For the most part, Parashat Tzav repeats much of what we learned last week in Parashat Vayikra. Again, the Torah details the choreography of the sacrificial system—only this time from the perspective of the priest. All of the offerings from last week show up again.1 But there is at least one thing that is unique to Tzav: a shalshelet.  (continued below)

Shalshelet, which literally means "chain" is one of 26 "ta'amei ha-mikra" (Torah cantillation, or trop, in the Yiddish) notations fixed by the Masoretes that accent the words of the Torah and indicate how they are to be chanted during a public reading.

The term, "te'amim," itself suggests that these are more than just musical notes. The Hebrew word, ta'am (טעם), literally means "taste," but also carries the connotation of "meaning" or "reason"2—suggesting that the trop is intended to add meaning to the text itself, each unique ta'am lending a particular kind of emphasis or feeling to the syntax of a word, much as a soundtrack might add drama to a movie sequence. As Rabbeinu Behaye puts it: "From the te'amim in the Torah, we understand what is not written there, just as from the way a person moves, we can know the intentions of their heart."3

But what do the various te'amim "mean"? When dealing with the most common of them, it is difficult to establish a consistent meaning for the same note every one of the thousands of times it is used. When it comes to the shalshelet, however, one is more inclined than usual to speculate on what it is meant to communicate, and why it was chosen as the note for its particular word.

The shalshelet is different for two reasons. The first is simply that the shalshelet is one of the rarest te'amim of all: there are only four in the entire Torah. So when one of them appears, a little extra zig-zag above a letter, its placement seems deliberate. Secondly, the shalshelet has a very distinct sound. Whereas most of the other te'amim are short sounds, made up of just a few notes, the shalshelet (at least in the Polish Ashkenazi tradition, the most common trop system found in the U.S.) is around 30 notes long, spread over three waves of rising and falling. So when we hear this "chain" of wails, our ears perk up, and we cannot help but ask why.

Here in Parashat Tzav, in the last chapter of the parashah, the Torah turns from the laws of the sacrifices and begins to describe the ceremony of Aharon’s inauguration as the first high priest. It is in the midst of those proceedings, above a relatively unremarkable word, that we come upon the shalshelet:

ויקרא ח:כב-כג
וַיַּקְרֵב֙ אֶת־הָאַ֣יִל הַשֵּׁנִ֔י אֵ֖יל הַמִּלֻּאִ֑ים וַֽיִּסְמְכ֞וּ אַהֲרֹ֧ן וּבָנָ֛יו אֶת־יְדֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־רֹ֥אשׁ הָאָֽיִל. וַיִּשְׁחָ֓ט  וַיִּקַּ֤ח מֹשֶׁה֙ מִדָּמ֔וֹ וַיִּתֵּ֛ן עַל־תְּנ֥וּךְ אֹֽזֶן־אַהֲרֹ֖ן הַיְמָנִ֑ית וְעַל־בֹּ֤הֶן יָדוֹ֙ הַיְמָנִ֔ית וְעַל־בֹּ֥הֶן רַגְל֖וֹ הַיְמָנִֽית.

 
Leviticus 8:22-23
[Moshe] brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aharon and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head. He slaughtered it, and Moshe took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aharon’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot.

 

The word that carries the shalshelet is the first word in verse 23: “וַיִּשְׁחָט - he slaughtered.” What do we make of this? The slaughter itself doesn’t seem like the most important moment in the ceremony. And “slaughter,” after all, is not such an unusual word in the Book of Leviticus.

Yet this is the only shalshelet in all of Leviticus. Something here is being emphasized, there is something we’re being asked to pay attention to. What is the shalshelet trying to tell us?

One way of answering that question is to look at the other three appearances of the shalshelet in the Torah—all found in the Book of Genesis. If we can detect a theme they all share, perhaps we can figure out how it might be read back into this moment in our parashah.4

Let’s begin with the first shalshelet, which appears in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities doomed to be destroyed by God for their wickedness. Two angels come to Lot’s house and offer to take him and his family away, to spare them from the devastation. But Lot isn’t so sure what he wants to do:

בראשית יט:טו-טז
וּכְמוֹ֙ הַשַּׁ֣חַר עָלָ֔ה וַיָּאִ֥יצוּ הַמַּלְאָכִ֖ים בְּל֣וֹט לֵאמֹ֑ר קוּם֩ קַ֨ח אֶֽת־אִשְׁתְּךָ֜ וְאֶת־שְׁתֵּ֤י בְנֹתֶ֙יךָ֙ הַנִּמְצָאֹ֔ת פֶּן־תִּסָּפֶ֖ה בַּעֲוֺ֥ן הָעִֽיר. וַֽיִּתְמַהְמָ֓הּ וַיַּחֲזִ֨יקוּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֜ים בְּיָד֣וֹ וּבְיַד־אִשְׁתּ֗וֹ וּבְיַד֙ שְׁתֵּ֣י בְנֹתָ֔יו בְּחֶמְלַ֥ת ה׳ עָלָ֑יו וַיֹּצִאֻ֥הוּ וַיַּנִּחֻ֖הוּ מִח֥וּץ לָעִֽיר.

 
Genesis 19:15-16
As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on, saying, “Up, take your wife and your two daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city.” Still, he lingered, so the men grabbed his hand, and the hands of his wife and his two daughters—for the Eternal had mercy on them—and brought him outside of the city.

 

The shalshelet appears above the word that is translated here as “he lingered” (va-yitmamah). Visually, the verb appears to be building on the word for “what” in Hebrew: mah (מָה)—suggesting that it does not only mean, “to linger,” but also: “to question,” “to be unsure,” or “to equivocate.”5 It is as if Lot is asking, “What, what—what should I do?” Why was he so uncertain? What was holding him back?

Rashi (to Genesis 19:16) tells us, “He wanted to save his money,” a foolish and rather crude impulse in the midst of imminent danger. The Seforno (to Genesis 19:16) gives a more sympathetic interpretation, suggesting that Lot was simply stunned into a stupor, paralyzed by fear.

Whatever was going on in Lot’s head, the shalshelet here draws out the moment of panicked uncertainty. It literally amplifies the meaning of the word itself, va-yitmamah (“he equivocated”).

The second shalshelet comes in the story of Avraham’s servant, Eliezer,6 who has been sent on a mission to find a wife for Avraham’s son Yitzhak. Upon arriving at his destination, Eliezer begins by offering a simple prayer:

בראשית כד:יב
וַיֹּאמַ֓ר ׀ ה׳ אֱלֹקֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם הַקְרֵה־נָ֥א לְפָנַ֖י הַיּ֑וֹם וַעֲשֵׂה־חֶ֕סֶד עִ֖ם אֲדֹנִ֥י אַבְרָהָֽם.

 
Genesis 24:12
He said, “Eternal One, the God of my master Avraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Avraham.”

 

Eliezer then goes on to request that God send the right woman for Yitzhak. All of this seems like the sincere, full-throated plea of a humble servant on behalf of his beloved master.

Yet there is a shalshelet above the first word, “וַיֹּאמַר - he said.” Was there a note of ambivalence in this prayer, something that Avraham’s servant was “lingering” on, that kept him from fully devoting himself to the task at hand? Rashi, again, supplies us with a possible ulterior motive:

רש״י בראשית כד:לט
בת היתה לו לאליעזר, והיה מחזר למצא עלה שיאמר לו אברהם לפנות אליו להשיאו בתו.

 
Rashi on Genesis 24:39
Eliezer had a daughter, and he was searching to find a pretext, so that Avraham would tell him to turn back to himself, and marry his own daughter to Yitzhak.

In this reading, Eliezer hesitated, in the moment just before praying to find a wife for Yitzhak, because in truth, he was hoping that he would not find a suitable wife out there. Then Avraham would turn back to Eliezer’s daughter, and his family would thereby participate in the divine covenant—not to mention the wealth of Avraham’s inheritance.

Although this read may sound a little forced, consider the earlier description of Avraham’s servant, back before Avraham even had a son (and before his name was Avraham):

בראשית טו:ב-ג
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲ-דֹנָ֤י ה׳ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י וּבֶן־מֶ֣שֶׁק בֵּיתִ֔י ה֖וּא דַּמֶּ֥שֶׂק אֱלִיעֶֽזֶר. וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֔ם הֵ֣ן לִ֔י לֹ֥א נָתַ֖תָּה זָ֑רַע וְהִנֵּ֥ה בֶן־בֵּיתִ֖י יוֹרֵ֥שׁ אֹתִֽי׃

 
Genesis 15:2-3
“Oh Lord God, what can You give me? I am going to be childless, and the one in charge of my household is Eliezer of Damascus!” Avram said, “Since you have given me no offspring, my steward will be my heir!”

 

It seems that this chief servant was, in fact, once next in line to inherit Avraham. If Eliezer coveted that inheritance, the birth of Yitzhak ruined that for him. Now his only chance to get back into the line of inheritance would be to marry a child of his own to Yitzhak and merge the two families.

So now, when Avraham calls upon his servant and asks him to find a wife for Yitzhak from Avraham’s homeland, it should not surprise us to hear that Eliezer might be conflicted. On the one hand, he wants to serve his master faithfully, as he has always done. But on the other hand, success in his mission will shut him out of the inheritance forever.

He summons the resolve to do right by Avraham, to sublimate his own desires and carry out his assigned task. He even attempts a prayer that he will be successful in his search. But as his lips open to ask God to help him do this thing he does not want to do, he hesitates, and his voice quivers. The sound of that quivering hesitation is a shalshelet.

The last of the three shalshelot in the Book of Genesis exposes a hint of ambivalence in what is often read as a straightforward act of righteousness. Yosef has been sold into slavery in Egypt and becomes the chief butler in the house of a nobleman. Tension begins to build, however, when the nobleman’s wife takes a liking to Yosef and tries to seduce him. But Yosef holds fast to his principles:

בראשית לט:ח-ט
וַיְמָאֵ֓ן  וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־אֵ֣שֶׁת אֲדֹנָ֔יו הֵ֣ן אֲדֹנִ֔י לֹא־יָדַ֥ע אִתִּ֖י מַה־בַּבָּ֑יִת וְכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־יֶשׁ־ל֖וֹ נָתַ֥ן בְּיָדִֽי. אֵינֶ֨נּוּ גָד֜וֹל בַּבַּ֣יִת הַזֶּה֮ מִמֶּ֒נִּי֒ וְלֹֽא־חָשַׂ֤ךְ מִמֶּ֙נִּי֙ מְא֔וּמָה כִּ֥י אִם־אוֹתָ֖ךְ בַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר אַתְּ־אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וְאֵ֨יךְ אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֜ה הָרָעָ֤ה הַגְּדֹלָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את וְחָטָ֖אתִי לֵֽאלֹקים.

 
Genesis 39:8-9
He refused, and said to his master’s wife, “Look, my master gives no thought to me, and all he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except for you, for you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing and sin before God?”

 

Yosef is so honorable, so pious, so totally in control of his impulses. It’s all very impressive. Except that there, hovering above that first word, “he refused,” what should we find but a shalshelet, that note of uncertainty.

“He refused,” yes. But it wasn’t easy. He spurned her advances, but a part of him wanted to give in. Here is Rashi, once again, giving us the psychological conflict hiding behind a cool exterior:

רש״י בראשית לט:יא
חד אמר לעשות צרכיו עמה, אלא שנראית לו דמות דיוקנו של אביו וכו'

 
Rashi on Genesis 39:11
One opinion is that he came intending to “take care of his needs” [i.e. have sex] with her, but then, the image of his father appeared before him.

 

Yosef wasn’t just tempted to give in to his lust, he came in that day fully intending to. Only the sudden memory of his father, looking down at him disapprovingly, could shake him loose from his desires. Then he struggled, and he finally refused—but it took all he had.7 He was caught in a moment of total conflict, and only barely managed to escape on the side of righteousness. Again, the shalshelet is there to give voice to the inner struggle.

So now, finally, we return to our shalshelet in Parashat Tzav, the only other shalshelet in the Torah. We have seen, through a series of narrative twists and turns, that the shalshelet can be understood as the sign of ambivalence—as if we could hear, in the rise and fall of lingering notes, the sound of a character’s equivocation. It served this purpose well in three dramatic moments in the gripping narrative of Genesis. But remember, our shalshelet comes in a more technical moment, standing above the word for “he slaughtered.” What kind of uneasiness could it represent here? Who exactly is it that should be uncertain of what they are doing?

Some have suggested Moshe was the one hesitating, reluctant to perform the inauguration of his brother, because he wanted to be the high priest himself. Various midrashim construct the theory that Moshe was at first intended for the priesthood, but it was taken away from him when he resisted God’s mission to go back to Egypt, and handed over to Aharon.8 Now that Moshe has to oversee the appointment he was supposed to have, it fills him with jealousy, and he does it only reluctantly.

Others insinuate that no, it was Aharon who was reluctant, uneasy taking on a role that presumably belonged to his brother. That is why Rashi, in the opening of our chapter, which begins with God commanding Moshe to “קַח אֶת אַהֲרֹן - Take Aharon,” understands this to mean: “קחנו בדברים ומשכהו - Take him with words [i.e., persuade him], and pull him in.” Aharon had to be persuaded to take on the priesthood, in this reading. So now, as the anointment is being performed, perhaps the shalshelet is there to alert us to his hesitancy, his discomfort with the proceedings.

Perhaps these hidden motivations were there in Moshe or in Aharon. Perhaps not. But it is difficult to attribute this shalshelet to them. In all the other shalshelot we have seen, the sound accentuates the hesitation and uncertainty that took place during the performance of a particular action by a particular actor: Lot lingered; Eliezer said; Yosef refused.

But here the shalshelet is not there casting doubt upon Moshe’s “taking” Aharon, “bringing” him forth, or “anointing” him. It is not there to draw out the trembling of Aharon’s hands as he “laid” them on the head of the ram.

The wail of the shalshelet hovers over the slaughter itself: “He slaughtered it. And Moshe took the blood...” It is not even entirely clear from the grammar who is performing the slaughter.9 The slaughter is not the action that represents Moshe’s transfer of authority or Aharon’s receiving it; it is simply the most basic action that constitutes the ritual of animal sacrifice, a verb that is used dozens of times throughout Leviticus—more in this book than in any other in Tanakh.10

This suggests the possibility that the shalshelet is there to sound a note of ambivalence over the act of slaughter itself. Is the killing of an innocent animal to atone for our sins, offer our thanks, plead for God’s favor, really just? Were we meant to use other living creatures to satisfy our religious needs?

Maybe. God commands it, after all. The commentators may debate whether or not this is an ideal form of worship or a concession to societal norms, but for now, here it is in black and white, all throughout Leviticus. So the priests perform it. And we read about it every year. It is, undeniably, a part of our tradition.

But maybe we shouldn’t read through it all so confidently. Perhaps the one shalshelet in Leviticus, the book that lays out the sacrificial system, is there to remind us all that we should all feel some uneasiness, some hesitation, when we read about the slaughter of all these animals at the heart of that system. At the very least we should linger in gratitude to the creature that was offered there in our place.

I am reminded of Yehudah Amichai’s poem about the binding of Isaac, “The Real Hero”:

הַמַּלְאָךְ הָלַךְ הַבַּיְתָה
יִצְחָק הָלַךְ הַבַּיְתָה
וְאַבְרָהָם וֵאלֹקִים הָלְכוּ מִזְּמַן
אֲבָל הַגִּבּוֹר הָאֲמִתִּי שֶׁל הָעֲקֵדָה
הוּא הָאַיִל

 
The angel went home.
Yitzhak went home.
Avraham and God had long since left.
But the real hero of the Akeidah
was the ram.

 

After the ceremonial inauguration of the mishkan (tabernacle), after the appointment of Aharon as the High Priest… whatever they had felt leading up to it, when it was all over, Moshe went home to his tent, Aharon went home to his. But one of the unsung heroes of that day, let us not forget, was the ram.


1. For the purposes of these sacrifices, see my essay on Parashat Vayikra, “A Prehistory of the Sacrifices,” available here: https://hadar.org/torah-tefillah/resources/prehistory-sacrifices

2. The Ibn Ezra often begins his commentary with the word טעם, as if to say, “And the meaning of this verse is...

3. See his commentary on Genesis 39:8: “מתוך הטעמים שבתורה אנו מבינים מה שלא נכתב בה, כענין התנועות שבאדם שמתוכם נדע כוונת לבו.”

4. I was guided in this approach by reading several excellent investigations along the same lines: ר׳ חיים קנייבסקי, טעמא דקרא, פרשת וירא; Mois A. Navon, “The Shalshelet: Mark of Ambivalence,” Jewish Thought, Vol.4, Num. 1; יחיאל שוקרון, ״משמעותו הפסיכולוגית של הטעם שלשלת״. The last of these was recommended to me by Avi Havivi, who was extremely helpful in thinking through this issue with me.

5. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the verse makes this connection: “יתמהמה, from the root מהה from which מה is derived, “what” the undecided. התמהמה, really to tarry in indecision.”

6. Although he isn’t named in this narrative, earlier on it appears that Abraham’s chief servant’s name is Eliezer. See Genesis 15:2, quoted further on.

7. In fact, further on in the talmudic passage that Rashi cites (Sotah 36b), R. Yohanan in the name of R. Meir gives a very vivid description of Yosef digging his fingernails into the ground to keep himself from sinning.

8. Moshe’s hesitation to ordain his brother, although not linked specifically to the shalshelet, can be found in Vayikra Rabbah 11:6 and Talmud Bavli Zevahim 102a.

9. Most commentators, following the midrashim, assume it was Moshe who performed the slaughter, but the grammar one would expect from the in that case would be, “וישחט משה ויקח מן הדם - And Moshe slaughtered it, and he took the blood” (see the the Malbim on Leviticus 8:15).

10. 36 times total. The runner-up is 2 Chronicles, which uses the verb 8 times.