Torah Trope

So what else I’m doing these days (and you thought you’d never see anything new on this blog) is studying torah trope.

A couple of weeks ago I uncovered a book The Art of Torah Cantillation that I had picked up oh, maybe eight years ago, when the Temple Emanuel choir made a quick trip to a choir festival in the Catskills. Probably it was having relearned the tunes of the wedding blessings a month ago that made me decide to get to work on it, but I read the CD into iTunes and started to practice.

In a Jewish Saturday morning synagogue service there’s a reading from the Torah (5 books of Moses) and a reading from the prophets, the way many Christian services will have a lesson from the Old Testament and a lesson from the New Testament; except that firstly, the Jewish readings are much longer, and secondly, the Jewish readings are chanted rather than just read. If you’ve ever gone to a Bar Mitzvah service you’ve probably heard the Bar Mitzvah boy (or Bat Mitzvah girl) chant the reading from the prophets.

The chanting is done to a traditional tune, which has an ancient notation written right along the text as little dots and squiggles (in printed Hebrew texts of the Bible — not in the handwritten Torah scroll). The tunes for the Torah are different from those for the prophets (and there are other tunes for other books read in the synagogue, Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations). They function as punctuation and almost an audible diagram of the sentence. That helps a lot in listening, because the Hebrew text itself doesn’t have punctuation except for a mark at the end of each verse. Also, there’s a special tune for the end of each reader’s section — very convenient in the unlikely event that you’ve dozed off or otherwise spaced out during it (or maybe you’re pondering the import of a previous verse), because when you hear it you can wake up in time to be part of the congregation’s response. Maybe a particular mark means “this word starts on the note ‘fa’, and at the syllable with the mark, jump to ‘la’ and stay there to the end of the word.” That kind of thing — short motifs, mostly three notes or so but sometimes a lot longer, that are the building blocks for the whole tune.

At one time I was pretty good with the trope for the prophets, but I never learned the Torah trope, much less the tunes for the other books.

If you want to see what trope looks and sounds like, check LearnTrope.com I don’t like the voice on that site nearly so well as the recordings that came with my book, and the text in the book has a lot about the whole structure and philosophy of cantillation, so I’m going to stick with the book and iTunes. What that web site does have is pictures of hand signals for the trope, which the book only mentions.

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