Singing the Hebrew Scriptures

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Many people understand that though presently the Hebrew Scriptures have vowels written underneath or to the left side of the consonants, originally the text was voweless - much the same way that most modern Hebrew is written without vowels. But few people are aware that there are other signs written below, to the side, and above the consenants and that these signs were also not original to the text, but are nevertheless, very important, as they contain importantant indicators how the text was interpreted before the coming of Christ, and after, for about five hundred years. These signs, called "Ta'amei HaMikr'a" (Scripture reasons or emphasis) are really musical signs that convey melodies, and as much modern melodies function, they convey "phrasing", and to a large extent, phrasing conveys understanding of the text. the melodies of the Scripture capture the way the Scriptures were sung in the day of Jesus, and it is possible to reconstruct how the Scriptures were sung in His day and thus how they were understood.

Present day Jews come from all parts of the world and in their synagogues the Scriptures are sung, usually separate melodies for the Torah portions and separate melodies for the prophetic readings (Haftorah).These melodies vary according to the dispersions and yet certain musical themes appear to most of the dispersions. Joel Segal, musicologist and Jewish historian, pointed out over forty years ago that the only way the identical or near identical refrains could appear in these dispersions, is that they came from a time when all these dispersion were "undispersed" and still in the Holy Land. That is, prior to the great dispersion by the Romans of the Jews in 70AD. That dispersion brought the Jews (Judeans) to Rome, then to the Rhine Valley, where they began to speak the language which was to become German for the Gentiles, and "Yiddish" for the Jews, and from there to eastern Europe, to America, and elsewhere. This is the great dispersion of the Ashkenazi (the Jews called the area of the Rhine to which they were dispersed "Ashkenaz").

A much later dispersion of Jews was the expulsion from Spain in 1492, which brought the Jews around to the Mediterraenean countries, such as Greece, Turkey, Morocco, and others, and through the Netherlands to the New world of America. These Jews also sang the Scriptures, very differently than the Ashkenazi, but identical and near identical in some of the musical motifs. And there were other lesser known but distinct dispersions. From a reconstruction of the identical and the near identical, it is possible to know and to hear the music of the synagogue of the first century before the dispersions took place. Here is a common Ashkenazi melody for the prophetic portion that has identical or near identical motifs in the Sephardic prophetic renderings (Sepharad was the Hebrew word for Spain) and other dispersions and thus show how the Scriptures sounded in the first century:

DFGAG GAG GGGD DBbAGF FCD (A bold letter indicates it is higher than the letter before it)

But these melodies have two great values. 1) Linking verses with melodies allows for easier memory 2) Melodies can either be disjunctive, that is indicating that the meaning of its word is not to be linked with the next word or group of words, or conjunctive, meaning that the word is to be connected with the following word,. Furthermore, the disjunctives can be major stops of thought such as a period in the English language, or a minor stop of thought, perhaps a regathering or amplifying a thought, such as a coma serves in English, There is even a disjunctive that indicates a midpoint resting of thought, such as does not appear in English. This "mid point" stoppage, and the meolody associated with it is called in the Aramaic language "Etnahta", which means taking a rest or pause.

Here is a case in how these musical signs may interpret the Hebrew text.

In Isaiah 9:6, the Hebrew words, in the original consonants can bear the meaning "His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor of the Mighty God..." or, "His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God...". The first translation would indicate that the one to come is but a counsellor to the Mighty God. The second translation would suggest that the one to come is the Mighty God Himself. But the Ta'amei Hamikr'a decides the case. Between "Counsellor" and Mighty God" there is a disjunctive. Therefore, His name shall be called Counsellor, the Mighty God..." is correct - according to the understanding that the Masoretes ("tradition bearers"), as those are called who received the ancient way of singing and understanding and who passed it.

Here is the melody for the prophetic portion (Isaiah 42) which is assigned for the first Torah reading of the year, which is called Bereishit ("In the beginning"). It can be heard by clicking on to "Play your Haftorah portion". The Hebrew text is written out containing the original consonants, and, as remembered by the Masoretes, the voweling, and the Ta'amei Hamikr'a.

See also