Pause for Thought

Concept: The Role of the Tipcha in Pshat and Drash

וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמׇּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃ עַ֣ד מִֽמׇּחֳרַ֤ת הַשַּׁבָּת֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תִּסְפְּר֖וּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים י֑וֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֛ם מִנְחָ֥ה חֲדָשָׁ֖ה לַהֹ'׃

You shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the rest-day… seven complete weeks. Until the morrow of the seventh week, you shall count fifty days, and you shall offer a new meal-offering to Hashem.[1]

Introduction: You Shall Count Fifty Days?

Rashi address what appears to be a basic contradiction within these two verses. The first verse says to count seven complete weeks, which equals forty-nine days, while the next verse says to count fifty days! The first explanation offered by Rashi is that the place to pause when reading the second verse is after “you shall count,” so that the words “fifty days” do not represent days that you should count, but are rather connected to the second half of the verse, which now reads as follows:

·      עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ.

·       חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַה'.

 ·       Until [but excluding] the morrow of the seventh week, you shall count.

·       [When you reach] fifty days, and you shall [then] offer a new meal-offering to Hashem.

This explanation, whose source is in the Toras Kohanim, is characterized by Rashi as drash, who then proceeds to offer a pshat explanation as well. However, upon further investigation, it would appear that the first approach is not only drash, it is also actually impossible.

The Stops and Starts of Taamei Hamikra

As we have discussed on numerous occasions, the words of the Chumash are accompanied by taamim (cantillation notes). The primary function of these taamim is to indicate where in the verse one should pause, thereby forming the phrases of the verse. The most prominent pausal notes for us to be aware of are:

·       Esnachta – a note underneath the word that looks like a stirrup

·       Zakef (katan) – two dots on top of the word.

These notes have the pausal function of a comma, and sometimes of a semi-colon. The implications for our verse are that the word “הַשְּׁבִיעִת” has a zakef pause, while the word “יוֹם” has an esnachta pause. This means that the three words “תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם” are clearly one phrase – “you shall count fifty days”. How then can the drash come and split this phrase up, assigning “תִּסְפְּרוּ” as the final word of the first half of the verse, and “חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם” as the beginning of the second? It seems that what the taamim have joined together, the drash has torn asunder!

Now, we might be inclined to simply say that the taamim are relevant only for the pshat reading of the verse, while the drash does not recognize their role. However, I believe that the matter in fact goes deeper than that, namely, that the drash actually has a different way of responding to the taamei hamikra. To understand how this is so, let us first meet another one of the taamim.

Introducing the Tipcha

One of the taamim that features in every verse in the Torah is known as a tipcha. It is conveniently shaped as a comma, and it also functions as a somewhat milder pause. Rashi, in numerous places in his commentary on the Torah, clearly takes note of the tipcha and explains the verses accordingly.[2] Indeed, in one place, he states explicitly that his explanation is based on the question of which word in the phrase carries the tipcha.[3]

In the Selichos: Vayikra b’Shem Hashem

The pausal effect of the tipcha finds practical expression regarding the way we recite our prayers. In the selichos, as a prelude to the Thirteen Attributes of Divine mercy, we recite the introductory verse which says:

וַיֵּרֶד ה' בֶּעָנָן וַיִּתְיַצֵּב עִמּוֹ שָׁם וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם ה'

Hashem descended in a cloud and stood with him [Moshe] there, and He called out with the Name Hashem.

The translation we have given for the final three words of the verse is actually one of two possibilities, depending on whether one reads all three words together or pauses before the final word – “Hashem”.

·       If they are read all together, it would mean, “And he [Moshe] called out in the Name of Hashem.”[4]

·       If one pauses before the final word, it means, “And He [Hashem] called out with the Name ‘Hashem’.”[5]  

And indeed, the Mishnah Berurah[6] writes in the name of the Abudraham[7] that one should pause slightly between the words “b’shem” and “Hashem”, on account of the tipcha under the word “b’shem”.

In light of this, returning to our verses regarding counting the omer, Rabbeinu Bachye points out that the word “תִּסְפְּרוּ” is accompanied by a tipcha, and that this is the basis for the drash which splits up the phrase “תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם” into two.


While this now sounds very simply as if the drash is also following the taamim, this is not the case. There is one very important qualification regarding the pausal role of the tipcha, namely, when it appears in a very brief phrase and is bracketed by stronger pauses, its capacity to function as a pause is effectively nullified.[8] This means that if two (or three) words are both preceded and followed by stronger pauses such as esnachta or zakef (or the end of a verse), then those words are read together as one phrase, even if there is a tipcha present among them. The most helpful example of this is our own verse, where the phrase “תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם” comes with a zakef immediately before it and ends with an esnachta (under the word “יוֹם”). As such, there is no question that these three words are to be read together as one phrase, and the tipcha in the word “תִּסְפְּרוּ” should not have asserted itself to break up the phrase. And yet the drash insists that it does!

What is the way to understand all of this?

Revelations from the Vilna Gaon: A Major Principle in Drash

Commenting on the opening verse of the Torah, “בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹקִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץIn the beginning, God created the heaven and earth,”[9] the Midrash states that the word “אֵת” as appears together with “הַשָּׁמַיִםthe heavens” and “הָאָרֶץthe earth” comes to include all of their derivatives, which were also created in some basic form on that first day.[10]

We know that every comment of the midrash has some basis in the verse. What is the basis of the midrash on this occasion? The word “אֵת” in this verse is certainly not unusual or redundant – Lashon Hakodesh requires it to denote the objects mentioned there: the heavens and the earth!

The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary Aderes Eliyahu,[11] explains that many drash statements of Chazal are based on the following principle. Often, words in Lashon Hakodesh have more than one meaning. In any given context, it is easy to ascertain which among those meanings is being employed by the verse, which then gives us the pshat. However, what the drash will then do is enlist other meanings of that word as providing secondary meanings of the verse. Here, too, the word “את” generally denotes an object, and does not itself even have a translation, and this is clearly the pshat meaning in the opening verse of the Torah. However, sometimes the word “את” means “with”, for example the verse that describes the Children of Israel who descended to Egypt “אֵת יַעֲקֹב – with Yaakov.”[12] Therefore, the drash enlists this additional meaning of the word to uncover additional layers of understanding, even when it is not being used by the verse for that purpose on a pshat level.[13]

This is a truly fascinating and profound idea regarding the interplay between pshat and drash in the Torah – one that is revealed to us, literally, from “the beginning”!

From Words to Notes – Applying the Principle

Taking this principle of the Vilna Gaon in hand, let us proceed to apply it to the taamei hamikra. Essentially, as we have seen, the tipcha contains an element of pause, which is generally expressed on a basic pshat level. As such, even in a case where the rules of pshat determine that the pausal quality of the tipcha is disregarded, the drash re-asserts it and interprets the verse accordingly! Thus, in our case, although the word “תִּסְפְּרוּ” is sandwiched between two stronger pauses, so that the pause within its tipcha is eclipsed on a pshat level, the drash re-emphasizes it and reads it as the dividing word in the verse.

What emerges is that, in the same way that the drash has a more expansive methodology than the pshat regarding the meanings of words of the Torah, so too, with regard to the syntactical signals of the taamim!

Other Examples: Lifnei Hashem Tit’haru 

To help us absorb this idea, let us consider another one or two cases where it is expressed. The final Mishnah in Maseches Yoma[14] reads:

דרש ר' אלעזר בן עזריה: " מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי ה' תִּטְהָרוּ", עבירות שבין אדם למקום יום הכפורים מכפר, עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו אין יום הכפורים מכפר עד שירצה את חבירו.

R’ Elazar ben Azaria expounded, “From all your sins before Hashem you shall be purified,”[15] [regarding] sins between man and Hashem – Yom Kippur atones; regarding sins between man and his fellow man – Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases his fellow.

How does the verse cited by R’ Elazar ben Azaria form the basis for his exposition? Where do we see it distinguishing between different categories of sin? The Maharsha[16] explains that R’ Elazar ben Azaria reads the verse as qualifying the capacity of Yom Kippur to atone, for it states that “From all you sins before Hashem you shall be purified.” The implication is that purification, i.e. atonement, on Yom Kippur is only assured for sins that are between man and Hashem. For sins between man and man, however, there is no such unequivocal assurance, as the matter also depends on another factor – namely, appeasing his fellow, as R’ Elazar ben Azariah states.

However, when we look at the taamim in that verse we will see that this reading appears to contravene them. The word “חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם – [from all] your sins” has a zakef, which indicates that we should pause there. This means that the words that follow, “לִפְנֵי ה' – before Hashem”, are not connected in a way that then qualifies the type of sin we are talking about (sins before Hashem). Rather, the final three words of the verse, “לִפְנֵי ה' תִּטְהָרוּ”, are a self-contained phrase – “before Hashem you shall be purified”!

Yet, here too, the penultimate word of the verse, “Hashem”, has a tipcha. The drash exposition therefore takes note of this and reads the verse with the tipcha as the dominant pause, thereby joining together the words “from all you sins before Hashem,” i.e. sins between man and Hashem[17]

In Az Yashir: The Meaning of the Words “b’mayim adirim”

In Az Yashir (the Song of the Sea), the verse describes how the Egyptians drowned in the sea like lead:

צָלֲלוּ כַּעוֹפֶרֶת בְּמַיִם אַדִּירִים[18]

The final word, “אַדִּירִים”, means “mighty”, but what is this word describing? Rashi on that verse does not comment, but he does discuss this matter elsewhere. In the Song of Devorah in Sefer Shoftim,[19] it relates how Yael incapacitated the wicked general, Sisera, before killing him:

מַיִם שָׁאַל חָלָב נָתָנָה בְּסֵפֶל אַדִּירִים הִקְרִיבָה חֶמְאָה

He asked for water, [yet] she gave him milk, in a cup of the mighty she presented cream.

Rashi explains that the term “סֵפֶל אַדִּירִים” denotes a cup that is normally used for water. To explain how the word “אַדִּירִים” refers to water, he cites the phrase in Az Yashir, “בְּמַיִם אַדִּירִיםin mighty waters”. We see that, according to Rashi, the word “אַדִּירִים - mighty” describes the waters in which the Egyptians drowned, so that the meaning of the verse is: “They [they Egyptians] drowned like lead in mighty waters.”

However, the Gemara explains the word “אַדִּירִים” very differently. In Maseches Menachos,[20] it states that although the Egyptians were considered mighty, Hashem was mightier and drowned them in water. The Gemara’s source for the idea that the Egyptians were mighty is, “צָלֲלוּ כַּעוֹפֶרֶת בְּמַיִם אַדִּירִים”. Rashi[21] explains that according to the Gemara, the word “אַדִּירִים” describes, not the waters, but the Egyptians, who were mighty! This means that the words “בְּמַיִם אַדִּירִים” are not to be read together. Rather, one should pause at the word “בְּמַיִם”, so that it reads: “they drowned like lead in water, the mighty [Egyptians].”

The Gemara’s reading, which pauses at the word “בְּמַיִם”, would appear to be supported the fact that it is accompanied by a tipcha. As such we ask: Why did Rashi in Shoftim differ from the Gemara’s explanation and insist instead on reading the words “בְּמַיִם אַדִּירִים” together? Once again, the answer is that in this verse, the rules of pshat dictate not to pause at the tipcha. Since the earlier two words “צָלֲלוּ כַּעוֹפֶרֶת” end with a zakef pause, the final two words must be read together – “in mighty waters”. Yet, here too, the Gemara approaches these words through the lens of drash, whereby the tipcha’s signal to pause is asserted above other pauses, and the words are read accordingly.[22]

The Torah is referred to as a song,[23] and it indeed fascinating to see how pshat and drash have their own methodologies regarding how the words of Torah are to be sung.

[1] Vayikra 23:15-16.

[2] See e.g. Rashi to Bereishis 49:9, s.v. miteref and s.v. b’ni, Bamidbar 14:40 s.v. asher and Devarim 33:26 s.v. ain. [See also Rashi to Yirmiyahu 4:1, Yeshayahu 40:13, Shir Hashirim 1:4 and Koheles 5:11.]

[3] See Rashi in Devarim 29:20, where he notes that the verse there uses the phrase “בספר התורה הזה”, with the masculine word “זה”, while earlier in Devarim (28:61) it says “בספר התורה הזאת,” using the feminine word “זאת”. Rashi explains that in the first case, the word “הזה” is used because it qualifies the masculine word “בספר”, while in the second case, it uses the word “הזאת”, since it qualifies the word “התורה”, which is feminine. He adds that the distinction between these two cases is indicated by the tipcha, which in the first case is under the word “התורה”, which is then read together with “בספר”, so that the meaning is “in this book of the Torah,” while in the second case the tipcha is under “בספר”, resulting in a pause, so the words “התורה הזאת” are read together, which then means “in the book of this Torah.”

[4] Although only Hashem was mentioned by name in the beginning of the verse, the pronoun “he” in “he called out” nonetheless refers to Moshe, since the final word mentions Hashem explicitly.

[5] Since the final word “Hashem” denotes the name that was expressed, but not an actual reference to Hashem, we revert to the default rule that a pronoun refers to the most recently mentioned noun – in this case, Hashem, as mentioned in the beginning of the verse.

[6] 581:14.

[7] Hilchos Tefilos ha’Taaniyos. See also Rashi to Shemos loc. cit., with commentary Zefer Zikaron by R’ Avraham Bukarat.

[8] This principle emerges from Rashi in Shir Hashirim 8:6 (s.v. eish), commenting on the words “רשפי אש שלהבתיה”.

[9] Bereishis 1:1.

[10] Bereishis Rabbah 1:19, cited in Rashi ibid, verse 14 s.v. yehi.

[11] Bereishis ibid.

[12] Shemos 1:1.

[13] On a halachic level as well, the Gemara records that one of the sages of the Mishnah, Shimon Ha’amsuni (and after him, R’ Akiva) would expound on every instance of the word “את” in the Torah as including something, see e.g. Bava Kama 41b.

[14] 85b.

[15] Vayikra 16:30.

[16] Chiddushei Aggados, Yoma ibid.

[17] Interestingly, in the chazzan’s repetition for Mussaf on Yom Kippur, where it relates the order of avodah of the day, the quote from this verse also ends with the word “Hashem”, with the final word of the verse, “תטהרו – you shall be purified,” mentioned only in the following paragraph. This appears to be in accord with the reading of the verse as per R’ Elazar ben Azariah’s exposition.

[18] Shemos 15:10.

[19] 5:25.

[20] 53a.

[21] Menachos ibid.

[22] The Mishnah Berurah (51:17), citing the Pri Megadim, writes that when reciting Az Yashir in pesukei d’zimra, one should pause between the words “במים” and “אדירים”, as per the Gemara in Menachos. In terms of our discussion, and in light of Rashi’s comment in Sefer Shoftim, it is noteworthy that the Pri Megadim is recommending to read these words in accordance with the drash’s relationship to the taamim, and not that of pshat.

[23] Sanhedrin 21b, based on Devarim 31:19.