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 knowledgeable.
What are the elements of Chazanut that are still popular and of importance today?
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 them cry).
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 for culture.
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 'Cantors' Review.
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 prayers?'
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 deal worse!'
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 congregation...
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 got afterwards.'
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. ShislerLast update: 30 April 2006
Keywords: chazanut, chazzanut, jewish liturgical music, cantorial music.