What Is Cantillation?

Dan Harkins

The method of cantillation has developed over centuries of Jewish devotion. Also known as "trope," "ta'amim," "neginot" or simply "accent," cantillation marks allow readers of sacred texts to place the right emphasis and tone on the correct syllables, lending the reading a chant-like foundation. The practice can help modern English speakers adapt to the tricky pronunciations of the Torah's ancient scriptures — or make the whole process seem even more complicated.

Cantillation can help English speakers to pronounce the words of the Torah correctly.
Cantillation can help English speakers to pronounce the words of the Torah correctly.

This mantra-like cantillation only takes place for Hebrew readings of the Old Testament and its associated texts. During a bar or bat mitzvah, at the age of 13, young Jewish devotees must recite their first verses of cantillation to those in attendance. It comes from a section of the Torah referred to as the Haftarah, or "Taking Leave."

Cantillation must be learned before the bar or bat mitzvah at the age of thirteen.
Cantillation must be learned before the bar or bat mitzvah at the age of thirteen.

Upon hearing cantillation, the listener notices the various intonations afforded the words. Syllables rise, fall, pause or extend according to the marks on the various consonants in the text. These marks provide the information about accentuation or emphasis, but the data about overall tone is provided in how the short burst of phrases are arranged and indented, particularly in relation to the surrounding phrases.

Cantillation as a group will not proceed in the same musical key, as in the case of musical notation. But a group's cantillation of ancient Hebrew will be able to follow the same pronunciation and poetic construction that lends particular emphasis to important themes or occurrences. A variation of this system can be found in the Christian numbering and arrangement of psalms. In many religions of the western and eastern hemispheres, cantillations are considered merely another form of the mantra, a spoken prayer meant to evoke religious feelings.

One must hear cantillation to truly understand the variety of marks that must be properly employed. When the speaker encounters a pashta, or vertical-looking comma, he or she will drop in tone from the first syllable to the next. With a geresh, a comma turned in the opposite vertical direction, the speaker will rise in tone.

There are nearly 30 types of punctuation-style cantillation marks that can be encountered in the Torah or other Jewish texts. Some can be complicated, such as the colon mark, or zaqef qaton, which requires two syllables at the same tone and pitch, followed by a cascade of notes on the next two syllables. To master them all, it would be helpful to consult an audio tutorial like the one offered online by the Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, California.

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