The Torah is not meant to be read – it is meant to be sung. The “notes” to which the Torah is sung are called “cantillations”, “ta’amei ha’mikra” in Hebrew, and “trope” to Bar Mitzvah boys growing up in North America. Parashat Tzav contains one of the rarest cantillations: the “shalshelet”. Literally translated as “chain” or “triplet”, the shalshelet is a succession of three “pa’zers”, where a paz’er rises nearly one full octave before returning to the original note. Where I live, a pa’zer has been known to go on for nearly a full minute[1]. Needless to say, a shalshelet can be excruciatingly long.

There are four shalshelets in the entire Torah. The first shalshelet is found in the episode in which the angels go to Sodom to rescue Lot before destroying the city. The shalshelet is located on the word [Bereishit 19:16] “and [Lot] delayed”. The next episode in which a shalshelet makes an appearance is the episode in which Avraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to his family in the city of Haran find a wife for his son, Yitzchak. This shalshelet is located on the word [Bereishit 24:12] “and [Eliezer] said [to Hashem]”. The third shalshelet is also found in the Book of Bereishit, in the episode in which Joseph is tempted by the wife of his master, Potiphar. Here the shalshelet is found over the word [Bereishit 39:8] “and [Joseph] refused”. The fourth, and last, shalshelet in the Torah is found in Parashat Tzav, in the discussion of the induction process that prepares Aharon and his sons to officiate in the Mishkan. In this instance the shalshelet is located over the word [Vayikra 8:23] “and [Moshe] slaughtered [the sacrifice]”.

If we look for a common denominator shared by the first three instances of the shalshelet, it is clear that it is ambivalence that binds these verses. Lot has chosen to live in Sodom, a city of dubious morality but of endless economic possibilities. He has made himself a good life there along with his extended family. When he is given the opportunity to save his hide by leaving town, he is forced to answer the question that nobody wants to be asked: “Your money or your life?” Lot wavers until the angels make the decision for him, physically throwing him out of town. Eliezer’s ambivalence stems from the fact that unless Avraham finds Yitzchak a bride, Eliezer stands a good chance of being chosen as Avraham’s successor[2]. Eliezer must make a decision as to whether he wants to remain the slave of the greatest person alive or to try and make it on his own. Joseph has been summarily ejected from his family and sold into slavery in Egypt. If he accepts the overtures of his master’s wife, he will jettison the last vestiges of his Judaism and will become a true licentious Egyptian. The decision is his and his alone. In each of these instances, the shalshelet brings to the fore the raw inner turmoil of the individual.

Can this common denominator can be extended to fit the last instance? This question is answered beautifully by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks[3]: “Yet a moment’s thought makes it clear what Moses’ inner turmoil was about. Until now he had led the Jewish people. Aaron his older brother had assisted him, accompanying him on his missions to Pharaoh, acting as his spokesman, aide and second-in-command. Now, however, Aaron was about to undertake a new leadership role in his own right. No longer would he be a shadow of Moses. He would do what Moses himself could not. He would preside over the daily offerings in the tabernacle. He would mediate the avodah, the Israelites’ sacred service to G-d. Once a year on Yom Kippur he would perform the service that would secure atonement for the people from its sins. No longer in Moses’ shadow, Aaron was about to become the one kind of leader Moses was not destined to be: a High PriestThat is Moses’ inner struggle, conveyed by the shalshelet. He is about to induct his brother into an office he himself will never hold. Things might have been otherwise – but life is not lived in the world of ‘might have been.’ He surely feels joy for his brother, but he cannot altogether avoid a sense of loss.” The shalshelet stands over the last sacrifice Moshe would ever offer.

Moshe offers three sacrifices in Aharon’s induction ceremony: one cow and two rams. While the shalshelet accompanies the offering of the second ram, I suggest that the cantillation accompanying the offering of the first ram is nearly as extraordinary as the shalshelet: this time the word [Vayikra 8:19] “and [Moshe] slaughtered [the sacrifice]” is accompanied by an etnachta. An etnachta serves as a marker, dividing a verse into two textual parts. It is a short sound, after which the Torah reader often takes a breath. It is ubiquitous, found once, and only once, in nearly every verse in the Torah. Why, then, is its appearance in this verse so strange? Because in this verse the etnachta is found under the first word in the verse, an extremely rare phenomenon. Is there something that we can learn from this?

Why was Moshe not chosen to serve as the Kohen Gadol? According to a story in the Midrash, Hashem argued with Moshe for seven days and seven nights in an effort to convince him to lead Am Yisrael out of Egypt. It seems like Moshe is nearly ready to agree to the mission when he suddenly begs [Shemot 4:13] “Send the person you would usually send”. It is clear that Moshe is referring to Aharon, who had apparently served as an interim leader while Moshe was in exile in Midian[4]. Hashem is angered and He scolds Moshe [Shemot 4:14]: “Your brother Aharon, the Levite, I know he speaks well!” But I want you. The Talmud in Tractate Zevachim [102a] offers a different explanation: “Originally I had intended that you would be the Kohen and Aaron your brother would be a Levite. Now he will be the priest and you will be a Kohen”.

With this background, we can return to the etnachta. More than Hashem was asking Moshe to take Am Yisrael out of Egypt, He was asking Moshe to serve as His personal emissary. Moshe’s counter-arguments were all based on his I-awareness: “I can’t speak well”, “They won’t listen to me” and “I’m not their leader”.  Moshe had it all wrong. When I send my child to the shop to buy a loaf of bread, I will be understandably peeved if she comes home with a box of Oreos in hand, explaining how she feels that they were money better spent. How dare she! An emissary is, both figuratively and legally, an extension of the sender, all the more so when the sender is A-lmighty G-d. As Hashem’s emissary, Moshe’s personal considerations were irrelevant. He was required to completely nullify himself. For failing to do so he was punished by relinquishing the crown of priesthood (kehuna).

There is no better cantillation to represent nullification than the etnachta, a cantillation with no sound of its own and a cantillation that is contextually subservient to the verse[5]. The etnachta under the first instance of “and [Moshe] slaughtered [the sacrifice]” is the perfect foil for the shalshelet over the second instance. The etnachta represents the crime while the shalshelet represents the punishment.

Moshe could have learnt from Eliezer. In the story of Eliezer’s search for a wife for Yitzchak, his name is not mentioned even once. The Torah always refers to him as “Eved Avraham” – “Avraham’s servant”. Indeed that is how he refers to himself[6]. Eliezer wrestles with his ambition, but he eventually chooses to live, in the words of Rabbi Sacks, “as Avraham’s servant, not his heir”. When Moshe dies, the Torah tells us [Devarim 34:5] “Moshe, the servant of Hashem, died”, bearing eternal witness that he had returned to his own etnachta, and by doing so, had become part of the infinite.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] Slight exaggeration here, but only slight.

[2] Before Yitzchak is born, Avraham complains to Hashem [Bereishit 14:2] “What will You give me, since I am going childless, and the steward of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?”

[3] Rav Mois Navon presents a similar hypothesis, available at

[4] Understanding that it was Aharon who was leading Am Yisrael while Moshe was in exile in Midian can go a long away in explaining Aharon’s actions at the sin of the golden calf (egel) and why he was not permitted to enter the Land of Israel even though he did not clearly sin when Moshe hit the rock at Mei Meriva. This is a topic for another shiur.

[5] The context of a verse determines where an etnachta goes and not vice versa.

[6] See Bereishit [24:34].