Tropes - The key to chanting Torah and Haftarah

In English sentences, punctuation marks help the reader interpret the meaning of a sentence and where the sentence ends. Changes in punctuation can make huge changes to the meaning of a sentence. Take the following example of a translation of a portion of the verse 31:14 from Deuteronomy:

"And the Lord said unto Moses: Behold, Your days approach that you must die."

compared to:

"And the Lord said unto Moses: Behold your days; Approach that you must die."

The first warns Moses that his days are coming to an end. That's how the verse is meant to be read. The second way of punctuating commands Moses to review his life and then approach so that he can immediately die. This would be a mistaken understanding of the verse. Move the punctuation mark and change it from a comma to a semicolon and you dramatically change the sense of the sentence. In the same way, missing or improper punctuation can change the meaning of a verse of Torah. Since Torah is a written expression of the word of God, it is tremendously important to read verses of Torah so that they have the correct meaning as passed to Moses on Sinai, and as the Masoretes captured in writing in the tropes that we are studying.

Hebrew has no inherent punctuation and no capital letters. In the times of both the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem, the Levites were the musicians (along with their other tasks). They maintained and taught the tradition regarding "punctuation" and chanting of biblical texts. During readings, an expert would inform the reader how to chant text using a system of hand signals called chironomy. Each hand signal specified a particular musical melody. Some time after the destruction of the Second Temple in 80 C.E., the hand signals were transcribed onto parchment using a series of symbols called Ta'amei Hanegina or Ta'amei Hamikra or the Greek word Trope. In the early 9th century C.E., Aaron ben Asher systematized and transcribed the trope symbols in the form we currently know it.

The trope symbols are found in biblical manuscripts of Torah, Neviim (Prophets), Tehillim (Psalms), and the five Megillot (Esther, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Ruth). Trope symbols serve as punctuation to assure proper interpretation of verses. In addition, each tropes has its own melody, indicating to the reader how to chant the verse.

Punctuation marks in English serve to separate phrases from one another. In most languages, punctuation marks are used just once or twice in a typical sentence. In bibilical Hebrew, every word has at least one punctuation mark--a trope accent. Since every word has one or more tropes, only some tropes act to separate words into phrases. The rest are used to bind the words of phrases together. The scholars call the separating tropes Lords (or disjunctives--separators) and the binding tropes Servants (conjunctives -- connectors).

In English, we know that when we get to a period at the end of a sentence we pause before say the next word. A semicolon basically divides a sentence into two sentences. When we come to a semicolon we pause a bit less than we do for a period. A comma divides two thoughts that are part of one sentence. When we come to a comma, we pause even less than we do for a semicolon.

In biblical Hebrew texts, we find similar levels of division and pause. Scholars of Hebrew grammar have given the names to these levels based on their power to divide and instruct the reader to pause. The scholars use the language of court roles (lords, servants, emperors, counts, dukes, etc.) to describe trope rank. This is because lower-ranking tropes help higher ranking tropes build phrases, and the higher-ranking tropes act to divide biblical verses.

Some words in Hebrew biblical texts are phrases by themselves. For example:

meaning "He said," is a phrase that begins verse 15:8 in Genesis. Any trope that can be used on a single-word phrase such as the one above is considered an "owner" of a phrase. (The tropes that can be owners of a phrase are: Sof Pasuk, Etnachta, Zakef Gadol, Zakef Katon, Segol, Tevir, Revii, Telisha Gedola, Pazer, Azla, Geresh, Gershayim and Karne Farah.) All other tropes are found on words that build up a phrase. You can always tell when a phrase ends -- the last word in the phrase has one of the "owner" tropes. You don't have to memorize the names of owner tropes now -- they form the titles of chapters that follow as we discuss the kinds of tropes that build up each of these types of phrases. In the chart below, we mark with an asterisk (*) which tropes are phrase owners.

For practical purposes of these lessons, we will divide lord tropes into a group of major lords shown in red, and minor lords shown in amber. All of the major lords, and most of the minor lords are phrase-ending owner tropes.

In the chart below, we show all of the tropes divided into categories of lords and servants. You can refer back to this chart to help you understand why certain tropes go together. For purposes of chanting biblical texts, knowing which tropes are major lords, which are minor lords, and which are servants is enough.

(Note that the names of the tropes are shown with their Ashkenazi names. TropeTrainer(tm) software shows you the names of the tropes in the style and regional variation of your choice!)


Major lords shown in red. All are followed by some amount of major pause.

Minor lords shown in orange. Most are followed by a slight pause. (Tipcha by a longer pause -- see below).

Servants shown in green to show no pause between its word and the next word.

"Hebrew" = Trope name is a Hebrew word

"Aramaic" = Trope Name is an Aramaic word


* Sof Pasuk (Hebrew: End of verse)

* Etnachta (Aramaic: Rester)


* Zakef-Katon (Hebrew: Minor raising)

* Zakef-Gadol (Hebrew: Major raising)

* Revia (or Revii) (Aramaic: Square)

* Segol (Hebrew: Bunch)

* Shalshelet (Hebrew: Chain)

Tipcha (Aramaic: Hand-breadth) -- (Note: Tipcha is shown in orange because it is not an owner trope. It always acts as a helper to the emperors Sof Pasuk and Etnachta. Its orange color would lead you to believe that it has a very slight pause. Because it is a King, its pause is a bit longer than that of the orange colored Dukes and Counts below, but shorter than the pause of the other Kings.)


* Geresh (Hebrew: Expulsion)

* Azla (Aramaic: Going on)

* Gershayim (Aramaic: Double geresh)

* Tevir (Aramaic: Broken)

Zarka (Aramaic: Scatterer)--(Zarka is not an owner trope. It always acts as a helper to the king Segol.)

Pashta (Aramaic: Stretcher) -- (Pashta is not an owner trope. It always acts as a helper to king Zakef Katon.)

Yetiv (Aramaic: Staying) -- (Yetiv is not an owner trope. It always acts as a replacement to Pashta.)


* Pazer (Hebrew: Dispersed)

* Telisha Gedolah (Hebrew: Drawing out)

* Karne Farah (Hebrew: Heifer's horns) --(Found once in Torah: Masei-Num35:5, and once in Megillas Esther 7:9 )

Petty lord

Munach Legarmeh (Independant munach)


Munach (Hebrew: Resting)

Mapach (Hebrew: Reversed)

Darga (Hebrew: Step)

Mercha (Aramaic: Lengthener)

Mercha Chefulah (Double mercha) --(Found occasionally in Torah and once in the Haftarah for Beha'aloscha and the first Shabbat Chanukah - Zec 3:3)

Kadma (Aramaic: Preceding)

Telisha Ketana (Little telisha)

Yerach ben Yomo (Hebrew: day old moon) -- (Found once in Torah: Masei-Num35:5, and once in Megillas Esther 7:9)

Not a trope, but specifies a pause


Paseik (Aramaic: Restraining)


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