Jewish Learning
Shabbat, Festivals & The Year
Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler

Shalshelet – An Expression of Hesitation

The singing notes (trop) in the Torah have much to teach us. In today’s reading, we find a note that appears on only four occasions in the entire Torah. It is called a shalshelet. It occurs on the word vayomar  at the beginning of Chapter 24 (verse 12).
The word shalshelet means ‘chain’. The name reflects what it looks like. It is sung as a long, drawn out note, usually up and down, three times.
Since it is so rare, our Rabbis suggest that when it appears, it signifies that something similar is happening on each occasion. And they teach us that it indicates hesitation.
The first time we find the shalshelet is the sidrah of Lech Lecha (Bereishit 19:16), when Lot was fleeing from the city of Sodom while it was being destroyed. He had been commanded not to look back, but to leave everything behind and run. The shalshelet is written on the word vayitmahmah , meaning ‘he hesitated’. Lot knew that he had to go, but it was still very difficult for him to leave all his possessions and life behind. This explains his hesitation.
The second appearance of the shalshelet is in today’s sidrah. Eliezer had been commanded by his master Avraham to go and find a wife for Yitzchak from Avraham’s family in Padan Aram. Eliezer went, but with another wish in his heart. He had a daughter himself, who he hoped might become Yitzchak’s wife. He knew that this was highly unlikely, but he nevertheless still hoped. So he hesitated. 
The third appearance is in the story of Yosef. Potiphar’s wife tried to persuade him to be adulterous with her. Yosef was momentarily tempted, as we can see from the fact that the shalshelet appears on the word vayema’en , meaning ‘he refused’ (Bereishit 39:8), implying that he hesitated. It is worthy of note that Yosef is called the tsaddik (righteous man) not because he was not tempted, but because he was able to overcome his temptation.
The final occurrence of the shalshelet is in the sidrah of Tsav (Vayikra 8:23), where the Torah relates Moshe’s preparations for the dedication of the Tabernacle.
Our Rabbis tell us that had Moshe not argued with G-d about taking on the responsibility to take the Israelites out of Egypt (see Shemot 4:14 with Rashi’s commentary), then he would have been the High Priest, not just the leader of the people. Instead, that honour was given to his brother Aharon.
Moshe had to practise every procedure required for the service in the Tabernacle and then teach them to Aharon. He was thrilled that his brother held such an important office and he understood very well why it had been denied to him.
The singing notes perhaps show us Moshe’s ‘human side’. Though he was genuinely happy for Aharon, when passing on the full responsibility of this high office to him, as the shalshelet reveals, there was the slightest trace of hesitation.
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