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How long have there been rabbis leading the synagogues?

by Rabbi Moshe Miller

  

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We can probably identify Moses as the very first rabbi of a synagogue – although the “synagogue” he served in was the Tabernacle, the precursor to the Holy Temple. The Tabernacle was erected in the year 2449 in the Jewish calendar (1311 BCE).

throughout Jewish history, there have been leaders who accepted upon themselves the responsibility of leading and serving the community
Since that time, throughout Jewish history, there have been leaders who accepted upon themselves the responsibility of leading and serving the community. Many of them have headed synagogues or Academies of Jewish learning, or both.

However, although it is preferable for a synagogue to have a rabbi, this is not an absolute requirement. A competent layman can lead the services and read from the Torah. Where questions of Jewish law, custom or procedure arise, a proper rabbinic authority should be consulted.


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RE: "How long have there been rabbis leading the synagogues?"

Posted by: Hazzan Alan Smolen, Cong. Shirat Shalom, Elgin, IL on Sep 13, 2005

I understand what Rabbi Moshe Miller was attempting to answer in his response to this question, but there is more to it than what he states.

The first synagogue official was the hazzan. Not in the same role as we think of hazzanim (cantors) today per se. But the first synagogue official was known as the "hazzan ha'k'neset." This person would lead the service, chant scripture, teach children and sweep up as well. It is later in the Middle Ages in the West where the professional hazzan we know today begins to crystalize, and develop through people like 19th C. S. Sulzer.

The first Jewish religious leaders in Colonial America were hazzanim. Rabbis do not arrive in America until the 1840's.

The Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Dei'ah, Hil. Ts'dakah 253:13, I believe), the Code of Jew Law, supports the primacy of the hazzan over that of the rabbi for a synagogue. Rabbis have their role, vital to Jewish living and learning, but the primary functionary of the synagogue is the hazzan.

Editor's Comment

Rabbi Miller responds: The origin of chazzanut is actually much earlier than you suggest - it began with the songs of the Levites in the Beit HaMikdash (Otzar Dinim u'Minhagim s.v. Chazzanut). After the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash chazzanim became popular in the synagogues that become the places of worship in the Diaspora. Nevertheless, the role of a chazzan can be taken by a layman - one does not need a professional chazzan to perform the service. In fact in many synagogues there is no official chazan. Instead, the congregants take turns at serving as the shaliach tzibbur. Some authorities were even against professional chazzanut, such as the famous author of Shnei Luchot HaBrit, Rabbi Yeshaya Hurwitz (c. 1560-1630, better known as the Shelah) wrote, "There is no doubt that the drawn-out voices of chazzanim are a factor in this extended exile!"

reply to comment

Posted by: Hazzan Alan Smolen, Cong. Shirat Shalom, Elgin, IL on Dec 15, 2005

I'm familiar with the Levites; that was not the point here.

While it is true that a layperson can lead the service, one still needs to be a qualified candidate to do so, e.g. have a pleasant voice, be fluent in prayer and know the correct nusah (musical motif) for a given occasion. Unfortunately, the Orthodox world, which professes to preserve Jewish tradition, has all but eliminated hazzanut and abandoned its commitment to nusah in many of its congregations, in great part by allowing unqualified laypeople to stand before the Ark. While there may be those who claim to be hazzanim or less than desirable candidates, that does not justify the diminished quality of prayer in such lay-led congregations.

Let us remember: The majority of the service is prayer, best left in the hands of those who are qualified to lead it. People often go home humming a melody from shul, not parts of the sermon. What makes Kol Nidrei the moment it is in the soul of the Jewish people? The music.

RELATED CATEGORIES

Mitzvot » Prayer » Synagogue

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Tabernacle
Mobile sanctuary which traveled with the Jews in the desert, containing the Ark with the Tablets, and the sacrificial altars. When the Jews entered Israel, it was erected in the city of Shiloh where it remained for more than 300 years. It was buried when the permanent Holy Temple was erected in Jerusalem.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.