Review of Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Art of Cantillation, 2nd Edition by Joshua R. Jacobson

November 6, 2018

Jacobson, Joshua R. Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Art of Cantillation. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2017, pp. xxx + 844, $90.00, hardback or eBook (PDF).


“Don’t be attracted to any interpretation that conflicts with the punctuation of the te‘amim; don’t even listen to it!” (Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, p. 23). Whether or not you agree with Ibn Ezra’s claim, the sad reality must be faced: most students of biblical Hebrew cannot even read the te‘amim [accents] so as to discern their meaning. Joshua Jacobson presents a monumental work to remedy this situation. Now expanded into a second edition, Chanting the Hebrew Bible introduces readers to the Masoretic accent system and guides them all the way up to “the art of cantillation.” Jacobson (D.M.), professor of music and director of choral activities at Northeastern University, teaches and conducts around the world. He had published hundreds of compositions, arrangements, and articles. His background in Jewish literature, musical performance, and experience as a cantor instructor allows him to produce such an encyclopedic guide. Chanting the Hebrew Bible provides readers with a tool to learn interpreting, reading, and singing the Hebrew Bible according to the Masoretic tradition.

Jacobson divides this massive volume into seven distinct chapters that move progressively toward the skill of cantillation: (1) introduction to the te‘amim [24 pp.], (2) understanding (Masoretic) syntactic levels [203 pp.], (3) pronunciation guidance [83 pp.], (4) text and history [31 pp.], (5) issues in reading the te‘amim [79 pp.], (6) how to chant the te‘amim [341 pp.], (7) appendices, charts, and guides [49 pp.]. Two chapters carry the freight of the book. Chapter two presents biblical Hebrew syntax according to the Masoretic accent system. With the current dearth of accessible published material on this subject, these 200 pages offer broad appeal to those seeking to understand biblical Hebrew at an intermediate level. Chapter six lends the book its title and teaches the reader the “art of cantillation.” By this point in the book, assuming it has been used sequentially, the reader will know how to properly parse and pronounce the text. These 300 plus pages teach the reader, step by step, how to properly express the reading through traditional melodies and phrases. Jacobson uses an Ashkenazi tradition for the melodies in this book. He also presents the melodies in Western music notation providing audio files for most examples on his website ( This progression of chapters prepares readers to read aloud and chant the text with proper expression according to the Masoretic tradition.

The second edition makes some significant improvements to the first edition. First, the availability of an eBook (PDF) edition makes it possible to search this encyclopedic reference. Second, the companion website now hosts the audio files (previously on CD) along with instructional videos and articles. Third, the text includes numerous new examples to promote more practice. Lastly, the use of SBL Hebrew font improves the readability of the text.

It would be a shame if the only ones to benefit from this volume were cantors in training. Jacobson’s well-researched presentation of the Masoretic tradition, his system of syntactical analysis, and the emphasis on auditory reading commend this volume to a wide audience. First, very few biblical studies students have the time to read all the rabbinic sources Jacobson quotes throughout the book. He generally presents these quotes in their Hebrew original and in English translation. These quotes not only provide for historical interest but also expose readers to historic appraisals of the Masoretic system (pp. 8–9). Jacobson also includes numerous visual aids presenting historical scripts and scrolls which enhances understanding (pp. 315, 325). These features add a unique flavor to the background chapters (chs. 3–5) that most Western students have not tasted before.

Second, as far as syntactical analysis, Jacobson employs Michael Perlman’s system of diagraming sentence structure. Figure 1 provides an example of how he displays the text.



Chapter two drills this system into readers so that they begin to visualize the syntactical groupings signified by the te‘amim. Such groupings not only express the proper way to read the text aloud, but they provide insight into the meaning. Jacobson provides the light-hearted example: “WOMAN WITHOUT HER MAN IS NOTHING” (p. 21). At least two options arise for reading this in English: (1) “Woman without her man—is nothing,” or (2) “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.” The Masoretes have included accents to guide readers in the tradition that long predated them (p. 324). With the growing popularity of historical commentary on Scripture (e.g., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture), learning the reading tradition encoded in the Masoretic text seems to be a natural step. Readers should be aware that Jacobson provides very little discussion of the “three poetic books” since these are not typically chanted. For more extensive discussion of both systems, see Fuller and Choi, Invitation to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 2016; Wickes, Two Treatises on the Accentuation of the Old Testament, 1970. Nevertheless, the principles Jacobson develops here would make learning the “poetic” system much easier. All students of biblical Hebrew have much to gain from learning the Masoretic accents, whether or not they intend to chant.

The audio materials and emphasis on phrasing and pronunciation offer a third benefit to the general student of biblical Hebrew. While the end goal of Chanting the Hebrew Bible is to train readers in cantillation, along the way they will pick up proper pronunciation and inflection for reading. Jacobson uses contemporary Israeli Sephardic pronunciation due to its broad usage in the Jewish community. Nevertheless, since he is training cantors, he demands an “elevated style” that would be appropriate for public reading (p. 232). This represents the perfect blend for beginning biblical Hebrew students: precise pronunciation in a broadly accepted diction. Perhaps even more helpful is Jacobson’s presentation of the te‘amim as “accents.” One of the three functions of the te‘amim is to indicate the stressed or accented syllable (p. 1). Jacobson provides numerous exercises and examples written in emphatic transliteration (p. 235).

וַתִּירֶ֤אןָ (vat-ti-RE-na) (“they saw”) (Exod 1:17)
וַתִּרְאֵ֙ינָה֙ (vat-tir-’E-na) (“they feared”) (Josh 24:7)

Additionally, learning the rudiments of chant will help cement the Masoretic system. The melodies and sequences aid memory and promote proper phrasing. This whole course of study helps to lift the silent text from the page and make it a living word again. Thus, this book offers assistance in addressing multiple weaknesses common to beginning biblical Hebrew students.

The massive scope of this single volume faces one major challenge—information management. It’s difficult to blame the ocean when a swimmer is forced to work hard to return to shore, but such is the nature of encyclopedic guides. The detailed table of contents and index provide some assistance, but no substitute exists for familiarity with the book’s contents. Chapters 1–5.4 focus on the details of the Masoretic system; chapters 5.5–7.3 take that knowledge and instruct readers in cantillation. The searchable PDF format will also aid in finding specific nuggets of information. But, sadly, eBook formats in general further distance the reader from the scope and sequence of a text. For the sake of in-depth study I would recommend the hardback format.

Chanting the Hebrew Bible deserves recognition by a wider community of Hebrew scholars, instructors, and students. Second year biblical Hebrew instructors would benefit greatly from Jacobson’s tutelage. Many principles and materials (e.g., chapter 2) would carry-over directly to a course on Hebrew syntax, while other materials may even benefit first year students (e.g., chapter 3). It can be hoped that an updated student edition will come out making this more accessible in the classroom (Jacobson, 2005). For interpreters who still pass over the te‘amim while reading, exposure to the reading tradition of the Masoretes may provide many fresh insights. For students who only ever “see” the text, it is time to begin hearing it, speaking it, and, indeed, singing it.

Marcus A. Leman

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

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