How to Listen to a Chazan

The following article from the erudite pen of Samuel Alman, has been made available to us by his niece, Mrs. Gertrude Hardie, to whom we are accordingly grateful. It was written for an American publication, the “Jewish Music Journal” in 1923, and reflects Alman’s distaste of the evolution of the amateur Baal Tfillah, and, eventually, “Chazan”. However, it also imparts a spiritual message to the real Chazan on the attitude of Prayer, and his social standing. 



“How do we listen to the Chazan?” The following is principally concerned with the question as to whether our ability of listening is sufficiently well-developed as to enable us to understand the rendering of the Synagogue Service by the Chazan, and so be able to appreciate the good, and sense the bad in his Chazzanut. However, no matter what type of Chazzanut one listens to, he should abstain from criticism of a Chazan, for the Synagogue is wholly and solely a place of worship, and the Chazan, whether he reads the service well or badly in a musical sense, is performing a sacred duty.

In order then, to avoid straight forward fault-finding of this kind we will deal here with several other questions, although a little removed from that of “How do we listen to the Chazan?”, yet having a bearing upon it and of equal importance.

Where do we hear the Chazan? In the Synagogue only, or at times elsewhere?
What do we hear? Is it praying, or something just a bit different?
What sort of a person is the Chazan? What are the duties he performs?
We must be clear as to what we mean by prayer.
We must decide what our purpose is in attending a place of worship

And then if, as it is sometimes said, the rendering of the service is not quite as satisfactory as it might be, and if, as is also said at times, our attention is not what it should be, we must find out with whom the fault lies.

Dealing with the earnestness of worship and synagogue decorum the Talmud (B’rachot 31) says: “One must not pray when in a melancholy frame of mind, when one feels fatigued, when in a frivolous mood, while laughing or while chatting”. To reverse the dictum, one must not do any of these things while praying. Worship should be conducted in a spirit of simchah shel mitzah a rejoicing in the performance of a sacred duty. In the same tractate, folio 32, it is said imperively, “When thou prayest, know before horn thou standest”.         In Sanhedrin 22, it is said “When one is at prayer he should consider the Divine Presence is before him”. In B’rachot 32-33, it is said, “Even when a king greets you, do not answer his salutation whilst at prayer”. “Even if a snake winds itself round your leg, do not interrupt your devotions”.

A story is told of a pious man who did not return the salute of an important official while praying. He was threatened with the death penalty by the official. When he had obtained permission to submit his excuse, he asked the official what he would do if, while he was having an audience with the king, an acquaintance came along and greeted him. Would he respond? “Certainly not” said the official. “Well, just consider”, said the pious man. You, while having an audience with the king who is just a human being, would not answer the salutation of an acquaintance, how then could I act otherwise while standing before the King of Kings?”

This attitude towards worship impels the reader to render the services in the most dignified manner. Alas, many a Chazan disregards it and, in order to achieve the approbation of some uncultured congregants, cheapens his rendition of the services by frivolities, such as numerous repetitions of words, and even single syllables.

A story is told of a famous comedian who entered the shop of a tobacconist who stammered. The comedian, while purchasing some cigarettes, began to stammer, too, in imitation of the shopkeeper, who, feeling offended by his behaviour, summonsed the man to court. In court the actor pleaded in defence that he stuttered naturally. “But”, said the tobacconist. “we all see you on the stage, where you speak without stammering.” “Ah,” replied the comedian. “There on the stage I am just acting.”

The repetition of syllables by the Chazan like Ma-ma-ma in the word “Malkenu”, reminds one of this story, the only difference being that while the comedian spoke properly while on the stage and stammered in ordinary life, the Chazan is ready-tongued n everyday life and stutters when performing!

Rabbi Eliezar says that there is no such thing as a prayer that is too long, nor one that is too short. For while one passage of the Bible says that Moses prayed on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights, another passage says that when Miriam was stricken with leprosy, Moses uttered a prayer of only five monosyllabic words, ‘Kel Na R’fah Na La’ – “O God, I pray thee, heal her!”.

As evidence of the importance attached to the office of Chazan there is the popular proverb “He who is delegated by a man is as the man himself”. This dictum has been humourously paraphrased as “Every congregation has the Chazan it deserves”. Some of our own generation like to argue that if the delegate and his principal are to be considered as identical, there is no need for the congregation to pray at all, for the Chazan does all that is necessary. The Chazan is indeed a representative at Court, an ambassador, and we can recognise his country by his language and mannerisms.

As for the question, “Where is the right place for the Chazan to be heard?”, Scripture has a clear reply: “In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I shall come unto thee and I shall bless thee”. But it remains to be decided whether the singing of a Chazan is always a remembrance in the name of God. It all depends upon what and how he sings. It is when a Chazan sings secular music that we are free to judge his singing as singing. And it is good that he should give us an occasional opportunity of appraising his art in secular music, because when we hear him at the Amud, rendering sacred music in a sacred buiIdlng, we are debarred from being critical of the tunefuIness or other aspcts of his rendering.

About the high qualities of the Chazan and the importance of the duties he performs, there is no doubt. When choosing a Chazan every congregation tries its utmost to decide upon one who is not only a good singer, but also a person of high character, and commendable both religiously and socially. It may be said with no little pride that in England, more than in any other country very great importance is attached to the Chazan’s duties outside the synagogue.

Now, here and there we still find an unsatisfactory state of things in the matter of the Chazan’s ability to influence his congregation spiritually, and it is a question as to who is to blame for this. The Chazan seems to be just performing, and the congregation to lack the right devotional attitude.

In order to be able to answer the question, let us take a little historical trip in matters congregational and in matters Chazanic.

The modem congregation and the Chazan as we have him today are not a heritage from of old, but are the products of a step-by-step development, and the outcome of changing circumstances. Notably there is the transformation of those Jews who, through persecution in Russia and other lands of Eastern Europe migrated to new countries. The journey has taken about half a century. The point of departure is the Bet Hamidrash in a little Russian town. The destinatiorn is one of the Reform synagogues of London, New York, Paris or Vienna. The half-way house is one of the orthodox synagogues, we know them here, as the ‘United Synagogue’. The travellers are Russian Chassidic Jews who, as they pass the different stages of their journey, adopt the manners of the new countries and are thus transformed into Presidents or Wardens of a constituent synagogue of the United Synagogue or even of a Reform synagogue.

Among these travellers are a few who are known as ‘Baale Tfillah’ (Masters of Prayer) at home. These are transformed into Chazanim, and later on, into Readers. If these choose a liberal synagogue as their destination they lose their jobs and their fame, for the Chazan is dispensed with in the Liberal Synagogues.

Let us now direct our attention towards the midway between these two extremes, towards the orthodox synagogues as we know ‘orthodoxy’, and we shall see how the Baal-T’filah is just an ordinary worshipper at the Bet Hamidrash, where every congregant is capable of reading at the Amud, and the Gabbai selects one who has a pleasant voice to read the service. To be thus called upon to officiate is considered a great honour. The Baal Habbatim applaud this occasional Reader with a hearty ‘Yasher Koach’, and the Baal T’fillah becomes conscious of his own talent. An idea comes to him: “If I am really as good as people tell me, why should I not take up praying as a means of getting my livelihood?” He decides to travel from place to place, and read wherever he can get remuneration for his services.

He succeeds, more or less, financially, and calms his conscience with the assurance that he is providing entertainment to hundreds of his brethren who have little else in life to cheer them. And much indeed can be said to the credit of these Baalei Tefillot, for many of them have possessed great talent and, though with little or no training,have composed sweet melodies with slight harmonization, using what I would call ‘natural counterpoint’.

Achievements such as these have won for the Baal-Tefillah the title of ‘Chazan’ or ‘famous Chazan’, or even ‘world-famous ‘Chazan’. The Baal-T’fillah who is now a Chazan devotes himself more and more to the art of pleasing people by means of those sensational effects which he finds the public is very fond of. He becomes indifferent to the prayers as ‘Prayers’. He repeats what I would call ‘catchy’ words of the prayers, and at times gives the Hebrew text an entirely different meaning.

Socially, the travelling Chazan is a very jolly man and has a good stock of popular jokes and stories, principally concerning Chazanut. So he keeps on travelling along, giving a service in one place and a Maariv Concert in another, at which, after the Evening Service, he renders Jewish folk-son and occasionally a pretentious Italian aria. At least perhaps, he reaches New York, where he is rewarded with valuable dollars instead of poor Russian kopeks.

Not everyone who accompanies us on our imaginary journey is of the type I have just dealt with. There is the traveller who settles down to be a permanent reader. He is a man who, possessing as much talent as his fellow, and perhaps even more is brave enough to withstand the temptation of money. He is devoted to the synagogue and prayers, and though not endowed with extravagant titles, he is deservedly the possessor of the highest of all titles, “A servant of God”, and people respect him as such. He reads the service feelingly, unpretentiously. To a reader of this type we can listen with the greatest attention.

About the Jewish Musicians who compose music for these two types of Chazan much the same may be said. There is the composer who tries by means of cheap, sensational effects to appeal to the less refined side of our nature; and there is the composer who tries to interpret the real meaning of the sacred text It is, however, the congregations themselves, who, by learning how to listen to a Chazan, will ultimately also learn to encourage the dignified Chazanut and repulse the frivolous one.

(This was published in the May 1979 edition)