Jewish cantillation—the intoned reading of Torah, Haftarah, and other Biblical texts in liturgical contexts—has attracted the attention of scholars ever since the day of the Renaissance Humanists. The Hebrew chanting depends on the text, and is determined by the te’amim (Masoretic accents) located above and below each word. However, the chant also has clear musical features, with a variety of scales, motives, contours, resting pitches, final pitches, and affects. In the present paper, I will provide a new perspective on musical features of Jewish cantillation in the Eastern Ashkenazi tradition, a tradition that developed in the areas that comprise today Lithuania, Belarus, Western Russia, Ukraine and Poland and is now widely practiced in Ashkenazi congregations around the world. There are six sets of melodies or “modes” in the Eastern Ashkenazi tradition of Biblical cantillation; I will characterize each mode with a variety of music-analytical tools (not only in terms of scales, as is often done), compare the modes with each other, and suggest hearings that link them with their respective texts and liturgical occasions.
I use the term “mode” in the way it has been used by ethnomusicologists and historians of Jewish music since Idelsohn—to refer not only to a scale, but also to characteristic motives, pitch relationships, affects, and associations of a given repertoire (see Powers et al., 2015). Following common practice, I will also use trope (from the Yiddish trop) to refer to the different modes used for the reading of specific Biblical texts in liturgical contexts, as in “Haftarah trope” (the mode of Haftarah reading) or “Torah trope” (the mode of Torah reading). The six sets of melodies are used as follows: (1) one for Torah readings on a normal Sabbath (also for weekdays and festivals); (2) one for Torah readings on the High Holidays (the mornings of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur); (3) one for Haftarah readings (selections from the prophets); (4) one for Lamentations, read on Tisha B’av; (5) one for the book of Esther, read on Purim; and (6) one for the festive megillot—Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes—read on Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot respectively.
The word ta’am (plural te’amim) refers to a Biblical accent mark, but it also means “flavor,” “taste,” and “sense,” or “reason” (Jacobson 2002, 3; Kogut 1994, 13; Portnoy and Wolff 2001, 6). The present analysis opens the musical “flavor” or “taste” of the te’amim for study, alongside their text-phrasing functions. We will find that the Haftarah and High Holiday melodies have features in common, including the scale and focal pitches, but whereas Haftarah trope reaches upward with gestures of yearning, High Holiday trope remains more “grounded,” with a reciting tone (a repeating and returning pitch) on the tonic or final of the mode. A shift of tonal center at the end of each verse in the High Holiday melodies, however, mirrors the inner transformation sought through prayer and t’shuvah (repentance) during this liturgical occasion. We will find a form of tonal collapse in the Lamentations mode, appropriate for the lament of the text, and an unusual degree of mobility in the melodies of Esther, which correlates nicely with the dynamic story and transgressive traditions of Purim. We will find that the modes for Torah readings and for the Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes both use a major scale, but the focal pitches and collections within the scale are markedly different. Torah cantillation may be heard as normative since it is heard throughout the year; in comparison, festive megillot trope may be heard as marked and special.
The focus on the musical aspect of cantillation may seem antithetical to the kind of fusion of melody and speech that Judit Frigyesi describes in traditional Eastern Ashkenazi contexts. As Frigyesi observes, “Melody is not an additional element, but part and parcel of the text, inseparable from it and inconceivable without it, and vice versa: text is inconceivable without its melody” (2000, abstract). And yet, the idea of a fusion of text and music is itself strategic and context dependent. Frigyesi also observes that melody may serve the purpose “of establishing an aural-spatial context for religious performance, inspiring and expressing a state of religious spirituality” (2000, 14). The present analysis seeks to delineate the nature of this “aural-spatial context,” and the way it varies with liturgical occasion and reading.
In Section 2 below, I introduce the te’amim and their text-parsing functions. This will serve as an introduction for those who are not familiar with the practice of Jewish cantillation. In Section 3, I present the melodies of Haftarah cantillation along with issues of notation and transcription, drawing on a recording by Cantor Pinchas Spiro. Section 4 addresses variability within the Eastern Ashkenazi tradition. Sections 5–9 present additional modes, one at a time; a set of common phrases facilitates comparison between the modes. Paired comparisons are especially revealing; they show commonalities, which in turn bring differences and unique features of each mode into relief. Section 10 explores a single phrase across the six modes, and it corroborates ideas introduced earlier about the expressive qualities of the modes. Section 11 deepens the analysis with a consideration of one additional phrase and the melodies for ends of sections, in all six modes. Cantor Elizabeth Sacks of Temple Emanuel, Denver, recorded the notated examples in Sections 4–11; the audio is included with each example. I conclude in Section 12 by reflecting on the goal of this work—which is to offer new ways of hearing and understanding cantillation—in the context of prior work in music theory and future work in the study of Jewish music.
The Te’amim and Text-Phrasing
The te’amim in use today were developed and notated by generations of Masoretic scholars in Tiberias, leading up to the tenth century C.E. (Khan 2012, 1–2). The melodies of biblical cantillation are typically learned first with the te’amim and their names. The te’amim of the Tiberian system, which are given above or below each word in a printed Hebrew Bible, serve three functions: they indicate the accented syllable (phonology), the phrasing of the text (prosody), and the melodic motif for each word. Some of the Tiberian te’amim are conjunctive, indicating a text-phrase that continues onward, and some are disjunctive, indicating the end of a text-phrase. The disjunctive te’amim divide each verse once, then again, and again—with up to four levels, depending on the length and complexity of the verse (Dresher 1994, 2013; Jacobson 2002 and 2013; Kogut 1994, 18–27). The phrasing and accentuation of the text of course affects meaning, as almost all commentators have noted. Zekharyah Goren (1995) explores this aspect of the te’amim in depth, and Simcha Kogut (1994) investigates the relationship between the phrasing of the te’amim and the exegesis in Rabbinic sources, Aramaic translations, and medieval Jewish commentaries (see also Cohen 1972, Khan 2000, and Strauss Sherebrin 2013).
Example 1 provides a relatively simple verse from Isaiah (40:27); this is the beginning of the Haftarah for the parashah (weekly Torah reading) “lekh l’kha.” I have provided the Hebrew with te’amim (Example 1a), and an English transliteration with te’amim and translation (Example 1b). Some of the te’amim in the transliteration are flipped on a vertical axis so that they match the left-to-right direction of the transliteration. For example, in the last line of the verse, the ta’am (accent mark) under “u-mei-elohai” is a tipḥa, which is a disjunctive. The shape of the ta’am shows that it marks the end of a phrase: it is closed to the right in the transliteration and closed to the left in the Hebrew.
Example 1a. Isaiah 40:27: Hebrew text with te’amim
Example 1b. Isaiah 40:27: Transliteration with te’amim and translation
The basic phrasing and structure of this verse is readily apparent: it divides in half, and each half consists of two parallel statements. Thus, we can also represent the verse as follows: “lamah tomar ya-akov / u-t’daber isra-el // nist’rah darki mei-adonai / u-mei-elohai mishpati ya-avor” (Why do you say, Jacob / Why declare, Israel // My way is hid from the Lord / And by my God my cause is ignored). Example 1b arranges the verse in four lines to show the parallelism and main divisions.
We can use this verse to identify and understand the most common te’amim. Etnaḥta, the fish-bone shaped ta’am at the end of line two, marks the main division of the verse. Sof pasuk or siluk, the vertical line at the end of line four, marks the end of the verse. (The terms sof pasuk and siluk are interchangeable; both refer to the end-of-verse ta’am.) Formally, we can label etnaḥta and sof pasuk as “D1”; the “D” stands for disjunctive and the “1” indicates that they are level-one disjunctives (at the highest level). We can specify further that sof pasuk is a “D1f” ta’am; it marks the end of the final phrase at level one.
Table 1 provides all the te’amim in this verse with their functions, along with one additional ta’am that appears frequently but is not present in this verse (munaḥ). The te’amim are organized by level, from highest to lowest disjunctives, with three conjunctives at the bottom. Etnaḥta and sof-pasuk are in rows one and two. The third row gives zakef katon (or more simply, katon), a level-two disjunctive; this marks the ends of lines 1 and 3 in Example 1b. Tipḥa, in the fourth row, is the final level-two disjunctive; this marks an internal division within lines 2 and 4 of Example 1b. Pashta in the fifth row is a level-three disjunctive, and it marks an internal division within lines 1 and 3 of Example 1b. The te’amim in rows six and seven are the two conjunctives in this verse. Mapakh “serves” (i.e., comes before) pashta; see lines 1 and 3 of the verse. Merkha “serves” (i.e., comes before) sof pasuk; see line 4 of the verse. (Merkha also commonly serves tipḥa.) Finally, munaḥ is a common conjunctive that happens not to be in this verse; munaḥ serves etnaḥta, zakef katon, and other disjunctives.
Table 1. Te’amim in Isaiah 40:27 (and one additional ta’am) with text-phrasing functions
The eight te’amim in Table 1 are a small selection; there are twenty-seven te’amim in all. But these eight are the most common ones, and the most significant for text phrasing. Jacobson (2002, 412) provides a chart that indicates the frequency of the te’amim throughout the twenty-one prose books of the Hebrew Bible (all except for Job, Proverbs, and Psalms). The five disjunctives in Table 1 account for 79% of the disjunctive te’amim, and the three conjunctives in Table 1 account for 86% of the conjunctives.
The te’amim are often taught in phrases, with conjunctives and disjunctives combined. Thus, for instance, one might begin learning to chant with merkha-tipḥa munaḥ-etnaḥta. But one would then practice each phrase in a variety of forms, to prepare for the way the phrases appear in the Biblical verses (see Binder 1959; Cohen 2003–8; Jacobson 2002; and Portnoy and Wolff 2000 and 2001). Table 2 provides four versions of the etnaḥta phrase (i.e., the phrase that ends in etnaḥta). Note that the disjunctives are always present—as long as there is a division at the given level.
Table 2. Versions of the phrase that ends in etnaḥta
There is one further nuance that needs to be introduced here: the final disjunctive at a given level is not generally the strongest one. For instance, in Example 1b katon (D2) marks the ends of the lines, but tipḥa (D2f) marks divisions within the lines. This can be understood in terms of the logic of recursive dichotomy. Example 2a shows the first half of Isaiah 40:27 with etnaḥta at the end and katon in the middle. The brackets show that the level-two katon phrase divides the level-one etnaḥta phrase.
Example 2a. Recursive dichotomy in the first half of Isaiah 40:27: First division
Example 2b then shows another step in the recursive dichotomy; tipḥa divides the phrase “u-t’daber / isra-el.” But since this ends with a level-one etnaḥta, the disjunctive tipḥa is again considered a level-two disjunctive. The height of the brackets nonetheless shows that katon (D2) is a more significant level-two disjunctive than tipḥa (D2f).
Example 2b. Recursive dichotomy in the first half of Isaiah 40:27: Second division
Finally, Example 2c shows the division of the first part, “lama tomar / ya’akov,” with pashta. Pashta divides a level-two phrase, and so it is a level-three disjunctive. Thus, when katon (D2) and tipḥa (D2f) occur in succession, katon marks the more significant division. In some cases, tipḥa occurs without katon; then tipḥa on its own marks the only significant second-level division.
Example 2c. Recursive dichotomy in the first half of Isaiah 40:27: Complete division
The Melodies of the Cantillation (Haftarah Trope) and Issues of Notation
Now we can begin to consider the melodies in connection with the te’amim and their text-parsing functions. Example 3 provides a recording of Isaiah 40:27 chanted by Cantor Pinchas Spiro, with a transcription. Barlines in the transcription indicate phrase boundaries, not musical meter. Some regularity may be heard in Spiro’s recording, but Jewish cantillation does not generally have a regular beat or meter (Jacobson 2002, 14). Double barlines indicate the ends of level-one phrases associated with etnaḥta and sof pasuk, single barlines indicate the ends of the main level-two phrases associated with zakef katon. Stemmed pitches set accented syllables in the text. In Hebrew Bibles, most of the te’amim are placed above or below the accented syllable of the word—in fact one of the purposes of the te’amim is to indicate which syllable should be accented. Along with this, the alignment of melody and syllabic accent is generally specified in pedagogy (both oral and notated). The te’amim themselves are given above and below the staff in Example 3. Slurs in the notation indicate melismas; there are brief two-note melismas at the end of many words and an extended melisma on “isra-el.”