Why I Leyn: A Manifesto

Last Thursday night I was waiting at a bus stop in Givat Shaul, practicing the leyning that I had xeroxed onto a few folded sheets of paper. Moses was late in coming down the mountain, and the bus was late in coming to our part of Jerusalem, so I went ahead with the golden calf. Although I was chanting very quietly, almost inaudibly, I nevertheless managed to arouse the attention of the two Haredi young men who were waiting with me on the street corner. “Listen to her,” one of them said to the other in Hebrew. “I have heard there are girls who do that! Weird, weird. Can you believe it?” I lowered my voice even more, conscious that once again I had become a Curiosity (not to mention a girl!).

I am aware, though, that it is not just among Haredi men that I am regarded as “weird” for my dedication to reading Torah. Anyone who has ever lived with me (including my Catholic college roommate, who knew how to leyn herself after four years of sharing a suite) has inevitably asked me, at some point or another, “Why do you do that? Why spend so much time going over the same thing again and again? What’s the point?” And yet for me, I cannot imagine a life without reading Torah. If not for leyning, as I see it, what would be the point?

Reading Torah, for one thing, is a way of structuring my life so that I am always attuned to the rhythm of the Torah reading cycle, in the same way that davening keeps us attuned to the cycle of light and darkness. V’higita bo yomam valayla, Joshua charges the people (Joshua 1:8) – you should recite Torah day and night. When I practice a little bit of Torah reading each day, I ensure that the words of Torah are always running through my mind. As a result, I find myself quoting verses that suddenly become relevant in other contexts, making jokes that invoke the parsha, and even occasionally choosing what I will eat on Shabbat based on which foods are mentioned in the coming week’s reading. This, for me, is the true way of following Rav Ami’s interpretation of Proverbs 22:18, which states that words of Torah should be “in your belly, that they be set together on your lips.” Explains Rav Ami, “When do you preserve words of Torah in your belly? Whey they are set together constantly on your lips (Eruvin 54a).

I do believe that it is by leyning that Torah is best remembered. Only when you learn Torah along with the cantillations do you ensure that you never accidentally omit a word or change around vowels or stresses when reading. No one who has leyned the first aliyah of Trumah would ever say “v’aSU li mikdash” (or at least I should hope not). By setting Torah to music, Torah develops a rhythm and a life-force of its own, infused with human breath. The words come to life off the page, as if the letters of the scroll have suddenly arisen from their fixed places and begun to dance, gaily waving their crowns. This is how I feel sometimes when I am leyning an aliyah that I have truly mastered. (Note: This happens very rarely; I am no grandmaster, though I am related to a few of them!) I feel like I am not leyning the Torah, but that the Torah is leyning me, carrying me aloft on its eagle wings. I think of this as a “leyner’s high,” similar to a “runner’s high.” After a few verses of leyning an aliyah well, I begin to feel like I am flying, carried forwards by the words that are singing out from me in full-throated ease. (Aye, Keats. It was the nightingale, and not the eagle!)

Leyning Torah is also a hobby that fits quite well into my life. I learn not from a Tikun but from xeroxes. These xeroxes are mostly courtesy of Random House, where my like-mindedly frum colleague and I used to share a Tikun Simanim, stored on the shelf between our cubicles. Each week we’d go together to the xerox machine and photocopy our respective aliyot. There was no Genizah, so I saved all of those pages. I went on to bring them with me to Israel, where a very organized friend encouraged me to sort them into color-coded vinyl sleeves by parsha, arranged in two great looseleaf binders. Each week I pick out the pages for that particular parsha and carry them with me wherever I go. Since I tend to live like a turtle, carrying much of my life in the heavy L.L. Bean backpack that I have owned since high school, I’m grateful not to have to shoulder the extra weight. In addition, I’ve discovered that xeroxed leyning is the perfect reading material to bring to a party, where entering with a book may be taboo. But who would notice a couple of folded sheets of paper in my back pocket? And who would notice if I slip off to the corner for a few minutes to practice, reveling in whatever it is I am leyning?

Of course, there are aliyot that I enjoy more than others. I have my favorites, and generally they are other people’s favorites as well, which results in a fair amount of alpha-male style competition. The most desirable aliyot are generally the narratives with the most intense dramas: the temptation in the garden, the binding of Isaac, the rape of Dina, the seduction of Judah, the revelation of Joseph, the night of the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, the golden calf. Would that I could leyn them all!

Around this time of year, when we are deep into the wilderness of Mishkan building instructions, the competition dies down. And yet I have to confess that I, for one, love leyning the vast tracts of Mishkan material, and try to take on as much as possible! Leyning an aliyah from Vayakhel-Pekudei, as I see it, is a bit like reciting the Avoda service on Yom Kippur – the recitation becomes a reenactment. In her mind-boggling article “The Yom Kippur Avoda within the Female Enclosure,” Bonna Devora Haberman argues that this part of the high holiday liturgy, the prayer leader becomes symbolically identified with the high priest in the Holy of Holies:

“The prayer leader does not lay her hands on a bull, a ram, or goats; she does not sprinkle blood; she does not enter the Holy of Holies. Indeed, she does not displace her two parallel touching stocking feet even when fully prostrating herself on the ground as part of the Avoda. She is absorbed in a standing prayer as the representative of the community. Recounting the acts with the intentionality of prayer substitutes for performing them. The Avoda is a symbolic representation of the service performed first in the desert Tabernacle, then in the holy Temple in Jerusalem through a gesticulated, cantillated community prayer experience.”

Just as the prayer leader on Yom Kippur symbolically reenacts the rituals performed by the high priest in the Temple, so too does the Torah reader of the Mishkan parshiyot symbolically reenact the building of the this structure. This is why the leyning of the Mishkan, more so than any other section in the Torah, must be absolutely flawless. After all, the Mishkan is described in the most specific of dimensional detail, dictated from God on high: “And on the front side, to the east, fifty cubits: fifteen cubits of hangings on the one flank, with their three posts and their three sockets, and fifteen cubits of hangings on the other flank–on each side of the gate of the enclosure–with their three posts and their three sockets” (Exodus 38: 13-15). To recite these verses is to construct in words the Mishkan that the Isrealites built in the desert, much as Coleridge’s speaker sought to recreate in measured language the pleasure dome of Kubla Khan:

With music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

Beware – because words construct verbal edifices. Torah is the blueprint God used in creating the world, as we learn in Breishit Rabbah, and so the way we read Torah determines the way we construct the world. If we mispronounce even one syllable of Vayakhel-Pekudei, if we read, say, forty cubits instead of fifty, then the entire edifice could come tumbling down. (Or at least so I tell myself, as I practice this week’s leyning.) And furthermore: If Rabbi Akiva could find meaning to every “Et” in the Torah, must we not be sure to pronounce each one properly? Think of how many drashot hang on every word (if not every letter; if not every tip of the yud) in the Torah. We who leyn are playing with fire, much like Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua in the house of Elisha’s father — for were not the words of Torah given in fire on Sinai? (Tosafot to B. Chagigah 15a).

Reading Torah, I am arguing, is a weighty responsibility; but it is also a great source of pleasure. Each time I leyn, I discover new puzzles in the text: I muse on why a particular syllable is stressed, or why a concept seems to repeat itself. These questions inform my writing and thinking all week, and carry me into Shabbat. Most weeks, the very last thing I do before Shabbat is swim. Generally I am down to the wire, and I only have about twenty minutes in the pool. But just before I dive in, I go over my leyning once more, so that I will be immersed in words of Torah as I cut through the water. One Friday afternoon a few months ago, I found myself dreaming of a pool that would enable me to practice my leyning while swimming. In such a pool, I envisioned, there would be seven lanes (leyns?), one corresponding to each aliyah. A series of overhead projectors would flash the words of each aliyah onto the bottom pool surface of each lane, so that the swimmer could follow along as she made her way face-down through the water. Now there’s an invention to rival the pleasure domes of Kubla Khan, and the hanging curtains of the Mishkan!

The Sexy Widow (Ketubot 65a), my costume this Purim

My translation from Ruth Calderon’s Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

Long-limbed Choma crossed the entrance hall of the courthouse with purposeful strides. Her thick mass of black hair stubbornly peeked out of her kerchief to see what was going on in the world. Even now, when dressed in black mourning clothes, she was enveloped in the same loveliness — as simple as fresh baked bread and just as appealing. It was impossible to mistake her gait for anyone else’s. The walls swayed like young lambs to the rhythm of her heels.

That morning the courtroom was empty. It was the height of summer, and even market day did not bring anyone to plead their case in court. Peddlers did not even bother to tip their scales before the handful of buyers who made their way through the humid heat. Lead weights carved in the shape of ducks, each one a bit larger than the next, sat still like a family of birds who had fallen asleep, their beaks tucked into their gray metal backs.

The gaming stands, which were usually noisy and crowded, were deserted. The game boards and the mosaic tiles lay at rest. The pigeon racers scattered seeds to their pigeons, who pecked aimlessly at the emptiness. No one showed up to gamble.

On a day like this, the courtroom effectively became a study house. Rava reviewed his learning on his own. If only he could learn with Abayey, his study partner, they would be able to knock off a difficult section of the Gemara from Tiberias. Rava felt Abayey’s absence like a phantom limb that continued to ache. Without Abayey, he grew more distant from the world. He missed his friend’s learnedness, the way he always looked at everything through a different lens. Rava reviewed the passage on “presumed despair,” part of the laws about returning lost objects to their rightful owners. He tried to recall Abayey’s voice, his manner of speaking, his gait.

The beadle who was nodding off by the doorway almost did not notice Choma when she entered. The beadle roused suddenly and announced: “Next case: The provision of alimony to Choma, the widow of Abayey.”

It was difficult for Rava to hear the name of his beloved friend spoken aloud. He smiled as he remembered how Abayey used to juggle eight eggs, throwing one into the air and catching another, without any of the fragile shells touching one another. How when they used to walk through the market, Abayey would shake hands with even those elders who were not Jewish. Rava sat in the judge’s seat at the front of the courtroom and recited his oath of justice. The responsibility of presiding in court weighed heavily on him. He had chosen this life in spite of the wishes of his wife, who had wanted him to go into business. She wanted wealth and he came home with empty pockets, hoping only to return in the evening as he had left in the morning: free from sin or error. He wondered to himself whether it was in fact an exaggeration to compare the fear instilled in the heart of the judge to the fear of death. Was it really as intense?

While he was still mulling it over, Choma was sitting silently, her hands folded in her lap. Rava did not know how to address her after the beadle had retired to the side room to eat, when they were left alone in the courtroom. “Rule on the alimony due to me,” the woman said. Rava knew that it was his duty to rule on the amount of money that the widow would receive from her husband’s heirs, an amount that would ensure that she could maintain the same standard of living as she had when her husband was alive. He ruled accordingly. “Rule on an additional sum due to me for wine.” For wine? He and Rava never drank wine when they were together. He grew suspicious, and looked at Choma intently. He used his friend’s nickname in an attempt to show the grounds for his claim: “I know Nachmani. He wasn’t a wine drinker…. You’re telling me that he would serve it to you?” Choma stood up. The dark fabric of her dress glided down the curves of her body and stopped at her ankles, swaying slightly. When she stood upright before him, she was taller than he remembered her. The thread of justice hung taut between them.

The woman paraded over to the judge’s bench, keeping her eyes fixed squarely upon him. He looked at her dark lips and heard her voice, low and slightly hoarse: “I swear, my lord, he used to serve me wine in a goblet this big.” As she spoke, she flung her hand above her in a deliberate motion, and the sleeve of her black dress bunched at her shoulder and revealed her arm all the way up to her elbow. For a split second, the smooth whiteness of her arm was bared. Splendor enveloped the courtroom. Rava looked at Choma. The whole world faded into a blurry background, and the arm glowed. The woman and her light attracted him with a force that was beyond his control. Somehow he managed to turn from his seat and escape from the courtroom as if chased by a demon. As he fled he muttered something unintelligible about how he was unfit to serve as a judge and about the wine that she would either receive or not. From the entrance he turned back to look at her – a dark and erect figure, her kerchief pulled back and her hair exposed, enveloped in a great light.

When he came to his home he found his wife, the daughter of Rav Chisda, seated beside the stove. Rava stood behind her, and although it was not his usual way, he grabbed her and carried her off to bed. He seemed like a total stranger when, without saying a word, he took off his clothes, peeled back her garments, and ravished his wife. When he later lifted himself up and dragged himself to his room, she was arranging her dress, blushing like a young girl. There was one moment of serenity in the house. Then suddenly a shadow passed over his wife’s brow and she asked: “Who was in the courtroom just now?” He could not bring himself to lie to her. “Choma, the wife of Abayey.”

His wife’s face lost its softness. Rejecting the hand he offered, she ripped the lock off the bureau and left the house in a frenzy. The door to the courtyard slammed behind her.

Rava did not move from where he stood. He did not see how his wife chased Choma to the outskirts of Machoza, and he did not hear how she screamed, “You killed three husbands and now you’ve come to kill mine too!”

This story is based on a sugya from Ketubot 65a, translated here:

Choma, the wife of Abayey, came before Rava.
She said to him: “Rule on the food due to me in alimony.” So he did.
[She said:] “Rule on the wine due to me.”
He said to her: “I know Nachmani” (a nickname for Abayey), “He wouldn’t serve you wine.”
She said to him: “I swear, my lord, he used to serve me wine in a goblet this big.”
When she demonstrated what she meant by lifting her arm, her arm became exposed.
And a great light fell upon the courtroom.
Rava stood up and went home
He demanded sex from his wife, the daughter of Rav Chisda.
The daughter of Rav Chisda said to him: “Who was in the courtroom today?”
He said to her: “Choma, the wife of Abayey.”
She [Rava’s wife] went after her [Choma] and beat her with the lock of a chest until she was driven out of Machoza.
She [Rava’s wife] said to her [Choma]: “You killed three men, and now you’ve come to kill another?”