The Teamim are a set of graphic signs that come underneath and on top of the text. However, they are not on the scroll that is used in the synagogue. Each sign represents a melismatic phrase to which the word it is attached to is sung.
The name Teamim is the plural of Ta’am which means sense, meaning, taste. Indeed the function of the Teamim, besides providing a melody for the cantillation of the verses, is to indicate the syntactical division of the verse and by that revealing and emphasising the meaning of the text.
The medieval poet and biblical commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra (1093-1167) wrote in his book ‘Moznaim’ that any interpretation of a verse that doesn’t agree with the Teamim should not be listened to.
The Teamim of Taamei Hamikra (Biblical accents) are very ancient, and according to Simcha Ben Samuel, a pupil of Rashi (1040-1105), the method of chanting the Teamim was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai with the rest of the Torah. However, the signs developed much later and are most probably post-Talmudic.
Before the Teamim were developed, according to the Talmud (Berachot 62a), a set of manual signs were used by the Tomech (helper). These indicated to the person reading the Torah the movement (rise and fall) of the melody. Rashi (1040-1105) in his commentary to the Talmud testifies that he saw those who came from the Land of Israel still using this system, although in Rashi’s time the written signs were already in use.
The names of the Teamim allude to the hand movements of the Tomech for example Zakef - upright, Tipha - hand breadth, Pashta - stretching. All these indicate different manual movements. This system is still used today in certain congregations.
The notation of the Teamim developed in two different systems: a) the Babylonian or Taamei Bavel (the Teamim of Babylon) where the names for the Teamim were written on top of the text in initials, b) the system from the Land of Israel that used signs. The system as we know it today was developed from the latter, whilst the Babylonian system was completely forgotten. The signs as we know them today were fixed by the Tiberian scholar and Masorete Aaron ben Asher (900-c960). He was the last of a distinguished family of Masoretes. In his work, Dikdukei Hateamim (grammatical rules of the accents), he fixes the setting of vowel signs and Teamim signs. He even gives us some hints about the music of the Teamim by describing the tunes.
The signs consist of lines, semicircles and points. In many of them we can see how they developed from the manual signs.
There are 28 Teamim which are divided into two main categories:
- Mechabrim - conjunctives
- Mafsikim - pausal, or Meshartim (servants) for conjunctives and Melachim (kings) for pausal.
The Mechabrim are binding motives, grammatically and musically. They are: Telisha Ketana, Mahpach, Yerach ben Yomo, Munach, Mercha, Kadma, Darga, Mercha Kefulah.
The Mafsikim are pausal motives which indicate the end of a phrase or a verse musically, and thus grammatically as well.
According to the Melachim-Meshartim terminology there are five different degrees of strength in the Mafsikim, starting with the highest:
- Keisarim (emperors): sof Pasuk and Etnachta
- Melachim (kings): segol, shalshelet, Zakef Katon, Zakef Gadol, Tipcha and Revi’i
- Mishnim (dukes): Tevir Zarka, Pashta, Yetiv, Geresh, Gershayim and Azla
- Shalishim (counts): Pazer, Telisha Gedolah and Karnei Farah
- Mafsik Katon (small master): Munach.
Other Names for Teamim
Another name is Trop from the Greek Tropos meaning manner or mode. A Trop was a musical motive and by connecting a few Tropos a mode or a phrase was created. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi, 1040-1105) uses the term to describe Biblical cantillation (Genesis Rabbah 36).
Another term used for Teamim is Neimot, the plural of Neima (tune), meaning pleasantness or tunefulness. It indicates the importance of reciting the Torah verses with music as it makes an impression. Some suggest that the term Neuma (sign) from the Greek, which is a sort of musical shorthand used by the church between (C680-1000), is related etymologically to the Hebrew Neima.