Sunday, February 15, 2009

777. Upper accents

In her d'var Torah on Parashat Yitro at services yesterday morning, the rabbi discussed the first commandment--which some suggest isn't one at all. "I am the Lord your God": this statement doesn't seem to be instructing us to do, or not do, anything in particular. But surely the writer of the Torah had a reason for including it. Some commentators say that an injunction to believe in God is implied, and the subsequent nine directives require agreement with this first one. Others aren't so sure.

What intrigued me most about yesterday's reading of Asarah Ha-Diburot (the "Ten Statements"), however, was the trop. As usual at my synagogue and Sephardic congregations (although we generally follow Ashkenazic tradition), it was chanted using "upper accents"--a version of the trop that divides the Decalogue into phrases representing each statement, rather than sentence by sentence with a sof pasuk phrase ending each one. (This link goes to a video of the minor key haftarah version.) Sof pasuk is a trop, a short melody, that signals the end of a line. But some verses of the Decalogue end in the middle of a statement, so concluding the musical phrase at that point doesn't seem to make sense. Still, according to Etz Hayim, this is probably the original way trop was set to this section.

The upper accent system also combines the first two commandments as one because, says Etz Hayim (p. 1509):

"This corresponds to a midrashic tradition that these two commandments (which refer to God in the first person) were spoken directly by God to the people in a single, uninterrupted statement, whereas the rest (which speak of God in the third person) were transmitted to the people by Moses..."

This tradition also fuels the debate about whether this first commandment really is a commandment of its own. But following along with the text while listening to the upper accent trop was interesting to me for a completely different reason. I saw the printed end of a verse on the page, but didn't hear the corresponding end melody; it felt like holding my breath. I kept waiting for something to happen--but it didn't. Not being familiar enough with the untranslated Biblical Hebrew, the ending took me by surprise when it finally did arrive. Hearing the Ten Commandments in upper accents seemed like existence, in general. Unless we are fluent in life, as only God can be, endings are rarely where we expect.

No comments: