Bryan Schwartz
Law Professor, Author of "Sacred Goof" and "Consoulation: A Musical Mediation"

Esther! The Musical: How the sounds match the words

Remember your bar or bat mitzvah, and you had to learn to sing the squiggles? You know, the little marks – not the vowel points, the other ones – above and below beside the Hebrew words. These are called “cantillation marks” or “trope marks.”

Each mark signals a little musical figure. Think of “Over the Rainbow,” which has a very trope-y sound. (It was written by Harold Arlen, an orthodox Jew). It segments the lyrics into little pieces, each with a short melody. “Somewhere” ….” over the rainbow” …” bluebirds fly.” Give a written symbol for each little melody, and you will have a trope system. Then you could use it for any other set of words.

Some traditions say that it was not just words, but the music too, that Moses received at Sinai. As early as the second century, a sage is quoted as saying it is wrong to the Torah to recite it without musical sounds.

The marks you see on the scrolls we use today were established by the Masoretes, working in the over a thousand years ago. They also established the system of vowel points we use today.

The trope marks serve several purposes.

A primary function is punctuation. The trope marks serve like the periods, commas, and semi-colons work in English. They divide up passages into smaller units and indicate where the out-lead performer should pause, and for how long. In choosing a trope for a passage, the Masoretes sometimes could resolve ambiguities in meaning. Remember the joke about the violent Panda who walks into a bar and eats, shoots, and leaves?

The marks also amount to an interpretation of the spiritual and emotional nature of a written passage.

When we think of the Jewish tradition, we often think and write of it as written words on top of words. Words generate more words – commentaries, tales, formulations of halakha, the Jewish legal code. Superb modern scholars like James Kugel have written magisterial analyses of the bible from beginning to end, noting how these passages have been interpreted and reinterpreted through time…yet they take little note that the entire body of work has became the lyrics for a musical.

Different Jewish communities have varied in how they sing various trope marks. A Yemenite Jew In Israel singing the Esther scroll might sound very different from their Lubavitcher counterpart in Brooklyn. They are rendering the same trope marks, but the little melodies are different. The voices of the tropes do tend to share some similarities; if a trope in one tradition is a short upward melody, it is likely to be so in another. It is all rather like modern romance languages – you could probably infer they all derive from one or another variation of Latin. Or that soccer, American football, rugby, and Australian rules football have a common origin – they are all about two big teams, a rectangular field, and scoring points by kicking a ball through or over a set of goalposts.

I have been relearning to chant, with an Ashkenazi trope, a chapter of Esther, the musical detailing fits the text in every way. The trope marks are sung in a different way than for any other book. That is fitting because Esther is unique in many ways. It creates a holiday yet is not part of the five books a holiday. It is set in a Diaspora without any mention of the possibility of return. It is funny. The humor is variously dark, wry, and farcical.

The book of Esther is the product of an anonymous human who chose every narrative detail and every word with precision.

The Esther trope system is also funny and chosen with precision. I have been relearning chapter seven. The main Esther trope has a light and cheerful vibe. In some passages, about the threatened destruction of the Jews, the trope rendition switches to the one used for the book of Lamentations. In the end, the singing switches to a triumphalist melody.

Now listen to some of the details. It evokes the ironies of the plot and the nature of the characters.

Esther switches to the melancholy trope used for the book of Lamentations when she finally alerts King Ahasuerus to the utter destruction that Haman is planning.

Harbonah the court eunuch who pronounces on the ironic end of Haman, does so in a highly elaborate set of musical figures. You get the sense he is pompous, obsequious, and opportunistic – rather like Polonius in Hamlet. Harbonah dwells with an especially ornate figuration on the name of the doomed Haman.

Notice the trope used when the movements of Haman. Whether he is standing or falling, the melody falls straight down. No frantic action he takes will save him from his destiny – of being impaled on the stake that he had prepared for his Jewish enemy Mordecai.

The music of Esther, like the words, is the product of artists who made every detail count and integrated them into a coherent artistic whole. All suited to a book that asks the question: in the arbitrary course of human events, is there a creative intelligence organizing and guiding our affairs?

About the Author
Bryan Schwartz is a playwright, poet, songwriter and author drawing on Jewish themes, liturgy and more. In addition to recently publishing the 2nd edition of Holocaust survivor Philip Weiss' memoirs and writings titled "Reflections and Essays," Bryan's personal works include two Jewish musicals "Consolation: A Musical Meditation" (2018) and newly debuted "Sacred Goof" (2023). Bryan also created and helps deliver an annual summer program at Hebrew University in Israeli Law and Society and has served as a visiting Professor at both Hebrew University and Reichman University.  Bryan P Schwartz holds a bachelor’s degree in law from Queen’s University, Ontario, and Master’s and Doctorate Degree in Law from Yale Law School. As an academic, he has over forty years of experience, including being the inaugural holder of an endowed chair in international business and trade law,  and has won awards for teaching, research and scholarship. He has been a member of the Faculty of Law at the University of Manitoba since 1981. Bryan serves as counsel for the Pitblado Law firm since 1994. Bryan is an author/contributor of 34 books and has over 300 publications in all. He is the founding and general editor of both the Asper Review of International Business and Trade Law and the Underneath the Golden Boy series, an annual review of legislative developments in Manitoba. Bryan also has extensive practical experience in advising governments – federal,  provincial, territorial and Indigenous –and private clients  in policy development and legislative reform and drafting. Areas in which Bryan has taught, practiced or written extensively, include: constitutional law, international, commercial, labour, trade,  internet and e-commerce law  and alternate dispute resolution and governance. For more information about Bryan’s legal and academic work, please visit:
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