Nusah and Cantillation

Recordings by Cantor Arianne Brown and Rabbi & Hazzan Seth Adelson
Project coordinator: Rabbi David Freidenreich

Nusah hatefillah—or simply nusah—is the prayer chant tradition that Jews have been using in synagogues, homes, and batei midrash (houses of study) for nearly two millennia. Virtually all liturgy is associated with a traditional nusah—a particular musical mode and set of motifs arranged in a loose order, with room for improvisation flairs as well.   

Which nusah a prayer leader uses is dictated not only by the liturgical text but also by the occasion. A passage appearing in both the morning and afternoon services is chanted differently, for example; the same passage is chanted with yet another nusah on Shabbat. Festival and High Holiday nusah introduce additional variation, thus lending a distinctive mood to the services of every time and occasion and keeping the liturgy fresh even when recited regularly. 

The nusah tradition varies regionally, reflecting the fact that it was transmitted orally for many centuries before being first notated in the early second millennium—such that Jews following the Italian, Yemenite, or German nusah traditions will all chant the same passage of liturgy differently. The recordings here reflect the standard Eastern European nusaḥ tradition as notated in the late nineteenth century by Cantor Abraham Baer in his masterful work Ba’al Tefilah, and by subsequent scholars and practitioners—including Cantors Max Wohlberg and Charles Davidson, who trained generations of JTS cantorial students in this sacred art. 

Weekday Nusah

Festival Nusah

Higher Voice

Lower Voice

Cantillation is the ancient method of setting the words of the Bible to specific note patterns, adding both musical expression and grammatical clarity to the text. Each biblical word (or unit of linked words) bears its own accent mark, or ta`am, vocalized as a brief melody. The ta`am indicates the emphasized syllable, which can affect the meaning of the word. It also signals either a connection to or a separation from the words that follow, adding syntax to the verse. 

The Hebrew word ta`am (plural: te`amim) can be translated as reason, meaning, or flavor. This term for cantillation, dating from the Talmudic period, reflects the fact that te`amim—like vowel marks in Hebrew and punctuation marks in English—help to convey the proper pronunciation and understanding of biblical words and phrases. The full term for the cantillation system is thus Ta`amei Hamikra—the meaning of Scripture. 

Today many people refer to te`amim today as trop. This Latin-based term, which entered rabbinic literature through Rashi’s medieval commentary on the Talmud, also refers to the distinct cantillation systems for different scriptural texts: Torah trop, Haftarah trop for prophetic readings, etc. Each cantillation system contains the same te`amim but assigns slightly different melodies to each ta`am so that listeners can immediately distinguish one kind of biblical text from another. The recordings found on this site reflect the standard Eastern European trop systems.