February 2016 scroll article

One of my favorite things to learn in Cantorial school was cantillation, the musical patterns we use to chant the Hebrew Bible. We use six different systems of cantillation to chant Torah (the Pentateuch), Haftarah (from the books of the Prophets), High Holiday Torah passages, Megillat Esther, Megillat Eicha (the book of Lamentations), and the Festival Megillot (the books of Ruth, Job and Song of Songs). Each system uses the same markings but is melodically distinctive and helps to set the mood of the day. 
There is also a seventh system about which we know very little: the cantillation of Psalms. If one looks at the Hebrew text of the Psalms, we can see the cantillation marks on the words, however, they do not parallel the patterns that are common to all six systems. We can, therefore, only speculate as to how they could have been chanted in the ancient world.
The book of Psalms is mysterious in many ways. Traditionally, its authorship is attributed to King David, but the veracity of that claim is shaky, at best. The many poetic, grammatical and linguistic forms that are presented throughout the 150 psalms show that they were composed in different time periods and by different writers. Many psalms are introduced with a short, descriptive phrase that indicate a variety of things; timing, authorship, musical style, etc. Some of these phrases are very straightforward, such as what we see in Psalm 92: “A Psalm for the Sabbath Day.” Others are a little less obvious, such as the one for Ps 101 or 103: “Of David, ” which implies that King David wrote these poems. The Hebrew says, “l-David” which could also mean ‘for David’ or ‘to David.’ So, are these psalms written by David or written for, to, or about David? 
The verbal notations are even less clear when it comes to music. Psalms 74, 88 and 89 (among many others) are labeled as  “maskil” a term that could refer to the instrumentation, the rhythm, or the musical mode. Some Psalms, such as 61) are to be played, “al n’ginot” on instruments, but which ones? We have an idea of some of the instruments used during Temple times, but some are still unknown to us, like the oft-mentioned gittit. 
If you would like to learn more about this topic, please join Dr. Daniel Kroger and I as we present a Psalmody workshop on February 23rd at 7 pm in our sanctuary. We will be teaching the Treasure Coast American Guild of Organists about the origins of biblical chant, the book of Psalms and how they are used in Jewish liturgy and Catholic liturgy. 
 Cantor Dannah Rubinstein