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Upper and Lower Cantillation Marks on the Ten Commandments
Dr. Joseph Ofer
The Torah reading on Shavuot is one of the climactic points of the holiday. During the reading every person experiences anew the Revelation at Sinai, imagining the thunder and lightning and the dense cloud upon the mountain, hearing the blast of the shofar and the Ten Commandments from the mouth of the Almighty. In some congregations it is customary to stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments, and in some places the Ten Commandments are read in a special festive melody.
The biblical cantillation marks for the Ten Commandments are unique, as well. The Commandments are read according to the "upper cantillation marks," which have many more musically ornate notes such as the combinations of zarka segol, pazer and telisha, that make the reading sound more festive. Looking at a printed Bible with cantillation signs, one sees that in addition to the "upper cantillation marks" the verses of the Ten Commandments have other cantillations marks as well, called "lower cantillation marks." Commentators and scholars have sought to explain and discover the origins of this double marking, as we shall do, as well.
Actually, it is not primarily the music that makes the upper cantillation marks special. Rather, it is the way the cantillation marks indicate the division into verses: the Ten Commandments are divided into ten verses, each commandment read as an entire verse. This division creates certain exceptional situations. For example, aside from the Ten Commandments, the entire Bible does not have a single verse that consists only of two words. The shortest verses have three words; such as Va-yeshev Yitzhak bi-Gerar ("So Isaac stayed in Gerar," Gen. 26:6), or U-vnai Dan Hushim ("Dan's son: Hushim," Gen. 46:23). The Ten Commandments, however, have three verses each of which consists of two words: Lo Tirzah (You shall not murder), lo tin'af (You shall not commit adultery), and lo tignov (You shall not steal). The first part of the Decalogue is also exceptional: a verse of 50 words ("You shall have no other..."), and a verse of 55 words ("Remember the sabbath day," in Exodus) or of 64 words ("Keep the sabbath day," in Deuteronomy). These are the longest verses in all of Scripture.
The wish to read each commandment as a self-contained verse therefore produced verses of exceptional length: both exceptionally short and exceptionally long. The large number of cantillation marks which are generally rare in the Bible are a result of this special division into verses, which creates unusually long units and hence more opportunity for the more "flamboyant" trup signs.
The second system of cantillation marks, called the "lower cantillation," divides the commandments into verses of intermediate length, as is more usual in Scripture. The commandment to "Remember the sabbath day..." covers four verses, and the four commandments, "You shall not murder," "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not steal" and "You shall not bear false witness...," are combined into a single verse. According to this system, the Ten Commandments are comprised of twelve verses.
Later commentators have offered many explanations for the terms "upper cantillation" and "lower cantillation." Rabbi Zalman Hannau, author of Sha'arei Tefilah, says the upper cantillation (Ta'am Elyon) is like "what the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, which is supreme (elyon) above all," and the lower cantillation, "what Moses said to Israel, below." Others have suggested that the upper cantillation marks are so named because they include "high melodies and powerful sounds," or because many of its cantillation signs are written above the word. With all these explanations, however, one must bear in mind that the terms "upper cantillation" and "lower cantillation" are relatively late. The earliest source in which they appear is the 16th-century responsa, Mas'at Benyamin (siman 6). Masoretic literature refers to the two systems of cantillation by other names: ta'ma kadma (= "the first cantillation," corresponding to the "lower cantillation" of today), and ta'ma tenina ("the second cantillation," corresponding to the "upper cantillation").
What is the origin of these two systems of verse division of the Decalogue? Babylonian masoretic notes on Scripture clearly indicate that the practice in Babylonia was to parse the verses according to the commandments. The Babylonian masorah, which notes the first word of each and every verse throughout the Bible, explicitly indicates: "I the Lord am you G-d--beginning of a verse, closed line ... You shall have no other--beginning of a verse... You shall not swear--beginning of a verse, closed line... Keep the sabbath --beginning of a verse, closed line... Honor--beginning of a verse, closed line," etc., for all ten commandments (C.D.Ginzberg, The Masorah, 3, p. 254). The Babylonian Jews read Scripture according to their particular tradition and musical heritage, and even established special marks for the cantillation and punctuation, according to their tradition. Several manuscripts containing the Decalogue were discovered in the Cairo genizah, with an Aramaic translation following each verse. Each one of the commandments was considered there as a single verse.
The reckoning of the verses in Parshat Jethro (72) and in Parshat Va-ethanan (119), indicated in manuscripts and most Pentateuchs (humashim) at the end of these readings, also matches the system by which the Commandments are divided into ten verses (not twelve, as in the lower cantillation system). In Babylonia the cycle of Torah readings was completed in a single year, as is our practice today (unlike the triennial cycle in the Land of Israel); thus it appears that these numbers originate from Babylonia.
In contrast, another reckoning of verses in the masorah follows the lower cantillation system. At the end of each book of the Torah the masorah notes the total number of verses in the book: Exodus 1209, and Deuteronomy, 955. These numbers actually accord with the lower cantillation system, and were apparently assigned in the Land of Israel. This would explain a strange aspect of the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy: the sum of the verses in each of these books does not accord with the sum of the number of verses in each of the weekly readings they contain. The reason is simple: the total number of verses was counted according to the lower cantillation system, whereas the number of verses in each weekly reading followed the upper cantillation system.
The original system followed in the Land of Israel was apparently that of the lower cantillation. Although the upper cantillation system which we find in our Bibles is Tiberian, it appears that this system came to the Land of Israel at a later stage, possibly under Babylonian influence. This is evident in the names that the Tiberian masorah gives the two cantillation systems. The original system, parsing the verses according to normal length, is called Ta'ma kadma, or "the first cantillation"; whereas the "new" system, dividing the verses according to the Commandments, is called Ta'ma tenina, or "second cantillation."
Close analysis of the placement of the cantillation marks in the commandment, "You shall have no other gods..." and "Remember..." also points to a relatively late date for this system. This analysis shows that the upper cantillation system derived from the lower one, but that certain changes were made in order to adapt the cantillation to the Babylonian verse divisions, in which each commandment was a verse on its own.
Ancient masoretic manuscripts of the Bible, first and foremost the Aleppo Codex (Keter Aram Zova) of the famous masorete Aaron ben Asher, contain both cantillation systems. These manuscripts do not write out the Decalogue twice, once with each system, but mark both cantillation systems on the same words. The reader must be well-versed in cantillation of the Torah in order to know which markings belong to which system. Not all readers have always been so expert, thus over the years various mistakes in the cantillation have resulted, especially in the first verse of the Decalogue. These mistakes have even worked their way into some editions of the Bible used by readers today. An especially glaring mistake that appears in several printed Bibles consists of the sign etnahta (which grammatically divides the verse in half, and may appear only once in any verse) appearing twice in a single verse.
The first verse, according to accurate manuscript versions, reads as follows:
Upper cantillation system:
Anokhi H' elohekha [etnahta] asher hozetikha me-erez mizraim mi-beit avadim [sof pasuk].
Lower cantillation system:
Anokhi H' elohekha [zakef] asher hozetikha me-erez mizraim mi-beit avadim [etnahta] lo yiheye lekha elohim aherim al panai [sof pasuk].
We mentioned above that the different parsing into verses by the two systems entails changes in the cantillation. These cantillation changes entail other changes as well--in the pointing of the vowels and in the presence or absence of a dagesh--for the cantillation is integrally connected with the pointing of the text. For example, in the verse, "Lo yiheye lekha elohim aherim al panai," the nun in panai has a patah under it according to the upper system, but a kamatz according to the lower system; in Lo tirzah the tav has no dagesh in it according to the lower system, but does have according to the upper system. These changes of kamatz vs. patah or of tav with or without a dagesh are only sensed when one reads with an Ashkenazi or Yemenite accent. The Sephardic pronunciation prevalent today only lends expression to one change: according to the lower system, one reads khol melakhtekha, but according to the upper system, kol melakhtekha (with a dagesh in the kaf of kol).
In recent years congregations differ regarding the proper system to use for reading the Ten Commandments. Sephardic congregations tend to read with the upper cantillation (some say that the lower cantillation is for individual, private reading, not public reading). Ashkenazi congregations distinguish between the various occasions when the Ten Commandments are read: when they are read in the context of the weekly reading (Parshat Jethro and Parshat Va-ethanan), they are read with the lower cantillation system, whereas on Shavuot they are read according to the upper cantillation. This practice was first mentioned in the 13th century, in Hizkuni's commentary on Exodus, as follows:
For most of the commandments there are two ways of singing. From this we learn that on Atzeret, which is like Revelation at Sinai, when the Commandments are translated, all of "You shall have no other gods..." and all of "Remember..." are read with a long melody, making each of them a single verse, for each is a commandment unto itself. The commandments, "You shall not murder," "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not steal," and "You shall not bear false witness," are read with a short melody, making of them four verses for they are four commandments. In the month of Shevat, however, when Parshat Jethro is read as the regular weekly reading, then "You shall have no other..." and "Remember" are read with short melodies, making each into four verses, and the commandments, "You shall not murder," "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not steal," and "You shall not bear false witness," are read with a long melody, making them into a single verse, since in all of Scripture there are no verses other than these that consist of only two words. On Shavuot one reads as explained above.
Hizkuni alludes to a possible explanation for this practice when he mentions the custom of translating the Decalogue on Shavuot. It was an early Ashkenazi custom to translate the Torah reading twice during the year: on the seventh day of Passover and on Shavuot (cf. Tosafot on Megillah 24a, s.v. "ve-im"). The translation was combined with homilies and accompanied by various liturgical poems (cf. Mahzor Vitri, Horowitz ed., pp. 305-344), a vestige of which we have in the poem Akdamut Milin which is still said today. The translation of the Decalogue, close to the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, is structured according to the Ten Commandments and prefaces each Commandment with a set introduction. The reading suitable for the occasion is clearly the one which presents each Commandment as an integral unit, in other words, the reading according to the upper cantillation system.
For further study see: M. Breuer, Keter Aram Zova ve-ha-Nusah ha-Mekubal shel ha-Mikra, Jerusalem 1977; M. Breuer, "Halukat Aseret ha-Dibrot le-Fesukim u-le-Dibrot," Aseret ha-Dibrot be-Rei ha-Dorot (ed. B. Z. Segal), Jerusalem 1986, pp. 223-254 (especially the detailed discussion there of three ways of reckoning the Decalogue as reflected by the upper cantillation, the lower cantillation, and the division into closed lines); S. Y. Halevi Weinfeld, Ta'amei ha-Mikra shel kol 24 Kitvei ha-Kodesh, Jerusalem 1981, pp. 75-100 (collected sources).
 The Masora relates to hyphenated words as a single word, which gives some rare two-word verses (Gen. 46:23; Num. 26:11).