Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation

By Joshua R. Jacobson

Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002.
pp. 965. ill. music ; 29 cm.
bibliography pp. 937-948.
index to recording examples. + 1 companion CD (4 3/4 in.)

Precision. Thoroughness. Clarity. Devotion to Torah.

These are some of the thoughts that define my reaction to this new and excellent work by Joshua Jacobson, Professor of Music at Northeastern University in Boston, and Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. This large guide may additionally properly be called a “handbook”, a “textbook” or a “teacher’s manual ” in the pursuit of learning to chant the Jewish holy texts with understanding and correctness. Accompanying the book is a CD with demonstrations of the te’amim chanted– featuring the pleasant voice of the author. An index to the sung examples is included in an appendix at the back of the book. This work can be used as a teaching tool or resource for professional or lay cantors, and other teachers of synagogue chant. Synagogue libraries will want to have a copy in their reference collection. Chanting the Hebrew Bible may serve as text in a serious adult education class devoted to learning Torah chant, a “leyenen” in shul course. While not recommended as something to hand to a 12-year old preparing for Bar or Bat Mitvah, it may serve as a post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah ‘life-time-reference-book’ gift, or to encourage bright students in furthering their learning through the high school and college years.

The outstanding features of this work are many. It is constructed in seven main parts, including: Part 1, an introduction to the ritual art and terminology; Part 2, the “sense” of cantillation, or rather how the cantillation make sense of text; Part 3, a pronunciation guide; Part 4, a history on the masoretic accents; Part 5, a “reference” section laying out the te’amimand the parsing of Hebrew sentences; and Part 6, the melodies of cantillation for Torah, Haftorah (prophets), five megilot (scrolls) and the high holidays. Part 7 are the appendices.

Precision. It becomes clear from the outset that this teacher, Jacobson, cares deeply about people “doing it right,” that is, learning to chant the Bible correctly and with understanding, from the Jewish perspective. He prepares clear arguments why understanding the grammar is crucial to the practice of chanting. These systematic explanations provide the reader both with historical as well as grammatical background.

Jacobson takes the reader through the steps of learning the importance and details of grammar in a clear, understandable, step-by-step fashion. His use of distinctly styled diagrams are easy to understand. Any novice learning this material for the first time can follow the process by carefully reading the text. (A prior reading knowledge of Hebrew is required to use this book.) At each point, Jacobson includes clear examples which are very neatly laid out, and exercises to practice. Each section is built upon the knowledge of the previous section. The book must be learned in sequence to take best advantage of one of its greatest strengths.

Thoroughness. Jacobson takes the student through a careful examination of the grammar, teaching the masoretic accents, their meanings and relationships. The masoretic system includes the Hebrew consonant modifiers, or nekudot,(the “vowels” children learn in Hebrew school), and the inflection neumes or te’amim. The chapters guide the reader through the more complex combinations of the grammatical structure and deeper into the details of sentence construction – all of this kept organized through concise graphical representations.

Part 3 brings the reader into the complex world of Hebrew pronunciation. Part 4 is an interlude called “The Masorah.” Here Jacobson provides historical background about the known scholarship of the origins of the te’amim, which are then produced in Part 5, called “Reference.” Presented are useful charts of the te’amim, their names, meanings of names, placement, symbols, and examples. He also provides a useful transliteration chart of the Hebrew alphabet, and an interesting table he calls the “frequency chart,” or a summation of the frequency of the occurrence of each of te’amim in the 21 books of the Bible, according to a popular concordance. (For example, tippekha occurs 35,980 times, but zakef gadol occus only 1,655 times).

Clarity. In section 5.4 the book reviews and systematically provides, the steps to parse the Hebrew sentence, and thus apply the te’amim properly. This will be some of the most difficult work for many people under age 45, and younger students in particular. Thirty and forty years ago, most American students were frequently required to learn to “diagram sentences” in English grammar classes, and they could apply that knowledge to learning other languages. Today the practice of teaching diagramming is very rare, so very often the process involved is unknown to today’s students. For this reason, I assume that learning to understand structural relationships in Hebrew sentences with an altogether different syntax system than English will seem quite foreign and difficult. Yet, this teacher understands that each point of grammar must be brought along and taught in very small steps, and that is the process used to great effect.

Devotion to Torah. Finally in Part 6, “The Melodies of Cantillation,” the student is completely prepared to attach the musical portion to her/his reading. One of the author’s main points (and firm committments), is that the “music serves the text.” Here, this has been ensured by teaching the grammar first. In Jacobson’s pedagogy, the music becomes the overlay.

The author readily admits that traditions vary by geography, by group tradition, or even across town in different synagogues. “The multiplicity of oral musical traditions for the te’amim is a blessing, one to be cultivated rather than eliminated,” he assures us. He also recognizes that in his book, “one man’s melodies have been frozen in time.” In a footnote to that statement, he comments that he had also notated as “alternatives” common variants within the same or similar musical communities. One small complaint of this reviewer is the wish that the origins and sources of those “alternatives” had been footnoted as well.

Jacobson’s layout includes musical notation to give the tones of the te’amim while reminding the reader that any key can be used while singing. Juxtaposed with the musical staves are shaded blocks that show the placement of text along with the stressed syllables and how those coincide with the notes. Alongside the corresponding Hebrew text examples are a system of blocks which represent the syllables of the words. The stressed syllable is represented by a darkened box. This makes it crystal clear to the reader where one may precisely place the accent while singing the te’amim and applying them to texts. While Jacobson does discuss improvisation of a skilled ba’al keri’ah (master of the reading, or the Torah reader) , the thrust of his appeal is for the learner to strive for that perfection of ‘exactness’ and precision.

A wonderful synopsis of the history and customs of Torah reading precedes the nitty-gritty of applying all the steps together to actually start chanting Torah and Haftorah (texts from the prophets) verses. The final sections of the book consist of teaching all the variations necessary for different festive megillot of the Bible. The last chapter is devoted for the special readings on the High Holiday (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) Torah readings in morning services.

Jacobson concludes the book with an extensive glossary, bibliography and supplementary exercises for further practice, which are all quite useful at any point in the learning process.

Comparison to Other Pedagogy. Jacobson’s approach to teaching Torah chanting skills may not be for everyone, but anyone learning or teaching the Jewish Hebrew Bible can benefit from this book as a background resource. In chapter 5.5, he lays out his suggested method for teaching the te’amim. He states “As in all curricula, the depth and method of study should be commensurate with the age, background, and ability of the students.” He gives his suggestions on teaching a Bar/Bat Mitzvah with flash cards, dictation exercises and listening activities. He also gives suggestions to those who may be studying without the help of a skilled teacher. As with any course of music, the subject is best learned with a qualified teacher. However, this work will aid many in the years to come, to improve their skills as teachers, or to provide students with a way to master in-depth the intricacies and fascinating details required to be aba’al keri’ah.

For those for whom leyenen Toyre is a joy, this is your new desk reference.

Reviewed 28 Tishrei 5763. October 4, 2002.