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Who made up the way we sing the Torah?

Who made up the way we sing the Torah?



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.1 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.2 3 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 them4.


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 Talmud5 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”.6

Interestingly, elsewhere7 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.8 In fact, early copies of the Mishna were written with cantillation marks!9

Some also point out that the Hebrew word used for these melodies, ta'amim, means "taste" or "sense,"10 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.11 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.12

Yours truly,

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson


Some accredit these as well to Mosaic times. Others attribute the symbols to the Men of the Great Assembly (2nd Temple Era).


See Pardes, Gate 28 (Moses Cordevero, 16th century Kabbalist). Some historians opine that the ta'mim were introduced by King Solomon (based on Talmud Eruvin 21b) or Ezra, but this is not so according to the Zohar.


For this reason, the Talmud (Nedarim 37b) quotes one opinion that the ta'amim have the Halachic status of Mosaic Law. (The issue at hand there is whether the rules of payment for the teaching of the ta'amim would fall under the same category as the teaching of the actual Torah or not.)


Ritva to Yoma 52a, and others.


Nedarim ibid. and elsewhere.


Eruvin 21b.


Megilah 32a. See also Rashi to Eruvin 21b about King Solomon teaching notes of accentuation for both the words of the Written Torah and the study of Mishna.


Megilah, 32a, s.v. Vehashoneh.


See Shnei Luchot Habrit, Masechet Shavuot, Chapter Ner Mitzvah (33).


See Likutei Torah, Shir Hashirim 1:3.


Igros Kodesh, vol. 4, pp. 386-387.


The ta'amim for the reading of the prophets (such as when reading the Haphtarah), as well as the trop used for the High Holiday readings, differ from the ta'amim used for the standard Torah reading, though they follow the same principles and use the same marks. This is to the exception of Job, Psalms, and Proverbs which have a set of notes, symbols, and patterns of their own. You will also find wide variations in the melodies and modalities from one community to the next, as these were adapted to the local musical modes. Thus an Iraqi Torah reading will sound quite different than a Polish reading, although both adhere to the same principles and follow the same set of ta'amim.

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Scott Chicago April 2, 2009

Re: David What were those phrases? How did they differ from the one's we use regularly? Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel March 9, 2009

The musical phrases in Cantillation During my preparations for bar-mitzvah the phrases that I learned for that occasion were different to those more frequently sung during the torah readings on other days. How come? Which set is more suitable? Reply

Chani Benjaminson, January 25, 2009

Re: More articles by Rabbi Davidson Right at this link! Reply

Joe Zucker NY, USA January 23, 2009

WOW This is the most amazing answer I have heard in a long time, thanks sooo much for the info,
where can I find other articles written by Rabbi Davidson? Reply

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