Parashat Tzav features one of the most significant moments in the book of Leviticus – the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests. The ceremony includes the sacrifice of two rams – the first a burnt offering, and the second, a ram of ordination. The text describes the slaughtering of the first ram, the dashing of the blood on the altar, the sectioning and washing, and all the efforts required in creating a pleasing odour for God (Lev. 8:18-21). Everything seems organised according to normative sacrificial procedures.
Yet in the spirit of expecting the unexpected, as the second ram is brought forward and slaughtered (Lev. 8:23), the text contains a rather dramatic marking known as a shalshelet. In a vocalised Hebrew text, such as a chumash or a tikkun, the shalshelet looks almost like a lightning bolt, and upon reaching the appointed word, the Torah reader must intone a series of three extended notes, the sound rising and falling in quick succession. The shalshelet calls the listener to attention. It is a rare note in cantillation, appearing only four times in the entire Torah (Genesis 19:16, Genesis 24:12, Genesis 39:8, and here in Leviticus 8:23).
Much commentary has been written regarding the context in which the shalshelet is used, the syntax and grammar of each of the verses where the shalshelet appears, and the chain-like melody of the shalshelet. While the shalshelet brings drama to the chanting of the Torah, the vertical line | (called a pasek) appearing after the word with the shalshelet should also be worthy of further consideration. Gilad Gevaryahu explains (2020, p. 36), “All shalshelet tropes are followed by a pasek trope. Clearly, any Torah reader who just intoned the long shalshelet will need to breathe; the pasek is an indication of the latitude to take this breath. The pasek has no melody of its own; in musical terms, it might be called a caesura (i.e., a pause).” What if the takeaway message from our text is not the grand and exaggerated portrayal of the shalshelet but the pause, the breath, the quiet moment of reflection, consideration, and introspection that happens afterward?
All four examples of the shalshelet in the Torah contain moments of high drama. Lot hesitates before leaving Sodom (Gen. 19:16). Eliezer considers his obligation to find a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24:12). Joseph refuses the advances of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:8). And Moses ordains the next generation of priestly leadership, entrusting Aaron and his sons with enormous responsibility. Each moment is considered tense and life-changing for the individual involved, and in some cases, worthy of altering the future narratives of our people. But the first thing that anyone does after such a monumental event (much like the Torah reader chanting the shalshelet) is pause, take stock of the moment, and breathe.
It is not in the drama, the loud, the bombastic, or the exaggerated moments that we come face-to-face with God, but rather after the fact, when the noise settles, when the darkness creeps in, when time seems to stop, and when words fail. In the book of First Kings (19:11-12), God speaks to the prophet Elijah and says, “‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord. Behold, the Lord is about to pass by.’ And a great and mighty wind tore into the mountains and shattered the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still, small voice.” After each of these natural occurrences, God’s voice was present when Elijah paused, took stock of the moment, breathed, and listened in to the beauty of the time and space in which he found himself.
Next week, Jews around the world will begin our annual celebration of the Pesach festival, marking our people’s journey from slavery to redemption. Many of us will be fortunate to gather with family, friends, and community at our sedarim. We will drink, eat, talk (likely loudly and over one another), and sing (probably joyously and raucously) until midnight, and possibly beyond. Pesach is like the shalshelet of the Jewish calendar, the exclamation point of our people’s history, for there is no Jewish peoplehood without Pesach.
Yet as Rabban Gamliel once said (Mishnah Pesachim 10:5), “In every generation, each individual a person is obligated to see themselves as if they themselves went free from slavery in Egypt.” Pesach is not only about the celebration and the joy, but also about the careful consideration of the world that we come from, the world that we live in, and the world that we are working to redeem, every day of our lives. As we read the shalshelet in Parashat Tzav, and prepare to celebrate the grandness of Pesach, we would do well to remember the pasek after the shalshelet. Stop. Take stock. And remember to tune in to the still, small voice that is present with every breath we take.
Gevaryahu, G. (2020). Two notes on the exceptional shalshelet. Jewish Bible Quarterly. 48 (1). 33-39. Retrieved from jbqnew.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/481/jbq_481_gevaryahushalshelet.pdf
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).