The Chazan and the Cantor

    February 2012          
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A Brief History of the Cantor

By Jonathan L. Friedmann

The term hazzan occurs frequently in Talmudic literature, where it refers to various types of officials, or "overseers." The hazzan ha-knesset (overseer of the synagogue) was the forerunner of the cantor, though he primarily functioned as synagogue caretaker rather than service leader. Among his duties were rituals like removing the Torah scrolls from the ark and blowing a trumpet to announce the beginning of Shabbat and festivals. He was also available to chant the service by request, but any capable congregant was permitted to do so.

The Geonic Period (589-1038) witnessed the coinciding growth of the liturgy and decline in general Hebrew knowledge. As such, it became necessary to create a permanent position of service leader. The hazzan ha-knesset was a logical choice to occupy this role, as he was already involved in developing and guarding synagogue practice. It was also in this period that Jews began demanding a beautified service, filled with inspiring musical content and liturgical poems (piyyutim), and hazzanim busied themselves with composing and selecting suitable melodies for the various texts.

The position of hazzanim as religious authorities and artistic performers was expanded during the Middle Ages. They were afforded longer tenures, better salaries, and communal tax exemptions, and were often sought after more for their vocal skills than their piety or Torah learning. In response, fixed qualifications for the hazzan were gradually established, including that he have a decent voice and pleasant appearance, be married, have a beard, have deep knowledge of the liturgy, and be of blameless character.

It was not until the emancipation of European Jews in the nineteenth century that hazzanim began notating long-standing melodies and employing the rules of Western harmony in constructing pieces for hazzan and choir. During this time as well, the term "cantor" came into Jewish usage, borrowed from the sacred singers of the Church. Pioneering cantors like Salomon Sulzer of Vienna and Samuel Naumbourg of Paris composed liturgical music that blended indigenous Jewish material with the stylistic norms of their non-Jewish neighbors, producing a refined sound that helped modernizing Jews assert their desired place within the general culture.

This new level of cantorial artistry set the stage for the "Golden Age of Hazzanut," a period between the two World Wars that witnessed the rise of cantors as recording artists, concertizers, and itinerant service leaders. These virtuoso performers were compared to the great opera stars of their day, and their vocal gymnastics, emotive flourishes, and drawn-out phrases attracted audiences (both Jewish and non-Jewish) throughout Europe and the United States.

Today, most of the world's major Jewish communities have professional cantorial organizations, and there are schools for training cantors of all Jewish stripes, from Orthodox and Conservative to Reform and trans-denominational. Liberal denominations began ordaining women cantors in the 1970s, and in most synagogues cantors serve a variety of roles outside of the pulpit, such as child and adult education, chaplaincy, and spiritual counseling. But no matter the setting, the central tasks of the cantor remain the same: enlivening the liturgy, inspiring worshipers, and raising the congregation's prayers toward the heavenly realm.


Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor of Bet Knesset Bamidbar and Congregation P'nai Tikvah, both in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is the author or editor of nine books on religion and music, most recently Emotions in Jewish Music: Personal and Scholarly Reflections (University Press of America, 2012).


from the Febuary 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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