The Shalsheles Variations: Ups and Downs in the Weekly Torah Reading

In parshas Tzav we find the fourth and final instance of the usage of the shalsheles in Chumash as a ta’amhamikrah (cantillation mark). As Moshe sacrifices the eilhamilu’im, the final ram offering that will inaugurate and install Aharon and his sons as kohanim, the Chumash accentuates the word “Vayishchat – and he slaughtered” (Vayikra 8:23) with the quavering notes of the shalsheles.

Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger finds a common thread between all four occurrences of the shalsheles in Chumash as representing situations of intense personal conflict which are not clearly delineated within the posuk itself but which are revealed within the midrash in each case. Thus we find:

  • Lot conflicted over leaving his wealth behind to destruction in S’dom (B’reishis 19:16, see Rashi)
  • Eli’ezer conflicted over the search for a wife for Yitzchak in Charan (B’reishis 24:12) when he actually wished for his own daughter to be that wife (Rashi B’reishis 24:39)
  • Yosef conflicted over his desire for Mrs. Potifar  (B’reishis 39:8, see second Rashi on 39:11, and on B’reishis 49:24/26)
  • Moshe conflicted over never again being able to function as ‘kohen’ and thus never bringing any future korbanos

I’d like to shift the emphasis a bit and extend that same idea in each case to a particular kind of personal conflict: the emotional turmoil of finally accepting that one cannot continue [special privilege within] his family line for future generations. Thus our four cases become:

  • Lot conflicted over leaving his married daughters (perhaps a form of familial wealth, to torture the above Rashi a tad) behind in S’dom to die (B’reishis 19:12-14), thus never fulfilling his potential to father the great nations of Ammon and Mo’av, or anyone else for that matter; remember, we understand that Lot thought that his entire world had been destroyed in the same conflagration that had snuffed S’dom, analogously to the Great Flood—and there would be no future sons-in-law for his two remaining virgin daughters!
  • Eli’ezer conflicted over the search for a wife for Yitzchak in Charan, dashing his hopes that his own daughter might continue the line of Avraham and Yitzchak avosainu (Rashi as above, B’reishis 24:39)
  • Yosef, who was conflicted over having a relationship with an already-married Mrs. Potifar—even though he may have understood from her (or independently from ru’ach hakodesh) that the two of them were indeed intertwined in future destiny together (Rashi B’reishis 39:1, 1st Rashi 39:11, and especially Rashi 49:24/26; note understanding of ‘evven’ as ‘av-u’vein—father and son’ emphasizing the multigenerational aspect of the b’rachah!—and in fact it was Mrs. Potifar’s daughter [or perhaps Deena’s daughter who was raised in Potifar’s house] that Yosef ended up marrying in the end  and whose children Yosef fathered (41:45,50)!
  • Moshe conflicted not only over the idea that never again would he offer a korban as kohen, but also that his children would not inherit the priesthood and would have no more special status than that of ordinary L’vi’im. The eil hamilu’im is after all for Aharon u’vanav [and his sons] (see Vayikra 8:22, 24, 27)! In fact, we understand from history (Shoftim 18:30; tractate Bava Basra 109b) that Moshe’s offspring did not exactly become pillars of the community…

In line with this understanding, it is noteworthy that since the eil hamilu’im is a sh’lamim [peace –offering]-like korban, Moshe would have shared his chazeh [breast portion] (Vayikra 8:29) from this ram with “his sons and daughters!” (Bamidbar 18:11, 19, see Rambam Hilchos Ma’aseh Korbanos 10:4)

This idea of the shalsheles reflecting intense personal conflict about deficits in one’s family destiny may be reflected in the very name of the shalsheles! The definition of a ‘shalsheles’ in modern Hebrew is a chain (also used as such in the Talmud, eg tractate Kesuvos 27a)—and hence is representative of the chain of father-to-son inheritance inherent in a family line. In fact, we employ this word in a similar vein when we discuss the responsibility of communal leadership in the handing down of the Torah (including the Oral Tradition) as the ‘shalsheles hamesorah’. The modern duplicative form of the verb ‘l’shilshel’ does not appear in Tana’ch, but already by Talmudic times was commonly employed to mean to lower in a flowing motion, or to move from higher to lower elevation, as in the flow of liquid, e.g. tractates Berachos 57b, Gittin 70a, Kesuvos 10b, [hence the common modern Hebrew usage!], or solid objects (e.g.  tractates Shabbos 5b, 19b, Eruvin 87a)  “downstream” and hence could reflect the flow of material inheritance, ethical values, or social stature within the family down across generations. The related Hebrew noun ‘shalal’ means ‘booty,’ and hence is something taken from the vanquished and given to the victor, and moreover, once it ‘flows downstream’ into the victor’s possession, it can be inherited by his family heirs.  S.R. Hirsch understands the 3-letter root of the verb ‘shalal’ as meaning to seize or capture or to remove from one place to another, and relates it to the cognate verbs ‘tzalalto sink’ , ‘zalalto lower’ and ‘salal [with a samach]—to elevate’. These relationships emphasize the back-and-forth, sine wave-like structure of the links of a chain, and even relate to the zigzag shape of the symbol itself—and note that the symbol is vertical [heading downward] rather than horizontal!  Perhaps the metaphor of the up-and-down image brings us full circle to the idea that one’s family can develop in ways that elevate it to spiritual heights, or leave it dangling in spiritual depths, and accepting that it will indeed “descend” is a source of intense personal pain.

If this idea of the shalsheles reflecting conflict in accepting limitations on one’s family destiny is correct, it is also worthwhile noticing at least one place where it doesn’t appear, even though one could guess that it might belong there. That of course is within the story of the akeidas Yitzchak. As did Lot, Avraham certainly understood that the family line that had been promised to him through Yitzchak appeared to be coming to an abrupt and untimely end. Nevertheless, unlike Lot, his faith in HaShem was unwavering—without the querulous quiver of the rise and fall of the shalsheles—as he set out to perform HaShem’s will!

I think I’ve rattled this particular chain long enough; nevertheless it is always instructive to remember our roots (etymological and otherwise)—that we may continue to transmit the precious shalsheles—the chain of our magnificent heritage—to our future generations!