The accent signs are marked above and below the words in the Tiberian Masoretic text. They represent the musical motifs to which the biblical text was chanted in public reading. This chant gave solemnity to the reading and expressed the sanctity of the text. It also had an exegetical function in two respects. The chant marked the semantic and syntactic connections between words and phrases. It also marked the position of the stress in a word, which can be crucial for understanding the correct meaning, for example, shavú, ‘they captured’, but shávu, ‘they returned’.
One uniform system of accent signs is used throughout the Bible except for the poetic books Job, Proverbs, and Psalms, which have a different system. Accent signs are found also in manuscripts with Babylonian and Palestinian vocalization.
The precise musical contour denoted by the various Tiberian accent signs is unknown, yet from a number of sources we can reconstruct their basic pitch and syntactic function. The most important early treatises in this respect are the Diqduqe ha-te‘amim (‘The fine rules of the accents’) written in Hebrew by Aharon ben Asher (tenth century CE) and the Hidāyat al-Qāri (‘The guide for the reader’) written in Arabic by 'Abu al-Faraj Harun (eleventh century CE). It is not clear what relation the surviving cantillation traditions of the various Jewish communities have with the Tiberian system.
The accents are divided into ‘disjunctives’ and ‘conjunctives’. The disjunctive accents mark some kind of break in the sense and require the reader to pause slightly. The conjunctive accents are marked on words between the disjunctives, showing that they form part of a phrase ending at the following disjunctive. In the standard Tiberian Masoretic tradition all words that bear a stress are marked with an accent sign. In some manuscripts with Babylonian and Palestinian vocalization, on the other hand, only disjunctive accents are marked.
All the conjunctive accents express the same degree of syntactic connection whereas the disjunctives express different degrees of pause. For this reason, in the less developed accent systems found in Babylonian and Palestinian manuscripts it was considered more important to mark disjunctives than conjunctives. The two major pausal accents, silluq and atnaḥ, mark the end and dichotomy of the verse respectively. The division of the biblical text into verses is, in fact, defined by the accent system. The two halves of a verse can be split into a hierarchy of smaller units with other disjunctive accents, the pausal value of which can be categorized according to the level of the hierarchy of division that they mark.
The Tiberian Masoretes developed the written accent signs to represent the chant but they did not create the chant itself. The tradition of reading the Bible with musical cantillation can be traced back several centuries before the Masoretic period. There are references to the teaching of biblical cantillation in Talmudic literature. One passage mentions the use of the right hand by the teacher or leader of the congregation to indicate the accents of the reading. The term ‘stops of the accents’, which is found in Talmudic literature, reflects the function of the accents to mark syntactic division. The association of the chant with the interpretation of the meaning of the text was recognized, as is shown by the Talmudic interpretation of Nehemiah 8: 8 : ‘And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly: they gave the sense and [the people] understood the reading’, which is said to refer to the reading with accents. Evidence for the division of the biblical text by accents in the Second Temple period is found in a Septuagint manuscript from the second century BCE that has spaces corresponding to the major pausal accents of the Tiberian tradition. There is no evidence of the use of written accent signs before the time of the Masoretes. It was the achievement of the Masoretes to create a written notation to record a tradition of cantillation that they received from an earlier period.
As remarked above, the disjunctive accents mark syntactic divisions. Since the syntax could in many cases be interpreted in more than one way, the accents reflect one particular exegesis of the text. In Deuteronomy 26: 5 , for instance, the disjunctive accent on the first word of the clause 'arami (Aramean) indicates that it is syntactically separated from the following word and so the two should be interpreted as subject and predicate rather than noun and attributive adjective. The sense is, therefore, ‘An Aramaean [i.e. Laban] was seeking to destroy my father’ and not ‘my father was an Aramaean about to perish’. In Isaiah 40: 3 the accents mark a major syntactic break after the word qore (cries). This indicates that ‘in the wilderness’ belongs to what follows and the phrase was interpreted as having the sense ‘The voice of the one that cries “Prepare in the wilderness the way of the Lord”’. The interpretation reflected by the accents generally corresponds to what is found in rabbinic literature and the Aramaic Targumim, which contain elements of early rabbinic exegesis. The aforementioned interpretation of Deuteronomy 26: 5 , for instance, is found in Targum Onqelos and also Midrashic literature, from where it was incorporated into the Passover liturgy (Haggadah). The traditional Jewish interpretation of the verse is also found in the Latin Vulgate.
There is evidence that in the Second Temple period the exegesis of the syntax of the biblical text did not always correspond to that of the Tiberian accents. This is seen in the Septuagint translation, which often reflects a different syntactic division of the verse. From the Pesher commentaries found in Qumran, moreover, it appears that the delimitation of biblical verses did not always correspond to the placement of the final pausal accent (silluq) in the Tiberian tradition. It should be taken into account, however, that, just as there were a large range of consonantal textual traditions at this period, it is likely that there were a variety of exegetical traditions regarding the syntax of the text. This is seen in the case of Isaiah 40: 3 . In the New Testament ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’ of Matthew 3: 3 reflects an interpretation that is different from the one reflected by the Tiberian accents. In the Manual of Discipline from Qumran (IQS 8: 13–14), however, the introit ‘a voice calls’ is omitted and the teacher uses the verse to exhort the sectarians ‘to prepare a way in the wilderness’, that is, to establish a community there. This shows that the Masoretic interpretation of the syntax was also current at that period. The version found in Matthew 3: 3 is apparently an exegetical reworking to support the call of John the Baptist from the wilderness. Another case is Deuteronomy 26: 5 . The interpretation in conformity with the accents, ‘An Aramaean was seeking to destroy my father’, can be traced to the Second Temple period. Midrashic literature, however, indicates that there was also an ancient tradition of interpreting it: ‘My father is an Aramaean about to perish’. It is likely that the exegetical tradition of the Masoretic accents has its origin in the teachings of mainstream Pharisaic Judaism.
As was remarked above, the division of the text into paragraphs (parashiyyot) in the Tiberian Masoretic text, which has roots in an ancient tradition, also reflects a division of the text according to the interpretation of its contents. In a number of places, however, the paragraph divisions do not coincide with the end of a verse according to the accents. This is known as pisqa be-emtsa ‘pasuq ‘a paragraph division within a verse’ (e.g. Gen. 35: 22, 1 Sam. 16: 2 ). The reason for this appears to be that the paragraph division of the written text and the division expressed by the cantillation are two different layers of exegetical tradition which occasionally do not correspond with one another.
Within the accent system itself one can sometimes identify different layers of tradition. One possible example of this is the decalogue in Exodus 20: 13–16 . The accentuation of this passage is unusual in that most words have two different accents. The explanation of this double accentuation is apparently that it reflects two layers of tradition. According to one layer of tradition the four commandments are presented in four separate verses, whereas in another they form together one accentual unit.