What is “leyning”?

I have mentioned leyning (Hebrew cantillation) on this blog a number of times and have occasionally explained something about it. I devoted a chapter of my second book to it. But it’s such a beautiful practice, and so little-known outside of Judaism, that I will explain it again, in brief.

It is the practice, going back many centuries, of chanting text from the Hebrew Bible. The melodic phrases are determined by the syntax of a particular verse. There are six melodic systems: Torah, High Holiday, Haftarah (Prophets), Ester, Lamentations, and Festival (Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes), but they all follow the same principles, which I studied in a year-long advanced cantillation course at the Jewish Theological Seminary (in 2016-2017). I have been leyning for about eight years in all. I brought an enormous reference book with me to Hungary: Joshua R. Jacobson’s Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation. It comes in handy when I’m reviewing some of the theory or unusual melodic phrases, and it’s enjoyable reading too. Its 1000 pages are still only a fraction of what could be said about the subject.

Leyning is only part of what I do at Szim Salom, but it’s the part that requires the most preparation. You need to learn the text and melodies in advance: not by memorizing them, but by understanding the syntax and the relationship between the verses. When leyning Torah, you chant from the scroll itself, which has no vowel or cantillation marks. Beginners might take months to learn a few verses (often through sheer repetition combined with text and trope study), but over time you reach a point where you can prepare in a few days. There are even those who can leyn with no preparation: who know the text so well that they can simply look at it and glean the melodies on the spot. The mistakes they typically make, if any, have to do with the location of the verse endings.

But how can you look at a text and figure out the melodies? I will explain with the example of two verses from yesterday’s reading, from Exodus 37. This is a description of the “menorah” (candlestick) that was made for the sanctuary.

כ  וּבַמְּנֹרָה, אַרְבָּעָה גְבִעִים מְשֻׁקָּדִים כַּפְתֹּרֶיהָ וּפְרָחֶיהָ20 And in the candlestick were four cups made like almond-blossoms, the knops thereof, and the flowers thereof;
כא  וְכַפְתֹּר תַּחַת שְׁנֵי הַקָּנִים מִמֶּנָּה וְכַפְתֹּר תַּחַת שְׁנֵי הַקָּנִים מִמֶּנָּה וְכַפְתֹּר, תַּחַת-שְׁנֵי הַקָּנִים מִמֶּנָּה לְשֵׁשֶׁת הַקָּנִים, הַיֹּצְאִים מִמֶּנָּה.21 and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, for the six branches going out of it.

The first thing to know is where each verse breaks in half. Most Hebrew Biblical verses consist of two parts, which mirror or balance each other in some way. There is a melodic phrase, the “etnachta,” that indicates this division. (In the Torah melodic system, it consists of two notes a fifth apart.) This melody, and the one indicating the end of the verse, are classified as Level 1 trop (“trop” or “trope” in this context refers to the melodic phrases that act as units of cantillation).

In Verse 20, the division comes after “four cups” (“arbaa g’viim”), because the rest of the verse describes those four cups.

In Verse 21, the division comes at the third occurrence of “one piece with it,” (“mimenna”) since all of this describes what will go under the six branches (named in the second part). So in this case the first part is much longer than the second, but semantically they are of equal weight.

So, once we understand where the main divisions are, we proceed with the next subdivisions and connections (disjunctives and conjunctives), each of which has its own melody. This takes much longer to explain, but the principles are the same. In Verse 21, why is it that each iteration of “and a knop under two branches of one piece with it” has a different melody? Aren’t they equivalent? Actually not. They are treated as though each one were nested in the next, The third iteration ends in a Level 1 disjunctive, the “etnachta”; the second, in a Level 2 disjunctive, the “zakef katon”; and the first, in a Level 3 disjunctive, the “revia.” As the numbers go up, the disjuntives are softer–that is, less emphatic. The idea here (and elsewhere in the Bible) is that repetitions are not equivalent. Each iteration involves the previous one in some way.

The reader does not have to figure out what the levels and melodies are; they are indicated in a “tikkun,” a study book that provides the text in parallel, one version with markings and one without. (Cantillation marks are found around the letters themselves; there is no sheet music, except in some instructional materials.) But knowing how it all works will allow for quicker learning and better delivery.

The two verses then sound like this. (Keep in mind that even within a given trope system, the specific melodies vary from place to place, synagogue to synagogue, and even person to person, but the principles stay the same.)

The cantillation brings out the structure of the verses, and along with that, their meaning. It signals not only “punctuation” but weight and emphasis. Precision is essential: in a Torah reading, if a mistake is made, the reader (chanter) is supposed to go back and re-chant the word or phrase correctly and then proceed. If the reader does not catch it independently, one of the gabbaim (the two people positioned on each side of the scroll, with Torah books in hand) will quietly correct the reader, who will then go back to the mistakenly read word and read it correctly as necessary. Even the most advanced readers make mistakes, because there are so many that can be made. Some mistakes don’t have to be corrected: mistakes with the melody (if this does not lead to confusion) and minor pronunciation mistakes that do not affect meaning. But other than that, mistakes must be addressed and fixed.

Someone who practices for months should be able to read with no prompting at all and no mistakes. But it doesn’t necessarily work this way; the text in the scroll might not look like the version used for practice. The overall layout may be different; the letters may look slightly different. In a scroll, to achieve left and right alignment, the scribes sometimes elongated certain letters; that can throw a beginner off. Also, different scrolls have different calligraphic styles, some of which may be much clearer to a beginner than others.

Later on, a reader has to determine how much time to devote to preparation. I generally need just a couple of evenings, but it helps if I start getting the text in my ear as early as possible. So when I have leyning coming up, I run through it about a week in advance, then practice briefly every day for the next couple of days. By then, I have pretty much learned it, and in the last day or two I spend more time on it (or the other way around: I practice a lot earlier on, then review it briefly every day). In a pinch I can prepare from scratch a day or two in advance, but it’s much more solid with some earlier repetitions. Also, if I spend more time with it, I see things in the text that I didn’t see before, or come to hear it in new ways.

Why do people choose to learn to leyn? Some learn it for a particular occasion, such as a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. Typically others participate in the leyning as well, since the full text is quite long. (My cousin Julian is now preparing for his bar mitzvah, which will take place in Portland in April; I will have the honor of leyning some verses over Zoom.) Others are drawn to the practice and become regular readers at their synagogue. I started with a special occasion (a Haftarah that I wanted to chant, Ezekiel 37:1-14) but knew from the start that I wanted to keep on leyning.

A Torah reader reads one or more sets of verses known as “aliyot” (plural of “aliyah”). For each aliyah, someone (usually not the reader) is called up to the bima to recite the blessings that precede and follow the reading. This is an honor given to members of the congregation. In the olden days, the one called up for the aliya would also read Torah, but over time, with the decreasing numbers of people capable of doing this, the reading was separated out and assigned to someone else. Reading Torah is not considered one of the formal honors during a service; the aliya is the honor. But in another sense, it’s one of the greatest honors a person can experience in shul (or anywhere).

In the moment, when done correctly, it really is reading in the liveliest sense. You focus on each syllable, the progression of the phrases and verses, and the full sweep. It comes as a surprise, even after hundreds of repetitions over the years.

Art credit: Ashkenazi Torah reading by Geula Tversky.

I added to this piece after posting it.

Leave a comment


  1. Excellent explanation! I leyn too.

  2. Hideko Secrest

     /  May 28, 2022

    Wow, I’m impressed. It takes me months to learn an aliyah, and I more or less do it by color coding (with highlighters!) a photocopy of the Hebrew text from the tikkun in order to study, then just go by memorization when I’m actually on the bimah. So I mostly do it for big occasions, like my kids’ b’nei mitzvot, my own bat mitzvah, and Women’s Shabbat at my shul. I don’t actually understand what I’m reading, except in the most general sense. Brava!

    • Thank you, Hideko! That’s great to know that you read Torah too. I think it became easier for me because I love to do it and used to try to do it as often as possible, before it became a regular responsibility. At B’nai Jeshurun in NYC, it wasn’t always easy to get an aliya, because there are so many readers and so many people preparing for special occasions. But that was good too, because I could learn from them. One “mistake” I still make is chanting too melodically. It’s supposed to be somewhere between singing and speaking, and I still lean towards singing. But I don’t think there’s one correct feel; it varies from reader to reader and can also depend on the content of the parsha, as well as the occasion.

  1. Happy New Year | Take Away the Takeaway

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

  • Recent Posts


  • Categories