The Tune of Torah by Orrin Tilevitz
Volume 1 , Issue 3 (March, 1988 | Adar, 5748)
Danish comedian Victor Borge has a routine in which he vocalizes the punctuation of an English sentence. Periods, commas, colons, semicolons, dashes and the rest are transformed into a series of slurps and expectorations, so that while listening to Borge, one has little doubt precisely where and what the punctuation is. Of course, the sight of saliva flying across the stage and the general attendant hysteria tend to obliterate the meaning of the text.
Biblical cantillations, also called trop or, in Hebrew, ta'antet hamikrah, serve much the same function as Borge's punctuation. They are the vocalized punctuation which takes the place of the commas, periods, colons, semicolons and dashes in an English sentence, and further delineate phrases which in English would lack punctuation. However, unlike Borge's antics, the trop is sung and, at least if, sung properly, makes the text more comprehensible to the listener.
The trop is represented in a printed Biblical text by squiggly lines above and below each word. (Neither the trop nor, for that matter, vowels appear in the Torah scroll itself.) The system of trop is standard (with a handful of variant readings) in all editions of the Bible, and is very ancient. However, the precise group of musical notes which a given trop represents depends on the tradition of the particular community. For example, the Lithuanian, Yemenite, Moroccan, German and Syrian Jewish communities each have their own method for vocalizing the trap. So the Torah reading will sound different in synagogues of different communities - though the trop which the Torah reader is ?singing? is in each case the same.
Even within a given community, trop for different books of the Bible is vocalized differently. For example, the Torah, the Prophets, the book of Esther, the book of Lamentations, and the books of Ruth, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes have different vocalizations - melodies, almost - so that when one goes into a synagogue, one can tell from the sound of the music what's being read. Also, the vocalization of the Torah reading for the High Holidays is different from that for the rest of year, to call attention to the importance of these days.
The trop is used to set a mood in other ways too: The vocalization of the book of Lamentations is in a minor key and quite mournful, while the vocalization of the book of Esther has quite a different mood. However, in the fourth chapter of the book of Esther, a passage describes how the Jews rent their garments and fasted when they found out what Haman planned for them. This passage is read, at least in synagogues of the Eastern European tradition, with the vocalization, not of Esther, but of Lamentations.
Whatever its vocalization, trop is first and foremost a system of punctuation and, like all punctuation, it is frequently essential to the meaning of the text. Compare the following sentences: The boy walked home quickly, crossing the street at the light,? and ?The boy walked home, quickly crossing the street at the light?. In the first sentence, the boy walked home quickly to avoid being mugged, while in the second he may have walked home slowly and merely crossed the street quickly to avoid being run over. A misplaced trop is no different: in fact,the Shulchan Aruch teaches that, just as one is obligated to correct a Torah reader who mispronounces a word so as to change its meaning, the same rule applies to a mistake in the vocalization of the trop which changes the meaning of a passage.
The question of the precise placement of a trop and the resulting shift in meaning figures prominently in a dispute reported in the Talmud. A passage in Tractate Yoma 52a states that there are five verses in the Torah which are ambiguous because it is uncertain where the etnachtah belongs. (An etnachtah's function is somewhere between a semicolon and a period.) One of these verses is Deuteronomy XXXI:16,which says (according to the trop printed in our texts): ?God said to Moses, 'you will lie with your fathers, and this people will rise and worship idols....? etc. If, however, the etnachtah were to appear one word later, the verse would mean: ?God said to Moses, 'you will lie with your father and rise; this people will worship idols...'? As reported inTractate Sanhedrin 80a, Rabban Gamliel explained to a group of heretics that this verse, with the alter?native placement of the etnachtah, was the Biblical source for the Jewish concept of the resurrection of the dead in the end of days, because the verse was to be read as saying that Moses would die and then rise. They replied that actually the verse was to be read to mean that Moses would die and then the people would rise and worship idols. In any event, a famous 18th century treatise on the Torah reading called Shaa'rei Ephraim rules that in each of the five verses where the placement of the etnachtah is uncertain, the verse should be read without an etnachtah at all, to defer to all opinions.
Trop as punctuation also figures in
the reading of the Ten Commandments. In both Exodus XX and Deuteronomy V,
the Ten Commandments are graced with two sets of trop, the ta'am ha'elyon or ?upper
trop?, and the ta'am hatachton or ?lower
trop?. Here is why. Trop usually punctuates a single
verse; the final trop in a
verse is, suitably, a sof passuk, literally ?the end of the verse?.
Accordingly, the ta'am hatach ton punctuates separately each verse of
the Ten Commandments, so that one can study them verse by verse. But some
commandments contain more than one verse and others take up only part of a
At times, the punctuation
represented by the trap can
have a deeper meaning. The shalshelet,
a ?chain?, is vocalized in the Eastern European (and, I suspect, in all)
traditions as an extended stream of notes. It appears in only four places in
the Torah, each time indicating that someone did something very, very
deliberately. In Genesis XIX:16, the angels are trying to convince Lot to leave
Conversely, at least in one case, the meaning of a word may dictate which variant trop is correct. In Genesis XXXII:11, Jacob has just found out that his brother, Esau, is after him. Jacob prays, ?I am unworthy of (lit., ?I am too small for?) all the kindness You have bestowed upon Your servant.? In most editions of the Hebrew Bible, the word ?unworthy? bears an azlahgeresh, a trop which, at least in the Eastern European tradition, is vocalized as a series of notes rising in pitch, and thus is a seemingly inappropriate trop for a word which means ?I am too small?. In some editions, however, the word bears a revi'i, which is vocalized as a descending series of notes, and thus seems more in tune with the meaning of the word.
Acquiring a working knowledge of the trop and how they are vocalized can be a bit tricky. A table of the trop and their names usually appears in the back of the Chumash, the printed version of the five books of Moses. Many editions also have the trap vocalized in musical notation. However, since generally only German Jews have been methodical enough to commit their vocalization of the trop to musical notation, the music that is printed probably represents the German Jewish tradition, and so will sound alien outside a German synagogue. Alternatively, if your synagogue has a regular Torah reader with a relatively musical ear, you might try comparing what you hear with the printed trop. If he vocalizes a given trop consistently in the same way, it isprobably authentic, although consistency is not always the same thing as accuracy. Commercial tapes may be available, too. However you learn about trop, understanding why they appear where they do and being able to recognize the different vocalizations for the different books of Bible and the different times of the year will add much to your appreciation of the services. As King David said (Psalms CXIX:66 ). ?Tuv ta'am vada'at lamdeni, ki bemitzvotechah he'emanti?, which may be loosely translated as ?Teach me beautiful trop (ta'am) so that Imay appreciate Your commandments.?
(Orrin Tilevitz is a tax lawyer in