A message from Cantor Kate Judd~
Reading the “Ten Utterances”
Leaving Passover behind, we count each day of the Omer, waiting for the coming of the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot. At one time an agricultural festival celebrating the first barley harvest, after the fall of the Temple Shavuot came to mark the awesome experience at Sinai when Adonai gave Moses and the Israelites Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Sayings or the Ten Utterances. The “Ten Commandments”, as they are commonly known, appear twice in the Torah, in slightly differing forms – once in Parshat Yitro, in the Book of Shemot, and once later when we retell the story of Moses in the Book of Devarim. Curiously, both times Aseret HaDibrot appears they have two sets of cantillation marks (trop, in Yiddish, or te’amimin Hebrew). The two sets are called ta’ameiha tachton and ta’ameiha’elyon – low cantillation marks and high cantillation marks.
What is the meaning of “low” and “high”? Some claim that the set called “high” has more trop above the words. I am suspicious of this explanation, since both sets have some marks above and some below. Another possibility is that the elyon, the high version, has a fancier sound with more ornate cantillation. Yet another reason may be that when we read the Ten Utterances with ta’amei ha ’elyon, we present them in a much more dramatic fashion, dividing the “commandments” up in to exactly ten, just as they are said to have been uttered by G-d and repeated by Moses to the people at Sinai. With the ta’amei hatachton there are thirteen sections instead of ten, leaving open the question – which “commandment” is which?
What is the purpose of having two ways of reading Aseret HaDibrot? Some say that if you do the fancy version you
encourage the perception (held by many Christians) that the Ten Commandments are all you need to follow and never mind the rest of the 613. By giving the Ten Utterances so much fanfare, these folks reason, you overstate their importance. They are just ten more good rules among all the others. However, the custom in all parts of the world except Jerusalem is to use the elyon, or fancy version, in public readings of the Ten Statements. The tachton, or low version, is only for private study. (In Jerusalem the rules are different – as for many things!) So if we Jews only read the fancy version in public, that would seem to suggest that we think Aseret HaDibrot are special, too.
The Utterances change their meaning somewhat, depending how you divide them up. Tachton divides differently than elyon; to further complicate matters, some scholars divide elyon differently than others. Sometimes the “Commandments” come out to more than ten, sometimes fewer. As one of my “Intro to Judaism” students wrote recently, “The Ten Commandments are a staid, solid staple of what are called ‘western’ religions.” Yet even this “staple” is subject to interpretation and argument. This is true of every rule we are given, every instruction – indeed, every word we ever hear or read. The same student goes on to say, “The Ten are so cryptic I imagine the rabbis having glorious field days filling in their meanings.” To be sure! And we all are welcome to do as the rabbis have done. We can settle for a mundane understanding, or reach for a higher and more spiritual one. We can choose to hear what seems obvious, or look for what else G-d might be trying to tell us. We can listen with our habitual understanding, or prick our ears a little higher and find more meanings.
What the ta’amei hatachton and ha’elyon teach us is that we can learn more than one thing at a time, if we only pay attention. The Ten Utterances are both ordinary – tachton –and special—elyon. And if the Ten Utterances can be understood in more than one way, then why not every other utterance that we hear? The Kabbalists and the Chassidim say that Da’at, or knowledge, one of the Ten Sephirot or “Divine Emanations”, can also be tachton or elyon. “In very small terms,” writes Rabbi Moshe Delerb, “Da’at elyon is what you know and want to share, da’at tachton is what your friend hears you saying.” But if we listen carefully to what is said to us, we can surely find what is elyon in it. Every thought, every word, every utterance that reaches us carries multiple meanings and intentions. It is our job to at least try to hear the higher, or the deeper, or the more mystical, or the more beautiful, or – most of all – the truest meanings. We need always to listen for the meanings that are elyon – then, truly, we will meet The Elyon – the High One – and recognize God in every person.