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What is a chazzan?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht


Library » Daily Life » Prayer | Subscribe | What is RSS?


A. A Chazzan (pronounced KHAH-zahn) is a cantor, the Jewish religious official of a Shul who conducts the liturgical or musical part of the service and sings or chants the prayers intended to be performed as solos. Chazzanut (pronounced khah-zah-NOOT), or the cantorial arts, extends back in Jewish history to the era of the Temples, and indeed, up until about the 60s, every major synagogue, particularly those in New York, had its own full-time, world-class chazzan to boast of. Today, regretfully, professional chazzanim are few and far between, as grand, old-style, ornate and ceremonial synagogues have by and large faded away.

B. The chazzan's tonal quality, voice and style are similar to that of opera--don't be surprised if a recording of the late Yossele Rosenblatt, the greatest chazzan of this century, reminds you of Pavarotti.

C. In the Mishnah and Talmud, the phrase means "spotter" or "seer," referring to teachers who would lead students through the text at hand with their melodic sing-song style. The word eventually came to refer to the singer who would lead the congregation in shul through the prayers at hand. Today, as most shuls do not have regular chazzanim, the word chazzan just means the community member who volunteers to lead the service, whose voice invariably is dramatically non-dramatic.

He doesn't sing to entertain the congregation--he humbly uses his G-d-given gifts to uplift and inspire himself and whoever happens to be listening
What do chazzanim do?

1. Power vs. Personality

Despite his thundering sweet voice, the ideal chazzan is a prayer, not a performer. He doesn't sing to entertain the congregation--he humbly uses his G-d-given gifts to uplift and inspire himself and whoever happens to be listening. Likewise, a congregation attends services to connect to G-d with a little cantorial assistance, and not to take in a great vocal performance. A chazzan who gets full of himself is frowned upon.

2. Origination vs. Imitation

Despite the Nusach, or textual/musical standard adhered to by each shul and community, a professional chazzan is expected to compose an original tune or two, and sing some of the standard Tefillot to them. A chazzan's repertoire should consist of synagogue nusach and established classics of the great masters (such as Kol Nidrei or Rosenblatt's Yehi Ratzon) sprinkled lightly to moderately with his own works and adaptations.

3. Dress Up and Teach

A professional, hired chazzan traditionally wears a large, puffy cap that vaguely resembles a chef's hat. The cap strikingly contributes to the solemn shul atmosphere, especially on the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a chazzan’s biggest days. A flourishing, cloak-like robe accompanies the cap to complete the picture of piety. In addition to his Shabbat and holiday duties, shuls employing full-time chazzanim often have a choir consisting of community boys and men at the chazzan's disposal. The chazzan's weekday duties are to train and teach his choir to sing in harmony with him, usually requiring afternoon or evening practice sessions.

TAGS: chazan, chazzan


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Mitzvot » Prayer » Synagogue
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(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Rosh Hashanah
The Jewish New Year. An early autumn two day holiday marking the creation of Adam and Eve. On this day we hear the blasts of the ram's horn and accept G-d's sovereignty upon ourselves and the world. On Rosh Hashanah we pray that G-d should grant us all a sweet New Year.
Yom Kippur
Day of Atonement. This late-autumn high-holiday is the holiest day of the year. We devote this day to repentance and all healthy adults are required to fast.
(Yiddish) Synagogue.
Plural form of Tefillah (Prayer). The Jewish Sages instituted three daily prayers, and an additional prayer on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.
A cantor, or any individual who leads the congregation in prayer.
First written rendition of the Oral Law which G-d spoke to Moses. Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishna in the 2nd century lest the Oral law be forgotten due to the hardships of the Jewish exiles.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.
Kol Nidrei
A solemn prayer stating the annulment of vows recited at the start of Yom Kippur.
The format of the prayers.