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Tone painting in Toldot Maftir, Genesis 28:9

May 17, 2010

When chanting Torah, or any of our sacred texts, I’m listening for tone painting, where the music describes the text. It’s also called “word painting” depending on which music teacher you had.  In instrumental works, this is when we hear birds chirping or rain falling.

In the maftir aliyah of Parshat Toldot in Genesis 28:9, we can see (hear) a good example. Here’s the JPS translation of the text followed by the Hebrew:

Gen. 28:9 So Esau went to Ishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nebaioth.

The sign above the word “and he took,” “vayikach” is a pazer. In many Ashkenazic trope traditions, such as the Hungarian system that I chant, the pazer is a scale-wise melody up and then an arpeggiated section down. This certainly paints the journey that Esau must have taken: he went to his uncle Ishmael’s home and found a wife, and then brought her back.

When I chant this pazer, I linger a bit on the top note. Esau must have spent a good bit of time to bargain for Mahalath before he started his return journey.

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