Masoretic Accents

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MASORETIC ACCENTS (Musical Rendition ).

historical development

In Jewish tradition, the formal reading of certain of the books of the Bible in worship and in study is carried out with a musical intonation linked closely with the masoretic accents of the text and governed by fixed rules and practices (see *Masorah; in supplementary articles). Public reading from the Bible is attested much earlier than the establishment of the written systems of accentuation. In the Bible itself, such readings are mentioned only in connection with special occasions (cf. Deut. 31:12; ii Kings 22:1–3; Neh. 8:8, 10:30). The practice was not a prominent part of the Temple liturgy but became so in the *synagogue. Talmudic sources attest the detail with which the practice was regulated, citing the choice and order of the scriptural passages for Sabbaths and weekdays (Monday and Thursday) and the feasts, the qualifications of the reader, the translation of each verse into the vernacular, the somekh ("supporter") who aided the reader, or the replacements of the lay reader by a specialist (sometimes the *ḥazzan). As to the musical element, the sources merely say that the Bible was to be read and studied only by melodic recitation (cf. Meg. 32a; Song R. 4:11). It is doubtful whether the terms pissuk/piskei te'amim (the division by the te'amim) refer to the melodic element, although

though they are connected with the aide-memoire movement of the reader's or somekh's hand (Meg. 3a; Ned. 37a; Ḥag. 6a; see Figure 1). The talmudic usage of the term te'amim is still not sufficiently clear; however, considering the strict regulation of every other element of the scriptural reading, it is inconceivable that the melodic rendition could have been left to the ad hoc invention or choice of the reader.

A comparison with the practices of "scriptural" reading in other religious traditions – such as Vedic recitation in India or Buddhist recitation in Japan and other countries – reveals that none is spoken or sung but they are "cantillated"; that this cantillation is based upon strict conventions handed down by oral tradition (which were described explicitly only in the respective Middle Ages of each culture); and, most important, that a basic similarity of constructive principles (not of melodic content) can still be recognized in all such practices throughout the Asian continent, including all Jewish traditions throughout the Diaspora. The melodic structure in all these traditions is of the kind defined by Curt *Sachs as "logogenic," where the musical element is generated by the words, bonded to the verbal and syntactical structure, and subordinated to the communication of the text, with no attempt at musical autonomy.

This "pan-Asiatic" style must already have been present in cantillated Bible reading in the synagogue preceding the period in which the system of written accents began to be developed. The Tiberian system of accent signs and vowel signs and their functions was based on existing practices not only of the pronunciation and grammatical basis and syntactical structure of the text, but also of its musical rendition. The earliest surviving treatise of this system, *Ben-Asher's Dikdukei he-Te'amim, mentions the ne'imah (melody) in the characterization of several of the accents. Neither this nor the preceding "Palestinian" and "Babylonian" systems seem to show the intention of establishing a complete correspondence between each accent sign and a specific and different melodic motive, which implies that no such correspondence existed in practice at that time, and that there was no intention on the part of the masoretes to create it artificially.

Comparative studies of the living traditions of the present and the evidence gleaned from the medieval and later masoretic treatises reveal that only in the Ashkenazi Diaspora was the system developed and augmented with the aim of having each accent sign expressed by a distinct melodic formation. The farthest point along this path is reached by the Ashkenazi cantillation of the Torah. Even there, however, one finds different accent signs expressed by identical melodic formations (e.g., segol, zakef, and tippeḥa in the "Polish-Lithuanian" tradition), or identical accent signs expressed by different melodic formations (e.g., the darga preceeding a tevir as against the darga preceding a munaḥ-revi'a, in the Western Ashkenazi tradition). Other traditions are still more limited in their repertoire of distinct melodic motives and content themselves with the expression of the divisive accents, or even of the major divisive accents only. This style is probably not the result of any erosion or loss of knowledge, but may well be the surviving evidence of the earliest stages of the system, perhaps even of the Proto-Tiberian or Palestinian or Babylonian ones. In all traditions, the rendition of the accents of the prophetic books, the haftarah, and the Hagiographa is also partial and selective as is their rendition in the special style used for study in the *ḥeder.


The musical rendition of the text in conformity with the accent signs is based on the convention (as described above) of each sign or group of signs representing a certain melodic motive. The graphic symbol does not stand for an absolutely predetermined sequence of tones. As in all music cultivated by oral tradition, the motives exist as "ideals" to be realized in performance, within certain margins of flexibility. Preservation of the "ideals," i.e., the style, is assured by several factors: the support of the well-defined and strict doctrine of the grammatical and syntactical functions of the accents; the deliberate teaching, by which the tradition is handed on from generation to generation; and the constant public practice of the system in the synagogue, where not only the layman's rendition (when "called up to read") but even that of the specialized reader, ba'al kore – not always, and in some communities never, identical with the ḥazzan – is always subject to the critical ear of the more learned members of the community. The margin of flexibility, on the other hand, makes it possible to link, or rather blend, the motives as they are recalled and enunciated successively by the reader so as to create a melodic organism. The style itself remains constant, but each reader may interpret it with a certain individuality and will never

repeat his previous performance precisely when he reads the same passage upon another occasion.

Theoretically, the accent signs are divided into only two categories: the accents of the "twenty-one books" (טעמי א״ך) and those of the Psalms, Proverbs, and Job (טעמי אמ״ת). In practice, the musical renditions show a much greater diversity of styles. These are determined by

  1. the text, i.e., the specific book, chapter, verse, or contents;
  2. the liturgical circumstances;
  3. the medium of performance;
  4. regional stylistic traditions;
  5. the above-mentioned margin for individual interpretation.

style determined by text

Separate melodic conventions exist for the Pentateuch (Torah), the prophetic books (haftarah), and for several of the Hagiographa (cf. The Five *Scrolls, Musical Rendition). These may not be interchanged, and explicit prohibitions are found in several rabbinic sources (e.g., Sefer Ḥasidim, par. 302). Nevertheless there is a kind of infiltration of motives from one book to the other, as evinced by the appearance of motives from the cantillation of the Torah in that of the haftarah. Some motives may also be common to more than one book, such as certain motives in the cantillation of the Book of Esther and Lamentations in the Ashkenazi tradition. In principle, however, each book has its distinct and characteristic "melody," i.e., melodic style.

Most regional traditions have special "festive" styles for the reading of certain chapters or paragraphs – the Song of the *Sea, the *Decalogue, and often also for the Blessing of Moses (Deut. 32) and the Priestly *Blessing (Num 6:24–26), and also a "low" intonation for the "rebuking" text of Deut. 28:15–68. The Ashkenazi tradition is particularly rich in special intonations. A kind of "roster formula" is used for some verses in the story of the wanderings in the desert (Num. 10 and 33). Another intonation emphasizes the importance of certain single verses in the Torah (see A. Baer, Baal T'fillah (18833), 39–40, nos. 117, 118, 121). Another one is used for the dramatic turning points in the Book of Esther (1:22; 2:4, 15, 17; 3:15; 4:1, 14; 5:7, 13:6, 10). Chapters and verses referring to calamities, such as several verses in the Book of Esther, are read in the style of the Book of Lamentations. Verses or parts thereof which denote supplication and the request for pardon are intoned in the style in which the Torah is read on the High Holy Days (see below). In the reading of the Book of Esther in the Ashkenazi tradition there is even one "quotation" from the prayer mode of the High Holy Days (Esth. 6:1) and another from that of the *seliḥot (ibid. 6:3).

style determined by liturgical circumstances

During the three pilgrimage festivals the reading is more festive, with more ornamentations and prolongations. The atmosphere of the Ninth of *Av influences the reading of the haftarah on the preceding Sabbath, the reading of the Torah on the Ninth of Av itself, which should be in a "low" voice and is sometimes rendered "almost without the accents," and its haftarah (which is often read with a verse-by-verse translation into the vernacular – Arabic or Ladino). The Ashkenazim of Holland read the Torah on the Ninth of Av in a style related

to the haftarah style of the Polish-Lithuanian region. On the High Holy Days and Hoshana *Rabba, the Ashkenazi tradition has a special style for the reading of the Torah ("in a low melody, as if plaintive," as mentioned in the maḥzor ed. Sabionetta, 1557). On the Sabbath nearest to the wedding day, among some Near Eastern communities, the section "And Abraham was old" (Gen. 24) is read in front of the bridegroom in a special festive style. Other modifications applied on Hoshana Rabba and Shavuot are described below.

style determined by the medium of performance

When part of the regular prayer service, the reading of the Torah, haftarah, or Scrolls is always carried out by a single reader. On certain other occasions, however, the reading may become communal. On the night of Hoshana Rabba and Shavuot, when there are assemblies for "studying" the Torah, chapters or sections are cantillated in alternation by several members of the group. The style is an abbreviated version of the regular Torah style, or that of the study of the Torah in the ḥeder. Cantillation by the entire congregation according to the accents is found in the Sephardi communities for the *Shema Yisrael (i.e., Deut. 5:7 and 11:19) during prayer and for the "Thirteen Divine Attributes" (i.e., Ex. 34:6–7) during the seliḥot. In the ḥeder, the study of the Torah is traditionally carried out through constant, loud repetition by all the children together. This was done in many communities in a special intonation, related to the accents but more simple in structure than the one practiced by the adults in the synagogue. There are also other kinds of "ḥeder tunes" based upon the sequence of accented (long) and unaccented (short) syllables in the text, similar to those found in the group recitation of passages from the Mishnah and other prose texts in many Near Eastern communities (cf. *Talmud, Musical Rendition). It can be assumed that the "ḥeder tunes" have remained unchanged for very long periods, since under these circumstances there is no inducement, or indeed any possibility, for personal expression and initiative and the melodic element is wholly subjugated to the pedagogical task.

regional stylistic traditions

A.Z. Idelsohn's assumption (see bibliography, and frequently repeated in later writings) that the living traditions of masoretic cantillation developed out of one common – i.e., pre-Exilic – base does not seem to be confirmed by a more thorough examination. This is one of the central problems in research of Jewish music (cf. *Music, Introduction), and, by its very nature, this research is particularly prone to conscious or unconscious wishes to justify a foregone conclusion that there is, indeed must be, a common base. In the present state of research, it may tentatively be proposed that while the principle of cantillation as such is a common heritage (see introduction, above), the diverse regional and functional styles observable today stem from an albeit small number of distinct source styles. It can be assumed that several "melodies" for the reading of the Bible were current and equally legitimate at the time in which the forms of synagogal worship began to be stabilized. Later, by processes

which we are unable to reconstruct, some of these "melodies" and melodic elements were accepted as normative by one or several communities, were attached to specific books, and were sanctified by custom. It must always be remembered that the accent signs themselves are not, and never were, a sound script with the same possibilities and limitations of the music

notation which developed in Western Europe. They are only reference aids to the evocation of "motivic ideas" which, in themselves, are an orally transmitted patrimony. Some late medieval and renaissance writers mention the "style of the Sephardim," but with hardly any concrete definitions which would enable its character to be understood (Simeon b. Ẓemaḥ *Duran, Magen Avot; the Karaite Elijah *Bashyazi (1420–90) in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot (ed. 1870), fol. 71 and 81; Elijah *Levita in his Tuv Ta'am).

The living traditions of the present may be classified according to five major regional styles:

  1. Yemenite,
  2. Ashkenazi,
  3. Middle Eastern and North African,
  4. Jerusalem Sephardi,
  5. northern Mediterranean local diverse styles.

(1) The Yemenite Style

This is particularly rich in distinct sub-styles for the biblical books and for particular chapters and in various divisions among single and group performers. One of the "ḥeder tunes," built upon the pentatonic scale, is related to the Ashkenazi Torah style.

(2) The Ashkenazi Style

This is the earliest to be documented in musical notation, in Johannes *Reuchlin's De accentibus… (1518) and soon afterward by several other scholars. The melodic elements have been preserved

most tenaciously among the Western Ashkenazi communities, including southern Germany. The Eastern Ashkenazi Torah style (known as "Polish-Lithuanian") is somewhat different from the Western one. The haftarah style is particularly developed in Eastern Europe, and is nowadays common to both the Eastern and Western Ashkenazi communities.

(3) The Middle Eastern and North African Style

This is the style designated by Idelsohn as "Oriental." Its distribution, with many sub-styles, ranges from Cochin to Algeria, through Persia, Bukhara, Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan, the Caucasus, and North Africa. There is a close connection between this and the styles of the European Sephardi communities in Italy, France, Holland, England, and America. It can also be traced in some Balkan communities (those of the "Romaniote" rite). Its influence is also noticeable in the intonation of the Song of Songs of the "Polish-Lithuanian" tradition. The earliest notation of this style was published in 1699 in the Hebrew Bible edited by Daniel Jablonski, to whom it was given by David de Pinna, a parnas in the Portuguese community of Amsterdam.

(4) The Jerusalem Sephardi Style

This is the style designated by Idelsohn as "Oriental Sephardic." It is found around the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, from Turkey and the Balkan communities to North Africa, and centered in Ereẓ Israel. Due to the prestige of its association with Jerusalem and Ereẓ Israel, it overlaid and frequently even ousted many local traditions throughout the Mediterranean countries. The Torah style in this tradition cannot represent the pre-expulsion Spanish tradition, since it is found neither in North Africa nor among the European Sephardim, but is based upon the Maqam Sigah. It seems to be a relatively recent development, but this phenomenon needs further study before a conclusion can be confirmed.

(5) The Northern Mediterranean Styles

Several communities in this area, such as Rome and *Carpentras (in Provence), have distinct local styles of their own. The Carpentras tradition survives only in notation (M. and J.S. Cremieu, Zemirot Yisrael, c. 1887), since the community itself no longer exists.

In Israel, the "ingathering of the exiles" has caused a major deterioration in many of the local and regional traditions brought into the country, since the immigrants often could not keep up their homogenous associations centered around the synagogue. The breakdown of the traditional education system (there is no organized ḥeder of any community except the East Ashkenazi) has also broken the chain of tradition. The regional styles tend to disappear, yielding to two dominant and dominating styles: the East Ashkenazi is gradually adopted in most Ashkenazi synagogues and the "Jerusalem Sephardi" prevails, especially for the reading of the Torah, in the synagogues of all the Near Eastern and North African communities. In the latter, the virtuoso status and ambitions of the ḥazzan or ba'al kore and the influence of the maqam-based Arabic art music at present come near to completely eroding the traditional base of masoretic cantillation proper.

See also articles on the musical traditions of the various major communities.


musical rendition: Sendrey, Music, nos. 1931–2155; S. Rosowsky, Cantillation of the Biblethe Five Books of Moses (1957); Idelsohn, Music, 35–71; Idelsohn, Melodien, 2 (1922), 33–53 and examples in vols. 1, 3, 4, 5, and 8; C. Sachs, Rise of Music in the Ancient World (1943), 78–89 and passim; J.L. Ne'eman, Ẓelilei ha-Mikra (1955); idem, Kera be-Ta'am (1967); M. Perlmann, Dappim le-Limmud Ta'amei ha-Mikra, 3 vols. (1958–61); A. Herzog, Intonation of the Pentateuch in the Ḥeder of Tunis (1963); H. Avenary, Studies in the Hebrew, Syrian and Greek Liturgical Recitative (1963); idem (H. Loewenstein), in: Zeitschrift fuer Musikwissenschaft, 12 (1930), 513–26; idem, in: Bat Kol, 2 (1961), 56–58; L. Levi, in: Italyah, ed. by M.A. Shulvass, 1 (1945); E. Gerson-Kiwi, in: dbi, suppl. 5 (1957), 1449–62; idem, in: Die Musikforschung, 13 (1960); idem, in: Journal of the International Folk Music Council, 13 (1961), 64–67; S. Levin, in: jbl, 87 (1968), 59–70.

[Avigdor Herzog]