The Origins of Chazanut
By Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler
This is a deliberately unstructured glance at a subject that has
been treated to considerable scholarly research. It is by no means
comprehensive, but owing to the limitations of space, it is intended to
be merely introductory in character.
At the outset it needs to be said that what one person considers Chazanut
won't coincide with someone else's view. We all have our perceived
notions of what a 'good' Chazan should be able to do and certainly, for
the afficiondo, these views are usually based on comparisons with the
'great' Chazanim of the Golden Age of Chazanut (about which, more later).
If we take as our definition of a Chazan, 'a man who leads the service
with the traditional melodies and who has a better-than-average voice,'
then there are indeed some fine Chazanim in this country.
The fact is that, since its beginnings Chazanut has constantly changed in
character, and indeed it has needed to if it was to fulfil its function
of being the means by which to inspire congregants. Times change,
circumstances alter and the environment in which Jews live has varied
over the ages. When people had much time to spare, they would gladly
stay in the Synagogue throughout a four hour service, to be 'entertained'
by a Chazan and choir.
In the modern world of the soundbite, an attractive melody or two and
a business-like approach to the remainder of the service, is more to
the requirements of the times. But most people still like the service
to be conducted in the traditional way by someone who is competent and
What are the elements of Chazanut that are still popular and of importance
Undoubtedly a Chazan has to have a 'good' voice, and the world of Chazanut
is indeed blessed with men of outstanding ability; David Bagley,
Moshe Stern, BenZion Miller and Chaim Adler, to name but a few. (I've
deliberately refrained from naming British Chazanim for the sake of
Shalom Bayit! But there are certainly some who might be included).
It's imperative, indeed a requirement of Halacha, that the traditional
melodies are absolutely adhered to, and every Chazan worthy of the title
will ensure that he keeps strictly to the ancient prayer modes that have
become hallowed by time and usage.
A Chazan should also have good diction and a full understanding of the
prayers he utters.
Since there are numerous Chazanim who measure up to all these
requirements, what is it that makes Chazanut today different from what
it was 'before?'
The period between the wars is generally regarded as the 'Golden Age
of Chazanut.' This is the time when legendary Chazanim such as Kwartin,
Sirota, Hershman, and Rosenblatt flourished. Simply put, these men had
the ability to make people cry. Their singing and pleading with the
Almighty would send shivers up and down the spines of their congregants
and they were able to raise them to high levels of communion with G-d.
(It is, perhaps, beyond the scope of this article to rationalise this,
but I'm certain that it was the environment in which people lived that
enabled them to achieve it. People living in poverty, who could not afford
to see a doctor when they were ill and were frequently out of work, were
more easily moved than we can be today in our more affluent society. When
the Chazan pleaded with the Lord to grant people who were unemployed and
living through a war 'a life of peace, a life of sustenance, and life
in which there's no shame and reproach...,' it was not difficult to make
The 'professional' Chazan was indeed an entertainer, and his role
developed out of the need for culture that was felt by a people who
couldn't afford, or were often denied the right, to attend local places
of entertainment. Although he would probably have been horrified to think
that this was the role he filled, the great attraction of the earliest
Chazan was indeed his voice and his 'star' quality.
A Sheliach Tsibbur - (lit. messenger of the congregation), someone
to lead the service, was required from earliest times. The Mishna
(c.200 C.E.) talks about the one who was called upon 'Leireid Lifnei
Hateiva' - which literally means 'to go in front of the Ark.' This was
the person who was asked to repeat the Amidah. He could be any member of
the congregation who was competent and he most certainly did not have to
be a Rabbi. Indeed there's a Midrash which tells how the renowned Rabbi
Elazar was visiting a Shul where, because of his fame, he was invited to
lead the davening. Unfortunately, to his deep embarrassment and indeed to
the astonishment of the congregation, he had to decline the invitation
because he didn't know how to say the Amidah aloud! (He did however,
go immediately to his teacher Rabbi Akiva to correct this gap in his
education and, the Midrash relates, when he paid a return visit to that
congregation, he was able to be Sheliach Tsibbur for them).
In these earliest times, a knowledge of the prayers was all that was
required to qualify a man for the role. However, when people were being
offered the Mitzvah of leading the service, obviously, the man with the
good voice would be more likely to be asked, than the one who couldn't
sing in tune.
The 'art' of Chazanut was developed by these men who could sing and
who were encouraged to do so by congregations who were often thirsty
One of the most important elements of Chazanut is called 'Nusach
Hatefillah'. This expression has two meanings: one is the form and order
of prayers, and the other refers to the traditional melodies that must
be used to chant them. It is this second one that is specific to Chazanut.
If you think of the repetition of the Amidah for Shabbat, for Yom
Tov and for the Yamim Noraim, you will realise that they are all
done differently. These 'chants' or Steiger (from the German steigen -
ascending, hence 'scale'), are very important and a Chazan who deviates
from them must not be allowed to conduct the service. Their purpose is
to set the mood for the day.
There are also many melodies, rather than modes, which are very
ancient. In the Ashkenazi rites they are referred to as 'Scarbove
Niggunim, (the word Scarbove is probably a corruption of the Latin word
sacra meaning 'sacred'), or Misinai-melodies, i.e, melodies transmitted
from Sinai (!). These titles undoubtedly came about as a means by which to
invest them with sanctity and so discourage Chazanim from altering them.
Most of these Scarbove tunes came from Southwestern Germany, from the
old communities of Worms, Mayence and the Rhinelands. Examples of them
are Alenu for the Yamim Noraim and Adir Hu for Pesach.
The function of the Chazan today is twofold. Firstly he is to keep the
congregation together and secondly he is to try to inspire them towards
a higher level of spirituality during prayer. Although the 'performance'
Chazan is not so much in demand anymore, it's still absolutely imperative
that whoever does conduct the service, must be completely familiar with
all the traditional steiger and niggunim that have been handed down from
one generation to another.
The days are long past when every little Shul had a Chazan of real
talent. We must cherish the culture that's preserved on recordings and
encourage all those who show aptitude to study and pass on our heritage,
so that it never becomes forgotten.
The association of Ministers Chazanim of Great Britain was once a very
lively and active organisation. When there were sufficient Chazanim
in this country, they used to issue an excellent magazine called the
The September 1972 edition contained the following:
HAVE YOU HEARD?
The famous Chazan A.M. Bernstein related the story of an uneducated young
woman who attended the service for the first time after her marriage, as
it happened on Shabbos Mevorchim. As she was unable to understand the
Tefillot, all that she caught was the Chazan's intonation of 'Chayim,
Chayim' over and over again. On her return home she asked her husband:
'Chayim,...why is the Chazan mentioning your name so often in the
Professor Samuel Alman told of a so-called 'President' whose congregation
was seeking a new Chazan. The official was heard to announce; 'We
require a Chazan who should be fifty per cent Chazan, and fifty per cent
'Mentch. But a few per cent more or less would not matter!'
A Chazan boasted that he had recently sung in the Philharmonic Choir, and
that as a result of his magnificent voice, the walls shook. His friend,
and rival, went further: 'I gave a concert to deaf-mutes, and in their
great admiration they were unable to utter a single word.'
A Chazan once Davened on a Friday evening service. After the service
the Gabbai said to him: 'You Davened quite nicely but your "Veshomru"
was not quite so good.
The incensed Chazan replied: 'Mind you, the "Bnai Yisroel" are a great
What is a Synagogue? It's a 'living' for the Rabbi, an 'honour' for
the Gabbai, an opera stage for the Chazan and a chatting place for the
An elderly Chazan once came to the world-famous Chazan Rosovsky and asked
for alms on the grounds that he had lost his voice. Rosovsky gave him
a generous donation, but the mendicant was unsatisfied. He asked. 'What
can I do with such a small donation?' Rosovsky replied: 'My dear friend,
don't forget that the unfortunate person who has found your voice,
will also require a donation, for he is more to be pitied than you!'
A small Jewish community engaged a Chazan of little merit for the
excellent sum of 50 roubles, for the Yamim Noraim. He asked for a rise,
pleading the high cost of living, etc. Being refused, he went to another
town and later, on returning to his home town, was asked how much money
he had obtained there.
'Two hundred and fifty roubles,' was his reply.
His neighbours refused to believe him, so explained: 'I got fifty
roubles for my davening, and two hundred roubles for the beating-up I
A letter addressed to the Rabbi of a Synagogue stated on its envelope;
'To the MINISTAR of the Synagogue.' The witty secretary conveyed the
letter to the Chazan.
A Gabbai who disliked the Chazan of his Shul once mentioned in his anger,
'Every Chazan deserves the voice which he gets.' So the Chazan replied
to him; 'And every Shul deserves the Chazan which it takes.'
A Chazan once had much Tzoros from his Gabbai. As he sat miserably at
home, another Chazan visited him and asked him how he felt. 'Well,' he
said, 'Yossele is no longer alive, Sirota also no longer lives, Kwartin
is already dead. Today, which of the Gedolim remain? And what's more,
I myself don't feel so good either!'
A Chazan used to travel from town to town, Davening anywhere he was
asked. Somebody asked him: 'Why do you travel so much - stay in one
place.' To which he replied: 'A Chazan could be compared to a good
nail. If a nail is banged into a wall and it has a good head, it can
be easily removed and put into another wall. But if it has no head,
it will remain for good in one place!'
© Copyright Rabbi G. Shisler
Keywords: chazanut, chazzanut, jewish liturgical music, cantorial music.