The True Mystery of “Rabbi Voice”

In the rush of pre-Yom Tov reading, an interesting recent secular article may have gotten lost. Coming on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I doubt any of us paid much attention, but it is still worth looking at, since it evokes an eternal Torah truth that we sometimes take for granted. The New York Times (Sunday Review, September 9, 2018), no less, ran an article titled “The Mystery of Rabbi Voice.” The great enigma presented was “Why do rabbis talk like that?” The author, Rich Cohen, claims that “no one quite knows how the singsong lilt of the Jewish clergy got its start.” He confesses that “much of the religious service leaves me cold,” but while “sitting through [his] “son’s Bar Mitzvah, he suddenly wanted to understand something about [his] tradition.”

That “something” was what we all live with every single day, the niggun with which we learn Torah and even speak ordinary language.

After consulting with “rabbis, scholars, linguists,” he concludes that there are “three basic explanations.” The first is indeed “Torah and Talmud.” Coming close to the truth for a moment, he reveals that “because neither the Torah nor the Talmud is punctuated, students learn to add intonation with vocal emphasis.” Furthermore, various professors and experts shared with Mr. Cohen that “that voice spilled over from the Beit Midrash. Seventy-five percent of the paragraphs in the Talmud end in a question and that cadence is the result.” He therefore adds that “it’s a literary style that created a certain kind of mind – made by the people, it remade the people in turn, organizing their thinking around endless probing.”

Mr. Cohen spends a paragraph exploring the influence of Yiddish upon the vocal rhythms of Ashkenazic Jews and then raises the question of “Why do even Reform rabbis talk like that?” His surprising answer is that “it makes them seem Jewish and because it’s what their congregants want.”

Wow! Mi ke’amcha Yisroel. Neither rabbi nor congregant keeps Shabbos or most other mitzvos for that matter, but they want their clergy to sound like a Yid. Somehow, a deep primordial yearning surfaces, demanding that at least the niggun be there, if not all the correct words, commitments and sentiments.

But of course ,the truth is much deeper and profoundly more beautiful. The Torah itself is called a shirah, a song (Devorim 31:19), and the final mitzvah in the Torah, that of writing a Sefer Torah, is formulated in that posuk as “Write this song for yourselves” (Sanhedrin 21b; Rambam, Hilchos Sefer Torah 7:1). The Zohar Hakadosh (Tikkun 11), as quoted by the Maavar Yabok (Sifsei Tzaddik 31), adds that there are heavenly realms that cannot be opened other than by song, and that the soul is pleased by music since it became accustomed to the heavenly sounds of the angels singing Hashem’s praises.

The Baal Haturim (Devorim 3:23) writes that when Moshe Rabbeinu davened to enter Eretz Yisroel, the Torah calls these prayers “va’eschanan,” which has the same gematria (515) as shirah, teaching us that a tefillah that is sung is most acceptable. Rabbeinu Bachya (Parshas Chukas), too, sees this gematria as suggesting that singing strengthens the efficaciousness of a prayer.

When it comes to learning Torah, Tosafos (Megillah 32a) indeed reveals that the Tanna’im taught Mishnayos with a tune so that they would remember what they learned by heart, since it was forbidden to record the words in print. In fact, the Tiferes Yisroel (Arachin, Boaz 4:1) explains the occasional missing words in a Mishnah (chisurei mechsera vehochi kotani) with the astounding suggestion that the Mishnah was sometimes formulated using words and sentences designed to conform with the existing niggun (see also Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, in Lechaneich Besimcha, page 88, who calls this a very delightful explanation). The Targum to Tehillim (1:2) translates “and in His Torah he meditates day and night” as “yeranein,” meaning to sing.

Yet, we find that the concept of singing the words of the Torah is a delicate one, which requires an exacting and scrupulous balance between two opposites. Dovid Hamelech declares in Tehillim (119:54), “Your statutes were music to me.” For this apparent reduction of the sanctity of the Torah – referring to the Torah as mere music – the great King was punished (Sotah 35a). Yet, the phrase has remained in Tehillim, recited daily by good Jews throughout the ages, indicating that there is inherently nothing wrong with the metaphor. How can this be? Is the Torah music or not?

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Sefer Hazikaron, pages 13 and 72) points to the nature of the punishment as an answer. He was chastened by Hashem by being caused to forget the basic halacha that the Aron must be carried by the Levi’im upon their shoulders, not on a wagon. He explains that this means that Dovid Hamelech neglected to fine-tune the delicate balance between accepting the yoke of the Torah and enjoying the sweet music of the Torah. He was reminded of this by the realization that he had accentuated the musical aspect of the Torah to the detriment of its equally important element of being our responsibility and burden. In other words, there is, of course, nothing wrong in calling the Torah zemiros when we are davening. Hence, these words are an eternal part of Sefer Tehillim. At the same time, we must never forget that our loyalty and adherence to the Torah is a sacred, inviolable duty. These two ideals are inexorably entwined forever.

Rav Zev Hoberman zt”l (Ze’ev Yitrof, Chanukah 1:23, pages 118-121) adds an important dimension to this paradox. He quotes the Maharsha, who raises the issue of how Dovid Hamelech could be criticized for calling the Torah music when the Gemara (Eiruvin 18b) teaches that “any home where the words of the Torah are heard at night will never be destroyed.” The Gemara references the posuk (Iyov 35:10) which indicates that the Torah should be heard as zemiros.

Rav Hoberman adds another difficulty with the criticism of Dovid Hamelech from the words of Rebbi Akiva (Sanhedrin 99a-b) that in order not to forget the Torah, one should “zameir bechol yom zameir bechol yom – sing them every day.” This Talmudic quote represents an even deeper defense of Dovid Hamelech, since it implies that not only is singing the Torah acceptable, but it constitutes an antidote to memory loss (see also Ohel Dovid, volume 1, Shmuel II 23:5).

Rav Hoberman answers by citing the comment of the Vilna Gaon (Tosefta, Parah 4, quoted by the Rash in Parah 4:1) to the words of Rebbi Akiva that one should constantly sing the words of the Torah: “It is the custom of singers to constantly repeat their songs so that they not be forgotten. In the same way, one should review his studies constantly, as the verse states, “Your statutes were music to me.” Now, if our sages criticized Dovid for this statement, why would the Gaon of Vilna replicate the offense? He therefore concludes that there are two types of divrei Torah, those that require reinforcement by repetition or song and those that are engraved upon our souls, that are inherently unforgettable. Which are which?

The Gemara (Nedarim 38a) tells us that when Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Shomayim, at first he learned and then forgot what he had learned until he received the Luchos of stone. The Gemara (Eiruvin 54a) reinforces this fact by stating that had the first set of Luchos not been broken, no Torah teaching would ever be forgotten. The Maharal explains this phenomenon with the concept that “only things that are extraneous to the person can be forgotten, but that which is the essence of a person can never be forgotten.”

In other words, whether it is singing the words of the Torah, committing them to memory or writing them down, all are secondary, bedieved strategies. Ideally, the Torah should be engraved onto our very souls and as unforgettable as our limbs. This may be derived from the posuk about the holy city: “If I forget you, O Yerushalayim, may my right hand forget its skill” (Tehillim 137:5). If the Torah is as essential to us as our precious limbs, we would not require tactics and devices to remember her.

Indeed, Mr. Cohen is not so wrong that various mechanisms may have come into play to create “Rabbi Voice.” But ultimately, even when the actual holy words of the Torah have sadly fallen into disuse, its song is alive in the soul and cadence of even the most tone deaf of us all.

Rich Cohen did not realize how rich his heritage really is and how much ancient wisdom there is to learn. Not from the sermons he describes as being about “climate change and Israel,” but about the notes, sounds and words of our Torah Hakedosha. We wish him and all our brethren to hearken to the majestic symphony of our Torah, as we transition from the dancing to listening to its heavenly harmony.