The Chazzan

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


If You Can't Sing in Shul, Where Can You Sing?

   About one century before the common era, i.e. over one and a half centuries before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, synagogues (Greek=to lead together)  emerged as the meeting places of Jews living at a distance from the Temple and from Israel. These synagogues employed a caretaker or Chazzan. The Chazzan was in charge of the building and of the Torah scrolls. After the destruction of the Temple (70) which employed instrumental music the rabbis prohibited the use of such instruments and therefore relied on vocal music alone. 

    Years later, during the Middle Ages (325-1453), the Chazzan became the primary Torah reader and singer in the Beth Haknesset although anyone capable of doing so could then and now lead the service. These Chazzanim gradually adopted the Latin term Cantor or singer. Some of these singers were also composers who wrote such famous melodies as the Kol Nidre, which the composer Max Bruch re-wrote for the violoncello. Bruch was not Jewish. The French composer Darius Milhaud also wrote synagogue music as did Robert Schumann, a German Catholic who wrote synagogue music for the opening of the great Vienna synagogue in the 19th century. That building was burned down on November 10, 1938.

    It was during the 19th century that the synagogue music now so familiar to us was composed by some great Chazzanim. Most famous among these were Solomon Sulzer (1804-1890) and Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894). Many melodies used each Sabbath at Temple Shaarey Zedek and other synagogues were written by these two men. Other great Chazzanim were Yossele Rosenblatt, Samuel Alman, Boruch Lesowsky and Eliezer Gerovitch. 

    Most famous of all Jewish composers of the 19th century was Jakob Liebmann Meyer Beer, who renamed himself Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864). His operas are performed to this day.

    The Reform movement, from its inception in 1825 to about 1960,  abolished the office of cantor. Then, the office of cantor was re-introduced into Reform. In fact, the Reform seminary in Cincinnati, The Hebrew Union College, operates a cantorial school.

    In the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem you can hear Cantor Naftali Herstik sing with a magnificent choir. If you cannot go to Jerusalem, you can hear him right here. Bring up “Great Synagogue –Jerusalem” on Yahoo or any other search engine and if you have Real Player, which you can download free any time, you can hear Herstik and choir right now.

    To hear all of this great singing come to Shaarey Zedek on a Shabbat morning and sing along with Cantor Spindler. I know you’ll enjoy it and you’ll be back every Shabbat thereafter. Of course, there’s also Temple Beth El, Beth Zion, Sinai, Beth Am, etc. Try all of them. It’ll do more for you than any golf game and it’ll be the only place where you can sing out loud. After all, if you can’t sing in “shul” where can you sing?


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