Is it important that the Torah be read in the traditional melody? Who made up these melodies anyway?
The actual Torah scroll contains only letters. The printed editions, known as Chumashim, commonly contain not only the vowel markings, but also cantillation marks. Each mark signifies a different melodic phrase with which to chant a word or group of words. In Hebrew, these marks are called ta'amim—from the word ta'am, meaning taste—or in Yiddish, the trop.
The trop is an integral part of reading the Torah and has historical, mystical, as well as practical relevance.
The use of the cantillation marks in current use dates to at least the 9th-10th century CE. This was the era of the Masoretes, meticulous scribes in Tiberias, Jerusalem and Babylon who worked to establish a precise common text, vowelization and cantillation for the Tanakh. The tradition of the ta'amim by which the Torah is to be sung, however, is as old as the Torah itself. It was taught to Moses together with the vowels, as it is integral to the correct understanding of the Torah. It is only that the system of notation may have been developed later (and this is also debated). Nonetheless, at one point in history, some of the details of the ta'amim were forgotten by much of the Jewish community, and Ezra the Scribe reintroduced them.
In addition to the pronunciation and emphasis guidance that the ta'amim provide, which affects the meaning and tense of the word, the ta'amim also provides information on the syntactical structure of the text. In addition, it often provides commentary and insight to the text itself, by musically highlighting noteworthy ideas. Some of these insights have been elucidated throughout the generations. Nehemiah 8:8, where we read how the Torah was read and taught before the Jewish people, concludes, "…and they explained the reading to them." The Talmud comments that this expression refers to the additional understanding which the ta'amim provide.
Similarly, we read in Ecclesiastes 9:12, “And besides that Koheleth was wise, he also taught knowledge to the people.” The Talmud accredits this praise of King Solomon to the fact that he taught it with the “notes of accentuation”.
Interestingly, elsewhere the Talmud also refers to studying Mishna with a tune, indicating that there was apparently a unique tune to which Mishna, the main body of the Oral Torah, was studied as well. The Tosafists explain that Mishna was studied with a tune because this assisted in the memorization and retention of the material. In fact, early copies of the Mishna were written with cantillation marks!
Some also point out that the Hebrew word used for these melodies, ta'amim, means "taste" or "sense," indicating that the ta'amim bring out the flavor of the passage. The implication is that reading words without correct inflection and melody is like eating a tasteless meal.
The Chassidic masters write that much of the insight provided by the tunes affects aspects of our souls that are beyond our understanding and conscious perception. Nonetheless, some of the implications of the specific tunes on some verses are elucidated in the Kabbalah and Chassidic teachings.
So the next time you're in the synagogue, tune in to the chords that have influenced the soul of our nation ever since we were married to the Torah at Sinai.
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson