What Is A Cantor (Hazzan or Chazan)?

What these singing clergy members do and how they are trained.

A cantor — hazzan (חזן) in Hebrew — is the person who chants worship services in the synagogue. Though the word is sometimes applied in a general way to anyone who leads services, it is more commonly used to denote someone who has completed professional musical training and been ordained as a cantor.

  • The position of prayer leader originated in the era following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem when most Jews were unfamiliar with prayers and required a leader to recite them on their behalf.
  • Scholars date the earliest historical reference to a hazzan as a musical leader in the synagogue to around the sixth century; however the title came to refer to a formal clergy member only in Europe in the 1700s.
  • Today, it is rare for Orthodox congregations to hire a professional, full-time cantor, but many large Conservative and Reform synagogues have them. In recent years, a number of cantors have gone on to be ordained as rabbis and fulfill both roles in their congregations.

How long have Jews had cantors?

Professional cantors are a comparatively recent innovation in Jewish life. The earliest appearances of the word “hazzan” in Jewish literature are in the Mishnah and Talmud and referred to a sort of congregational officiant or sexton. The first reference to a hazzan as a musical prayer leader occurred around the sixth century.

The emergence of the modern cantorate dates to the 1700s, an era in which efforts to craft a more dignified and modern synagogue service led to the emulation of many features of Christian worship, including the development of a canon of liturgical melodies grounded in Western musical theory and rules of harmony. A handful of early cantors began to emulate their Christian colleagues — including by borrowing the very term cantor, which had been used to describe the individual who led music in the church. Among the early pioneering cantors was the Viennese composer Salomon Sulzer, whose 1840 publication Shir Tziyyon provided melodies for many parts of the synagogue service. The common melody for the Shema prayer is often attributed to Sulzer.

Only in recent decades has the role of the cantor become professionalized, with formal training institutes leading to ordination. The Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College cantorial school was founded in 1948 — though until 2012 its graduates were invested, rather than ordained, to emphasize their distinction from rabbis. The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary established its school in 1952 (its cantors are invested, not ordained). Beyond their responsibilities as prayer leaders, contemporary cantors typically also officiate at lifecycle events, teach bar and bat mitzvah students, and sometimes provide pastoral services.

What is the difference between a cantor and a shaliach tzibur?

A shaliach tzibur (שׁליח ציבּור) — literally “messenger of the community” — refers to anyone who leads services in the synagogue, not necessarily someone professionally trained or specifically hired for the job. Shaliach tzibur is the term used to refer to prayer leaders in the Talmud and later Jewish legal codes, which discuss the specific laws and requirements of prayer at length. In theory, anyone can serve in this position, but the Shulchan Aruch states that a shaliach tzibur must be one who is “fit” — that is, free of sin, possessing a good reputation, humble, acceptable to the community, skilled at chanting, and who is well versed in sacred texts.

Concern about the moral worthiness of the cantor is a longstanding issue, according to ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin, the author of Chosen Voices: The Story of the American Cantorate, who says that rabbis have long been suspicious of cantors, fearing they were too showy and that their private behavior did not match the exalted place they occupied in the synagogue. The Shulchan Aruch says it is “indecent” for a cantor to extend the prayers for the joy of having his voice heard. A famous Yiddish proverb states: “All cantors are fools, but not all fools are cantors.”

Do all Jewish denominations use cantors?

All Jewish denominations use prayer leaders, but professional cantors are employed most commonly in the non-Orthodox movements. Both the Reform and Conservative seminaries have formal cantorial training institutes that offer multi-year training degrees. They also have professional associations to represent them — the Cantorial Assembly in the Conservative movement and the American Conference of Cantors in Reform Judaism. The non-denominational Hebrew College in Boston and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York and Los Angeles also ordain cantors, as do some smaller Jewish institutions. The Orthodox Yeshiva University in New York also offers training to cantors, but very few American Orthodox synagogues employ them full-time except on the High Holidays.

Are there different styles of cantors?

Historically, yes. The principal distinction drawn by scholars is between the formal Western European style — typically rhythmically and musically defined, devoid of embellishments and reflective of the sound of Western classical music — and the Eastern European style, which was more emotional, extensively embellished with cantorial improvisation and reflective of the folk styles of the region, including klezmer. In the words of famed Cantor Samuel Vigoda, it was a difference between hazzanut shel regesh and hazzanut shel seder — the cantorial of feeling vs. the cantorial of order. According to UCLA ethnomusicologist Mark Kligman, contemporary cantorial styles are an amalgamation of these two traditions.

In recent decades, cantors have moved from the high operatic style once considered the very definition of hazzanut to something more akin to being a song leader, creating a more participatory experience and allowing congregants to join in the singing rather than merely performing for them. The ability to play guitar at least passably is increasingly considered integral to the cantorial profession. In the Reform movement, much of this change is attributed to the popularity of the late singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman, whose 1960s campfire style of Jewish music became widely known in the movement’s summer camps and later spread to synagogues. In 2007, Friedman signed on to teach at the movement’s cantorial school — a move widely seen as a stamp of approval for her style of worship. After Friedman’s death in 2011, the school was renamed in her honor.

Can women be cantors?

Yes, in the non-Orthodox movements. Barbara Ostfeld became the first woman ordained as a cantor with her graduation in 1975 from the Reform movement’s School of Sacred Music (today the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music). But the first woman employed as a cantor by a Reform temple was two decades earlier, when Betty Robbins was named cantor of Temple Avodah, a Reform synagogue in Long Island, in 1955.
The Conservative movement ordained its first women cantors in 1987, four years after its decision to ordain women rabbis. It would take another four years and much debate until women were admitted to the Cantorial Assembly, the movement’s association of cantors, a decision that prompted a group of traditionalist cantors to defect and start their own association.

What is the difference between a cantor and a cantorial soloist?

Cantor is a formal title used following ordination by a recognized cantorial training institute. Cantorial soloist is a looser term used by individuals who serve in cantorial roles in synagogues but who lack the formal training. Cantorial soloists are sometimes paid positions in synagogues.

What was the “golden age of hazzanut”?

 

This was a period between World War I and World War II when cantorial performance was regarded as being at its height and cantors were popular singers who could make significant money through performances and recordings. The most gifted practitioner of the era is regarded to be Yossele Rosenblatt, a Ukraine-born cantorial prodigy who immigrated to the United States in 1912 to assume a position at a  Manhattan synagogue. Rosenblatt gained fame well beyond the Jewish community and appeared in the 1927 Al Jolson film The Jazz Singer.

What does cantorial training entail?

Prior to the professionalization of the cantorate, training was largely an oral tradition — one learned by singing in a synagogue choir and learning from a master of the art. Today, training takes place in one of a handful of cantorial schools. Training typically includes a mix of musical studies (both Jewish and general) — including ear training, music theory, harmony and choral conducting — as well as coursework in Hebrew language, liturgy and pastoral skills.

Do Sephardic Jews use cantors?

Increasingly yes. According to Mark Kligman, a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, the Sephardic equivalent of the hazzan was known as a paytan — a performer of the liturgical poem known as a piyyut. The institution of the paytan traces back to the very first references to a hazzan as a musical prayer leader in the sixth century, which is also the period when the piyyut emerged. Typically, the congregation’s paytan was its rabbi or a musically gifted member of the community. But in recent years, some communities have found such people hard to come by and begun importing paytanim from Israel and giving them paid synagogue positions as cantors.

My Jewish Learning is a not-for-profit and relies on your help

Donate

Discover More

Highlights of the Rosh Hashanah Service

How the liturgy for the Jewish New Year differs from standard Shabbat and weekday prayers.

What To Expect At Synagogue Services on Saturday Morning

A guide for bar/bat mitzvah guests and other newcomers to Sabbath worship.

Daily Prayer: Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv

What distinguishes the three services from one another?