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Parashat Yitro 5761



The traditional text of the Ten Commandments includes (at least) two sets of tunes and two sets of diacritic marks (nikud). Often these mutually exclusive marks are printed together causing considerable confusion to the uninitiated. Nowadays in almost all synagogues outside of Israel and in many within Israel the Ten Commandments are read according to what is known as the "upper tune" not only on Shavuot but also on the regular Shabbat when their reading occurs in Yitro and VaEt'hannan.

How do these tunes and nikud differ?

The tunes determine the length of the verses. The "upper tune" makes each commandment into one verse (although one version of the "upper tune" runs the first two commandments into one verse, resulting in a third set of tunes). This makes a long commandment (like the one to observe Shabbat) into an extraordinarily long verse. On the other hand, the sixth seventh and eighth commandments have only two words each. The "lower tune' provides verses of regular length.

Tunes and nikud of the Biblical text are closely related. In the case of the Ten Commandments all the variations in the nikud are the direct result of the variations in the tunes. Two types of change occur: e.g. 1. In the second commandment panai ('My face' - ponoi in Ashkenazi and Yemenite pronunciation) is, according to the "lower tune," the end of a verse and therefore requires a pausal form - a qamatz. According to the "upper tune" it is in the middle of the verse and has its regular vowel. 2. In the sixth seventh and eighth commandments the word lo ('don't') has joining tunes when the "lower tune" is used and pausing tunes when the "upper tune" is used. The result is that with the "lower tune," in the word following lo, the initial letter Tav is softened, while with the "upper tune" in the word following lo, the initial letter Tav has a Dagesh.

What is their origin?

R' M.Breuer (Keter Aram Tzova, p.291) points out that the two versions originated in two different regions in ancient times.

When is each used?

The Torah commentary Hizzekuni (R' Hezekiah ben Manoah, an Ashkenazi, 13th century), states (Exod. 20) that on Shavuot, when the Torah reading is a reminder of giving the Torah, we read each of the commandments as a separate verse. This is what is nowadays called the "upper tune." It follows that during the annual cyclic reading of the Torah on Shabbat we read according to the "lower tune." It appears that this is the first mention of what was the widespread Ashkenazi custom for hundreds of years. This idea provides a function for each of the sets of tunes in the Ten Commandments of Yitro, which are read on Shabbat and Shavuot, but the "upper tune" in VaEt'hannan remains un-utilized.

R' Yaakov ibn Haviv (15th -16th centuries, a refugee from the Inquisition) collected the stories in the Talmud and wrote a commentary to them. In the commentary (Ein Yaakov,Yerushalmi, Shekalim, Ch. 6) he states that the reason for the two systems of reading the Ten Commandments is well established. One is for the convenience of the private student and the other for public reading. He proceeds to explain how the difference in the length of the verses affects the tunes and the nikud. It appears that this is the first mention in writing of what has been the widespread Sefaradi custom for hundreds of years. This idea is superior in that it provides a function for each of the sets of tunes in the Ten Commandments both in Yitro and VaEt'hannan.

R' Zalman Hanau (1687-1746), a Hebrew grammarian often regarded as a forerunner of the Enlightenment, dealt with this question in detail in his book Shaarei Tefillah. He concludes that the Commandments should always be read with the "lower tune." His explanations of the differences (though not his conclusion) are adopted by R' Shneur Zalman of Lyady in his Shulhan Arukh a work widely consulted for Halakha and regarded as final authority by Hasidei Habad. From there they have been copied into the Beur Halakha of the Mishna Berura. His ideas both here and elsewhere were vigorously attacked by his contemporary R' Yaakov Emden who points out the superiority of the Sefaradi custom. The endorsement by R' Yaakov Emden may explain the spread of this custom.

I will be happy to receive comments on these notes in English on Hebrew grammar related to the week's Parasha.
Good Shabbos, Meshullam Klarberg, 35/4 Meshech Chochma, Kiryat Sefer, Israel 71919


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