The Shaliach Tsibbur

The Shaliach Tzibbur


Rabbi Dr. Isaac Lerner M.A.
Minister of the New Synagogue,

In Mishna and Talmud the Shaliach Tzibbur is frequently referred to as the one  Haover lifnei Hateva ‘who passes before the Ark’. It was probably this usage that prompted the remarkable saying of Rabbi Yochanan (Rosh Hashana 17b.) that the Holy One Blessed Be He when when ‘passing before Moses’ to proclaim the thirteen divine attributes of mercy (Ex.xxxiv. 6) wrapped himself round ‘like a Shaliach Tzibbur and shewed Moses the order of the prayer’.

The kind invitation of my esteemed colleague, the Editor of this Journal, to make a contribution to its columns, has prompted me to ponder on the implications of this rabbinic saying. Obviously it is purely figurative, but what was the purpose of Rabbi Yochanan in his daring anthropomorphic portrayal of the divine Shaliach Tsibbur enveloped in prayer which as he himself observes, would hardly be permitted: “if not that it is so written in the sacred text”. Some thing of its deeper significance can perhaps be seen in the suggestion that with the expression Nitatef Hakadosh Baruch Hu Rabbi Yochanan is following the Psalmist who, when enraptured by the marvels of Creation, begins the enumeration of His wonderful works wlth the familiar phrase Oteh Or Kaslamah, implying, as the late Dr. Hertz skilfully observes, that the first divine light of creation was, as it were, a celestial robe, ‘revealing whilst it conceals Him ! ‘

In the light of this it would seem that Rabbi Yochanan wishes to teach us that the divine passing before Moses to reveal the attributes of mercy was in a way a further manifestation of that first light of creation as momentous for mankind as creation itself. The making known of the Almighty’s ways of mercy with men, which they ought to emulate in their dealings with one another, was His way of proffering to man through Moses the potential to create a new, enlightened era in human culture and chillzation.

The deeper we delve into the significance of this talmudic teaching regarding the divine Shaliach Tzibbur, the greater becomes our appreciation of the importauce attached by our sages to the role of the human Shaliach Tzibbur in our congregational life. Even the figurative suggestion that his sacred office is one that the Holy One Blessed Be He once occupied, in that momentous manifestation of divine mercy, should suffice to fill every incumbent with a sense of humble pride as well as with awesome reverence. Even more, the figurative likening of the Almighty to the Shaliach Tzibbur should inspire every human holder of that office with the noble desire and aspiration to attain a reciprocal reilationshlp and likeness. Like his divine predecessor, the heavenly Shaliach Tzibbur, the Chazan and the congregation should aspire to be enveloped in the divine light of benevolence and mercy, radiating a warmth of feeling, of compassion and kindness everywhere in congregational life.

These idealogical reflections on the Chazan’s sacred calling can perhaps be seen to serve a practical purpose in defining his distinctive role in our congregational life in general, and his relationship with his colleague the Rabbi, in particular. The more thoughtful followers of both these vocations occasionally have cause to consider this question with some concern. Rabbi Yochanan’s saying seems to suggest that tensions and discord may be due, at times, to a lack of clarity in discerning the difference between the function of Rabbi and Reader.

As preacher, teacher and spiritual guide the preoccupations of the Rabbi should leave ample scope for the Reader to fulfil himself in following his divine predecessor, the heavenly Shaliach Tzibbur, by making manifest the ways of mercy, not merely in moments of prayer but also by practical example on the many occasions that present them selves m congregational life. In practical terms, the Chazan should be aciowledged as the prime mover in the social and welfare work of the community. Such a division of labours, entailing specialisation in specific spheres of communal service by chazanim, could be of inestimable value for the wider wellbeing of the community and the promotion of a climate of closer harmony in congregational life in general as well as between the clergy in particular. However discreet and tactful he may be, a conscientious Rabbi may find, on occasion, that a rabbinic ruling he has given in good faith and in all humility, has caused someone to feel disaffected. At such times, the Rabbi who can turn to his Reader as a trusted confidant and aide will find in him a valuable asset. Unburdened by the responsibility for the making of halachic decisions, the Reader who has established a reputation as a true practitioier of the attributes of the divine Shaliach Tzibbur will be able to bring his benign influence to bear as the Y’min ham’karevet,  bringing back those of the flock who may have strayed. With each labouring conscientiously in his allotted sphere, Rabbi and Reader who cooperate harmoniously can undoubtedly do much to bring near those who who are remote from religious influence.

In reality this approach to the relative functions of Rabbi and Reader goes back to the very beginning of our history. With all his humility and modesty, and in spite of his inimitable spiritual accomplishments, Moshe Rabbenu the judge and lawgiver required at his side an Aaron who excelled in the virtue of loving his fellow- creatures and by this means drew them near to receive and accept the Torah of the great teacher

In commending the forthcoming Conference of Chazanim and the greater sense of cohesion between them that it is sure to stimulate, it is to be hoped that it will not confine itself to an inward looking strengthening of the ties between themselves alone or to the practical problems of chazanut only on the Bimah. Every responsible Rabbi will wish the Conference well and echo the prayer that in focusing attention on the wider work of the Shalich Tzibbur it may prove a noteworthy milestone in our mutual aim and endeavour for the greater glorification of Torah and Tradition.

This item appeared in the edition of May 1971. Rabbi (soon afterwards, Dayan) Lerner was the Minister of the New Synagogue, Stamford Hill where I was the Chazan (Dayan Lerner uses the old Anglo-Jewish term ‘Reader’) and editor of the Cantors’ Review.  This edition appeared immediately prior to the first conference of the Association)