The Cantor

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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 (O.H. 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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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.