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Ta’amei HaMikra: Are They Min HaShamayim?

Off The Charts!

“Off the charts” is the way Shaarei Orah member Jack Varon refers to the explanation the ta’amei hamikra offer for the pasuk וַיְמָרְרוּ אֶת-חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה (https://www.dafyomi.co.il/kolos/kolos-shemos.pdf and וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה http://parsha.blogspot.com/2009/12/gras-famous-peshat-on-vayigash.html). Jack expressed his intrigue whether the ta’amei hamikra are of divine origin. How else could the ta’amei hamikra contain such profound meaning, he wondered!

An Outstanding Ta’amei Hamikra Resource

The ta’amei hamikra entry and its appendix in the 20th volume of the Encyclopedia Talmudit are a must-read. It is a veritable treasure trove of invaluable information. It is a concise yet comprehensive review of a phenomenon we encounter very frequently, but have little understanding. The primary contributor to this entry is the renowned Rav Mordechai Breuer, the leading 20th-century expert on ta’amei hamikra, who wrote two comprehensive books on this topic entitled “Ta’amei HaMikra” and “Pisuk Te’amim BaMikra.”

The appendix includes the musical notes for Yemenite, Sephardic, and Ashkenazic Torah reading traditions. It refers to no less than 10 styles of Sephardic ta’amei hamikra tunes! Visit Shaarei Orah (when things return to normal), and you will often hear many of these variations in one Shabbat Torah reading.

A Divine Origin?

The Gemara already discusses the ta’amei hamikra (Megillah 3a and Nedarim 37a) and interpret Nechemia 8:8 as referring to them. The Zohar (Parashat VaYakhel 205b) explicitly states that ta’amei hamikra are of divine origin. However, the Abarbanel (in his introduction to Sefer Yirmiyahu) and the Ibn Ezra (Esther 9:27) argue that Ezra and the Anshei Knesset HaGedola introduce the ta’amei hamikra.

Rashi and Onkelos

Rashi and Onkelos accept the latter view that the ta’amei hamikra are not of divine origin. The ta’amei hamikra to the phrase ’וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם ה differ in the two places in the Torah where this phrase appears, Bereishit 12:8 and Shemot 34:5. The ta’amei hamikra, as we shall see, impact the way we interpret the pasuk.

In Bereishit 12:8 the tarcha (Ashkenazim refer to this as a tipcha) is placed after the word וַיִּקְרָא, signaling a minor pause. The phrase is thus understood as he called out the name of God, Avraham Avinu publicizing the name of Hashem. By contrast, the tarcha in Shemot 34:5 is placed after the word v’Shem, ‘וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם, ה indicating that it was none other than Hashem who called v’Shem! The ta’amei hamikra lead the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 17b) to make the dramatic assertion that Hashem, k’vyachol, wrapped Himself in a tallit and showed Moshe Rabbeinu how to recite the 13 Middot of Rachamim.

Surprisingly, though, Onkelos and Rashi to Shemot 34:5 do not interpret this phrase with the ta’amei hamikra. They understand the pasuk as Moshe Rabbeinu calling out in the name of Hashem. Onkelos and Rashi do not believe that the ta’amei hamikra are of divine origin. Otherwise, they would not interpret the pasuk contrary to them.

Divine Influence on the Ta’amei HaMikra

Mr. Varon was a bit taken aback upon hearing this. As a dedicated and very frequent ba’al koreh since his bar mitzvah, it is difficult for him to understand that many believe that ta’amei hamikra are not of divine origin.

I noted that even if the ta’amei hamikra are not min hashamayim, we take them very seriously. For example, the Avudraham, the leading commentator to the siddur, instructs us to pause slightly between the words v’Shem and Hashem when reciting ‘וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם, ה in the Selichot. Both the Sephardic (Yalkut Yosef Orach Chaim 131:11) and Ashkenazic (Mishna Berura 581:4) traditions follow this view. Thus, at the critical moments of the lead-up to the 13 Middot of Yom Kippur, we follow the ta’amei hamikra.

The Anshei Knesset HaGedola was an assembly of the highest order, which included several Nevi’im (Megillah 17b). Hashem undoubtedly influenced their composition of the ta’amei hamikra.

We detect the divine influence on the Gemara. The Gemara includes ample precedent for every new scientific, economic, sociological, political development. From electric shavers to refrigerators, airplanes, in vitro fertilization, and thousands of other phenomena for which the Talmud unfailingly provides a source. How are we to explain this phenomenon if Hashem did not influence the composition of the Talmud?

Conclusion

I told Mr. Varon that the ta’amei hamikra might well be of divine origin. A divine origin undoubtedly accounts for the “off the charts” explanations offered by the Vilna Gaon regarding numerous ta’amei hamikra. However, even those who believe it is not acknowledge the divine influence. Indeed, at the zenith of the Jewish year, we follow the ta’amei hamikra. Far from just a melody, the ta’amei hamikra are of profound importance, and their deep layers of meaning are eagerly awaiting revelation.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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