Hebrew Cantillation Marks And Their Encoding

by Helmut Richter

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

Purpose Of Cantillation Marks

Cantillation marks (also known as "taamey ha-miqra", "teamim", "trope", "neginot", "accents") are diacritic symbols annotating the Hebrew Bible text for the purpose of cantillation, similar to neumes. They were introduced by the Masoretes around the end of the first millenium of the common era. They can serve three different purposes:

Structuring the Text By Cantillation Marks

The tune to use for cantillation and the distribution of pauses depend on the syntactic structure of the text. It is therefore not surprising that the cantillation marks give information on the syntactic structure. The way this happens has some resemblance with the usage of punctuation marks in English. There, after each word, we have a punctuation mark telling what syntactic entity is terminated with this word: a full stop, question mark, or exclamation mark terminates a sentence; a colon terminates a partial sentence; semicolons, dashes, and commas terminate smaller units; a blank terminates a word; a hyphen terminates a part of a compound word. This is also how the cantillation marks work: they, just like English punctuation marks, indicate that the word where they are placed terminates a smaller or larger syntactic unit. The equivalent of the full stop is the Sof Pasuq, the end of the Bible verse, which was also the basis of verse numbering (so verse division is a Jewish invention, while verse numbering and chapter division is a later Christian invention).

Each cantillation mark belongs to a class indicating its dividing power. The word where it is placed terminates the syntactic entity consisting of this word and all preceding words where the dividing power of the respective mark is smaller. Of two marks with equal power with no intervening stronger mark, the earlier one is considered stronger for reasons to be explained below.

The cantillation marks in the class with the least dividing power, that is, those that will always terminate syntactic units consisting of only one word, do in fact indicate that the word where they are placed is closer connected to the following word than to the preceding one. It is therefore reasonable to describe their role as conjunctive. The other marks are called distinctive.

The analogy between English punctuation marks and Hebrew cantillation marks must not be taken too far. There are also important differences:

It happens relatively infrequently that the meaning of a text is affected by its syntactic decomposition, so that the marks disambiguate the text. One example is:

A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.  . . ." (Is.40:3, NIV)

where, just as in English, the same sequence of words could also mean:

A voice of one calling in the desert: "Prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.  . . ." (Is.40:3 footnote, NIV)

Another example is the list of names in Is.9:5-6 where it is not obvious whether the eight names form four compounds of two each.

The 21 Books And The 3 Books

Three books in the Bible, Psalms (Tehillim), Proverbs (Mishley), and Job (Iyov) are often printed differently from the other books: they use separate lines for verses as is customary for poems in English. The same books use also a different system of cantillation marks which is therefore called the poetic system as distinct from the prosaic system for the other books. As the other books contain also some poetry, and some are even entirely poetic, such as the Song of Songs and the Lamentations, we shall use the more neutral terms the 3 books and the 21 books instead. If you wonder where the 15 books went that are missing to a total of 39 books in the Hebrew Bible: here the two-volume books (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra/Nehemiah) are counted as one book each, and the 12 shorter prophetic writs (Hosea through Maleachi) are combined to form a single book.

The differences between the two systems are:

General Syntax Rules

For the placement of cantillation marks, a number of general rules apply:

  1. The overwhelming majority of words carries one and only one cantillation mark.

  2. A Maqqef (hyphen) connects words close enough that, as a rule, only the last of them carries a cantillation mark. Note that if you regard the Maqqef as a conjunctive mark belonging to the first of the two words it connects, rule 1 is still obeyed in this case.

  3. A Paseq (vertical bar) can sometimes be regarded as part of a mark and renders an otherwise conjunctive mark distinctive (see tables); sometimes it indicates a division that is independent of the structure represented by the other cantillation marks.

  4. A Meteg (secondary stress) does not count as a cantillation mark; it appears together with another mark or a Maqqef at the same word. A Silluq (which looks the same as a Meteg), however, does count as a cantillation mark; only in quite rare cases it appears with another mark in the same word or hyphenated ("maqqefated"?) chain.

  5. While there is an abundance of how a Bible verse may be structured, there is one general pattern: Virtually all verses consist of two halves with an Atnach between. In the 3 books, there can be a stronger division than Atnach by Ole We-Yored, for instance when a short headline of a Psalm (e.g. "A psalm of David") is part of a longer Bible verse: then this headline is typically separated by an Ole We-Yored from the remaining portion of the verse which then usually has an Atnach to divide it.

Unfortunately, for each of these rules there are numerous places in the Hebrew Bible where they are violated.

The Hierarchy Of Distinctive Marks

As described above, the cantillation marks belong to different classes describing their dividing power. These classes carry the titles of rulers: a qeysar (Caesar, emperor) terminates an entire Bible verse and "reigns" it; a melekh (king) divides the realm of an emperor and reigns the first half which it terminates while the other half is still under the reign of the emperor. Likewise, analogous rules apply to the lower ranks of rulers: a mishne (duke) divides the realm of a king and reigns the first half which it terminates; a shalish (officer) divides the realm of a duke and reigns the first half which it terminates. Lowest in rank is a mesharet (servant), that is, a conjunctive mark. Only the term for a distinctive mark in general, mafsiq (divider), does not fit into this imagery of rulers.

In the 21 books, the very first division of each entire Bible verse is done by an emperor, Atnach, which divides the realm of another emperor, Sof Pasuq, thus violating the general rule that always the lower rank divides the realm of the immediately higher. However, the preceding paragraph remains valid even in this case when we regard the half-verse, terminated by either Sof Pasuq or Atnach, as the top level of the decomposition, of course keeping in mind that the Sof Pasuq divides stronger than the Atnach. In the 3 books, there is no such special rule: there, the Sof Pasuq is the only emperor, but two of the kings can appear at most once in a verse and only before the other kings so that in effect a similar division is obtained.

Now, let us look at such a decomposition. The lines are to be read from left to right.

We start with an entire half-verse, terminated by an emperor:
. . . emperor
The first step of division is obvious:
. . . king. . . emperor
It is also obvious that the first half has to be divided by a duke. It is, however, not immediately clear whether the second half should be divided by a king (as lower by one rank than the emperor at the end of this section), or by a duke (thus reflecting the real nesting level of the newly created section which is only 1/4 of the text at the outset). Actually, the rule is to proceed in the former way:
. . . duke. . . king. . . king. . . emperor
Now the next step of decomposition follows the same rule again:
. . . officer. . . duke. . . duke. . . king. . . duke. . . king. . . king. . . emperor

From this sketch one sees immediately why, of any two marks with equal rank with no intervening stronger mark, the earlier one is considered stronger: the later one divides not the entire realm of its superior but only a portion of it, only its "title" profits from its superior's high rank. Note that the binary decomposition of the text is still unique. We assert the following statements about the resulting pattern, leaving the proof as an exercise for the reader:

While the real nesting levels stay nowhere constant and can jump up and down by arbitrary amounts, the first of these observation shows that the ranks of the marks have a smoother behaviour, without any loss in precision. Therefore the ranks are better suited for cantillation where the marks correspond to pieces of music which must fit together and end in a contiguous tune. A caesura is the more adequate, the less the text before the caesura is continued after it. As we have seen, it plays a role for this distinction whether a mark of some rank is the last in a chain of equals (then it is dominated by the next mark that is not inferior) or whether others will follow in the chain (then it dominates them). Consequently, there are non-final and final marks. Also, which of several possible marks is selected may depend on which mark it "reports" to as its superior. These details are not explained here but only reflected in the chapter on syntax rules. There, one finds also which concrete marks have which ranks.

© Helmut Richter      published 1999-08-30; last update 2004-08-25