JPSTA – Part 2





In the course of the Middle Ages the status of hazzanim rose, and they enjoyed increasing salaries, longer tenure of office, and growing exemptions from communal taxation. The post of hazzan, already ancient then, has undergone very little change since that time, except that in Northern Europe it was occupied by eminent rabbis, such as the Maharil in medieval Mainz.

Indeed, prominent scholars had always lent their ideological support to the centrality in prayer which music enjoys. That this is often the case in practice – on a collective, congregational level – may be averred by anyone who has a memory of a traditional synagogue., Indeed, Israel Zangwill could have been describing communities in any continent when he depicted the atmosphere created by the synagogal melodies beloved of “the sons of the covenant,” the members of an intimate conventicle in London’s East End at the beginning of the century. “Their religious consciousness was largely a musical box: the thrill of the ram’s horn, the cadenza of a psalmic phrase, the jubilance of a festival “Amen” and the sobriety of a workaday “Amen,” the Passover melodies and the Pentecost, the minor keys of Atonement and the hilarious rhapsodies of Rejoicing, the plain chant of the Law and the more ornate intonation of the Prophets – all this was known and loved, and was far more important than the meaning of it all…..”

On the individual, personal level, the role of music in prayer finds its classic expression in the 12th-century spiritual manual entitled Sefer Hasidim, where a celebrated ascetic pietist counsels as follows: “When you pray, search for a melody which you find pleasant; you will then be able to concentrate, and your heart will respond to the words you utter.”

On a mystical level, the Hasidim of the past two centuries have believed that the human heart has longings for God too deep to be expressed in words and for which melody is the only vehicle. Thus, for example, Rabbi Dov Baer of Lubavitch (1773-1827) develops the kabbalistic idea that the soul of Moses (the “Faithful Shepherd”) embraced all the souls of his people, and since no two
souls are exactly alike each person has his own particular melody by which he is drawn to the divine. Rabbi Dov Baer writes: “What is the nature of melody? There is a well-known saying that the Faithful Shepherd used to sing every kind of melody in his prayer. For his soul comprised the six hundred thousand souls of Israel, and only by means of song can each soul ascend to the root of the source whence she was hewn.”

If this spiritual subjectivity is true of music in prayer in general, it is doubly self-evident in the case of East European hazzanut. For one of the ironclad rules of his profession grants the hazzan flexibility to sing just as the spirit moves him. Expression is the element which counts. As soon as the hazzan’s voice is heard, the prayer of the congregation subsides, and the mind completely identifies itself with the voice. Unlike the self-imposed restraint of the Western cantor, the aim is to generate an upsurge of religious feelings (hit’orerut in Hebrew) and a strong and immediate response. A striking instance of this emotional power is to be found in the chronicle of martyrdom entitled Yeven Mezulah, in which the contemporary social historian Nathan Hannover tells of the surrender of four communities to the Tatars in 1648. When the hazzan Hirsch of Zywotow chanted the memorial prayer El Male Rahamim, the whole congregation burst forth in tears, and even the compassion of the rough captors was stirred, until they released the Jews.

The impressive capacities of the singing of hazzanut -an original and self-sufficient style of music -are not easily described in precise technical terms. As has been said, the expressive intention is overwhelming: it dissolves the form of the underlying poetic text past recognition: single words may be repeated over and over, in spite of halakhic prohibition: emotional exclamations intermingle: and
long coloraturas expand certain syllables, in particular towering above the penultima at the end of compositions. These traits may appear exaggerated to a Western taste accustomed to classicist restraint, but they are capable of the most suggestive presentation of sentiments, mainly in the pitiful and lachrymose mood (the expression of joy being channeled mostly through imitations of foreign song). The hazzan’s voice plays on a variety of sound colors, complemented by a high falsetto and favors techniques such as the gliding passage from tone to tone, slowly entering trills, and other characteristics of an advanced vocal culture.

With a musical diet as rich as this, East European Jewry – until the 19th century – remained immune to the advance of the times and kept its ears shut before art music, which had by then become available to the middle classes throughout Europe. Even outstanding musical talents could find an outlet only in synagogue song or, alternatively, in popular music making and entertaining. They thus had no option but to contribute their sometimes considerable gifts to the musical life of the community, which was deeply concerned with all matters of music. Within that responsive musical microcosm, synagogue song represented the highest level of art; the interest and knowledgeability of the public was focused on the solo performance of the hazzan and subjected it to both relentless criticism and unconditional adulation.

This was the East European community’s spectator sport par excellence; and the celebrated hazzan, Pinchas Minkowski, recailling a professional visit to Odessa perpetuated one of its high moments for posterity in his Recollections: “The Odessa community was not an ordinary one, but was split in two factions, accusers and defenders… When I had sung ancient melodies known to every listener, a dispute arose on the spot.. to whether my song was in the style of [Pitshe] Abrass or of Bachman, and people of venerable age also conjured Zalel up from his grave in Erez Israel in order to pitch my singing against Zalel’s….

Like all good spectator sportsmen of whatever generation, these worshipers showed their affection for their folk-heroes by dubbing them with nicknames usually Yiddish diminutives of their Hebrew names: Yossele Rosenblatt, Dovidi Brod,Pitshe Odesser (“the mite from Odessa”), and the like. Pride in one’s local hazzan takes many forms. Even today many a surreptitious clockwatcher, after having been pewbound for hours at the mercy of a longwinded virtuoso, may be heard on a Rosh Ha-Shanah afternoon proudly telling a worshiper from a rival synagogue that his service was so melodious that it lasted until 2.30 p.m.

Ironically, the growing popularity of the hazzan made him in the course of time the most controversial communal official. His dual role of religious representative and artistic performer inevitably gave rise to tensions, which persist in modern times. Leading rabbis never tired of castigating hazzanim for the needless repetition of words and for extending their chanting of the prayers with the sole purpose of displaying the beauty of their voices. At the same time, many communities gave priority to vocal quality and musical skill over the traditional requirements of learning and piety. It once happened that an irate congregant took to task the saintly rebbe of Gur for appointing as sheliah zibbur an individual with a singularly cacophonous voice. Retorted the zaddik: “The Code of Jewish Law prescribes that a hazzan should be characterized by scholarship, piety, virtue, sincerity – and a pleasant voice. Now my friend, is it fair to expect one man to be blessed with all the necessary virtues?”


Inexorably, the emancipation of European Jewry in the 19th century changed the style and content of synagogue music. Traditional melodies which had hitherto been transmitted, like some hallowed incantation by word of mouth only, were now for the first time set down in musical notation, with prescribed harmonies to be sung by hazzan and choir. Daringly new melodies were composed, which betrayed the influence of contemporary European trends and techniques, notably those of Rossini. The pioneer in this field was Solomon Sulzer, chief hazzan in Vienna from 1825 to 1890, whose singing won the admiration of Schubert and Liszt. Sulzer was closely followed by Samuel Naumbourg of Paris, Louis Lewandowski of Berlin, Hirsch Weintraub of Koeningsberg, Moritz Deutsch of Breslau, Abraham Baer of Goteborg, Sweden, and many others.

The hasidic movement, where the rebbe led the congregation in informal prayer, remained uninfluenced by this development: Indeed, the joyful tunes of the Hasidim gradually became popular with many non-hasidic Orthodox communities.

The period from the end of the 19th century until World War II has been described as the Era of Golden Hazzanut. Cantorial music had a singular appeal to the Jewish masses, who would fill the synagogues to overflowing in order to hear an outstanding hazzan. Improved communications enabled leading hazzanim to tour Jewish communities on a far greater scale than previously, thereby increasing their reputations, sometimes to legendary proportions. Indeed, in the popular estimation they were equated with the great operatic tenors of the time, whose style they grew to imitate. Non-Jews too were attracted to the synagogues to hear famous hazzanim, and Gershon Sirota was invited annually to sing for the Czar.

Following the mass emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the United States during this period, great hazzanim like Sirota, Josef Rosenblatt, Mordecai Herschman and Zavel Kwartin made concert tours in America, where all of them except Sirota remained. There they were able to command prodigious salaries and fees for concerts and High Holy Day services.

A major factor in building up the reputations and perpetuating the fame of the great hazzanim was the development of sound recordings, beginning with the first cantorial disk made by Sirota in 1903. Furthermore, lesser hazzanim adopted the style and melodies of the great cantors which they learnt from the records, and the singing of famous musical compositions became a leading attraction of synagogue services. In the post-war period prominent hazzanim included Moshe Koussevitzky and his brothers Jacob, Simchah and David, Leib Glanz, Israel Alter, Mosche Ganchoff, Pierre Pinchik, Leibele Waldman, Shalom Katz and, in the younger generation, Moshe Stern. Some, such as Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce, also achieved international fame as operatic tenors, but retained their contact with the synagogue through recordings and High Holyday and Passover services.

In Israel the development of hazzanut has not kept pace with the United States. However, the regular radio programs devoted to both Ashkenazi and Sephardi hazzanut have a large following. Request programs are popular, as too are live concerts featuring ethnic and regional traditions of hazzanut. Producers of television programs with a religious slant frequently employ hazzanut, whether for straightforward singing, or for the evocation of a particular mood. Many of the world’s leading hazzanim have sung in Israel, and a cantorial conference was held there in 1968. Hazzanim serve in the chaplaincy corps of the Israel army, but only the large towns employ hazzanim on a regular basis. Moreover, a number of successful soloists have been attracted to the United States, Great Britain and South Africa, where the financial rewards are much greater.

Most major Jewish communities in the world now have professional associations of hazzanim and several bulletins and journals are regularly published An important factor in assuring the future development of hazzanut is the growth of cantorial training schools, in the U.S. (at Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Hebrew Union College) in Great Britain (at Jews’ College), and in Israel (at the Selah Seminary in Tel Aviv, and elsewhere).


It was following a choral and instrumental overture that Solomon pronounced his memorable prayer of dedication on the completion of the First Temple, “when the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the Lord.”

The music which a thousand years later accompanied public worship, during the latter days of the Second Temple, early in the Common Era, is described in the Talmud. This information is presumably valid for earlier times as well. The chorus consisted of a minimum of 12 adult singers, though it could be enlarged, and the number of musicians equalled that of the singers. The choristers passed through a period of training from the age of 25 to 30 and usually performed their Temple service between the ages of 30 and 50. Though young Levites often joined the choir to “add sweetness to the sound,” they were not permitted to stand on the same platform as the adult Levites. Women were excluded from the Temple service. They took a leading part in secular music, however. The question as to the comparative importance of the vocal and instrumental part of the service was discussed by the rabbis in the Talmud. During the period of the Second Temple the importance of the instrumental part of the service, always secondary, declined further. There was a large number of singers in contrast to a smaller number of instrumentalists, and non-Levites were permitted to play, though singing in the Temple remained the privilege of the Levites.

Choral singing is again mentioned a century later, during the period of the Babylonian exile. The second-century mishnaic scholar, Nathan ha-Bavli, in his vivid description of the induction of the exilarch, relates that the Sabbath service was conducted throughout by a hazzan and a male choir consisting of young men with sweet voices, who chanted verses responsively. In the view of most authorities, the post-Destruction rabbinic ban on music did not apply to music in the synagogue, except for the prohibition of instrumental music. Hai Gaon, the goan of Pumbedita who died in 1038, states specifically that the ban referred only to Arabian love songs, while it is possible to infer that Maimonides, several generations later, permitted a choir at all religious feasts.

The modern synagogue choir, the invention of a much later period, owes its origin to the spirit of the Italian Renaissance. Leone Modena at the beginning of the 17th century founded the first artistic choir in synagogal history, a choir of six to eight voices in the Ferrara synagogue, which he conducted “according to the relation of voices to each other based on that science.” The innovation met with strong opposition but was upheld after a rabbinical assembly had opproved it. The outstanding Jewish choral composer of the period was Salamone Rossi, who attempted far-reaching reforms in synagogal music, setting the Psalms and prayers for chorus and solos.

The choir, which has in modem times become an integral part of many synagogues, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, has nevertheless been the subject of much controversy. The hasidic movement with its belief in music as a form of communion with God avoided an organized choir, preferring the spontaneous outpouring of congregational singing. Reform Judaism, on the other hand, not only developed choral music but introduced female and even gentile singers into the chorus, with instrumental accompaniment usually provided by an organ. To these latter developments, Orthodoxy was vehemently opposed. Indeed, when first introduced, the “Chorshul” – the Orthodox synagogue with a male choir and no instrumental accompaniment  – was opposed and even derided in certain Orthodox circles. Undaunted, the urbanized taste of the newly emancipated “Jewish European” disposed of the traditional homely trio consisting of the cantor and his two assistant singers. The improvised accompaniment of the latter was to be replaced by harmonies of regular structure, and their solo coloraturas were to be clipped as eccentricities of an out-moded taste. Likewise, the boisterous chorus of the entire congregation, a moving experience with ancient roots, was to be silenced, and substituted by well-rehearsed part singing. The polished choral scores composed by Sulzer for the Vienna Seitenstettengassen Synagoge were soon in brisk demand and during the I830s and I840s synagogue choirs were founded in Prague, Copenhagen, Breslau, Berlin, Dresden, London and New York. Their growing popularity was due in no small part to the work of a number of cantors, musicians and choirmasters who endeavored to find a synthesis between hoary tradition and modern musical developments.