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All the Right Notes: The Two Trops for the Ten Commandments

Rabbi Dov Gertler

Many people listening to the Aseres Hadibros are surprised to hear a different trop being used. But why do we have this extra set of taamim, and what is the source for the taamim as a whole? Following the trail through the sources uncovers some interesting findings.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

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any a young bochur has labored over the taamei hamikra for his bar mitzvah parshah, and those whose parshah includes the Ten Commandments face an even harder task — learning the special trop for those verses. But why do we have this extra set of taamim, only for these occasions? And when did the taamim come into existence, anyway? Following the trail through the sources uncovers some interesting findings.

The text in a typical Chumash is accompanied by special cantillation marks indicating how the words should be read aloud during leining. They function much like musical notation and guide the baal korei in the trop he should use. In addition, these marks serve as a sort of punctuation; they delineate the beginnings and endings of pesukim, as well as providing pauses and emphasis. The marks, known in Lashon Hakodesh as the taamei hamikra, follow a system of rules that remains consistent throughout the Chumash. (Indeed, the system applies to all of Tanach, although the taamim for the books outside of Chumash denote different musical notation.)

We find an interesting discrepancy, however, in the two passages where the Aseres Hadibros are transmitted, the first time in parshas Yisro in Sefer Shemos and the second time in parshas Va’escḥanan in Sefer Devarim. In these two places, a unique situation obtains: the passages are marked with two different versions of the trop. One version is like the trop found throughout the rest of Chumash, but the other version appears only here. 

The two versions of the trop that appear in these two places have come to be called by special names in the halachic literature. The version that stays consistent with the trop in the rest of the Chumash is called taam tachton. Meanwhile, the special version that appears only in the two Aseres Hadibros passages is called taam elyon, so named for the preponderance of notes written above the letters — unlike the standard trop, which distributes the marks fairly evenly above and below the letters. 

This raises a question. Are both versions of the trop original? That is, have the Aseres Hadibros always been leined with two versions of the trop, or did one evolve later than the other? 

To answer the overarching question, we must first understand the differences between the versions, then identify the sources in halachah that attempt to trace the origins of those differences. Since the taam tachton is basically the standard trop, its provenance is not really in question. The presumed original would be the taam tachton. 

The alternative notation of the taam elyon, however, diverges from the standard form in a number of instances. It deviates not only in the frequency with which it places the notes above letters, but also in the length of its pesukim. Reading the text according to the standard trop, nowhere in Tanach do we find a pasuk made up of fewer than three words. In dividing pesukim of the Aseres Hadibros according to the taam elyon, however, we encounter three such instances. 

The taam elyon also outmatches the standard trop on the opposite end of the spectrum. The longest pasuk in the rest of Tanach, per the standard trop, is 43 words. The taam elyon has two pesukim that surpass that: one totals 55 words; the total of the other is subject to debate and is either 50 or a full 59. 

In order to accurately assess date of origin of the taam elyon, these differences must be addressed separately, because the simple division of pesukim and the specific notes of trop might have developed independently of each other.

Footnotes 

1.The idea of variant opinions about the trop is not itself a unique phenomenon. There are a few isolated instances elsewhere in Tanach where doubt arose about the proper notes of individual words, as the transmission of the trop was not perfect and at times came with multiple opinions. What makes the duality of taam in Aseres Hadibros unique is its existence as an entire self-contained section with two distinct and fully developed sets of notes. The comprehensive nature of the taamim supports the expectation that their creation was a product of deliberate effort rather than an accident of transmission. 

2. Lo tirzach, lo tin’af, lo tignov. See Biur Halachah 494 s.v. mibachodesh who notes this irregularity. 

3. Esther 8:9. 

4. There is some debate as to the breakup of pesukim in the taam elyon. If “anochi” is a separate pasuk, then the second-longest pasuk in the taam elyon is 50 words. If anochi runs into the subsequent pasuk, it becomes the longest with 59 words.

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