What is that young man doing: what is involved with chanting Torah? Originally published April 13-14, 2018

What does it take to chant a Torah reading?  Let’s get to the basics.  The text in the Torah scroll is handwritten by a scribe in ink on parchment, and the reader points with a pointer (a yad, a “hand”) without touching skin to the scroll. 

Now, in Hebrew the vowel sounds and consonant variants are indicated by diacritical markings.  These are not printed in the scroll.  Imagine that the first reading of the Bible were “WHN GD BGN T CRT HVN ND RTH…”  By the end of the 9th century rabbis in the Ben-Asher school in Tiberias had created the reading symbols that tell you to say “oo” rather than “ah” or “b” rather than “v,” but they are not written into the scrolls. 

And then there are other diacritical markings:  in Torah, and in haftarah, the various megillot, and other chantings, there are additional diacritical markings, to indicate melody and accent, and punctuation.  Generally referred to as “trop” which is Yiddish for “accent” (really only one of the qualities), but formally referred to as “te’amim,” graphic symbols of cantillation, these markings also are not present in the scroll.  So the reader must practice, a lot, with a book that has both vowels and consonant marks and also the te’amim.  And the markings, the te’amim, do not each always make the same melody:  they work together with each other to make phrases.  Moreover, the cantillation is different – even though it uses the same symbols – for the various readings.  Torah reading sounds different from haftarah which is different from the Megillat Esther, and the lugubrious Eikhah, and so on.  But the symbols and the sets of symbols are the same!

Below are examples of a part of today’s Torah passage (with acknowledgement to Pocket Torah for these screen captures).  The one on the left is as it might appear in the Torah scroll (though the sentences wouldn’t be separated with Arabic numerals, nor have space or line breaks between them), and the one on the right is as you might see it in the Etz Hayim during the Torah service, but with the cantillation marks highlighted, as opposed to the vowels and consonant modifiers, to show the unitiated which are which.

Image of trope

Quite a feat, this chanting of Torah.  We shall answer more questions about cantillation in future columns.