I am having a very hard time coming up with a good way to describe the phenomenon that I am thinking of, but many people will recognize it. I am talking about the kind of singing rhythm that people use when contrasting two different points. Usually it starts on a high note and continues monotonically until the end of the sentence, and then dips slightly. Then, the same thing happens in the second sentence, but with a bigger dip at the end. Usually the first word is "if" and is emphasized heavily. This tune is also often accompanied by a hand gesture where the speaker makes a dipping motion with his thumb. Sometimes, this is done while reading an argument in a text, but other times this is done when the speaker is saying his own words.

"IF we're holding with some random position in this debate, then we have a CONsequence. BUT IIIIIFFF we hold this other position, then the consequence is dif-erent."

Where does this chanting cadence come from, and why is it so prevalent?

  • 2
    I've heard this is from a mnemonic technique used for Talmud study - having a tune and cadence is better for memorization. Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 21:23
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    don't forget the thumb motion, it is an essential part of the sing-song chant
    – Menachem
    Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 23:48
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    @Menachem, yes IsaacMoses described it as "the sound you make while your thumb is diving." :)
    – Daniel
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 0:34
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    Are you asking about the origin of studying with a tune, or that particular tune?
    – Fred
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 3:06
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    @Fred, I'm really asking about that particular one, but information about learning with a tune in general is good.
    – Daniel
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 3:29

2 Answers 2


Presumably from the gemarah Megillah 32a.

ר' שפטיה אמר ר' יוחנן: one who reads the Torah without a pleasant voice,or one who learns Mishsnah without a tune...(gemarah brings a passuk about this person and compares it to sin).

Tosfos explains they used to learn with a tune since they learned by heart and this way they remembered it.

This seems to be a very old tradition.

  • 1
    Also there is a passuk in tehillim זְמִרוֹת, הָיוּ-לִי חֻקֶּיךָ-- בְּבֵית מְגוּרָי
    – sam
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 2:34
  • Wouldn't this mean that he would have to use the tune for every single word? That's not how people use it, at least in modern times. People generally use the tune every so often.
    – Daniel
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 3:30
  • Yea because its written down,but the tune has stayed.If you hear how older people learn you can hear a tune.
    – sam
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 3:32
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    But I'm talking about this particular tune, which generally indicates that the speaker is contrasting two points, and which is often used when someone is speaking his own words rather than reading text.
    – Daniel
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 3:33
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    @Daniel, you've never heard someone read the text with the tune? I definitely have. I have so often that I find it odd when someone overlays the tune onto their own words (which I've heard plenty, but which still sounds odd to me).
    – Seth J
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 13:44

From the entry "Ashkenazi Talmudic Intonation" in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics:

Uriel Weinreich suggested that there might be a connection between Talmudic chant and Yiddish intonation. He suggested three speech patterns that might be derived from Talmudic chant: (1) a kal ve-khoymer or a fortiori construction, (2) a “dramatic pair of alternatives”, and (3) “an exception to a charge or preposterousness” (Weinreich 1956:640). In papers written decades later, Kahan Newman elaborated and developed these ideas (Kahan Newman 1995; 2000). Renaming pattern (2) “Balanced Statements” and (3) Kashes (‘difficulties in the text or situation, or a presupposed negative’), she discovered these three patterns in modern Ashkenazic Talmudic chant, and noted that they have correlates in modern Yiddish intonation.

Later, it says:

Kahan Newman posited a correlation between the cantillation marks in the Geniza [Talmudic] manuscripts and the Talmudic oral chant of Ashkenazic Jews. [...] Using the lists of cantillation marks in the Cairo manuscripts photocopied and presented in a series of printed articles by Yeivin (1960:20, 47–69, 167–178, 207–231), she looked for cantillation marks that correspond to Ashkenazic oral chant patterns in the Midrash, the Mishna, the Jerusalem Talmud, and the Babylonian Talmud. In the Talmudic texts, she claims, markers are simultaneously intonational and pictographic: markers that indicate a rising tone are placed above the line and are rising, while markers that indicate falling tone are placed below the line and are falling. [...]

Kahan Newman conjectures that the Jews of Ashkenaz, remnants of a Palestinian community, settled in Ashkenaz before the Babylonian Talmud became dominant. When, at a later date, the Babylonian Talmud gained ascendancy, the Jews of Ashkenaz kept the chant patterns they had used for the Jerusalem Talmud, even as they switched to the Babylonian Talmud.

I have not been able to obtain a copy of Newman's paper, but it will certainly be illuminating.


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