Listening to a Chazan



Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld

In order to avoid straightforward fault-finding which will be pointed out later, let us first ask: “Where do we hear the Chazan?” Do we refer to the Synagogue, or at S’machot and Funerals also? Secondly, what do we hear? Is it real ‘praying’ or ‘concert performances? Is the pronounciation clear or are the words of the non-chanting prayers swallowed up, which cheapens the rendition of the Service.

Professor S.Alman, who perpetuated his name by his fine Synagogual Compositions, particularly, the S’Fira Service, once said: “We should principally be concerned 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 Chazanut.”

However, no matter what type of Chazanut one listens to, he should abstain from the criticism of the Chazan, particularly when one listens to him in the Synagogue, for the Synagogue is wholly and solely a place of worship, and the Chazan, whether he is a ‘Caruso’ or not, is performing a sacred duty.

I have heard many people criticising the Chazan at a Funeral and at a Shiva, complaining: “Does the Chazan think he is at a wedding, or is he giving a concert?”. I must admit, that at the beginning of my career, I was unmoved by such performances at funerals, but when the mourners expressed their thanks and appreciation publically for ‘the Chazan’s fine recitation of the Memorial Prayer and the melodious rendering of the Service (which had brought great comfort to them knowing that the Chazan gave due honour to their departed ones ) this proved to me, that it mostly depends who the Chazan is.

If a Chazan is blessed with a MATNAT ELOKIM, then such a Chazan should surely try to bring comfort to the mourners by his melodious voice. The question is, however, when does a Chazan know that he is blessed with a voice which we know by the term ‘MATNAT ELOKIM’? and that it would be in order for him to render the prayers in the manner refered to before: when could he prove himself of belonging to that calibre? I would say: “During such time when he is in great demand, or when his solo performances are a ‘draw’ “.

Let us not deny the fact that all who like the ‘BRETL’ are egotists, so why should not the Chazan be one? This is the reason that a warning is placed in front of the Ark: ‘Da Lifnei Mi Ata Omed’ or ‘Shivisi Hashem L’negdi Somid’! We may well ask ourselves of what does this ‘egotism’ consist. The answer is known to all: that the Ball T’filah always imagines that he is the only one, and the Chazan thinks that he is as good as his colleague (if not better).. .This belief causes a great deal of friction and aggravation, particularly at weddings, where each is of the opinion that there is none like him. Bystanders sometimes make fun of the whole performance, when two or three Ministers are participating at the dinner or under the Chupa. I would rather forgo my Koved than allow an unwarrented exhibition for the enefit of lay-people. What is the more inexcusable, is the Sh’fichas Damim’ which are caused to colleagues at such performances!

Referring to our question: “How do we listen to a Chazan?” I will never forget a description of a Shabbat Service in L’vov, by the late Rabbi Jacon Singer of Chicago, who was spiritually uplifted when he and twelve hundred other worshippers listened to a splendid Chazan and a superb choir. It is needless to emphasise that not only he, but the vast throngs were similarly inspired by the aesthetics of such Services. The Jewish note of inspiration, carried on the wings of Chazanut was deeper than the hunger for worldly possessions. A subtle Jewish message was brought to the hearts of these worshippers, that could not be achieved in any other way. Every Shabbat, such Chazanim used to keep these hundreds of worshippers until one or two o’clock in the afternoon. Alas, however, our worshippers of today have forgotten the taste of Chazanut; they do not even have the notion of knowing and appreciating the Art of the Chazan today!

Indeed, once, twice, or even thrice a year, they might try attending the Kol Nidrei Service, or Yizkor, or they may even rush to hear the Midnight S’lichot Service, but may I humbly suggest that these attendances are not because of a deep desire of becoming inspired while listening to the Chazan, but because of fear, or just because the reminder of the sheep are there, so they decide to join the herds!

It is time that Chazanim the world over should do some research, and call for a laity that supports, and in a measure, feels, the value of Chazanut, because of its ‘love’. Let us begin with the young, as the most promising approach: something must be done with our children – as little as they are. Chazanim should give weekly lessons based on Chazanut to every Jewish School or Talmud Torah, either by personal demonstration or by ‘tape” so that they can instil the Art of Chazanut into the minds of the children. Only then, can Chazanim hope that the love of Chazanut would be revived. One never knows, the children themselves might grow up to serve as Sh’lichei Tzibur, who will inspire worshippers to fill the Synagogue week after week.

(Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld was the Chazan at the Finchley synagogue for many years until he went to become the Chief minister to the Wellington Hebrew Congregation, new Zealand.  This article was published in the Cantors’ Review for December 1971)