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Shalshelet: Struggle or Strength?

By: Rav Uri Cohen

Indecision was the root of all worry, Charlotte decided as she guided the van into her driveway and parked it beneath the shed. Strange, she thought, how once a decision was made, the initial worry seemed to disappear.<1>

Even those who are spacing out during keriat haTorah tend to notice when a shalshelet is read. That’s the trup that sounds like an alarm, spiraling up and down three times.<2> In Parashat Vayeshev, the word with a shalshelet is “Vayema’ayn.” If the trup were standard (a pazer), the word would sound like this: “Vayema’ay-ay-ay-ay-AY-AY-ayn.” But the shalshelet makes it sound like this: “Vayema’ay-ay-ay-ay-AY-AY-ay-ay-ay-AY-AY-ay-ay-ay-AY-AY-ayn.” (Your results may vary.)

It certainly gets our attention. But what are we meant to get out of it?

To answer this question, let’s look at the four stories where a shalshelet appears in the Chumash.<3> In each case, the first word of the pasuk has a shalshelet, and is followed by a p’sik (separation line) isolating that word from the rest of the sentence. Here are the four cases:

1) Lot

Vayitmahmah (He delayed). So the men (i.e., angels) grabbed him, his wife, and his two daughters by the hand – because Hashem had mercy on him – and brought him out and left him outside the city” (Parashat Vayera, Bereisheet 19:16).

2) Avraham’s servant

Vayomar (He said in prayer): Hashem, God of my master Avraham, grant me good fortune this day, and grant a favor to my master Avraham” (Parashat Chaye Sarah, Bereisheet 24:12).

3) Yosef

Vayema’ayn (He refused). He said to his master’s wife: Look, my master doesn’t know what I do in the house, and he has placed everything he has in my hands” (Parashat Vayeshev, Bereisheet 39:8).

4) Moshe or Aharon

Vayish’chat (He slaughtered the ram). Moshe took some of its blood and put it on Aharon’s right earlobe, on his right thumb, and on his right big toe” (Parashat Tzav, Vayikra 8:23).

Do these four cases have anything in common? Well, two of the subjects, at least, needed to make a fateful decision. Lot had to decide whether or not to listen to the angels and leave Sodom, his home. Yosef had to decide whether or not to give in to temptation and commit adultery. But their verbs are opposites: while Lot waffled, Yosef outright refused. As we will see, some commentaries read all four shalshelet cases in light of Lot’s struggle, and some read all four in light of Yosef’s strength.


One approach understands the shalshelet as a sign of struggle and hesitation. This fits with the way it looks (a zigzag) as well as with the way it sounds (rising and falling). Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains:

The shalshelet is an unusual note. It goes up and down, up and down, as if unable to move forward to the next note. It was the 16th century commentator Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi (in his commentary to Bereisheet 19:16) who best understood what it was meant to convey, namely a psychological state of uncertainty and indecision. The graphic notation of the shalshelet itself looks like a streak of lightning, a “zigzag movement” (tenuah me’uvetet), a mark that goes repeatedly backwards and forwards. It conveys frozen motion – what Hamlet called “the native hue of resolution sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought” – in which the agent is torn by inner conflict. The shalshelet is the music of ambivalence.<4>

According to this approach, Lot is the paradigm. He had trouble deciding whether to leave, and his indecision is documented both in the word (Vayitmahmah) and its trup (shalshelet). Why did Lot flipflop? We can judge him negatively and say it was because of greed – he didn’t want to lose any of his money.<5> Or we can judge him positively and say it’s understandable if someone is reluctant to leave home.

Ibn Caspi argues that ambivalence is the message of the shalshelet in Yosef’s case as well – he hesitated before refusing.<6> Why? Simply because of physical desire.<7> He was tempted, he wavered, but then he overcame the temptation. Rabbi Alan B. Lucas elaborates:

Picture the scene. Yosef is a handsome, virile, lonely young man, far from his childhood home. And his master’s wife tries to seduce him. Was it easy for him to say “No” to her advances? The text says only that Yosef said, “No.” But was that “No” easy or difficult? Listen to the Shalshelet, listen to that forward-backward, forward-backward, forward-backward note and you understand how tempted he was, how hard it must have been for him to say, “No.” The Shalshelet makes the “No” come out, “”<8>

The other two cases are less clear. Why is there a shalshelet for Avraham’s servant (whom the midrash assumes is Eliezer)? We can judge him negatively and say he had a daughter whom he wanted Yitzchak to marry, so he was ambivalent about finding a wife from Avraham’s family. In other words, his hesitation was because of the desire for status.<9> Or we can judge him positively and say he was apprehensive because of the tremendous responsibility to find Yitzchak the right wife.<10>

And what about the shalshelet of Moshe or Aharon? It’s not clear which of them is the subject of the pasuk. If it’s Moshe, this would be his last act of shechitah before Aharon took over as Kohen Gadol. Perhaps Moshe was reluctant to give up being the Kohen Gadol, which was the highest level of kedushah attainable by a human being.<11> Or he was nervous about whether he had done a good enough job preparing Aharon to be the Kohen Gadol.<12> Alternatively, the subject of the pasuk is Aharon. Because he had never done shechitah before, understandably he was apprehensive about doing it right.<13> Or Aharon was nervous about whether he was worthy of being the Kohen Gadol.<14> In other words, the shalshelet shows hesitation on the part of even someone as great as Moshe or Aharon. This can be a source of inspiration for us. As Rabbi Lucas puts it:

When next we are paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong decision, let us hear the sound of the Shalshelet, which reminds us that doing the right thing is hard, terribly, terribly hard, and that it has always been hard – that it was hard, even for our ancestors, even for Moses himself – but that they somehow, someway, from someplace, found the strength to do it.<15>


A different approach understands the shalshelet as a sign of emphasis and strength. This fits with the meaning of the word “shalshelet” (a chain) as well as with the way it sounds (repeating the tone over and over).

According to this approach, Yosef is the paradigm. He was firm in refusing Mrs. Potifar, and his emphasis is documented both in the word (Vayema’ayn) and its trup (shalshelet). Rabbenu Bechaye thinks that the shalshelet shows that Yosef’s refusal was as firm as possible,<16> and Alshich adds that it was as if he locked himself in chains.<17> According to Rav Menachem ben Shlomo, the shalshelet shows that Yosef refused over and over again.<18>

In a variation of this approach, Rav Chaim Kanievsky interprets each shalshelet to mean that the action continued at great length. Moshe or Aharon extended the shechitah process so that plenty of blood would be available to place on the appropriate parts of Aharon’s body. Avraham’s servant kept praying to Hashem until Rivkah showed up. Lot kept waffling until the angels grabbed him.<19> In contrast, Rav Yoram Cohen Ohr points out that Yosef stopped refusing and simply ran away (Bereisheet 39:12), because he saw that Mrs. Potifar wouldn’t take no for an answer.<20>

In conclusion, we see that a shalshelet can indicate struggle or strength. While the shalshelet is a trup that is particularly unusual and dramatic, trup in general is a valuable tool for understanding the Torah. Like the soundtrack of a movie,<21> the trup can show us the emotional context of a story and thus give it extra depth.


1. Barbara Colley, Maid for Murder (A Charlotte LaRue Mystery, Book 1) (Kensington, 2002), Chap. 25.

2. The type of alarm that has a rising and falling tone is called “attack.” In Israel, it is sounded for az’akat milchamah (the war siren), telling people to take cover from incoming missiles. (Compare the alarm in the background of Beyoncé’s song “Ring the Alarm.”) In contrast, the type of alarm that has a single tone is called “alert.” In Israel, it is sounded for tzefirat zikaron (the memorial siren), telling people to stand on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron.

3. There are three more examples of shalshelet in the rest of Tanakh: Yeshayah 13:8, Amos 1:2, and Ezra 5:15. For approaches (in Hebrew) that try to explain all seven of them, see Yossi Morgenstern, “HaShalshelet KeTa’am Mefaresh,” Tura Vol. 3 (5754), 252-254 and also Rav Chaim Kanievsky (note 19 below).

4. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Vayera (5768) – The Music of Ambivalence,” 27th October 2007.  Compare Rabbi Mois Navon, “The Shalshelet: Mark of Ambivalence,” Jewish Thought 4:1 (5755-5756).

5. Rashi on Bereisheet 19:16. See Yossi Morgenstern’s English article, “The Shalshelet as Interpretive Cantillation,” Shabbat Shalom (Oz VeShalom/Netivot Shalom), Tzav 5764 (#337).  See also Rabbi Sacks (in the previous note), who describes Lot as a forerunner of those modern Jews who are ambivalent about their Jewish identity but who never succeed in assimilating fully.

6. He adds that in contrast, when Yaakov refused to be comforted for the loss of Yosef (Bereisheet 37:35), the same word is used (Vayema’ayn) but without a shalshelet. See Rav Yosef Ibn Caspi (1279-1340), Mishneh Kesef, Vol. 2 (Cracow, 5666), p. 57.

7. Morgenstern, op. cit.

8. Rabbi Alan B. Lucas, “Things I Understand, Things I Do Not Understand: Comments on the Terry Schiavo Dilemma,” March 28, 2005.

9. Rashi on Bereisheet 24:12, as interpreted in Morgenstern’s English article.

10. Rabbi Lucas, op. cit.

11. Zechariah Goren, “Al HaMashmaut HaParshanit Shel Ta’am HaShalshelet,” Tura Vol. 1 (5749), p. 90. Rabbi Lucas presents a similar idea.

12. Morgenstern, op. cit.

13. Rav Netanel ben Yeshayah (14th century), Meor HaAfelah on Vayikra chapter 8 (p. 313).

14. Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Pick, Bar-Ilan University’s Hebrew parashat hashavua sheet for Tzav 5756, as cited by Morgenstern in his English article.

15. Rabbi Lucas, op. cit.

16. Rabbenu Bechaye ben Asher (1255-1340), commentary on Bereisheet 39:8.

17. Rav Moshe Alshich (1508-1593), Torat Moshe, Bereisheet 39:8. Compare Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey (Book 12), where Odysseus escapes the lethal Sirens by being tied to the mast of his ship.

18. Rav Menachem ben Shlomo (12th century), Midrash Sechel Tov (Buber), Bereisheet 39:8.

19. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Ta’ama DeKra (Bnei Brak, 5743), Vayera.

20. Rav Yoram Cohen Ohr, “HaKinah, HaTa’avah, VeHaKavod Motzi’in...”

21. Michael T. Chusid, “Shalshelet and Shofar,” in his Hearing Shofar (2009), Book 3, Ch. 10.



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