The Chazzan

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk





Cantor means singer. In Hebrew a cantor is called a Chazzan, although that word does not mean singer. It refers to an overseer. According to Jewish law, a Jewish congregation is led in prayer by a “shaliach tziboor”, meaning “emissary of the congregation”. The meaning of this label is that the singer appears before God and addresses his prayers directly to the Almighty on behalf of all those there assembled.

The prayers recited by the cantor are collected in a prayer book called a Siddur, which means “order”. The book is ordered in a manner reflecting the most important prayers extant in Judaism. It includes the preliminary prayers, the morning prayers (Shacharith), the Torah service, the additional prayers (Musaf), which refers to the sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the concluding prayers, which deal with the Kaddish or praise of God, and one or more concluding songs.

Among Torah true or orthodox Jews, only men may lead the service. Conservative and Reform congregations allow women to lead.

Traditionally, anyone may lead a Jewish service, as is visible among small congregations who do not have a professional “chazzan”. In Europe, there were some cantors whose voice and singing ability was so great that they became famous in the Jewish community and attracted numerous visitors in particular at the High Holy Days. One of these was Jossele Rosenblatt, who sang at one time in my home town, Hamburg, but then moved to New York where he was asked to join the Metropolitan Opera. He refused to do so on religious grounds, as he would not violate the Sabbath and would not cut his hair. However, he did sing in one role at the Metropolitan Opera. That was in “La Juive” by Meyer Beer, who also called himself Giacomo Meyerbeer. Meyerbeer was an ancestor of the former Secretary of the Treasury, W. Michael Blumenthal (Valley of Flowers).

In more recent years, two former cantors sang regularly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. They were brothers-in-law Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker. Other great cantors who did not sing opera but had the capacity to do so were Al Jolson, Moshe Kousevitzky, Binyamin Unger, Liebale Waldman, Gershon Sirota and Zawel Kwartin.

The duties of the Chazzan are described in the Talmud (The Talmud is a collection of some 35 volumes of discussion and debate among the rabbis of the first and second centuries of the common era. It may be compared to the publication of every lecture given at Harvard University since its inception in the seventeenth century).

The Talmud assigns to the Chazzan the duty of bringing out the rolls of the Torah (The Torah is a scroll containing the Five Books of Moses in Hebrew. However, the word Torah, meaning “the way”, is also used to include all of the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews. Do not call this “the old testament”. There is no old or new testament in Judaism. The word Testament is related to “testes”, meaning the male organ, and “manus” which is the Latin genitive “of the hand”.  Many ancient people swore on the male organ. Please look at Genesis and read about the death of Jacob. It is also possible that “testes” refers to the custom of having three persons witness a will).

The Chazzan, in the ancient world, announced the beginning of the Sabbath by blowing a trumpet from a rooftop.

European synagogues, and some American synagogues, had a platform in the middle of the floor from which the Torah reading would proceed. This was called a bimah.

Today, the cantor is expected to teach children Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah lessons, to visit the sick and to be present at all weekday services as well. In orthodox synagogues the cantor is diminished because almost all the men know how to read Hebrew and lead the congregation. In conservative “shuls” this is less the case and among the Reform the cantor is indeed vital to the entire proceedings.

The American cantor is a full time professional trained at a seminary. This may be the Reform Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary or other schools in California and in England and Israel.

If this interests you, you can easily find CD’s including some of the greatest cantors of all times such as Leon Gold, Abraham Davis, Yitzchak Essel and Piere Pinchik, as well as  those mentioned above.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Restoration of Israel (2006).

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