Teaching Ta'amei HaMikra at an Early Age

  • by: Daniel Lasker

Reprinted from Ten Da’at 5/2 1991, pp. 22-23.

Recently my family celebrated two semahot; my oldest son, Yonah, became a bar mitzvah, and my middle son, Dovi, began learning Humash. Throughout the bar mitzvah preparation I was struck by the fact that preparing the Torah reading would have been so much easier if Yonah had been taught the te’amim in first grade and not when he was close to his bar mitzvah. The te’amim would have been second nature to him by then, and we could have spent more time on the content of the parshah rather than on the form. Some of the drudgery of constant repetition could have been avoided.

At the same time as Yonah was struggling to learn his Torah reading, his brother was also chanting pesukim from the Humash. His chanting, however, had nothing to do with the te’amim, it was simply a meaningless singsong. This sing-song is also used when performing rote translations of the text, the preferred method of instruction in his present school. No effort is made to teach him that the Humash has its own unique melody, one which is determined by the te’amim.

Teaching children ta’amei ha-mikra at an early age serves to avoid the pain and effort of bar mitzvah training, but it is much more than that. Teaching the te’amim are part and parcel of a true education in Humash, as much, if not more so, than Rashi. The te’amim are not just window dressing; they are not intended merely as a pleasant tune for the synagogue reading. The te’amim play an important role in the understanding of the text of the Humash. The te’amim break each verse into its component parts, acting as an advanced system of punctuation. It is impossible to understand fully the meaning of the Biblical text without its notes; indeed, without the te’amim one cannot even accent the right syllables and thereby read the Hebrew correctly.

Our Biblical exegetes have often stressed the importance of ta’amei ha-mikra, since the te’amim frequently give a different meaning to the verse than does a reading which ignores the notes. The mefarshim have also discussed whether the simple explication of the text always follows the te’amim or whether other explanations are possible. All agree,however, that the te’amim are indispensable for a full understanding of the Bible.

The te’amim are more than just exegetical aids. Rabbi Judah Halevi (Kuzari 2:72) stated that they are unique to the Hebrew language, one of the aspects which makes Hebrew superior to other languages. Te’amim take the place of facial gestures and expressions in indicating the meaning of the speaker. They show us where to stop when we are reading the Bible, clearly separating distinct matters.They also distinguish between questions and answers, between subject and predicate; between that which was said quickly and that which was said slowly. No other language has this unique feature.[1]

All the benefits of knowing the te’amim are lost on the child if they are replaced by the meaningless singsong inherited from the heder. As our children begin tolearn Humash, would it not help them to learn both the words and the notes? Should they not be taught this feature of Biblical Hebrew which sets it apart from all other languages? If we want our children to understand the Bible fully, the te’amim are an integral part of that education. Ideally, they should be taught the notes of the te’amim; minimally, they should be taught their functions and how they help to understand the Biblical verses.

Teaching Humash with te’amim in the elementary school will not be easy to institute. Administrators and teachers must adjust to a new part of the curriculum and a new way of presenting the Hebrew text of the Humash. In addition, many teachers must themselves learn the te’amim. The children,however, will undoubtedly accept the changeover without any difficulties. Indeed, they would probably welcome the chance to be able to read the Torah the way adults do.

Some people will surely object to teaching the te’amim especially if it is introduced universally for both boys and girls, lest girls are encouraged to think that they should be publicly reading the Torah.That objection, however, is irrelevant. Te’amim should be taught first and foremost so that the meaning of the Torah is better understood. Being able to read publicly at a later age is an added advantage of learning te’amim at an early age, but it is not its main purpose.

There will also be those who feel that the traditional singsong chanting of the Humash links this generation’s children to previous generations of children. It would seem that it is more important to make the connection with those in the past who read the Torah with the correct tune, thereby benefiting from an understanding of the text as it was meant to be understood.

I realize that my proposal comes too late to help Yonah who already knows the te’amim or even Dovi who has already started learning Humash in another fashion. But it is not too late for future generations of children who will thus develop a deeper appreciation for both the melody and the meaning of the Torah. [2]

DR. LASKER is Associate Professor of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva; and 1990-1991 Andrew N. and Rose Miller Chair in the History of Zionism and Modern Israel and Rabbi Arthur D. Kahn Chair in Hebrew Literature at Yeshiva University.


[1] For a full treatment of the nature, function, and importance of the te’amim see Mordecai Breuer, Ta’amei Ha-Mikra be-Khaf-Alef Sefarim u-ve-Sifrei Emet, Jerusalem, 5742.

[2] My thanks to Dr. Moshe Bernstein who discussed with me some of the issues contained herein and also commented on the text of the article.