Monday, February 16, 2009

Orthodox Women should learn to lein

[Note: "leining" refers to singing the Torah’s text according to the "trop" (the traditional cantillation).]

I must admit that I am biased in this matter; my mother was the one who would listen to me practice leining on many Friday nights, and correct both my pronunciation and my trop. Nonetheless, I am dismayed by the modern practice of teaching boys to lein, and not teaching girls likewise.

A commenter here does mention one Bais Yaakov that teaches girls to lein, but that’s it – and this is a mistake. Women should learn to lein.

I attribute this omission in Orthodox women’s education to three factors:
1) The relegation of “leining” to Bar Mitzvah training;
2) A general lack of appreciation for the way that leining affects the meaning of a pasuk, and the way it helps children learn;
3) The lack of time afforded to chumash education in schools, in general.

To address the former two factors (because the last needs its own essay!): Leining is supposed to be fundamental to the way anyone reads chumash, and it is supposed to be taught when we first train our children to read chumash.

This is hardly my own thought; it’s an explicit gemara:

A mishnah in Nedarim (35b in the Vilna Shas) discusses whether a man may teach another man’s children if an outstanding oath currently prohibits him from “benefiting” that person. The mishnah says, ומלמד הוא את בניו ואת בנותיו מקרא, that this man may teach the other one’s “sons and daughters” chumash.

In the course of that discussion (36b), the gemara discusses teaching those children פיסוק טעמים, the use of music to read words and phrases, and the gemara makes it clear that both boys and girls classically studied this, as part of learning how to read chumash.

This teaches us two points:
1) Leining was taught as part of basic reading (and for more on this see a brief essay by Dr. Daniel Lasker here), and
2) Girls classically learned it, too.

Which brings me to an old article I happened across today, at the amusingly titled What’s Bothering Artscroll? blog. The article notes that the Artscroll Women’s Siddur does not include the trop notes for Shema, and wonders why the notes were omitted.

In truth, I did not know until very recently that there was an Artscroll Women’s Siddur. My wife, the grand Rebbetzin, wonders whether there should not also be an Artscroll Men’s Siddur. I think this would be an excellent idea. Perhaps it might contain an expanded Halachah section on how to deal with conflicts between the Super Bowl and night seder, how to send regards to your chavrusa’s wife without violating Shulchan Aruch Even haEzer, how often a tallit katan must be washed, and the like.

But to return to the matter at hand: If there must be a separate, women’s edition, why omit the trop? Women are supposed to know it, too!

I do not consider myself an innovator, but the restoration of leining education for women would be no innovation – it would be a return to the path laid down by the chachamim for educating our children.


  1. how often a tallit katan must be washed

    How often a tallit katan must be what?

  2. (Since I'm gonna send my mom a link to this post I know better than to respond to Steg's comment. ;-) )

    My mother also taught me how to lein. The story of how she knows how to lein is that her mother was a Hebrew school teacher in South Africa, and part of being a Hebrew school teacher was teaching kids for their bar mitzvah. The problem was that my grandmother did not have much of a voice, certainly not good enough to teach leining, so she sent my mom to some chazzan (whose name I will be scolded for not remembering) to learn. My mom taught all my grandmother's bar mitzvah students for a number of years, and has taught many other students of her own throughout the years.

    I remember being taught by Mr. Abrams in 2nd grade (!) about trope and how it breaks up a pasuk. He did not teach us to sing, but did teach us that the wishbone-looking thing is a big phrase divider, and the two dots above the word is a little phrase divider, and so on.

    I remember my shock once in Yeshiva when a chavrusa of mine was not aware that trope can be used to divide up a pasuk. After 12 years of Jewish day school, he had never come across the concept.

    In KBY, there is a group of kids, kids of rebbeim and kollel members, that meets a few times a week to learn leining. There's about 15-20 of them, ranging in age from about 6 to 12.

  3. Seen my review of the artscroll women's siddur?

  4. Steg-

    Thanks for that story. I think my mother learned by hearing us (me, as well as my two brothers) learn.
    I suspect that the people who don't understand the value of leining also don't bother with the Kuzari's excursus on the special status of Hebrew and the issues of speech vs. text.

    Hadn't seen it, no, but you certainly raise key points there. Thanks.

  5. Very interesting, and your points about leining as integral to Chumash are really relevant to liberal Judaism, as well.

    Out litte guy (2 1/2) already distinguishes between English and Hebrew, in what he hears, but I'm not sure when we'll introduce the concept of separate lettering systems, given that he's only just starting to recognize some Roman letters.

    Our Hebrew school doesn't even start until kindergarten, but I can't imagine waiting that long to teach him some hebrew basics...

  6. Hi Tzipporah,
    In college I took Developmental Psych classes, and one point the prof made was that language is acquired exceptionally well at a pre-school age - but that a child who is faced with multiple languages may have a somewhat reduced functionality in each language. I don't know about the current thinking.
    We started earlier than PK, and we have not regretted it.

  7. Here in Rehovot, an attempt to have a class in trop for women at Ohel Shai (a Young Israel affiliate shul) was canceled when Rav Kook (the Rav HaIr) expressed disapproval.

    A series of 3 classes was held a few years later in a private home, but the trop were taught only as punctuation, without music, since the teacher (from Yeshivat Hadarom, I think) felt it would be improper.

  8. I'm no expert in the leining subject. I went to public school with a good C Hebrew School and never picked up Hebrew there. We had a more O rabbi who didnt want the girls doing an imitation Bar Mitzvah.

    I wish there was more emphasis on learning Hebrew fluently in the states.

  9. Anonymous-
    Interesting. Was Rav Kook's opposition in written form, or no such luck?


  10. Hmm, I'm tempted to send your post to my husband. I never learned how to lein, though I could probably lein the first pasuk of Breishit, as my son has been studying for his upcoming bar-mitzvah.

    I like the idea of my daughter eventually learning to lein, but right now she's struggling with learning to read. Will it happen? I doubt it.

    Regarding Hebrew fluency, I'm rather pleased with my sons' Hebrew teachers. There are U.S. schools that are doing a decent job of teaching Hebrew, at least to the more advanced students.

  11. yes, the bilingual families we've known have ended up having kids who speak later, but sort of burst out all at once with both languages fluently - not mixing the two.

    The toddler actually plays with magnetic Hebrew letters on the fridge, but his favorite activity is shoving them underneath it, or "driving" them (he keeps interpreting the dots on shins etc as wheels). :)

    I suppose the take-away for me is that I need to brush up on my own leining and trope so I can be an active resource for him, when he shows interest. Ugh.

  12. Don't know - I gave my name as an interested party, thought it was on, and got a word of mouth message it had been canceled, and why.

    >was Rav Kook's opposition ...

  13. Leora-
    Worth noting: Music can help kids pick up reading fluency, or so I am told.

    Added benefit: When he sees you working on it he'll understand that learning is lifelong.

    Too bad; I would love to have seen his thinking.

  14. Hello from Michael’s mom. I love to lein, though I have never leined at a service (not even a women’s service), only in private for fun (yes, it is actually fun to lein), or leining a pasuk while studying it to enhance the learning, or for teaching.
    I favor leining for all students, boys and girls, and for adults. It introduces meaning, improves (or creates) Hebrew reading skills, shows us where in the word to place the accent, adds pleasure, brings out the poetry, and offers an additional learning style to help coax those neuronal synapses into mastering the material.
    But, as I was told by a school principal, in a crowded dual day-school curriculum, what would have to give to create time for leining?
    Dikduk? (No, dikduk already “gave” in so many schools.)
    I see leining as a pathway to other learning (analogous to learning to write, learning to read music, or reading the manual).
    I suggest covering fewer chapters of (whatever – Chumash, Mishna, Gemara) to make space for leining lessons. The younger the better. The time invested will pay itself back with enhanced quality of learning, a memorizing strategy, and maybe even faster speed. And please, no need to prefer dumbed down trope variations – teach the nuances, and many students will successfully master them.
    In any case, kids are already chanting, as early as Bereishit, so they may as well chant in trope instead of in sing-song, even before they learn leining.
    I find it easier to chant in trope than to read, for all types of learners – those who read Hebrew well and sing well, those who read with ease but lack a singing voice, those who sing well but battle with the Hebrew, and those who find both a challenge.
    Leining has pushed my interest in correct Hebrew pronunciation, bringing home to me that every time we ever say a word, we are saying it right or wrong (I mean, correctly or incorrectly). Kamatz katan, chataf kamatz, and kamatz before kamatz katan – oh oh oh – be’shochbe’cha! Sheva na and sheva nach: Le’kade’sho, not le’kadsho. Accent on the correct syllable: ve-a-hav-TA, not ve-a-HAV-ta. Love it!

  15. Hello Michael's mom, and thanks for your comment.
    I sympathize with the principal; I know the problem of trying to squeeze in curriculum. Even though the benefit is great, and even though trop is part of reading, we must admit that teaching reading with trop requires more time, and more work for certain kids, than teaching reading without trop.
    It's a real problem, and I'm not sure there is a solution for all schools.

  16. when my son was a little younger than 4 i taught him to lein the first פרשה of שמע (and bits from the second פרשה) with almost perfect ivre. six months later now and i find myself "fighting" with him because his morah's way of doing is taking over.

    my grandfather started teaching me to lein when i was 9. i attribute my love of leining today to this. i.e., it was not something forced on my under pressure for a public event.

    now i love leining and i'm pretty open to some (but not all) "feminist" stuff, but i wonder what the purpse would be to teach leining to girls. 99.9% of guys have no idea about the syntactic role of trop (forget about actually understanding it), so girls probably won't get it either. and they'll never be able to use in shul. so what's the purpose?

    "Leining is supposed to be fundamental to the way anyone reads chumash"

    a) i've commented that we have artificially divorced trop from the text
    b) there was also a mesorah for leining torah she-be-al peh.

    "the gemara discusses teaching those children פיסוק טעמים"

    see the תורה תמימה on ותינוק ללמו ספר למנצח בנגינות

  17. Lion:
    Your point about actually understanding what trop accomplishes is well-taken, but it just adds an item to what should be taught - not only music, but meaning.

  18. I am dismayed by the modern practice of teaching boys to lein, and not teaching girls likewise.