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In the first aliya of B'midbar the chiefs of the tribes are listed. Nine have the zakeif gadol trope and three -- Yisachar, Binyamin, and Naftali -- have different trope. This isn't driven by word count (e.g. the Yosef tribes, even though they have more words, still use the same trope, just with some additions).

I wondered if there were something special about these three tribes that the trope is trying to call out. Another place where representatives of tribes are listed is in Sh'lach l'cha, and there also there is a majority trope with some variation -- but it's not the same tribes there (Yehudah and Manashe there).

Why do these three tribes have different trope in B'midbar? Is there a meaning or is it just melodic variation? And if there is meaning behind it, where can I find commentaries that address it? Most of the common commentaries (or at least the ones I have) focus on text and don't address trope.

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The alternation you are speaking of is between a zakef gadol (on the many, short names) and a 'pashta'-zakef katon (on somewhat longer words). Both of these are really a zakef. When the zakef comes on the first word of a clause, or of a pasuk, as it does here, then there is no place for the servus. This is where we typically see a zakef gadol version of the zakef.

The 'pashta'-zakef katon is caused by purely musical concerns, based on characteristics of the syllables. But it is really just an equivalent of the zakef. Here is what William Wickes has to say about it:

If there is a closed syllable in the word, separated by one or more others — or, at least, by vocal Sh'va — from the tone-syllable, an emphatic intonation (a high tone, as the position of its sign above the word implies) was introduced, serving as a forebeat ( Vorschlag) to Zaqeph, in the absence of the foretone. It was known as Methiga, being like an upper Metheg (comp. the use of the term in the accentuation of the three books, Taamei Emeth, pg. 70).

Keep reading at the link for more information about the Methiga. But consider: Le-Yis-sas(?)-char. That is a closed syllable, Yis, separated by one other syllable - sa - from the tone syllable, char. So too Bin, a closed syllable, ya, a separating syllable, and min, the tone syllable. And so too Naf, a closed syllable, ta, a separating syllable, and li, the tone syllable.

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Thanks for the explanation and the link! –  Monica Cellio May 27 '11 at 2:18
    
your welcome! i'll add another point, raised by somewhat at my blog, parsha.blogspot.com/2011/05/… : 'What of Ephraim'? My answer: Ephraim is three syllables, but it has the tone stress on the 'ra' part of Ephraim. So you have 'Eph', the closed syllable, and immediately afterwards, 'ra', the tone syllable. You are missing the separating syllable. In other words, Ephraim is mile'eil, while the other examples are mile'ra. –  josh waxman May 29 '11 at 10:54
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Although the Gra is famous for saying that there is remez (symbolism) behind all the ta'amim (trope) in the Torah, simply speaking the ta'amim we use are purely grammatical.

There are several levels of "stopper" ta'amim that indicate a pause in the text, i.e. that this word is not connected to the next. Grammatically speaking, zakef gadol and kadma-zakef-katan are both the same thing; the same level of pause. The only difference is that we use kadma-zakef-katan when we want an extra syllable to be stressed earlier in the word as well.

Usually, when a word is mil'ra (stress on last syllable) and more than three syllables, to keep with the melodic style of the Hebrew language, we will add a stress to another earlier syllable. These words will have their "main" stress on the last syllable, and a "secondary" stress (often indicated by a meteg) on the earlier syllable. [Example: The word "נבוכדראצר" is a name found often in Tanach with five syllables. It's primary stress is on the last syllable. Since it has more than three, we add a secondary stress to the second syllable.]

Notice that in the beginning of Parshat Bamidbar, all the names of the tribes warrant a pausing ta'am to the level of zakef gadol. Most of them have only two or three syllables, so we merely place emphasis on the last syllables (they are all mil'ra) and place the zakef gadol ta'am there. However, a few tribes' names have more than three syllables (in the form here with a "ל" prefix), and thus we want to stress an additional syllable (the second one usually), so instead of zakef gadol, we use kadma-zakef-katan, placing the zakef katan part on the main stress and the kadma part on the earlier secondary stress.

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Thank you! I learned zakeif katan as just "katan" and hadn't realized they were related. –  Monica Cellio May 27 '11 at 2:18
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