I wrote to a very well respected and knowledgeable Rav regarding grammatical functions of the te'amim and the discrepancies that exist between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic systems. His response surprised me. He said the following:

"For better or worse, it was a non-Jew who first discovered the principles governing the ta'ame ha-miqra. His name was William Wickes. Here is a link to his book:


Since Wickes wrote his book in the 19th century, there has been some progress in the field. The best recent, comprehensive book on the subject is by Mordechai Breuer in Hebrew: טעמי המקרא. The second edition of this book is still in print.

Since Wickes is in English, you might find it easier to deal with. The amount of additional material in Breuer is small."

As someone who often has an academic approach to Judaism, the answer isn't problematic for me. But I was still surprised by it. Can anyone shed light on whether Jews were really ignorant of the principles governing the te'amim until Wickes?

  • 2
    Why did the rabbi have to say "for better or worse..."? – JJLL Jun 8 '16 at 3:02

No, he didn't discover it. Wickes lived 1817-1903 with his seminal works on cantillation being published in the 1880s.

Plenty of Jewish works on cantillation exist before that, such as Mishpetei Taamim, 1808, R Wolf Heidenheim, back to works by Ben Asher and Yehuda Ibn Bilam around 1000 years ago. Rabbeinu Tam wrote a long cryptic poem about the rules of cantillation.

I can't say there isn't some rule or pattern that Wickes documented explicitly for the first time, but much of what he wrote is built on previous works. It's not like he sat down with the text of Tanakh and cracked the code from scratch.

Wickes's work is wonderfully thorough and systematic, and has set the tone for much if not all modern study of cantillation. (Reading medieval grammatical works with Wickes's system in your head is a bit like a modern mathematician reading medieval math proofs: it's there, but the terminology and set-up feels off.) It's an important work and a good resource. But a "discovery"? Not quite.

  • Also important early works are Hidayat al-Qari (10th cent), Mahberet ha-Tijan, Tuv Taʿam (1538) by Eliahi Ha-Levi, Shaʿare Zimra (1718) of R. Zalman Hanau, among others. There is no lack of investigations of the teʿamim. – Argon Jun 8 '16 at 8:59
  • @Argon Wait, isn't Hidayat al-Qari the work of Ibn Bilam that I mentioned in my answer? Or am I confusing two different works? – Double AA Nov 3 '16 at 2:39
  • According to Prof. Khan "its author was the Karaite grammarian ʾAbū al-Faraj Hārūn, who was active in Jerusalem in the first half of the 11th century" ("Masoretic Treatises", EHLL). – Argon Nov 4 '16 at 3:11
  • @Argon And what is Ibn Bilam's work called? I read aleph.nli.org.il/F/… but I'm confused now if they are debating authorship of the same work or discussing different works with similar names. – Double AA Nov 4 '16 at 14:51
  • Prof. José Martínez Delgado says "for a time, it was thought—without certainty—that his Kitābal-Irshād (Book of Instruction) might be the Palestinian treatise known as Hidāyatal-Qāriʼ" ("Ibn Balaam, Judah (Abū Zakariyyā Yaḥyā) ben Samuel", EJIW). The linguist I. Eldar wrote the paper "E davvero Yehudah ibn Bal'am 1'autore della Hidayat al-Qari?" (Henoch 7) on this, but I haven't read it. – Argon Nov 4 '16 at 15:23

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