From Chironomy to Trope. Originally Published March 18-19, 2022.

Last week we discussed chironomy.  That brought us to the question of which came first, the hand signs or the written symbols. 

We know that we were singing the Song of the Sea, the Decalogue, and some Psalms at the daily service back when services were live at the Temple in Jerusalem. 

Nehemiah 8:1-8 tells of Ezra the scribe reading from a Torah scroll before an assembly.  Since the popular custom at the time for reading aloud non-liturgical Aramaic documents at court was to chant them (think of the sound of a town cryer with a bit more nusah), and since the Jews were enjoying a bit of high culture at that time (which was around 444 BCE), it is not too great a stretch to think that they set the words to music, as it were.  Yet since the notation symbols were not written down until the early Middle Ages, the individual vocalizing the texts either had to memorize the tunes or had to have a prompter (using chironomy). 

The vocalization was called “mikra” (מִקְרָא) and it included sequences of tones called “te’amim” (טְעָמִים), “tastes.”  And it seems clear that there were hand signals associated with the intonations long before there were written symbols.  We see written symbols first in the Middle Ages, but the hand signals were already in existence prior.  How do we know this? 

According to Saul Levin, “The Traditional Chironomy of the Hebrew Scriptures,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 87, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 1968, pp. 59–70, most of the manual signs from the Egyptian and Tunisian communities resemble the written marks of the Tiberias scribes who first penned them.  Meanwhile, Yemenite chironomy is different and less elaborate, and may have developed separately from the Tiberias notation.  (We note that of course chants from different regions differ, but researchers find them similar enough to claim a common heritage.)

Last week we mentioned Guido d’Arezzo (ca. 991-1033), who used the joints of fingers to indicate pitch, and wrote Micrologus, a treatise on music (circa 1026 CE).  Guido had been annoyed with how much time was spent by singers memorizing the music.  Meanwhile, he was late to the game!  Between the sixth and the ninth centuries the Jews were working on accents and notations as well.  The ben Asher family, the Masoretes in Tiberias, were into this effort, and in the ninth century Aaron ben Asher produced the first scroll of the Bible with notations.  The tunes we have inherited do not fit into bars or meters; they are closer to the Gregorian chants in that regard, which though more familiar to the general public now were likely derived from the earlier Jewish music.

There are six different melodies for the cantillation system according to Ashkenizi custom:  weekly Torah, High Holidays Torah, the Book of Esther (read on Purim), the Book of Lamentations (read on Tish’ah BeAv), the festival megillot (the Book of Ruth read on Shavu’ot, Song of Songs read on Pesah, and Ecclesiastes read on Sukkot, all with the same melody), and haftarah. 

Of course, the reader should read with feeling in addition to executing the proper chants.