Family & Education

Learning to leyn

Columnist Susan Reuben finds playing a more active role in the shul service is great but also stressful


I was walking down the street recently with my headphones on. The music wasn’t loud enough so I turned the volume up, and then up some more, until suddenly I had the cringing realisation that my phone was on loudspeaker, so the sound was actually projecting out into the street.

Many of us have made this mistake at some point, and the level of embarrassment felt is in line with what we happen to be listening to at the time. It could be pretty bad: Musical Youth’s greatest hits, for example — or The Wiggles.

I maintain that I beat even that, however, because I was playing a recording of myself leyning the Torah portion I was learning.

I started to learn how to read from the Torah about four years ago and I still find it fantastically difficult, given that almost all the useful information — vowels, punctuation, the notes themselves — is missing from the scroll.

Twelve verses is about as much as I ever volunteer for — and even that takes me a good month of preparation, a few minutes each day. The most proficient Torah readers in my service regularly leyn thirty or forty verses — or even more — having taken far less time to prepare than I do for my few. As I watch them, I feel a combination of awe and personal inadequacy.

“It’s just practice,” they say, when I ask them what their secret is. “You get faster and faster at learning it the more you do it.”

They must be right, because so many people have told me the same thing — and I try to believe them… but given that one is learning a different portion each time, it’s hard to understand how practice makes the process quicker.

It still gives me huge satisfaction, though, to be able to take a small part in something that is happening in a similar way in shuls all around the world. (In my egalitarian minyan the fact that I happen to be a woman reading Torah is entirely irrelevant — it’s simply a non-issue.)

I don’t believe that the Torah was dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai … but I do believe in its value as the core text of the Jewish people, and in the beauty of carrying on a tradition of reading it out loud that has been in place for centuries.

The current system of Torah reading stems from the Masoretes, a group of scribes and scholars working between the 7th and 11th centuries CE. As well as adding vowels to the Hebrew as a way of fixing and passing on the way that it should be pronounced, they gave every word its own “cantillation note”.

Together, these notes form short musical phrases that illuminate the syntax, grammar, and sometimes even content of the text. Once you understand the system, they allow you to hear the pauses and full stops, to know where a word should be stressed and when something dramatic or important is happening.

My friend Helen, whom I met at Cambridge 25 years ago, is the child of a vicar, and because religion in general is an interesting subject to her, she’s always keen to learn about the peculiar goings-on in my Jewish life. I therefore explained to her about the process of Torah reading.

“So the Hebrew in the scroll doesn’t have any vowels in it?” she clarified.

“That’s right.”

“Or punctuation?”

“Nope – no punctuation.”

“And each word has to be sung in a specific way — but that’s not written down either?”


“And you’re not allowed to make any mistakes?”

“No — it has to be perfect.”


Every single time I am sitting in the congregation waiting for my turn, I ask myself why oh why I am putting myself through this.

Will I panic and be faced with a sea of indecipherable text that I may as well never have seen before in my life?

Will I hesitate and stumble and need to be corrected again and again? Fortunately, the answer to date has always been ‘no’, but the possibility always hangs there.

And what really bothers me about this is the fact that I’m responsible in those few minutes for the congregation’s prayer experience. Whether they are using the time that I’m reading to follow along in the Hebrew or the English, to read the footnotes, to recede into their own internal space and think whatever thoughts they don’t usually have time for when not in shul — if I really mess things up, the jarring effect of that is bound to ruin the moment for them.

Of course, for those chatting to their friend next to them or wondering how long it is till Kiddush, it’s less of an issue. I don’t say that judgementally — some weeks, I am that person.

One thing is for sure, though. The version of myself that Helen knew at Cambridge all that time ago — who refused to attend JSoc even once and who never went near a shul — would have been utterly incredulous to learn that this is what she’d be spending her time doing twenty-five years in the future.


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