Cantillation: Chanting the Bible

Today the Bible is chanted in synagogues with an intricate musical system, but the practice began with one man projecting in a marketplace.

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We must note that the biblical texts available to Ezra, to the Rabbis of the Talmud, and even through the sixth century, were like the Torah scrolls in use today: devoid of any vowels, punctuation, and grammatical indicators. Ezra and those who followed him depended upon an oral tradition for their understanding of the proper pronunciation and accentuation of the sacred texts. As chanting became more widely practiced, a system of hand signals common in the ancient Near East began to be employed. This system, called "chironomy," required an assistant to the reader to use gestures of the hand and fingers to visually illustrate the proper musical rendition of the text.

The Masoretes

Much later, in the second half of the first millennium, a group of largely anonymous Masoretes ("conservators of the tradition") redacted the oral tradition inherited from Moses. These scholars notated the missing vowels, punctuation, and grammatical organization into the text using a set of 28 symbols called "neumes" (te'amim). Later the neumes were also used to provide musical direction to the reader. Simple (and sometimes more complex) melodic patterns were attached to each symbol to provide for a fully detailed rendition of the biblical text.

As the system became more elaborate, chironomy became of increasing importance, since readers were now compelled to provide more sophisticated musical renditions based upon varying combinations of these neumes. Moreover, while the neumes appeared in various versions of the Bible acceptable for study purposes, it remained customary to chantpublicly from a non-punctuated scroll. Chironomy remained commonplace in the time of the Masoretes and through the 11th century and has enjoyed some renewed interest in our time.

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Marsha B. Edelman

Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.