From Academic Kids

Cantillation (Hebrew: ta`amei ha-mikra or just te`amim; Yiddish trope is also commonly used in English) comprises special signs or marks in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) which complement the letters and vowel points. Some of these signs were also sometimes used in medieval manuscripts of the Mishnah.

A primary purpose of the cantillation signs is to guide the chanting of the sacred texts during public worship. Very roughly speaking, each word of text has a cantillation mark at its primary accent and associated with that mark is a musical phrase that tells how to sing that word. The reality is more complex, with some words having two or no marks and the musical meaning of some marks dependent upon context. There are different sets of musical phrases associated with different sections of the Bible. The music varies with different Jewish traditions and individual cantorial styles.

The cantillation signs also provide information on the syntactical structure of the text and some say they are a commentary on the text itself, highlighting important ideas musically.

The current system of cantillation notes has its historical roots in the Tiberian mesorah. The cantillation signs are included in Unicode as characters 0591 through 05AF in the Hebrew alphabet block.


Three functions

The cantillation signs serve three functions:

  • Syntax: They divide biblical verses into smaller units of meaning, a function which also gives them a limited but sometimes important role as a source for exegesis. This function is accomplished through the use of various conjunctive signs (which indicate that words should be connected in a single phrase) and especially a hierarchy of dividing signs various strength which divide each verse into smaller phrases. The function of the disjunctive cantillation signs may be roughly compared to modern punctuation signs such as periods, commas, semicolons, etc.
  • Phonetics: Most of the cantillation symbols indicate the specific syllable where the stress (accent) falls in the pronunciation of a word.
  • Music: The cantillation signs have musical value: Reading the Hebrew Bible with cantillation becomes a musical chant, where the music itself serves as a tool to emphasise the proper accentuation and syntax (as mentioned previously).

Psalms, Proverbs and Job: The system of cantillation notes used throughout the Tanakh is replaced by an entirely different system for these three poetic books. Many of the symbols may appear the same or similar at first glance, but most of them serve entirely different functions in these three books. (Only a few signs have functions similar to what they do in the rest of the Tanakh.) The short narratives at the beginning and end of Job use the "regular" system, but the bulk of the book (the poetry) uses the special system.

The musical function

The musical value of the cantillation notes serves the same function for Jews worldwide, but the specific tunes vary between different communities. The most common tunes today are:

  • The Polish-Lithuanian melody, used by Ashkenazic descendants of eastern European Jews, is the most common tune in the world today, both in Israel and the diaspora.
  • Related Ashkenazic melodies from central and western European Jewry are used far less today than before the Holocaust, but still survive in some communities.
  • Among Sephardic Jews, the "Jerusalem Sephardic" (Sepharadi-Yerushalmi) melody (of Syrian origin) is the one most widely used today in Israel, and it is also used in some Sephardic communities in the diaspora.
  • The old Sephardic tradition, represented amongst others by the Syrian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Italian and Spanish/Portuguese melody, is widely used in its Moroccan variety both in Israel and in the diaspora among descendants of immigrants from that country. The other varieties of the older Sephardic tradition are more sparingly used in Israel today. The Spanish/Portuguese variant is in common use in the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi communities of Gibraltar, the Netherlands, England, Canada, USA and other places in the Americas.
  • The Yemenite melody can also be heard in Israel today.

Ashkenazic melodies

In the Ashkenazic musical tradition for cantillation, each of the local geographical customs includes a total of six separate melodies for cantillation:

  • Torah and Haftarot (3 melodies)
    • 1. Torah (general melody for the whole year)
    • 2. Torah - special melody for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This tune is also employed on Simhat Torah in various degrees (depending on the specific community). Echoes of it can also be heard for certain verses in the Torah reading for fast days.
    • 3. Haftarot
  • The Five Megillot (3 melodies are employed for these five scrolls)

The Ashkenazic tradition preserves no melody for the special cantillation notes of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, which were not publicly read in the synagogue by European Jews.

Eastern melodies

The Jews of North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Yemen all had local musical traditions for cantillation. When these Jewish communities emigrated (mostly to Israel) during the twentieth century, they brought their musical traditions with them. But as the immigrants themselves grew older, many melodies began to be forgotten. Unlike the Ashkenazic tradition, the eastern traditions include melodies for the special cantillation of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. In many eastern communities, Proverbs is read on the six Sabbaths between Passover and Shavuot, Job on the Ninth of Av, and Psalms are read on a great many occasions. The cantillation melody for Psalms can also vary depending on the occasion.

On the other hand, eastern Jewish communities have no tradition of reading the three megillot publicly on the three pilgrimage festivals, and therefore preserved no special tune for those three books.

Syntax and phonetics

Template:Unicodezaqef qatan
Template:Unicodezaqef gadol
Template:Unicodegeresh muqdam
Template:Unicodeqarney para
Template:Unicodetelisha gedola
Template:Unicodemerkha kefula
Template:Unicodetelisha qetana
Template:Unicodeyerah ben yomo = galgal


See also

Torah reading, Haftarah, Megillot, Bar Mitzvah

External links

  • Essays
  • Texts
    • Mechon Mamre ( has the full text of the Tanakh with cantillation marks in Unicode here ( (which may be downloaded for free).
  • Discussion groups
    • Leining ( - an active group.
  • Recordings of Torah and Haftarah readings:
    • Vayavinu Bamikra ( - Free downloads of MP3 recordings of entire Torah, Haftarot, and Megillot by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder at the [YUTorah (] website. (To get to the full list of cantillation recordings from the main menu, click "Advanced Search" and then select "Laining" under "series.") Ashkenazic pronunciation and melody.
    • Navigating the Bible ( - Free listening to entire Torah and Haftarot (Ashkenazic melody, Israeli pronunciation) along with text, translation, transliteration, and background information on the texts being read (for beginners and advanced).
    • Kol Kore ( - The Torah and haftarot are available in this Israeli CD-ROM program in five different formats: Jerusalem Sephardic; Morrocan; Yemenite; and Ashenazic melody with Ashkenazic or Israeli pronunciation. (commercial product)
    • Darga ( (commercial products)
    • Chadish Media ( (commercial products)
  • Recordings of the Five Megillot:
    • Vayavinu Bamikra ( (see above).
    • Cantor Rabinovicz ( (at bottom of list; missing Kohelet).
    • Virtual Cantor ( - contains MP3 recordings that may be freely downloaded of Esther in two versions (normal tempo and slower learning speed), Lamentations, Song of Songs.
  • Recordings of the High Holidays Torah melody (Ashkenazic tradition):
    • Virtual Cantor (
    • ( (at bottom of list).
  • Recordings of Psalms Cantillation (Sephardic and eastern traditions):
    • Tehillim on CD-Rom ( - Rabbi Shimon Alouf (Syrian tradition). Hear free samples at Torah To Go (
    • Rabbi Zion Palah ( - Jerusalem Sephardic melody.
  • Mechanical Cantillation (computer speech synthesis):
    • Trope Trainer ( - Torah, Haftarot, Megillot in a variety of voices, melodies, and pronunciations.
    • Max Synagogue (
  • Recordings of the cantillation notes:
  • Recordings of samples from various traditions:
  • Cantillation in the Mishnah:
    • Kaufmann manuscript ( of the Mishnah - View images of the entire manuscript, which includes partial cantillation.
  • Organizations:

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