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
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
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
"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
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