Trope (trop in Yiddish) is the tune used when Torah reading and other texts, based on a cantillation marks.
Most communities use six different kinds of trope throughout the year:
- The common trope used on Shabbat, holiday, and weekday Torah readings1
- The High Holiday melodies
- Megillat Esther
- Meggilat Eicha (Lamantations)
- The three Megillahs of Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs), Ruth, and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes)
Are They Really Different?
Besides for telling us how to sing, the cantillation marks are considered part of the Oral Torah
The mystics add that there are many secrets and layers of meaning in the Torah that can only
Although these six tropes all sound different, the cantillation marks all serve the same
function as far as syntax and meaning is concerned. They only differ with regard to the
clef and tempo they are sung in.
The Differences Matter
So why are they different? Rabbi Moshe Sofer (known as the Chatam Sofer) writes: “Clefs that the
cantillations are sung in are dependent upon the nature or occasion of the reading. Thus, for the
But there is more than just mood. Rabbi Judah the Pious (1150-1217) writes that there is an ancient
tradition that the Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings) are each sung in their own
Some are of the opinion that the general differences of tune and pitch are in fact remnants of the
tunes that the Levites sung in the Holy Temple, which they composed based on the sounds of the
In fact, the cantillations were held in such reverence that the Talmud says that one should not
dirty the right hand in the privy because the right hand is used to show the cantillation notes
The Books of Emet
Although for the most part the cantillations only vary by tempo and pitch, there are three (out of the 24)
books of Scripture that do indeed have an almost entirely different cantillation system with separate rules.
form the acronym of “EMeT,” which means “truth,” and they are collectively known as Sifrei Emet,
“Books of Truth.”
Why do they have their own system?
- Tosafot attributes it to the fact that these books are written in a poetic style with short verses.9
- Tosafot Hashalem explains that these three books contain the “secret of creation” and therefore
- share their own unique tune.10
- Rabbi Judah the Pious explains that the authors of these three books were unique in that each
- of them experienced great upheavals in their lives. The Book of Job describes how Job was catapulted
- from extreme privilege to the depths of suffering, and was then restored to his former glory.
- Kings David and Solomon (authors of Psalms and Proverbs respectively) both experienced
- periods when their rule was temporarily taken from them.11
Understanding the Cantillations
As we mentioned, there are deep secrets hidden in the names and sounds of the cantillations, rooted
in the songs of the Holy Temple. Let us hope and pray for the day when the Temple will be rebuilt