Inspired by this question.

It seems to be a common minhag to have a special trope for the end of a chapter when leining the megillot. I have seen this done in my shul, have done it myself, and also heard on various recordings, e.g. Rav Chaim Fessel for all five, and Rabbi Jeremy Wieder for Esther and Kohelet. (Interestingly, Rabbi Wieder only does this trope at the end of Ruth and Shir haShirim, but not at individual chapter breaks, and he doesn't do it at all for Eicha.)

My understanding is that the origin of the chapter breaks is Christian, and that there's no Jewish source for them, see e.g. Wikipedia. If this is correct, why do those who do an end of chapter trope mark these chapter breaks? If this is incorrect, where are the chapter breaks mentioned in Jewish sources?

  • 3
    It seems clear that the chapter breaks of Eicha are of Jewish origin. Also, the Gemarah in Berachos discusses the chapters of Tehillim.
    – Ypnypn
    Mar 31, 2014 at 1:16
  • We don't mark Christian chapter breaks. It is possible I suppose that some people may do so by mistake or because they didn't think about it, but there is certainly no Jewish basis for it.
    – Double AA
    Mar 31, 2014 at 1:19
  • 1
    Actually when I do Shir HaShirim, I divide it the way the Malbim says to do so.
    – Shalom
    Mar 31, 2014 at 1:47
  • @Ypnypn Indeed, good point. Is the nature of the chapters of Eicha discussed anywhere in Gemara?
    – magicker72
    Mar 31, 2014 at 10:43
  • @Shalom Very interesting! Is that your own idea, or did you hear it from someone else?
    – magicker72
    Mar 31, 2014 at 10:44

1 Answer 1


The chapter breaks appear to stem in part from paragraph breaks in the Masoretic Text, which appear in the respective codices (Cairo, Aleppo, and Leningrad). Just like scrolls, these codices were written in columns (usually three per page, since a codex is a "book"). These columns contained paragraphs of verses, but the paragraphs were not indented (like modern English). Instead, the spacing between clumps of verses is what determined whether or not there were major or minor separations of thought, which is how we determine the paragraphs and chapters.

For example, when groups of verses have minimal spacing between them, the ideas have their close connection. In the published form of the Masoretic Text (such as the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) the letter ס (samekh) will appear before the connecting paragraphs, which is the first letter of the Aramaic passive participle סתומא (determinative form), which means "what is closed."

On the other hand, within the codices of the Masoretic Text, when one clump of verses did not have the close connection with the preceding paragraph(s), but were instead to be read as more independent than the preceding paragraph(s), then the these subsequent paragraphs began on their own line with no attempt to minimize the spacing with the preceding paragraph. Thus in the modern scholarly published form of the Masoretic Text (such as the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) the letter פ (pei) will appear before the connecting paragraphs, which is the first letter of the Aramaic passive participle פתוחא (determinative form), which means "what is open."

Thus the Masoretic scholars developed a very simple system for paragraph divisions. In English, indentation will mark the paragraph, but there is no way to group major and minor thoughts of paragraphs in English, unless further indentation occurs or by using sub-bullet statements. However, in the codices of the Masoretic Text, it is the spacing that counts.

One excellent example from Megillot will illustrate.

In the Song of Songs, the first paragraph of the text (1:1 - 1:4) is the major paragraph with all subsequent paragraphs in the book "closed" with the first paragraph -- and so the book is one big thought of "close together" paragraphs. However, in 8:11 there is an "open" paragraph break marked by the letter פ (pei), because in the codices of the Masoretic Text there is a distinct separation from the previous paragraph, and so the reader stops and reads the remainder of the book (8:11-8:14) as a separate thought, or coda, to the book. This coda is a shift of narration. That is, the third-person narrator takes over and closes the book with blessings upon Solomon and his beloved.

In closing, the small letters ס (samekh for "close together") and פ (pei for "open or far apart") appear only in modern scholarly editions of the Masoretic Text so that we, the readers, will know when and where the spacing occurred between clumps of verses in the codices of the Masoretic Text, and therefore enable the reader to make the correct assessment as to where the major and minor breaks in paragraphs occurred throughout any given book.

  • 1
    I think you misunderstood my question. I am asking about the Christian chapter breaks, not the Jewish paragraphing.
    – magicker72
    Apr 17, 2016 at 13:09
  • @magicker72 - I clarified the comments to show the chapter breaks stemmed in part from the paragraph breaks.
    – Joseph
    Apr 17, 2016 at 13:25
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    You're just saying that Stephen Langton picked up on some cues from the Jewish paragraphing. But he got plenty of the breaks just plain wrong (Shir haShirim 5 is probably the worst offender among the Megillot, and Bereishit 2 is perhaps the most famous). My question is why some accentuate (while publicly reading the Megillot) the Christian (often incorrect) chapter breaks.
    – magicker72
    Apr 17, 2016 at 13:56
  • @Joseph How do you know Langton used the Jewish breaks as precedant? Maybe some of the overlap is just because some places are obvious break points based on content.
    – Double AA
    Apr 17, 2016 at 15:57
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    @joseph if you could support that with old manuscript evidence that would be fascinating. But to answer this question you'd have to prove that these particular chapters are Jewish
    – Double AA
    Apr 17, 2016 at 23:49

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