Talmud, Musical Rendition
Talmud, Musical Rendition
TALMUD, MUSICAL RENDITION
The Mishnah and Gemara were called the Oral Law (Torah she-be-al Peh) and continued to be called thus even after they had been put in writing. The transmission of an unwritten text depends on constant repetition (one of the meanings of the term Mishnah), and the more formal such a text becomes, the more its rendition will tend to develop into a formal – and soon also formulaic – sequence of quasi-melodic phrases. According to the Tosefta, R. Akiva enjoined the students to "sing it, constantly sing" (zemer bi tadira zemer; Tosef., Oho, 16:8 and Par. 4:7; also Sanh. 99a–b). The most explicit reference found is (Meg. 32b; also Sof. 3:13): "He who reads without melody (ha-kore be-lo ne'imah) and studies without a tune (ve-shoneh be-lo zimrah), about him the Bible says 'And I also have given you laws that are not good.'" This seems to refer first to biblical cantillation and then to the study of the Oral Law. The two terms ne'imah and zimrah might imply that the musical character of the two was not identical (zammer is also the term in R. Akiva's saying, above); and since zammer in the Talmud is usually connected with true singing it is reasonable to assume that the sentences of the Oral Law were rendered then, as they still frequently are, to a set melodic phrase, which was thus felt to be more in the nature of a "tune" than the constantly changing sequence of little motives which make up the cantillation of a biblical text. The warnings against making the Law "as a mere song" may therefore not be wholly metaphorical (Shab. 106b, 113a; Er. 60a). Even after the Mishnah had been put into writing it was studied aloud – as all books were in antiquity; silent reading seems to have been almost inconceivable at that time (cf. M. Hadas, Ancilla to Classical Reading (1954), 50–52). The "learning tune" could thus continue in use and be immediately applied to the additional body of oral commentary and discussion which accrued around each
mishnaic passage and was finally codified in writing as the Gemara. Other factors which strengthened this practice were the formal connection of the Talmud with the Bible, which was cantillated (cf. *Masoretic Accents, Musical Rendition), and its practical connection with the derashah ("homily"), in which at least a quasi-musical delivery always tends to appear as the structure acquires a set rhetorical pattern. A few passages in manuscripts and even prints appear furnished with masoretic accents, such as a genizah fragment of the Jerusalem Talmud's Avodah Zarah (see J.N. Epstein, Li-Seridei ha-Yerushalmi, in: Tarbiz, 3 (1931)) or the mishnaic passages in the Babylonian Talmud's Kiddushin (Sabbioneta edition 1553), but these have not yet been investigated with a view to discovering whether they represent mere experiments to make precise the divisions of the sentence or have some connection with the "learning tune." Neither have the living traditions of the "learning tune" been investigated and compared.
The developments outlined above only support the contention that the study of the Talmud was carried out from the earliest times by melodic (or rather melodized) rendition; but whether a certain pattern was the standard one, and how and where it survived cannot be stated. The "learning tune" is mentioned in several rabbinical works but here too the evidence has not as yet been collected (Idelsohn, Melodien, vol. 8, preface xvii, states that it is often mentioned, but gives only one source – Isaiah Hurwitz's Shenei Luḥot ha-Berit, fol. 256b in the Amsterdam edition of 1698). The melody also became customary for talmudic passages used in the liturgy (such as Ba-Meh Madlikin). It seems, however, that in many communities these liturgical renditions of a talmudic text acquired a special melody or at least a more elaborate form of the ordinary "learning tune." In Ashkenazi parlance it is called lernshtayger, although it cannot properly be classified among the *shtayger patterns. Owing to their having a place in the liturgy, certain of these talmudic passages also became vehicles for individual cantorial elaboration. The earliest notated evidence of the "learning tune" is featured in the form of a parody – a haggling dialogue between a Jew and a herring seller – in Chelec oder Thalmudischer Juedenschatz by the convert Christian Gerson von Recklinghausen (Helmstedt, 1610). Very few specimens were notated in later times or recorded and transcribed in the modern period. Idelsohn's Melodien includes some from Yemen (vol. 1, nos. 4, 23, 35, 37, 92), Morocco (vol. 5, nos. 58, 72, 75), and Eastern Europe (vol. 8, nos. 234–6, the last two numbers being cantorial creations; see also in his Music, example 17 on p. 189 and pp. 191–2). A rendition from Djerba – the special intonation for the study of Pirkei Avot between Pesaḥ and Shavu'ot – was recorded and transcribed by A. Herzog (Renanot, facs. 8 (1961), 9–11).