Can you read Jewish music? No, not the sheet music to Fiddler on the Roof or Havah Nagillah.
Trope, the musical cantillation used by Torah readers to sing-chant the holy words, is a notation system made up of dots, straight lines and squiggles that are found either above or below the letters. Like vowels, however, trope marks are not actually written on a sefer Torah (Torah scroll) but are memorized by the Torah reader.
The appearance of the trope marks (notes) are the same everywhere. How those notes are sung, however, varies. For instance, a Yemenite reading of the Torah would sound significantly different than a reading by someone from Germany.
Like the Oral Law, the trope was not written down but was transmitted orally from teacher to student for many generations. With the Roman exile and the scattering of the Jewish people, however, it became almost impossible to maintain the oral tradition, and therefore necessary to transcribe the trope (just as the Oral Law had been written down in the Mishna and then the Gemorah).
Why is the trope important? Firstly, trope is really punctuation; it lets the reader know where phrases and sentences begin and end. Additionally, trope adds another layer of meaning to the text. Certain words are elongated while others are read quickly, and this helps us ato understand unstated messages of the narrative. For instance, when the wife of Potiphar tries to seduce Joseph (Genesis 39:8), the word “And he refused” is read in a very elongated chant. The trope helps us understand that Joseph hesitated, more than briefly, thought about it and only then refused. Why doesn’t the Torah tell us this outright? Because the important thing is that he refused, but the trope alerts us to the fact that there is much to learn beneath the surface.
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