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August 10, 2005

On leyning mattot and mas'ei

[Note (7/12/07): Each summer since I wrote this, I've had a bunch of visitors searching for yerach ben yomo or karnei farah or mercha ch'fula. I guess people are trying to learn these rare taamim. If you're reading this, and you want to know how to sing them, email me, and I'll tell you how I do it, for whatever that's worth. I realize there's less than 24 hours until shabbat matot-mas'ei begins, but the offer is open even afterwards.

My original post from July 2005 follows.]

This was the fifth time in the last six years that I leyned mattot and mas'ei, but it's the first year since 1984 that the two parshiot are split. I leyned both weeks.

Mattot-mas'ei was my bar mitzvah parasha, something that very few people can say. First, it always is read during the summer, when few people schedule bar mitzvahs. My parents, on the other hand, were delighted to schedule my bar mitzvah in the summer, because it meant fewer guests. (You'd really have to know them to understand this attitude. It wasn't the cost; it was the idea that they'd have fewer people they'd have to interact with.) Second, mattot-mas'ei typically is read during the Nine Days, when celebrations are not held. I grew up in a Conservative shul where this consideration was not a serious issue.

Like most kids at our shul, I didn't leyn the whole parasha at my bar mitzvah. In fact, I just read the three verses in the maftir. At that time, only the day-school kids leyned the whole thing. Besides, while I was pretty musical, the double parasha is nine columns long, which I think makes it the longest in the entire Torah. That made it really difficult for a kid of 13 to learn. Even shevi'i alone is close to two columns. Still, I decided when I was an adult that I would eventually learn the whole double parasha. In the early 90's, I learned all of mas'ei, and in the late 90's, I learned all of mattot, too.

The shul I attend now is Orthodox, and in allowing me to leyn it's taking a fairly liberal stance. I'm not strictly observant; I'm what I call "moderately observant." At my shul, there's only one criterion of observance for leyning: people are allowed to leyn if they walk to shul, and I meet that qualification. (Sometimes I think I should get extra credit for walking, because I live nearly 2-1/2 miles away.) Beyond the driving issue, the shul doesn't ask questions about observance, which from my perspective is a good thing.

When I leyn, I'm pretty fussy about it. It isn't just a question of reading the words correctly; that's very important, but the gabbaim will correct you if you don't. What I'm particularly fussy about is trying to get all the notes correct, and no one corrects you if you don't, even if you blatantly fake it. Getting all the notes right is a virtually impossible task, especially with a long parasha, but it's my goal anyway. A friend of ours is, without question, the best leyner at our shul. What I admire about him is that he rarely makes a mistake; he pronounces all the words impeccably, including each kametz katan and mappik hei; he gets the notes right, and is able to make some highly technical distinctions; the trop he uses is beautiful; and he has a nice voice. That's what I aspire to.

I find mattot and mas'ei interesting to leyn, because they contain some unusual notes. Mattot has a mercha ch'fula three words from the end. That note occurs only 5 times in the entire Torah, according to my source. Mas'ei is even better. It contains a yerach ben yomo and a karnei farah, both of which occur only that one time in the Torah.

Leyning has great significance to me, because it's the way I try to communicate with God. I find it very hard to be inspired in prayer, and leyning is my way of trying to draw close. Sure, I also like it when members of the shul enjoy my leyning, but that's where self-interest helps toward a higher goal.

UPDATE (7/30/08): Another post on the subject, including a WAV file of how to sing the yerach ben yomo and karnei farah.