The chants are rendered in accordance with the special signs or marks printed in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) to complement the letters and vowel points. These marks are known in English as accents and in Hebrew as טעמי המקרא ta`amei ha-mikra or just טעמים te`amim. (Some of these signs were also sometimes used in medieval manuscripts of the Mishnah.) The musical motifs associated with the signs are known in Hebrew as niggun and in Yiddish as טראָפ trop: the equivalent word trope is sometimes used in English with the same meaning. The act of reading a Biblical passage with the appropriate chant is known as "leyning".
A primary purpose of the cantillation signs is to guide the chanting of the sacred texts during public worship. Very roughly speaking, each word of text has a cantillation mark at its primary accent and associated with that mark is a musical phrase that tells how to sing that word. The reality is more complex, with some words having two or no marks and the musical meaning of some marks dependent upon context. There are different sets of musical phrases associated with different sections of the Bible. The music varies with different Jewish traditions and individual cantorial styles.
The cantillation signs also provide information on the syntactical structure of the text and some say they are a commentary on the text itself, highlighting important ideas musically. The tropes are not random strings but follow a set and describable grammar. The very word ta'am means "taste" or "sense", the point being that the pauses and intonation denoted by the accents (with or without formal musical rendition) bring out the sense of the passage.
There are two systems of cantillation marks in the Tanakh. One is used in the twenty-one prose books, while the other appears in the three poetical books of Psalms, Proverbs and Job. Except where otherwise stated, this article describes the "prose" system.
The cantillation signs serve three functions:
The disjunctives are traditionally divided into four levels, with lower level disjunctives marking less important breaks.
The general conjunctive is munach. Depending on which disjunctive follows, this may be replaced by mercha, mahpach, darga, qadma, telisha qetannah or yerach ben yomo.
One other symbol is mercha kefulah, double mercha. There is some argument about whether this is another conjunctive or an occasional replacement for tevir.
Disjunctives have a function somewhat similar to punctuation in Western languages. Sof pasuq could be thought of as a full stop, atnach as a semi-colon, second level disjunctives as commas and third level disjunctives as commas or unmarked. Where two words are syntactically bound together (for example, pene ha-mayim, "the face of the waters"), the first invariably carries a conjunctive.
The cantillation signs are often an important aid in the interpretation of a passage. For example, the words qol qore bamidbar panu derekh Hashem (Isaiah 40-3) is translated in the Authorised Version as "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord". As the word qore takes the high-level disjunctive zaqef qaton this meaning is impossible. Accordingly the New Revised Standard Version translates "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord'," while the Jewish Publication Society Version has "Hark! one calleth: 'Clear ye in the wilderness the way of the LORD'."
A few signs always go on the first or last consonant of a word. This may have been for musical reasons, or it may be to distinguish them from other accents of similar shape. For example pashta, which goes on the last consonant, otherwise looks like qadma, which goes on the stressed syllable.
Some signs are written (and sung) differently when the word is not stressed on its last syllable. Pashta on a word of this kind is doubled, one going on the stressed syllable and the other on the last consonant. Geresh is doubled unless it occurs on a non-finally-stressed word or follows qadma (to form the qadma ve-azla phrase).
Cantillation signs guide the reader in applying a chant to Biblical readings. This chant is technically regarded as a ritualized form of speech intonation rather than as a musical exercise like the singing of metrical hymns: for this reason Jews always speak of saying or reading a passage rather than of singing it. (In Yiddish the word is leyen 'read', derived from Latin legere, giving rise to the Jewish English verb "to leyn". In Spanish and related languages it is decir 'say'.)
The musical value of the cantillation signs serves the same function for Jews worldwide, but the specific tunes vary between different communities. The most common tunes today are as follows.
The Ashkenazic tradition preserves no melody for the special cantillation notes of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, which were not publicly read in the synagogue by European Jews. However, the Ashkenazic yeshiva known as Aderet Eliyahu, or (more informally) Zilberman's, in the Old City of Jerusalem, uses an adaptation of the Syrian cantillation-melody for these books, and this is becoming more popular among other Ashkenazim as well.
The Jews of North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Yemen all had local musical traditions for cantillation. When these Jewish communities emigrated (mostly to Israel) during the twentieth century, they brought their musical traditions with them. But as the immigrants themselves grew older, many particular national melodies began to be forgotten, or to become assimilated into the "Jerusalem Sephardic" melting-pot.
As with the Ashkenazim, there is one tune for Torah readings and a different tune for haftarot. There is usually a special tune for the Ten Commandments, known as ta'am elyon or "High Na'um", but there is no special tune for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Also as with Ashkenazim, the normal musical value of cantillation signs is replaced by a "coda" motif at the end of each Torah reading and of each haftarah verse (though there is no special coda for the end of the haftarah), suggesting a common origin for the Sephardi and Ashkenazi chants.
In the Jerusalem Sephardic tradition, as in related traditions such as the Syrian and Baghdadi traditions, the Torah reading is always or almost always in maqam Sigah. This is also true in the Karaite tradition, but not among western Sephardim.
Unlike the Ashkenazic tradition, the eastern traditions, in particular that of the Syrian Jews, include melodies for the special cantillation of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. In many eastern communities, Proverbs is read on the six Sabbaths between Passover and Shavuot, Job on the Ninth of Av, and Psalms are read on a great many occasions. The cantillation melody for Psalms can also vary depending on the occasion. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews have no tradition for the rendering of the Psalms according to the cantillation marks, but the melody used for several psalms is noticeably similar to that of Syrian psalm cantillation, and may represent the remnants of such a tradition.
Eastern Jewish communities have no liturgical tradition of reading Ecclesiastes, and there is no public liturgical reading of Song of Songs on Passover. (Individuals may read it after the Passover Seder, and many communities recite it every Friday night.) There are tunes for Ruth, Esther and Lamentations. In some communities (e.g. the Syrian Jews) there is a special tune for Song of Songs; in others (e.g. the Spanish and Portuguese Jews) it is similar though not identical to that for Ruth. The Ruth tune is generally the "default" tune for any book of the Ketuvim (Hagiographa) that does not have a tune of its own, including the prose passages at the beginning and end of the book of Job.
Yemenite cantillation has a total of eight distinctive motifs, falling within four main patterns:
This is true equally of the system used for the Torah and the systems used for the other books. It appears to be a relic of the Babylonian system (see History, below), which also recognised only eight types of disjunctive and no conjunctives.
Some communities had a simplified melody for the Torah, used in teaching it to children, as distinct from the mode used in synagogue. (This should not be confused with the lernen steiger used for studying the Mishnah and Talmud.)
Conversely, the Syrian community knows two types of Torah cantillation, a simpler one for general use and a more elaborate one used by professional hazzanim. It is probable that the simpler melody was originally a teaching mode. Today however it is the mode in general use, and is also an ancestor of the "Jerusalem-Sephardic" melody.
The Yemenite community also teaches a simplified melody for children, to be used when they are called to read the sixth aliyah. The simplified melody is also used for the reading of the Targum, which is generally performed by a young boy.
Ashkenazim traditionally had a simplified melody for the Prophets, distinct from that used in reading the Haftarah.
For learning purposes, the ta'amim are arranged in a traditional order of recitation called a "zarqa table", showing both the names and the symbols themselves. These tables are often printed at the end of a Chumash (Hebrew Pentateuch).
The order of recitation bears some relation to the groups in which the signs are likely to occur in a typical Biblical verse, but differs in detail between different communities. Below are the traditional Ashkenazi and Sephardi orders.
|Anglicized name (Israeli Hebrew)|
|Hebrew name in Unicode|
|ב֪ב||yerach ben yomo, galgal|
|יֶרח בֶּן יוֹמוֹ, גלגל|
Azla: "Going away", because it is often the end of the phrase 'Qadma ve'Azla'.
Darga: "Trill" from its sound, or "step" from its shape.
Etnachta: "Pause, rest" because it is the pause in the middle of a verse.
Geresh: "Before", because it is never marked on the last syllable of a word (unless it is with Azla).
Gershayim: Double Geresh, from its appearance.
Qadma: "To progress, advance." It always occurs at the beginning of a phrase (often before other conjunctives) and its shape is leaning forward.
Mahpach: "Turning round". In old manuscripts, it was written like a U on its side, hence like someone doing a U turn. In printed books, it has a V shape, possibly because that was easier for the early printers to make. In Eastern communities it is called shofar mehuppach, "reversed horn", because it faces the other way from shofar holech (munach)
Mercha: "Comma" from its shape, or "lengthener", because it prolongs the melody of the word that follows.
Mercha-kefulah: Kefulah means "double", because it looks like two merchas together. There are only five in the whole Torah: Gen. 27:25, Ex. 5:15, Lev. 10:1, Num. 14:3, Num. 32:42.
Munach: "Resting", because it may be followed by a short pause, or because the shape is a horn lying on its side. (In Eastern communities it is called shofar holech, horn going forward.) Munach legarmeh (munach on its own) is a disjunctive, used mainly before revia, but occasionally before a pazer. It may be distinguished from ordinary munach by the dividing line (pesiq) following the word.
Pashta: "Stretching out", because its shape is leaning forward (or in reference to a hand signal).
Pazer: "Lavish" or "scatter", because it has so many notes.
Revia: "A quarter", either because it has four short notes as well as the main one, or because it splits the half verse from the start to etnachta (or etnachta to the end) into quarters (as it ranks below zaqef, the main division within the half verse). The square or diamond shape of the symbol is coincidence: in most manuscripts, it is simply a point.
Segol: "Bunch of grapes" (from its shape, which looks like a bunch of grapes).
Shalshelet: "A chain." Either from its appearance or because it is a long chain of notes. There are only four in the whole Torah: Gen. 19:16, 24:12, 39:8; Lev. 8:23.
Sof Pasuq: "End of verse": it is the last note of every verse. It is sometimes called silluq (going away).
Telisha Qetannah/Gedolah: "Detached" because they are never linked to previous or following notes as one musical phrase; Qetannah = small (short); Gedolah = big (long).
Tevir: "Broken", because there is a big jump down in pitch between the first and second notes, or because it represents a break in reading.
Tifcha: "Diagonal", or "hand-breadth". In old manuscripts, it was written as a straight diagonal line. In printed books, it is curved, apparently to make it a mirror image of Mercha, with which it is usually paired. There may be an allusion to a hand signal.
Yetiv: "Resting" or "sitting", because it may be followed by a short pause, or maybe because the shape is of a horn sitting up.
Zarqa: "Scatterer", because it is like a scattering of notes.
Zaqef Qaton/Gadol: "Upright" (from their shape, or in allusion to a hand signal); Qaton = small (short); Gadol = big (long).
Qarne Farah: "Horns of a cow" (from its shape), sometimes called pazer gadol.
Yerach ben Yomo: "Moon one day old" (because it looks like a crescent moon), sometimes called galgal (circle).
|Main disjunctive|| Preceding|
| Nearest preceding lower level|
disjunctive ("near companion")
| Other lower level disjunctives|
| Equivalent isolated|
|First level disjunctives|
|Sof pasuq||Mercha||Tifcha||Zaqef qaton|
|Second level disjunctives|
|Zaqef qaton||Munach||Pashta||Revia||Zaqef gadol|
|Third level disjunctives|
|Munach legarmeh||Geresh, Telishah gedolah, Pazer|
|Geresh/Azla/Gershayim||Telisha gedolah, Pazer|
|Geresh/Azla/Gershayim||Telisha gedolah, Pazer||Yetiv|
|Tevir|| Mercha or Darga;|
Qadma Mercha or
|Geresh/Azla/Gershayim||Telisha gedolah, Pazer|
|Fourth level disjunctives|
Telishah qetannah Qadma
| || ||Gershayim|
(Mercha) Tifcha (Munach) Etnachta: one of the most common groups, but can only appear once in each passuk (verse). Tifcha can appear without a Mercha, but Mercha cannot appear without a Tifcha (or other following disjunctive). Etnachta can appear without a Munach, but Munach cannot appear without an Etnachta (or other following disjunctive). Munach-Etnachta can appear without a Mercha-Tifcha, but a Mercha-Tifcha cannot appear without a Munach-Etnachta (or Etnachta on its own).
Zakef Gadol: Not a part of a group, as it replaces a Zakef Katon sequence.
(Munach) Zarka (Munach) Segol: Zarka is only ever found before Segol; a Munach may precede either one.
Shalshelet: Not a part of a group, as it replaces a Segol sequence. Occurs only four times in the Torah, and always at the beginning of a verse.
Munach | Munach Revia: The Revia usually appears alone, and sometimes following a short Munach. Occasionally, a longer Munach with Pesik precedes a second Munach and then a Revia.
Darga Tevir: Tevir is found either alone or preceded by Darga or Mercha. Darga occasionally precedes other combinations (e.g. Darga Munach Revia).
Mercha Kefula: Occasionally preceded by Darga, but usually on its own. Occurs only five times in the Torah, and once in Haftarah. Its function appears to be similar to Tevir.
Kadma V'Azla: This pair is known as such when found together, and may precede a Mahpach group, a Revia group or a Tevir group. A Kadma can also be found without an Azla before a Mahpach, and an Azla without a Kadma is known as Azla-Geresh or simply Geresh. Gershayim on its own fulfils the same function as Kadma v'Azla, in that it can precede either a Mahpach group, a Revia group or a Tevir group.
Pazer: Not considered part of a group, but usually followed by a Telisha Ketanah or a Telisha Gedolah. It may be preceded by one or more Munachs.
Telisha Ketana/Gedolah: Not considered a part of a group, usually appears individually, sometimes after a Pazer.
Yerach ben Yomo Karnei Farah: The rarest group of all. Occurs only once in the whole Torah, in the parsha Masey, on the words Alpayim B'Ama. It is equivalent to Munach Pazer.
Babylonian Biblical manuscripts from the Geonic period contain no cantillation marks in the current sense, but small Hebrew letters are used to mark significant divisions within a verse. Up to eight different letters are found, depending on the importance of the break and where it occurs in the verse: these correspond roughly to the disjunctives of the Tiberian system. For example, in some manuscripts the letter tav, for tevir (break), does duty for both Tiberian tevir and zaqef. Nothing is known of the musical realization of these marks, but it seems likely that, if any of these signs was associated with a musical motif, the motif was applied not to the individual word but to the whole phrase ending with that break. (A somewhat similar system is used in manuscripts of the Qur'an, to guide the reader in fitting the chant to the verse, see Qur'an reading.)
This system is reflected in the cantillation practices of both Yemenite Jews and Karaites: both communities now use the Tiberian symbols, but tend to have musical motifs only for the disjunctives and render the conjunctives in a monotone. To a lesser extent the same is true in Sephardic communities, where the conjunctives are rendered as flourishes leading into the motif of the following disjunctive rather than as motifs in their own right. It is notable that the Yemenites have only eight disjunctive motifs, thus clearly reflecting the Babylonian notation. The same is true of the Karaite mode for the haftarah; while in the Sephardi haftarah mode different disjunctives often have the same or closely similar motifs, reducing the total number of effective motifs to something like the same number.
By the time of the Tiberian Masoretes the system had become more complex, in that the realization of a phrase ending with a given type of break varied according to the number of words and syllables in the phrase. It was therefore necessary to invent conjunctive accents to show how to introduce and elaborate the main motif in longer phrases. (For example, tevir is preceded by mercha, a short flourish, in shorter phrases but by darga, a more elaborate run of notes, in longer phrases.) A treatise called Diqduqe ha-te'amim (precise rules of the accents) by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher survives, though both the names and the classification of the accents differ somewhat from those of the present day.
As the accents were (and are) not shown on a Torah scroll, it was found necessary to have a person making hand signals to the reader to show the tune, as in the Byzantine system of neumes. This system of cheironomy survives in some communities to the present day, notably in Italy. It is speculated that both the shapes and the names of some of the accents (e.g. tifcha, literally "hand-breadth") may refer to the hand signals rather than to the syntactical functions or melodies denoted by them. Today in most communities there is no system of hand signals and the reader learns the melody of each reading in advance.
The Tiberian system spread quickly and was accepted in all communities by the 13th century. Each community re-interpreted its reading tradition so as to allocate one short musical motif to each symbol: this process went furthest among the Ashkenazi Jews. Learning the accents and their musical rendition is now an important part of the preparations for a bar mitzvah, as this is the first occasion on which a person reads from the Torah in public.
In the early period of the Reform movement there was a move to abandon the system of cantillation and give Scriptural readings in normal speech (in Hebrew or in the vernacular). In recent decades, however, traditional cantillation has been restored in many communities.
Some old manuscripts of the Mishnah include cantillation marks similar to those in the Bible. There is no surviving system for the musical rendition of these.
Today most communities have a special tune for the Mishnaic passage "Bammeh madlikin" in the Friday night service. Otherwise, there is often a customary intonation used in the study of Mishnah or Talmud, somewhat similar to an Arabic maqam, but this is not reduced to a precise system like that for the Biblical books. Recordings have been made for Israeli national archives, and Frank Alvarez-Pereyre has published a book-length study of the Syrian tradition on the basis of these recordings.
The recordings held at the Commons are organized by the Vayavinu Bamikra Project at Wikisource in the following languages: