Ivan at Torah reading

The leyner.

Today, August 28th, 2015, is the 12th birthday of Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest-ever Oscar nominee for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Happy birthday, Quvenzhané!

Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday dear Quvenzhané,
Happy Birthday to you!

Suppose you were asked to sing this song, solo, at Quvenzhané’s birthday party. But you’ve never heard the song before, and you don’t know the melody. What’s more, English isn’t your first language.

If you have the musical notation, you can plonk out the tune on a piano and sing along. Or, you can learn the song by ear from a recording. Either way, you repeat the words until they flow off the tongue.

But when it comes time for the birthday party, you won’t be able to look at the musical score, or even the lyrics. Your only reference is this:


If you’ve practiced the melody and you know how to pronounce Quvenzhané, it’s not too difficult.

Now imagine that the lyrics of the song are in Hebrew, the song itself is over a dozen lines long, the musical score uses an arcane notation developed 1,000 years ago, and the melody changes with every line of the song. That’s leyning.

* * *

My leyning sensei says I’m a natural.

“That’s just Ivan, he’s good at a lot of things,” my best friend tells the sensei. “When he wants to learn something, he really gets into it, and when he’s had enough he moves on to something else.”

That reminds me of a story about someone called Barsabbas.

Everyone, get out your Bibles!

* * *

Following the Ascension of Jesus, the apostle Judas “burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18).

Peter needed a replacement for the apostleship. Someone else had to take up Judas’ share of the ministry and his position as overseer. In Jerusalem, speaking to a crowd of about 120 believers, Peter explains the main qualification for the job:

“So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).

There are only two candidates among the believers, only two men who were present during Jesus’ life: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus; and Matthias.

Joseph and Matthias, the alternate jurors to the original 12 apostles.

Lots are drawn, Matthias is selected. The random outcome divinely ordained, Matthias becomes overseer and takes Judas’ share of the ministry.

* * *

What happened to the loser?

Who is this Joseph “Justus” Barsabbas?

Barsabbas means “son of Sabbas.” Was Joseph’s father’s name Sabbas?  Or is “Sabbas” a cognate of “Sabbath” – an indicator of Jewishness?

Or is “Barsabbas” a pun on Barabbas? Recall Pilate’s choice between two men named Jesus: “Who do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” (Matt. 27:17)

Barabbas, not chosen for crucifixion; Barsabbas, not chosen as an apostle.

A new name often indicates a Biblical transformation – Abram into Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Saul into Paul – the new name marking a new life. With Barsabbas, we may have a different type of name change, one in which the new name has human rather than divine origin. In other words, a nickname.

If Barsabbas was a nickname, then Joseph was simply Joseph until the lots were drawn. Only then was Joseph called Barsabbas, the one not chosen. The writer of Acts first introduces us to “Joseph called Barsabbas” and goes on to describe how Joseph earned the nickname.

Joseph was also called “Justus,” but that’s another story.

* * *

There’s another Barsabbas.

“Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers…” (Acts 15:22)

The four men depart Jerusalem with a letter of introduction to the believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. Judas and Silas spend some time with the believers in Antioch, and then “they were sent off in peace by the believers to those who had sent them” (15:33).

At the time, Paul and Barnabas are still in Antioch with many others (15:35), and they decide to revisit the cities in which they had already preached (15:36). But before they go, Paul and Barnabas have a sharp disagreement:

“Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work” (15:37-38).

They go their separate ways: Barnabas and Mark to Cyprus; Paul and Silas to Syria and Cilicia.

Silas had left the company of believers in Antioch, but from this it appears he hadn’t left the city.[1] And so Silas departs with Paul, presumably with the letter of introduction for their next stop.

Meanwhile, Barnabas departs by sail with Mark, that is, John called Mark. They sail, not to Judea nor Jerusalem, but rather to Cyprus.

Cyprus was where we first encountered Mark, or rather John, before John was called Mark: “…and they had John also to assist them” (13:5). John was there for the encounter with the false magician Bar-Jesus or Elymas, who was blinded by Saul called Paul.

From Cyprus, Paul and his companions sail to Perga in Pamphylia, and it was here where John so offended Paul. John deserted Paul in Pamphylia and returned to Jerusalem, and this is the John called Mark we find in Antioch. And this disagreement over John divides the companions.

[1] A footnote in the NSRV shows how ancient authorities solved the problem of the reappearance of Silas by adding to 15:34: “But it seemed good to Silas to remain there.” This is a clumsy hack.

* * *

Lost? Let’s start over, using slightly more familiar names and places.

  1. Starting from London, John, Paul, George, and Richard (also called Ringo) are sent on tour by their manager for scheduled tour dates in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Leeds.
  2. In Edinburgh, George and Ringo stay with some friends, and John and Paul with others.
  3. George and Ringo make excellent houseguests, and they depart from their hosts with a fond farewell.
  4. John and Paul decide to play extra dates in Inverness and beyond, as they’ve been there before and they think they can draw some big crowds. They fight over who’s going to be the drummer on the extended tour. John wants to bring someone named Stuart (who also goes by Stewart), but Paul objects. Nobody mentions Ringo.
  5. It turns out that Paul and Stuart had met before in Belfast. Stuart was there when Paul blinded a guy in a fight. After that, Paul and Stuart left Belfast for Inverness with the intention of touring around Scotland. But before long, Stuart, for some unknown reason, left the tour and headed back to London. Paul is still upset at Stuart for leaving.
  6. The band breaks up over the drummer argument. Paul and George continue the tour to Glasgow and Leeds. John peels off with Stuart, and they head to Belfast.

What happened to Ringo? Did he go back to London, or was he still hanging around Edinburgh with George (who accompanied Paul to Glasgow)? Why did Ringo leave?

And when did Stuart (or Stewart) show up? Recall, we first met him in Belfast, but then he ditches Paul in Inverness and heads back to London. How did Stuart end up back with the boys in Edinburgh?

One possibility is that Stuart and Ringo traded places, crossing paths on the route from London to Edinburgh, but I have a better explanation. I believe it’s all confusion based on nicknames, and that Stuart and Ringo are one and the same. If Stuart can be Stewart and Richard can be Ringo, why can’t Stuart also be Ringo?

And if John can be called Mark, and Judas called Barsabbas, cannot John also be called Judas?

A man named John assists the apostles in Cyprus, and has the name Mark bestowed upon him. Upon his desertion in Perga, he earns the nickname of Judas, and it is this same Judas who is selected by his brethren in Jerusalem as their representative for the journey to Antioch. In Antioch, he becomes Barsabbas when he is not chosen by Paul for the longer journey. Finally, Barnabas takes Barsabbas back to where we found him, in Cyprus; in the end, John.

* * *

Now, I’m not saying that Joseph called Barsabbas was the same person as Judas called Barsabbas. That would be nuts.

Joseph called Barsabbas. He’s been around since John the Baptist was baptized. He follows Jesus for the entire ride and sticks around even after the crucifixion. He gets a shot at a leadership position, and then what? He loses a coin flip and falls into obscurity.

Judas called Barsabbas. People like the guy, so they send him on the road with the chief. And then he either disappears from the face of the earth, or if you follow my nickname theory, he gets thrown off the tour far away from home, the target of an old grudge.

Maybe they’re the same Barsabbas after all. Whatever, I like ‘em both.

Judas’ portion? The other guy can have it. And whatever went down in Pamphylia, I’m guessing Paul was the unreasonable party.

* * *

Last week, for the first time at a proper synagogue with a sanctuary and a bimah and a full house on a Saturday morning, I leyned from the Torah. The leyning went fine. I’m a natural.

But I lacked the tacit knowledge of a regular. The choreography of aliyah, ascending to the Torah, picking up the little pointer stick, waiting for my turn, finding the spot, closing the book, finding the spot again. Sensei taught us how all that works, but that was months ago. And so I’m sitting there, watching the person ahead of me for the first of seven Torah portions, I’m batting third and fourth.  There’s someone giving his Hebrew name to the rabbi and then his parents’ Hebrew names, and I know my Hebrew name but I’m trying to remember my parents’ Hebrew names, or if indeed they have Hebrew names, and is it OK if I make up a Hebrew name in their absence, because the parents aren’t coming to watch me leyn, sure, I get it, three hours in a temple for five minutes, no thanks, see you later, and would they have come if I had been a dancing tree in the ballet, or some villager in the back of the chorus at the opera? Sure, unless they had childhood trauma involving the ballet or memories of some grievous insult from the opera director. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, my darling wife’s here, she’s been up since 7:30 am on a Saturday morning after a long workweek, that’s love.

I’m on deck, I ascend and sit down. I don’t have a book, what to do with my hands? The guy next to me, big macher, has a book, he comes to my aid, hands me a book, I look to macher, what page are we on, macher helpfully tilts the book, I see the page, find the page, listen for a word I know, scan the page for the word, find the place, I’m up.

I stand up, walk over to the guy in charge, speak the “<my name> son-of <father’s name> son-of <mother’s name>” formula and he looks at me funny so I say it again real slow-like, maybe one of us is slow, and then there’s some other dude up there and he says something to the guy in charge and all of a sudden they’re whispering and shuffling through papers and no, it’s this guy’s turn, and I’m pretty sure it’s my turn, I’ve been studying these verses since May, but if it’s someone else’s turn, maybe I studied the wrong verse, maybe I’m only up fourth instead of both third and fourth, but they seem pretty sure about it, I sit down. This yutz better be good at my part. Maybe I’m the understudy, maybe you gotta pay to leyn in this part of town.

They look over at me. “Are you the leyner?” Yes! I’m the leyner. Ahh, that’s right, the aliyah and the leyner are two different people. Seven Torah portions, each portion preceded by someone making an aliyah and reading a prayer. The leyner comes after the aliyah. The aliyah is a privilege and an honor granted esteemed members of the community, no homework but maybe a donation. Which means that I was the leyner trying to claim the aliyah, what a schmuck. I’m the yutz.

I find the spot and launch straight into the familiar tune I had studied. This is the fun part, nailed it.

OK, here comes another aliyah-er. I get out of the way, he does his thing, Now I’m back, folks, if you liked portion three you’re gonna love portion four. Where does the verse start? What’s the cue? We poke around, find the first line, “navi m’keerb’chah lahem,” there it is. I’m back in it. In my peripheral vision, three guys are bent over their books, moving their finger back and forth as I leyn, they’re all making sure I get it right because you have to get it right. I’m accenting where it’s accented, emphasizing where it’s emphasize-ed. “…And that same prophet shall die” gets gravitas, for a studious question I’m inquisitive. I know this text. I’ve written a rock opera about this text. I am communicating in an ancient language with people who understand exactly what I’m saying and are hanging on every syllable to make sure I’ve said it right. The guy to my left is the umpire, he calls balls and strikes, if I say something a tiny bit off he might let it slide, but when I say “vay-hi” instead of “v’hayah,” he corrects me and I say “v’hayah.” And I finish, and I do a couple handshakes, am I done? OK, I’m done, now sit down.

Guy across the aisle turns around, says something in Hebrew, “Yasher koach.”

“Gracias,” I murmur.

I sit back to watch the rest of the show. And then, around batter six, I notice that the leyner, before leyning, on behalf of the congregation, says “amen” to the aliyah-er. Yasher koach, my tuchus, I forgot the “amen” for two aliyot. Call me King Tut: Two Tanked Amens. So now I got two guys walking around, each of them on their special day, maybe they gave some money for the roof, maybe it’s their wedding anniversary, whatever, they had the honor of stepping up to the Torah and here’s some putz they’ve never seen before, skips their amens.” Amen debt. And I forgot what these two guys look like, I can’t even cant, even.

One more thing I have to do. Sensei asked me if I wanted to help her put away the Torah. At the beginning and at the end of the Torah service, someone carries around the buttoned-up Torah for the congregation to touch, you touch it with your book or you touch it with the fringes of your tallis, and then kiss the book or kiss the fringes, and someone’s carrying the Torah around and that someone’s going to be me.

Batter number seven’s done, is it time for me to do the carrying? There’s a brief pause, I make my way up the center aisle, catch sensei’s eye. “No, no, not now,” she whispers. “Haftorah.”

I had forgotten about the Haftorah, an entirely separate reading. We were only at Haf-time. The regular Torah reading is from the Torah scroll, while the Haftorah is a reading from Nevi’im, Prophets, printed in a bound book. The Torah stays out, present during the Haftorah reading. If I had come to services here even once in the past three months, I would have known that.

Sensei comes over: “I’ll give you a signal, OK?” “OK.”

Now? Now. OK, I go up again. Wearing the fancy shoes, the wedding Ferragamos, no shoelaces, smart. I got this. I take the handoff. The other guy had it on right shoulder, I have on the left, do I make the switch? No, that would be risky. So left it is. Holding the Torah over the heart, can’t be anything wrong with that. So what was it, middle aisle and around, or left and up the middle? OK, left and up the middle. I see everyone face-to-face, Or face-to-cheek, they’re not all looking at me, they’re looking at the Torah on my shoulder, I’m just the vessel, they’re angling for a Torah-touch. This side of the aisle, shoulder turn to the old and the really old on that side, shoulder turn to the middle-aged and teen-aged on this side. Make the first hard right, there’s the guy who told me not to take photos, ahh he’s alright. There’s my wife, hi sweetie. Now the second hard right for the final stretch. The guy who yasher koach-ed me. Nice people. Right before the last step, a father and his toddler son, the father touches with his book, the last touch, the son touches with a toy car.

I climb up the steps, hand Torah back to the macher. Am I done? Don’t know the protocol, but I’m definitely sticking around for this part. I find a book, shoulder-surf again for the page, and follow along for the readings as the ark is closed.

* * *

I have my everyday friends and close family on the one hand, the people whom I love and on whom I rely for getting through life with my sanity intact, the inner ring of an extended social network that goes far and wide as social networks do.

On the other hand, the nice people who go to temple every week.

There’s not much overlap between the two groups, even some unspoken antagonism.

Typical middle child, I want it both ways.

My next Torah reading will be on Yom Kippur, September 23rd. I’ll be learning High Holy Day cantillation, which uses a different set of melodies.

One thought on “Barsabbas

  1. Pingback: Works | ivantohelpyou

Comments are closed.