From the Desk of Joshua Jacobson: Singing through Ancient Text

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The following contribution comes from Joshua Jacobson, author of Chanting the Hebrew Bible, Second, Expanded Edition: The Art of Cantillation (June 2017).

I’ve been chanting Torah since I was a tweenager, in fact, long before the term “tweenager” was coined. Even before my bar mitzvah. And I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, feeling oh so superior to the kids who barely could chant one aliyah, learned by rote. I knew the system. Or, at least, I thought I did.

Until about twenty-five years ago, when a friend from my synagogue introduced me to the teachings of Michael Pearlman. Pearlman was an Israeli educator who had devised systems to help his students understand the structure and the logic of biblical cantillation. I read the first of his books and I was shocked, shocked, at how ignorant I really was. Indeed, very few people understood these basic principles, including nearly all practitioners and teachers of cantillation. I was hooked. I read more and more. I saw how understanding the systems could make the reading of Torah and haftarah and megillot so much more meaningful, and so much easier. I became hyper-sensitized to errors made by nearly every Torah reader, even the most proficient. I knew that I had to share this knowledge with others.

And so began my odyssey. I read about how ancient oral practices were codified more than a thousand years ago, and about the various attempts to invent notation symbols for the melodic motifs. I read about how it was practiced in different parts of the globe and at different times. I learned that biblical cantillation isn’t just about singing; the cantillation symbols were instituted as an elaborate system of punctuation marks, developed to help the reader make his way through the ancient text. The allocation of melody to word in biblical cantillation is based primarily on syntax, helping the reader divide the text into sensible phrases and clauses. Through trial and error, I eventually came up with a system for transcribing the melodic motifs into “Western” staff notation and an efficient method of transliterating the Hebrew text. I generated chapters on the history of cantillation, on proper contemporary pronunciation of biblical Hebrew, on how to parse the text and predict the punctuating motifs. Before I knew it I had generated a tome of a thousand pages.

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I was pleasantly surprised by the book’s positive reception, even from non-professionals. The last few decades have seen a surge of interest in Torah reading throughout the Jewish community. Many congregants, looking for ways to participate more actively in the liturgical service, have volunteered to read Torah. It’s one part of the service that isn’t the exclusive prerogative of the professional clergy. Not to mention the huge growth of independent totally lay-led minyanim and chavurot, where all the liturgical functions are shared by active congregants. And in recent years many women in both traditional and non-traditional congregations, who for centuries had been barred from reading the Torah in public, have expressed a desire to read Torah. Approaching the Torah scroll and reading from it for the first time can be a stirring emotional experience. And many of these readers want to go beyond the surface connection and learn the fine points of cantillation, the story behind the practice, and how to take it to the next level. And my goal, as teacher of cantillation, is to enable masterful performance of some of the oldest and most sacred stories of our civilization.