What Is Chironomy? Originally Published March 11-12, 2022.

Have you ever watched a Torah reading for which one of the gabbayim was making hand signals for the reader?  You have seen chironomy!   The word is derived from the Latin chironomia, which came from the Ancient Greek χειρονομία (kheironomía); from χείρ (kheír, “hand”) + νέμω (némō, “manage”). 

Chironomy is known to have existed in ancient Egypt (through hieroglyphics), and has long been associated with religious music.  In Egypt, according to researcher Hans Hickmann, instrumentalists were directed what to play (pitch and rhythm) using hand signals, often offered by the singer whom the musicians were accompanying.  The Coptic church still employs vestiges of the old system.  Similar evidence of “leading” music was found in Sumeria, in a stone relief found at Sandchirli (from the 15th century BCE), and in Etruscan art of the 6th century BCE.

The Dead Sea Scrolls (Isaiah Manuscript and Habakkuk Commentary) contain margin images that are similar to the neumes (vocalization indicators) of early Byzantine and Slavonic manuscripts.  And in the Talmud, when discussing use of the left hand for indelicate bodily cleansing, the reasoning of Rabbi Nahman bar Isaac (?-356 CE) was that the right hand is used to “show the phrasings” of the Torah.  (Berakhot 62a.)

Let’s fast-forward to the middle ages, when Guido d’Arezzo used the joints of fingers to indicate pitch.  Guido lived from around 991 CE to sometime past 1033, and was a Benedictine monk interested in high medieval music.  It is generally believed that Guido invented modern staff notation.  He was the author of Micrologus, a treatise on music (circa 1026 CE).  Guido had been annoyed with how much time was spent by singers memorizing the music.  It was he who developed solmization (do, re, mi).  He may not have invented the use of the joints for pitches, but he used a rudimentary form of it.  It was still common in the 17th and 18th centuries.  (Meanwhile, solmization chironomy is today represented in the Kodaly Method of teaching music as hand signs for each tone.  See also Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

Chironomy seems to lend itself well to non-metric music, or where the meter is fixed ahead of time such as Gregorian chants, for which it was heavily employed.  Thus we come to the Torah readers.  The hand gestures reportedly were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai.  At least they were already in use when the Masoretes thought to create a system of writing the symbols for cantillation.  The gestures often resemble those symbols themselves!  We will look further into this and trope itself in coming columns.

There is an image from the Manasseh Codex, now in the Heidelberg University Library, showing a Jewish minstrel (Susskind of Trimberg) performing (non-liturgical) music in court.  The image includes his chironomers.

In the opening of many of King David’s Psalms, there are instructions to the chironomer - “according to the hand of Asaph,” e.g.  (For more about these instructions, see our prior column on “selah,https://bethshalompgh.org/what-is-selah-originally-published-march-5-6-2021/