Vaetchanan I - KAMETZ AND PATACH
THOSE WHO FOLLOW the reading of the Torah carefully are tempted to correct the baal koreh when he reads the Asseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. When they look in the Chumash they see one set of notes, and when they listen to the reader they hear a different set of trop . Furthermore, not only does he change the cantillations but also the pronunciation of a key word. Instead of pronouncing the word tirtzach in the verse, "Thou shalt not commit murder," with a patach , the reader pronounces it tirtzoch , with a kamefz . This he does not once but three times in the year when the Ten Commandments are read in the synagogue: when the sidrah Yitro is read during the winter, on Shavuot in the spring, and today, in the middle of the summer.
To put your mind at ease, I am pleased to inform you that the baal koreh did not err. He followed the special rule for reading this important section of the Torah which states that for private reading the taam hatachton, "the lower version," should be used, and for public reading the taam haelyon "the higher version."
Let me explain what is involved. Two versions contain the identical words and phrases, but the taam hatachton is broken up into shorter sentences requiring different notes. The first two Commandments appear as five separate sentences, but in public they are read as one long sentence. The fourth Commandment which deals with the Sabbath is, in private reading, divided into four sentences, but in the "higher version" the entire Commandment is read as one sentence, without a pause.
This necessitates a change in the cantillations and in the pronunciations of the Hebrew word for murder. The rules of Hebrew grammar require that the last word in a sentence have a kametz, whereas the same word appearing elsewhere has a patach. When the Commandments are read publicly, the phrase lo tirtzach is read as one unit, and therefore has a kametz.
The difference between these two vowels—the kametz and the patach —is that the ah sound is produced when the mouth is wide open. When a doctor examines the throat of a patient, he tells him to say ah. The word patach is derived from the verb pateach which means to open. The Hebrew word for door, petach also comes from this root. The kametz sound of oh is produced in an opposite manner. The lips have to be rounded and the mouth is almost entirely closed. That explains why the letter 0 in many languages is shaped in a circular form. Kametz, in Hebrew, means to close. As you know, a person who closes his hand and does not give charity, is known as a kamtzan, a close-fisted individual.
The Vilner Gaon , in a brilliant comment, says that murder can be committed in one of two ways. One can kill by either opening or closing one's mouth. A witness, by opening his mouth and bearing false testimony, can bring death and untold misery to an innocent person and his family and thus violate the Commandment with a patach. Another one, by withholding testimony that may save a human being from the gallows or from years of incarceration, violates the same Commandment with a kametz.
The marvel of this interpretation is that it is always timely. The heinous crimes that were committed against our people could be classified either under the headings of tirtzach or tirtzoch. There were cruel enemies who opened their mouths, who accused us falsely, who maligned and vilified us, and then destroyed one-third of us. Then there were the high-placed murderers, seated in the Council of Nations and in "religious" retreats, who killed with a kametz. They held their mouths tightly shut and did not utter a word of protest when the gas chambers and crematoria were working full blast.
The same tragedy and the same travesty are being reenacted before our eyes today. There are the Arafats and the other Arab chieftains who kill with a patach, and there are many in the rest of the world who are doing the same with a kametz.
The Gaon's interpretation can also be applied to the spiritual realm. There, too, one can find two categories of ruin. Jewish values can be destroyed either with a patach or a kmnetz. The patach method is by open opposition to Jewish observances and traditions, by slurring Jewish concepts and customs, by advocating intermarriage and helping the enemies of Israel. The same results can be achieved by withholding one's protest against the vilifiers and arch assimilationists amongst us.
A Jewish child can be weaned away from his home and his faith by the patach method—when he hears Jews and Judaism slandered in the home and mocked on the college campus—or by the kamefz way, when no Jewish schooling and no Jewish home environment are provided.
In the presence of a Congregation we employ the taam haelyon and read tirtzoch with a kametz as it was originally heard at Sinai. We do not suspect anyone who enters a Synagogue as being guilty of the patach method of injury. Most shule yidden will react vehemently when they hear Jews or Judaism maligned. They know that the attack is levelled directly against them. But a number of us are guilty to varying degrees of the kametz variety . We sometimes hear uncomplimentary and critical things said about Jews, Judaism, the Torah and God—and we keep silent. This causes a great deal of damage to the young and helps alienate them from our camp.
The taam haelyon is a plea to be careful of what we say and the taam hatachton insists that we speak up when necessary on behalf of our people and our faith. Only thus can we hope to be able to transmit our spiritual treasures to future generations of Israel.