The Decalogue

The Cantillation on the Ten Commandments

Exodus 20:2
The Ten Commandments are unique since they are punctuated with two systems of cantillation: upper cantillation marks (ta’am elyon טעם עליון) and lower cantillation marks (ta’am tachton טעם תחתון). While the upper cantillation marks divide the passage into ten Commandments, the lower cantillation marks divide it into twelve verses. What is the reason for having upper and lower cantillation marks? How do we know which mark belongs to the lower cantillation marks and which belongs to the upper cantillation marks?

The cantillation marks are divided into two groups: disjunctive (separating) and conjunctive (connecting). They serve three functions: musical, syntactical, and phonetical. The Poetical Books (Psalms, Job, and Proverbs) have a different system of cantillation marks than the Prose Books or 21 Books.
Let's examine an example. In Genesis 29:9 we find this verse ורחל באה , and in Genesis 29:6 this verse: והנה רחל בתו באה .
The word ba'a (באה come, arrive ) is identical in both past and present tense. Which one is the present, or past tense? Maybe both are past tense, or present? For example, if we read the word as a past tense (came), instead of a present tense (comes), we could misinterpret the meaning of the verse: And Rachel came, or And here comes Rachel? The cantillation marks help us in clarifying the correct meaning. In the first sample (1a) the accent is on the first syllable — past tense. Whereas in the second sample (1b) the accent is on the second syllable — present tense.
There are other instances that verses are divided into two independent clauses: the first half is marked and ended by etnachta and the second half is marked and ended by siluk. Both of these marks are disjunctive. Now, remember this rule: etnachta may appear only once in any verse . This rule also applies to the siluk (1).

The word avadim עבדים
The most interesting and exceptional Commandment, or verse is I am the LORD your GOD which has two or three sets of cantillation marks. The word avadim עבדים is punctuated with both etnachta and siluk. The latter creates a short verse: I am the LORD your GOD...the house of bondage. whereas the former creates a longer verse: I am the LORD your GOD...You shall have no other gods besides Me (sample 2).
Which verse belongs to the upper or the lower cantillation marks?

In MS Sassoon 24º 5702 there are marginal notes at the beginning of most verses. Those notes refer to the lower cantillation marks with the words: Ta'ma kadma (טעמא קדמא ), which can be translated as the first cantillation (2). That said, the etnachta (avadim עבדים ) which creates the longer verse, belongs to the lower cantillation marks.

The Revi'a & The Nine Commandments
In 1524-6 the second edition of the Rabbinic Bible, Mikra'ot Gedolot, was published in Venice. This edition, according to Prof. Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, was the first one to add the third cantillation system — the revi'a (disjunctive). This system also imposed new order: The lower system became the upper, and the upper the lower.

Since then, different editions of the Hebrew Bible were published with three sets of cantillation marks, or two, but with revi'a.
For example, If we read the Adi bible that was published in 1965, it is hard not to notice that the word avadim עבדים is punctuated with etnachta, siluk, and revi'a (sample 3). Moreover, the order of the marks was changed. Originally the etnachta had been written first, and the siluk second. Now the siluk is written first. The order is also changed in the word mebeyt מבית. Now the merkha is written first, and the munah second. We also find the revi'a in Sinai bible that was published in 1978, however, without the etnachta (3).

Why is avadim עבדים punctuated with revi'a?
Let's start with the fact that there is no single MS that shows any evidence for that mark. The etnachta and siluk are the most evident marks in every MS. There is no doubt that the punctuators tried to solve an issue based on the musical rules of the cantillations, but failed to know, understand, and recognize the syntactical rules:
First, a clause governed by a revi'a must be subdivided by pazer, and not zaqef, on the word elohekha אלהיך. Hence, the zaqef can subdivide only the clause governed by the etnachta.
Second, as I stated already, the order of the etnachta and siluk had been changed. That said, the lower canitillation system ends on the word avadim עבדים with the siluk (and not the etnachta, and siluk on the word al panay על-פני), and the upper canitillation system includes the two Commandments as one long verse, or one Commandment:
I am the LORD your GOD...those who love me and keep my commandments.
"אנכי יהוה אלהיך... ולשמרי מצותי"

So, we have only nine Commandments? Let's assume for a second that we don't know if we need to have ten Commandments.
The custom by the Masora was to state the number of the verses at the end of each book in the Hebrew Bible. At the end of the Book of Exodus there are 1,209 verses. This number goes hand in hand only if we count or read the Decalogue as 12 verses, according to the lower cantillation marks. At the end of parashat Yitro there are 72 verses. This number goes hand in hand only if we count or read the Decalogue as 10 Commandments, according to the upper cantillation marks.

Third, the revi'a clause creates one more problem, which resulted from incorporating the two Commandments into one. Now we have one etnachta on the word avadim עבדים , and a second etnachta on the word leson'ai לשנאי . Do you remember the rule: etnachta may appear only once in any verse!

Norzi, di Lonzano, Hizekuni
Interesting to note that both Rabbi Jedidiah Norzi, the author of Minhat Shai on the Torah (16th century, Italy) and Rabbi Menahem di Lonzano, the author of Or Torah (16th century, Turkey) didn't see the problem with both etnachtas. However, they didn't accept the revi'a. Hizekuni, (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, 13th century, France), on the other hand, accepted the revi'a (with both etnachtas). In his commentary on Exodus, he writes:
גם בדברו' [בדברות] אנכי ולא יהיה לך, יש נגינה גדולה, לעשותן פסוק אחד, לזכרון שבדבור אחד נאמרו
Hizekuni considers the first and second Commandments as one Commandment, since they were spoken in one declaration (dibbur) "from the mouth of the Almighty". That was also the point of view of Rabbi Norzi, and Rabbi di Lonzano (4).

The last issue to solve is our first question: What is the reason for having upper and lower cantillation marks?
Both systems came from two different sources: one is the Babylonian Masora (the East, upper cantillation marks), the second is the Palestinian (the West, lower cantillation marks), or the Land of Israel. This is one of the remarkable cases that the Tiberian Masora didn't reject the Babylonian Masora (5).

When do we read the Decalogue? According to Jewish tradition, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on Mount Sinai on Shavout (Festival of Weeks). The Ashkenazi custom, which was established by Hizekuni, is to read the Decalogue with the upper cantillation on Shavuot, and on the weekly reading with the lower cantillation. The Sephardic custom is to read the Decalogue with the upper cantillation, whereas the lower cantillation is not meant for public reading, and only for private reading.

• I'm using color only as a visual aid.

(1). There are more rules and exceptions to these rules, however, those are not of our current discussion. See Breuer, Ta'amey, pp.31-33. And also Heidenheim, Mishpete, Part B: Chapter A, p.12.

Mordechai Breuer, Ta'amey ha-mikra (Jerusalem: Horev, second revised edition, 1989) [Hebrew title].
— Pisuk Te'amim sheba-Mikra: Torat Dikduk Ha-Te'amim (Jerusalem: Histadrut Hazionit, 1957) [Hebrew title].
Wolf Heidenheim, Mishpete Ha-Te'amim (Rödelheim, 1808) [Hebrew title]

(2). Formerly MS Sassoon 507, in the National and University Library of Jerusalem, is probably from the tenth century. In order to know more about this MS and its creditability I strongly recommend reading Keter Aram Tsovah: Nikudo Ve-Te'Amav by Prof. Israel Yeivin (Hebrew title). This book is one of the most important books in the field of Biblical Hebrew research. Pages 361-2 summarize the main features of this MS.

(3). Later Adi editions didn't use the revi'a at all. The Hebrew-English edition by Sinai was published in 1971 without revi'a.

(4). Jedidiah Norzi, Minhat Shai on the Torah, Critical Edition, Introduction and Notes By Zvi Betser, Editor Yosef Ofer (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 2005) pp. 192-195, p. 229 [Hebrew title].
Both Hizekuni and di Lonzano are cited in Minhat Shai.
This critical edition is the newest and the best on Minhat Shai. Unfortunately, Zvi Betser, who passed away, didn't complete the work on the book. The manuscript was given to Prof. Aron Dotan (by Betser's wife; he was one of his students). Dr. Yosef Ofer, one of the rising stars in the field of Biblical Hebrew, had been asked by Prof. Dotan to complete the book.

(5). Yosef Ofer, The Babylonian Masora of the Pentateuch its Principles and Methods (Jerusalem: The Academy of the Hebrew Language & Magnes Press, 2001) pp. 154-155 [Hebrew title].

Mordechai Breuer, "Halukat Aseret ha-Dibrot le-Fesukim u-le-Dibrot," Aseret ha-Dibrot be-Rei ha-Dorot (ed. B. Z. Segal), Jerusalem: Magnes Press 1986, pp. 223-254.
— Keter Aram Tsova (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1977).

© 2008 David Hamuel, aside from quotes from other sources, or any other work mentioned. Please do not copy or post elsewhere without permission.


David, impressive scholarship. I am not clear on how what you are saying fits into past scholarship, and how what you are asserting that is different. Could you clarify?

Does this bear on the issue of how to correctly divide the passage into 10 commandments (or better, statements, as the Hebrew has it)? As you know, there are identified differently by Jewish and different Christian traditions.


which part to clarify?

To explain what is revi'a, siluk etc etc? larger image(s)?

(the original was about 20 pages, so i needed to cut a lot)

I am unfamiliar with the scholarship on cantillation marks, so I was just trying to get my bearings on what is your goal. Is this one piece of a full explanation of the cantillation system, or is there some particular problem you are addressing?

> Is this one piece of a full explanation of the cantillation system

nahhhh :) This is a little bit more complicated.

My aim was/is to shed some light; why the Ten Commandments? since they are punctuated with two systems of cantillation; really rare thing (btw, there's another story with two systems of cantillation).

And of course the whole case with that revi'a.

Larger imgaes (the first is Adi Bible, the second - Sinai Bible):



You might note that there are other options as to explanation the cantillation signs. According to the deciphering of them to music by Susan Haik-Vantura in the Ten Commandments there is but a single system where ALL the signs are used. As for the example BET AVADIM according to the deciphering we use the Letteris edition one in Shimot.

But different in Devarim.

> according to the deciphering we use the Letteris edition one

Do you mean the first edition that was published in 1866 by Meir Halevi Letteris? This edition was based on the edition of Jacob ben Chaiyim's text (Mikra’ot Gedolot) and the work by Ginsburg. The new bible that was edited by Norman Snaith fixed that problem.

> According to the deciphering of them to music by Susan Haik-Vantura

I'll try to be polite and respectful. Just because she wrote a book with 600 pages... I'm going to say: so? so what?

> a single system where ALL the signs are used

I'd love to hear that

Hebrew Bible — Snaith