This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary


As I observed in my previous column, the titles that we customarily assign to synagogue and communal functionaries have undergone some curious transformations over the years. This claim applies as well to the term "hazzan" which we use to designate a cantor. The word actually means "supervisor" and originally denoted the lay leader of a community or synagogue, an office approximating that of a modern synagogue president.

At any rate, the current usage has roots that probably hearken back to the days of the Palestinian Talmud, an era when the functions of synagogue administration and leading prayers were carried out by the same individuals.

There were of course other titles that were borne by the ancient cantors, such as sheliah tzibbur ("representative of the community"); payyat or payyetan ("poet"); or karova ("the one who brings people close to God"). The latter two expressions, employed primarily in the Land of Israel, refer not only to their bearers' ability to recite the prayers, but also to their talent for composing poetic renditions of the liturgy that interwove themes from the day's Biblical readings. The immense bodies of literary work that have come down to us from the great payyetanim of yore attest to their astounding erudition in all facets of Jewish religious lore.

This favourable reputation was not always inherited by their successors in medieval and modern times. As the Babylonian preference for a fixed liturgical texts prevailed over the Palestinian tradition of poetic improvisation, scholarship and erudition ceased to be viewed as indispensable to the cantor's job description. Emphasis was placed on beauty of voice and on musical proficiency.

Ultimately, the cantor came to be an artist, sharing many of the virtues and shortcomings that are typical of the artistic personality.

Documents from medieval Cairo testify that, like operatic virtuosi of later generations, some cantors were plagued by a weakness for the bottle. Maimonides had to deal more than once with the problem of inebriated cantors. In one responsum he was asked what do to about a hazzan who was in the habit of staggering into the synagogue, insulting the presiding cantor, taking hold of the Torah scroll and dropping it. A second query addressed to him dealt with a group of intoxicated cantors who would obstruct the services with rowdy behaviour, which persisted even while a distressed child was struggling to recite his haftarah.

The inability of some cantors to understand the words of the prayers they were intoning became proverbial. A younger contemporary of Maimonides, the Spanish Hebrew poet Judah Al-Harizi, composed a satirical poem about the bloopers committed by a hazzan whose pomposity was matched only by his ignorance. Al-Harizi provides a lengthy catalogue of passages in the prayer book and Bible that were mangled by the cantor's sloppiness and inability to understand what he was reciting, though he was adorned with all the external signs of wisdom and piety, gyrating emotionally with beard and fringes dragging on the ground. The congregation, bored and confused by the drawn-out renderings of cryptic liturgical poems, eventually gave up and went home to sleep without having fulfilled the essential obligations of prayer.

The same disparagement of the cantor's craft resurfaces centuries later in Poland, in earnest pronouncements by leading rabbinical authorities. Rabbi Solomon Luria lamented the fact that in their quest for esthetically pleasing hazzanim, the lay congregational leadership frequently ignored the rabbis' strictures about the learnedness and piety that ought to be indispensable to the position. In a similar vein, Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz caustically protested the cantors' tendency to devote more energy to artistic pyrotechnics than to conveying the actual meaning of the words that they were reciting.

In 1623 a Lithuanian rabbinical council was impelled to set strict limitations on the number of tunes that could be included in the services. Rabbi Benjamin Solnik described the situation as follows:

They cannot read even a single verse from the Torah with its correct cantillation and punctuation, since the communities prefer to appoint hazzanim on the basis of their abilities in chanting the prayers and kedushahs beautifully and at length.... The longer the cantor sings, the more they enjoy it, even if he does not know any of the regulations governing the prayers or scriptural chanting. For this reason, the cantors pay no attention to those laws and do not prepare themselves adequately for an expert public reading in accordance with the requirements of the law.
But not all cantors are of that unsavoury ilk, as we learn from the following anecdote in the Talmud:

In a time of drought, the saintly Rabbi Hiyya was invited to lead the congregational supplications for rain. As he recited the words "who causes the wind to blow," a breeze was felt. When he got to the expression "who causes the rain to fall," rain indeed began to fall. As he was about to conclude with the blessing "who revives the dead," the earth began to quake, and it was only through direct supernatural intervention that the pious sage could be prevented from hastening the resurrection before its proper time.

Such, indeed, is the formidable power of a cantor who can utter the prayer with sincerity and understanding.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, November 6 1997, p. 8.

  • Bibliography:
    • S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1971.
    • H. Schirmann, Ha-Shirah Ha'ivrit Bi-S'farad uve-Frovans, Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, 1960.
    • N. E. Shulman, Authority and Community, Hoboken and New York, 1986.