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High Holiday

Put Cantors Back Where They Belong
By Cantor Moshe Schulhof


When I began my cantorial career in New York in the late 1960`s, Jewish newspapers were full of shuls advertising their chazzanim. Today, however, we have a generation that has grown up with little or no recollection of the central role of the shul and its chazzan in Jewish life. They don`t know that shuls once were magnificent and formal — or that prior to the Holocaust, nearly every shul in Europe had a full-time professional chazzan, often with a choir.

Davening was a spiritual experience elevated to sublime heights through the sha`ar haneginah, the gates of song. Just about every Jew looked forward to going to shul on Shabbos and Yom Tov thanks to the beauty and majesty of cantor and choir. Taking a drive through the Lower East Side, Harlem or the Bronx, one still can see the impressive buildings our parents and grandparents regarded as central to their Jewish existence.

In Eastern Europe today one can see, in nearly every town and city, the empty shells that once were magnificent Orthodox houses of worship. Those who perished in the fires of the Holocaust and those who were fortunate enough to survive had packed these shuls. Every city had a shtot chazan (official city cantor). Not only the large cities, but smaller ones as well — Munkacs, Sigeht, Satmar, Chust, Grosverdain, etc. — had a shtot chazzan. Yossele Rosenblatt began his adult career as the shtot chazzan of Munkacs.

The Vilneh Shtot Shul was one of the world`s most magnificent. Built iChazan officiated on Shabbos M`vorchim with the chief rabbi of Vilna. Some of the greatest chazonim in history held that post — Koussevitsky, Hershman, Roitman, Sirota and many more. The last chief rabbi to officiate there with a chazzan and choir was HaRav Hagaon Chaim Oizer Grodinsky.

In Budapest, the Kozinczy Shul, which still stands, great chazonim like Moshe Pries, served the congregation alongside HaRav Yonasan Shteif. The list is too long to enumerate. If the gedolei hador of yesteryear were comfortable with a chazzan and choir, why do present-day rabbonim break this mesorah (age-old tradition)?

Most of those communities did not have the financial means of today`s communities, yet it was considered a priority to build beautiful shuls and to beautify the davening with a cantor and a choir. The reasons for prioritizing this are firmly routed in halacha and in the teshuvos of the gedolei rishonim and acharonim.

It`s not exactly a secret that the Orthodox rabbinate, particularly the RCA, uses its influence on its congregants regarding chazzanim — with the result that few Orthodox shuls still employ professional shlichei tzibur. Those yichiday segulah, rabbis who have gone against the tide in maintaining a full-time chazzan, are doing an inestimable service for Orthodoxy and deserve our gratitude and praise. The fact remains, however, that an Orthodox shul with a chazzan is indeed a rarity.

An interesting but obscure halacha caught my attention recently. Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) Simon 53:25 says, "A chazzan is not dismissed from his profession unless he is found with a p`sul (a deed that would disqualify him)."

The Rema clarifies, "He is not dismissed based on rumor alone. For example, that he was caught with a [a non-Jewish woman] but only one individual reported it. However, if two witnesses come forward in a bais din, only then can he be dismissed."

Why did the Shulchan Aruch specifically use the chazan to illustrate a concept of justice that applies to all? Perhaps because Shulchan Aruch recognized that the chazzan was an endangered species, always at the mercy of rabbis and baalei batim. Hence it assigned him this mark of importance and stressed his immunity from unfounded accusations.

This halacha bears examination within a greater context as brought down by the Michaber. The previous halacha in Simon 53:24 says: "A community that needs to hire a rav and a chazan and has the funds to engage only one, if the rav is an outstanding gadol in Torah and halacha, he is to be hired; otherwise, the chazzan is first."

Today, a chazzan is never a hired instead of a rabbi and, as noted above, rarely even along with a rabbi. A prominent RCA [Rabbinic Council of America] rabbi offered the following explanation: "This halacha doesn`t apply today, since everyone knows how to lead a service. Therefore, a chazzan is not necessary."

My rejoinder to that rationalization: Could not the rav act as a chazzan and cover both jobs? Apparently, merely knowing how to read and chant does not suffice. One needs to possess a kol areiv (beautiful voice) and be both musical and a baki (an expert) in tefilah. Only a professional chazan can fulfill that requirement. Finally, Simon 53:22 says that "a professional shliach tzibur is preferable to a volunteer" and 53:23 says that "a shliach tzibur is paid out of communal funds."

How is it possible that those who are the teachers and transmitters of our Torah can disregard such clear rulings by the Shulchan Aruch and ignore the fact that this has been our continuous tradition since the destruction of the Temple? To break a chain of nearly two thousand years of tradition and halacha in the short span of one or two generations is both astounding and tragic.

The Responsa Anthology, a collection of responsas dating back from the age of the Geonim, has a number of teshuvos that speak about the central role the chazan plays in Jewish religious life. One teshuvah is particularly noteworthy because it explains why the chazzan is essential when it comes to tefilah b`tzibur. The Mahari Brunna, a 15th century rishon, was asked at what point a chazzan`s voice become unacceptable.

The responsum:

"Song is a form of service to Hashem. For example, the Levites would chant daily song during the Temple Service. The voices of the Levites had to be pleasing, as it is written in Divrei Hayamim 11 5:15, when the trumpeters and singers were as one. Rashi explains this to mean that the music sounded harmonious (Chulin 24b). When a Levite`s voice ceased to be resonant, he was disqualified as a singer. Our tefilos have replaced the sacrifices in the Temple, and song continues to be an integral part of prayer services, as we say every morning during Shacharis "habocher b`shirei zimrah" (Hashem, who chooses musical songs of praise). Therefore, as long as the chazan`s voice sounds smooth, he is acceptable, but if it sounds shaky, broken and unsteady, he should not continue to officiate."

Can the requirement of a professional chazzan in every shul be any clearer?
We are all familiar with the following dictum from Pirkei Avos: "Al shlosha devarim haolam omed, al hatorah v`al haavodah v`al g`milus chasodim" (The world stands on three principles — on Torah, on service/prayer, and on deeds of loving kindness.) When the Nazis tried to wipe out the Jewish people, their first targets were our houses of worship. Then they burned our seforim, destroyed our infrastructure, and, finally, killed our bodies.

Baruch Hashem, Torah was saved from the fires of the Holocaust and a new and glorious chapter is being written in its study and growth. Our institutions of g`milas chasodim are thriving. But the pillar of avodah — the shul, specifically rinah and tefilah — has not, in my opinion, been adequately reconstructed. It is time to retrieve and rebuild that pillar of avodah from the ashes of the Holocaust.

Though the chazan has been marginalized and even scorned since the Holocaust, chazanus still lives on in the hearts of many. There has been something of a reawakening in recent years, with chazanus concerts showing a newfound popularity.

In Israel this renaissance began a number of years ago and is now in full swing. Chazanus concerts with major symphony orchestras are held in the country`s largest halls. I am privileged to regularly participate in them. Chazonim are invited to daven for special occasions. Yes, chazanus rings loud today in Israel. And here in America interest is growing. Credit is due the chazzanim who have persisted against all odds and the visionary efforts of people like Chaim Weiner, Charlie Bernhaut, Cantors Benny Rogosnitsky and Binyamin Siller, and other like-minded individuals.

Concerts, however, serve only to give people a taste of the beauty of this heritage. A chazan`s real calling lies not in giving concerts but in being a shliach tzibbur, in being mispallel for Klal Yisrael and inspiring members of the congregation to pray with all their hearts.

Some may argue that chazzanim themselves are responsible for being phased out. Indeed, in some cases chazzanim led less than exemplary personal lives and turned davening into endlessly drawn-out performances. We should not, however, throw out the baby with the dirty bath water. It is time for chazonim who are yirei shamayim to be back where they belong — at the center of the service in our *Orthodox shuls.


Cantor Moshe Schulhof is one of the world`s leading cantors. He lives in Aventura, Florida, with his wife, Ruchama, and children. He studied chazanuth under David Koussevitsky and is a miasmic of Yeshiva Bais Joseph of Brooklyn.

*The Jewish Ministers Cantors Association of America believes that the Cantor, the Hazzan, the Sh’liach Tzibur is central to all devotional services within Judaism