Who Leads Jewish Prayer?

The historic role of the cantor and shaliach tzibur.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

“Cantor”  is the term used in English for the prayer leader in the synagogue. In rabbinic times [first century BCE to the end of the Talmudic period in the sixth century], many people were unfamiliar with the prayers, and so in public worship a man well versed in the liturgy would recite the prayers aloud with the congregation responding to his benedictions with “Amen,” this being considered as if they themselves had offered the prayers. Even after the wide dissemination of the prayer book, the institution of the prayer leader was continued, so that the prayers were then recited by both the congregation and the reader.

Names and Terms

In the Mishnah, the leader is called “one who descends before the chest.” (The Ark (where Torah scrolls are kept today] in the ancient synagogue was not built into the wall of the synagogue was a portable chest containing the Sefer Torah.)

Other terms found in the sources are sheliah tzibbur (“messenger of the congregation”), abbreviated to shatz (hence the Jewish surname Schatz) and hazan (originally meaning “overseer”), the name most frequently used.

The hazan was not a special functionary. Any member of the congregation was qualified to lead the congregation in prayer. But in the course of time, specially qualified persons were favored to act as hazanim. The term “cantor,” adopted by Western Jews in modern times, is not found in the traditional sources and is used chiefly to describe a man or woman with special musical qualifications who sings accompanied by a choir. The modern cantor is a special salaried official. In this [article] the term “cantor” is used to denote every variety of prayer leader.

Who Is the Ideal Cantor?

A section in the [16th-century code of Jewish law called] Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim, 53) is devoted to the qualities ideally required for a hazan. He should be without sin (comparatively speaking, of course, since no one is free from sin); he should be free of rumors that he had a bad reputation in his youth; he should be a modest man and acceptable to the people for whom he deputizes; and he should have a pleasant voice. If such a paragon is not to be found, this source adds, somewhat laconically, that the man chosen should be the most pious and learned in the congregation. (For this reason it is customary in Hasidism for the rebbe, the Hasidic master, to act as prayer leader.) The hazan should be at least 13 years old and should be male. (In many non-Orthodox congregations women cantors are now appointed.) Ideally a hazan should have a full beard, but this was later interpreted to mean that he should be of an age when the beard is fully grown, that is, he should be a mature person, who is then acceptable even if he does not actually sport a beard.

Whose Service: Cantor vs. Congregation

The rabbinic authorities tended to look askance at hazanim monopolizing the service (and there was no doubt a degree of envy when the hazan, who pleased the congregation with his sweet singing, was more popular than the learned rabbi), but most attempts at curbing the exuberance of the prayer leader were doomed to failure. On the whole the people loved cantorial versatility (hazanut). Very revealing is the statement in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim, 53. 11):

“A shatz who prolongs the service so that people will hear how pleasant is his voice, if it is because he rejoices in his heart that he is able to praise God with his sweet voice, let a blessing come to him, provided that he offers his prayers in a serious frame of mind and stands in God’s presence in awe and dread. But if his intention is for people to hear his voice and he rejoices in this, it is disgraceful. Nevertheless, it is not good for anyone to prolong the service unduly, because this imposes a burden on the congregation.”

Cantorial Music As Art

A number of modern cantors have been very gifted musically, some being also expert composers whose liturgical compositions were collected and used by cantors all over the world. With the invention of the gramophone, there was a proliferation of cantorial records and, later, tapes, enjoyed by Jews in their own homes. Among the more famous of modern cantors were Yossele Rosenblatt, Gershon Sirota, Mordecai Herschman, and Zavel Kwartin.

It is not unknown for cantors to use melodies from well-known operas adapted to the words of the prayers. The more discriminating regard this as vulgar, but others see no harm in it. They point to the responsum [rabbinic reply to a question of law] of the Polish rabbi Joel Sirkes (1561-1640), who is so lenient (Responsa Bayit Hadash, no. 127) as to permit even the use of church melodies, except for those especially associated with Christian hymns. The offence of copying Gentile ways, the Rabbi remarks, applies only to doctrinal matters belonging to the practices of other religions. Music is not specifically Christian but is the common heritage of all mankind.

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