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What is the origin of the Torah-reading melody (“Trop”)?

by Rabbi Herschel Finman

  

Library » Shabbat » Reading of the Torah » Haftorah | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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Look into a Chumash or any book of the Tanach and you will notice small marks beneath or above every word. (This is aside for the standard vowel marks which accompany many Hebrew texts.) These marks, called ta’amim from the Hebrew word for taste ta'am, are the secret to beautiful and proper reading. They're also called cantillation or in Yiddish they are known as trop.

These taamim are as ancient as the Torah itself and were orally transmitted to Moses atop Mount Sinai. The purpose of the ta’amim is twofold:

Pronunciation - Every ta'am goes on a specific part of the word. Sometimes it will be at the beginning, sometimes at the end. When we read, we put our emphasis on the syllable that the ta'am falls on, ensuring that our reading will be grammatically exact.  

PunctuationTa’amim acts as punctuation marks like commas, periods and exclamation marks. They determine which groups of words are read together and where the reader must pause. Some ta’amim create longer and more pregnant pauses than others.

The ta'amim determine which groups of words are read together and where the reader must pause
There is a melody associated with each individual ta’am. Thus they give taste to our reading. Without them, our reading would be bland and boring; like vanilla ice cream without the vanilla. The ta’amim melody has many variations, because each ta’am isn’t a specific musical note, rather it is an indication that this Biblical word should be read with a high pitch, low pitch, drawn out, quickly, slowly, etc.

Thus the same ta’amim are used for all of Tanach,1   yet the Torah has its own melody, the Prophets (haftorahs) have their own melody, the Holy Writings have their own melody, and the Books of Esther and Lamentations each have their own melody too! Furthermore, the High Holiday Torah reading has its own distinctive melody—although the very same portions of the Torah when read on their respective Shabbatot are read with the normal Torah ta’amim melody.

Over the years, these ta’amim have been adapted to be more in consonance with local musical tastes. So we have Baghdadi, Yerushalmi, Spanish-Portuguese, Moroccan, Ashkenazi and many more versions of the ta’amim

Before the Temples were destroyed, we would offer sacrifices and delicious smells would rise up towards the heavens and be pleasing to the Almighty. Now, all we have left are our lips to offer our prayers. So when we are reading, we want to sound as pleasing as possible. Also, most of scripture is a story and, when read with ta'am, the story becomes much more enjoyable and memorable.

Footnotes

  • 1. With the exception of Psalms, Job and Proverbs which have a completely different set of ta’amim. Very few people – if any – are familiar with the traditional melody for the ta’amim of these three books.

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Shabbat » Reading of the Torah » Torah Reading

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Ashkenazi
(pl. Ashkenazim). A Jew of Northern or Eastern European ancestry.
Esther
1. Jewish wife of Persian King Ahasuerus in the 4th century BCE. Foiled the plot of Haman, the prime minister, to exterminate all the Jews. The holiday of Purim commemorates this miraculous salvation. 2. One of the 24 Books of the Bible, which chronicles the abovementioned story.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Shabbatot
Plural form of "Shabbat." Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Tanach
Acronym for Torah, Nevi'm (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Holy Writings). Tanach refers to the 24 books of the Bible: the 5 books of Moses, the 8 books of the Prophets, and the 11 books of Holy Writings.
Lamentations
One of the 24 books of the Bible, this poetic scripture, authored by Jeremiah, prophetically details the destruction of Jerusalem.
Chumash
The Five Books of Moses.
Yiddish
Language closely related to German commonly spoken by European Jews.