The melody to be chanted for a given Torah portion is indicated by markings called ta-amei hamikra, or, in English, trope symbols. The Hebrew word ta-am means both "taste" and "sense"--the trope helps make sense of the text and gives it its "flavor."

Chanting Torah serves several purposes:

  • Ensuring that the reading can be heard. Before the invention of those useful things called microphones, cantors would have had to shout to be heard by the whole congregation. It is easier to project your voice when singing than when speaking normally.

  • Ensuring that the correct meaning is conveyed. The cantor's voice--where s/he pauses, what syllables s/he stresses--inserts the commas and periods that make the words undersood. These words:


    can be interpreted two ways:

    We dislike foolish people. Like you, we find them boring.


    We dislike foolish people like you. We find them boring.

    Without punctuation, the author's meaning can be skewed. Cantillation helps avoid this kind of confusion. It also helps to distinguish between individual words. How can you tell the difference between pro-ject and pro-ject, ba-nu (they built) and ba-nu (us)? Context can help, but more accuracy is needed when reading an important religious text. Trope symbols show where the accent should be placed.

  • Plus, it's really pretty. :-)

Sources: The Art of Torah Cantillation by Marshall Portnoy and Josee Wolff, and conversations with my cantor.