Image: Julie Arnold chants Torah at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV. At her side is Rabbi Sanford Akselrad. Photo courtesy of Julie Arnold.

The first record we have of anyone reading Torah from the scroll to a congregation is in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 8:

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose… They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. – Nehemiah 8: 1-4, 8

The Hebrew phrase sefer Torah [the book of the law] is still the way we refer to a Torah scroll. The sefer Torah from which Ezra read to the people was very similar, if not identical, to the Torah scrolls in synagogues worldwide today.

A Torah scroll has only consonants and spaces in it: imagine reading this article without vowels, capitalization or punctuation:

trh scrll hs nl cnsnnts nd spcs n t mgn rdng ths rtcl wtht vwls cptlztn r pncttn

Between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, in Tiberias and Jerusalem, a group of scholars called the Masoretes worked to make sure that the text was preserved properly. Part of their work was setting up a system of markings to show vowels, punctuation, and emphasis for the Torah text.  These markings are called te’amim. They are not written in the Torah scroll – nothing is ever added to a Torah scroll! – but instead they are available in a book called a tikkun korim [correction for readers] which the Torah reader uses to prepare – think “notes for homework.”

The te’amim function as punctuation and emphasis and they are expressed by the Torah reader in musical tunes called “trope.” Those tunes are established by tradition and will differ depending on where one’s teacher learned the craft. My te’amim teacher, Cantor Ilene Keys, uses one of the Lithuanian traditions for trope. (For more about that tradition, and about its place in my life, see The Chain of Tradition.)

So when we sit in synagogue and listen to a Torah reading, we are hearing not only the text itself but also the generations of effort to safeguard that text:

Ezra the Scribe copied down the scroll with great care;
his heirs are the soferim [scribes] who make each new Torah scroll
with such great care that it is usual for it to require a year of work.

The person reading the text “stands on the shoulders” of their teachers,
who guarded the text by teaching the te’amim and the proper use of the tikkun.

And each reader has spent significant time in the past week,
studying and preparing to vocalize the text:
learning the trope, learning the words,
practicing to say each word clearly and correctly.

Thus is the ancient text transmitted from generation to generation.