct Trope traditions. This produced a meaningless hodgepodge, and the congregation that heard such a chanting did not fulfill the minimum standards of proper scriptural reading for even a single verse!

"And in truth," Rabbi Slonik lamented bitterly, "I have discussed this matter at such unnecessary length because I was inspired by zeal for God's great and blessed name, in these lands, and in this generation, because the great majority of cantors do not know their right from their left when it comes to reading the Torah properly."

It is easy to sympathize with Rabbi Slonik's frustration with a community whose commitment to the Torah did not extend to a thorough study of its language and correct reading.

One would hope that his admonition was taken to heart, and that subsequent generations of cantors and Torah readers have been instilled with a more methodical mastery of their sacred craft.

If for some reason that has not been the case, then Shavu'ot, the time of the giving of the Torah, seems like very appropriate opportunity to begin.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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