What are the Attributes of a Good Cantor?
Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin
I) The Primary Sources
A professional Cantor is called a hazzan in modern Hebrew. In this responsum, we shall use the term shliah tzibbur ("emissary of the congregation") which refers to both a professional hazzan and a layperson who chants the services.
There are three primary sources which emphasize three different attributes of a shliah tzibbur: personal piety, a good voice, and proper pronunciation of the Hebrew prayers.
1) The Eleven Attributes of a Shliah Tzibbur
The Mishnah in Ta'anit 2:2 describes the special prayer service held on public fast days to avert a drought:
When they stand up to pray, they place [as reader] before the ark an elder and ragil [one who is conversant with the prayers], who has children and whose house is empty [of food] so that his heart should be full [of intent] during the prayer.
A baraita (ca. 2nd century c.e.) found in Ta'anit 16a adds more details:
Our Rabbis have taught: When they stand up to pray, even though there is among them an elder and a scholar, they only allow a ragil to descend before the ark. Rabbi Judah said: they send up one who is burdened with children and no way to feed them, who has painstaking labor in the field and whose house is empty, pirko na'eh [see below], who is humble and acceptable to the people, who knows how to chant and has a pleasant voice, who is well-versed in Torah, Prophets and Writings, and midrash, halakhot and aggadot, and in all of the blessings.
The Talmud then comments (ibid. 16b):
"Burdened with children" and "his house is empty" are the same!? Rav Hisda said: "his house is empty" means empty of sin.
Maimonides codified the baraita as explained by the Talmud (Hilkhot Ta'aniot 4:4), but in a different order:
Who is qualified to pray on these [public] fast days? A man who is used to praying; and used to reading Torah, Prophets and Writings; and who has many children and no way to feed them; and has painstaking labor in the field, and he should have no sinners among his children and householders and relatives, but his home should be empty of sin; and not have a bad reputation in his youth; humble; acceptable to the people; he knows how to chant and a pleasant voice. If he was an elder with all of those attributes - this is excellent; if he is not an elder, since he has all these attributes, he should pray.
This Talmudic passage was also codified by the Tur and Shulhan Arukh in the Laws of Fast Days (Orah Hayyim 579:1) and more briefly in the Laws of Prayer (53:4) and cf. Orah Hayyim 581:1 regarding the attributes of a shliah tzibbur for the High Holidays.
Finally, the list of attributes from Ta'anit 16a is also echoed in the famous Hineni prayer recited by Ashkenazic Cantors before Musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
Accept my prayer as the prayer of an elder and ragil whose pirko na'eh and his beard is grown and his voice is sweet and his nature is pleasing to his fellow man.
There are three points worth stressing about these lists of attributes:
a) the Mishnah requires three attributes while the Baraita demands eleven;
b) skill in chanting and a pleasant voice are items 7 and 8 out of 11 in the Baraita, but Maimonides lists them as items 10 and 11, so he probably considered them less important;
c) it was and still is extremely difficult to find a shliah tzibbur who possesses all of these attributes!
2) A person with a pleasant voice must honor God with his voice
The most complete version of this midrash appears in Pesikta D'rav Kahana (Asser Te'asser, ed. Mandelbaum, p. 164; ed. Buber fol. 97a) which was edited in Eretz Yisrael in the fifth century:
a) " 'Honor God with your substance (honkha)' (Proverbs 3:9). If your voice was pleasant, declaim the Shema responsively and pass before the Ark [as shliah tzibbur for the Amidah]. Rabbi Hiyya bar Ada, the nephew of Bar Kappara, had a pleasant voice, and Bar Kappara used to say to him: my son, declaim the Shema and pass before the Ark, as it is written 'honor God with honkha' - with what he bestowed upon you - mimah anakhashah. "
In other words, if God blessed you with a good voice, you must reciprocate by honoring God with the voice He bestowed upon you.
b) This midrash appears in an abbreviated form in Pesikta Rabbati 25 (ed. Ish Shalom, fol. 127a) and Tanhuma Re'eh, paragraph 12 = Tanhuma Buber Re'eh, paragraph 9, p. 22. It is also quoted in the Zohar, Yitro, fol. 93a and in Rashi to Proverbs 3:9.
c) It was codified by R. Tzidkiyahu Harofe (Italy, 13th century) in Shibboley Haleket, paragraph 10, ed. Buber, p. 11 = Tanya Rabbati, paragraph 3, ed. Horwitz, p. 13. It is also quoted by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Bet Yosef to Tur Orah Hayyim 53 s.v. V'eizehu, but he did not codify it in his Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 53).
d) Sefer Hassidim, which was written or edited by R. Judah the Pious (d. 1217), also requires that a person with a good voice must sing to God:
a. "A person who has a pleasant voice, if God does not enjoy his voice, it is better that he not have come into the world. And if God enjoys his voice, of him it is said (Song of Songs 2:14): 'let me hear your voice, for your voice is pleasant...' etc. (ed. Margaliot, paragraph 768, p. 459 and cf. ed. Wistinetzky, paragraph 416, p. 124)."
b. "A person who has a pleasant voice should sing to God, and not other songs, as it is said (Psalms 33:1) 'sing oh righteous to God' and not other songs..." (ed. Margaliot, paragraph 251, p. 219).
The gist of all these passages is that a person who has a good voice has an obligation to serve as Shliah Tzibur and to sing to God. These sources do not seem interested in the other qualities of a Shliah Tzibur. Unlike Ta'anit 16a, where musical ability and voice are ranked 7th and 8th, these sources are only interested in the Shliah Tzibur's voice.
3) Correct Pronunciation of the Hebrew Prayers
The third Talmudic source is found in Megillah 24b (and cf. Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:4):
We have also learned in a baraita: One does not appoint a Shliah Tzibur from Bet She'an or Haifa or Tivon because they pronounce an aleph like an ayin and an ayin like an aleph.
This is because originally there was a clear distinction between ayin and aleph, as still pronounced by Yemenite, Moroccan and other oriental Jews. The Jews from these towns were disqualified because they couldn't distinguish between these letters. This requirement was codified by Maimonides (Hilkhot Tefilah 8:12) and by the Tur and Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 53:12) and is still emphasized by modern rabbis such as Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (Responsa Yabia Omer, Part 6, No. 11, paragraphs 1-3).
Thus, if we were to follow the Talmud and Midrash, a Shliah Tzibur must posses all the attributes listed in Ta'anit 16a, and a good voice, and know how to pronounce the Hebrew prayers in a very precise and accurate fashion.
II) Some Rabbinic Criticism of Hazzanim ca. 1200-1900 c.e.
It is clear, however, from sources collected by Leopold Zunz, Israel Davidson and Daniel Sperber, that many medieval and modern rabbis felt that many cantors do not live up to these ideals.1
Judah Alharizi (1170-1235) penned a biting satire about a cantor who made 100 mistakes and mispronounced many Hebrew words (ed. Toporovsky, Tel-Aviv, 1952, Chapter 24 = translation by David Segal, Book of Tahkemoni, London, 2001, Chapter 24).
R. Joseph Ibn Zabara (Barcelona, ca. 1200) accuses hazzanim of being robbers, liars and adulterers and states that "hazzan" in gematria is equivalent to a "shoteh" or fool. The gematria is incorrect, but it is clear that Ibn Zabara did not like hazzanim! (Sefer Sha'ashu'im, edited by Israel Davidson, Berlin, 1925, pp. 47-48)
The poet Imanuel of Rome (1261-1328) wrote (Mahberot Imanuel, ed. Haberman, Tel Aviv, 1946-1950, p. 564):
and therefore the parable-writers say:
Rabbi Binyamin Aaron Slonik (Poland, 1550-1620) criticizes Jewish communities which choose cantors who know how to stretch out the service with a pleasant voice and pretty melodies which they borrow from non-Jews and from theatres. (Responsa Masat Binyamin, No. 6)
Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (Poland, 1561-1640) attacked the hazzanim in his day for making a mistake in the wording of the Hashkivenu blessing:
This came to us from the shlihey tzibbur, who are not worthy, who are accepted in all communities because they sing in a nice voice even though they are not well-versed and they don't know the laws of prayer and the hand of the wealthy are strong against the rabbis in this matter (Bah to Tur Orah Hayyim 267).
Rabbi Abraham Gumbiner (Poland, 1637-1683) says that "the early authorities already severely condemned cantors who stretch out the words and separate one letter from another and one word from another." (Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim 281, subparagraph 4).
Rabbi Ya'akov Yosef of Polonnoye (d. ca. 1782) attacked the "hazzanim who invalidate the prayers and stick to the art of singing, which was originally secondary to the main prayer, and now they have abandoned the main thing and grabbed the secondary". (Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, Parashat Tzav, quoted by Sperber, p. 35).
Rabbi Moshe Sofer (d. 1839) includes a strong attack against cantors in his responsa (Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim, No. 205), asserting that most of them are resha'im (evil).
Finally, Avraham Berliner (Germany, 1833-1915), an expert in Jewish liturgy, also faulted hazzanim in his time for mispronouncing words, for separating syllables in order to fit a tune, and for improper division of phrases in a sentence (Ketavim Nivharim, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1945, pp. 115-117).
It is good to know, however, that cantors did not take all of this rabbinic criticism lying down! Yoel ben Eliezer Sirkis, who was no doubt a descendant of the Bah quoted above, was a cantor in the town of Lipen, Russia. In 1724, he published a pamphlet entitled Re'ah Nihoah in which he offers a point by point refutation of the criticisms leveled against cantors by an unnamed scholar. The accuser said that cantors lacked kavanah [intent], did not understand Hebrew and were more interested in their own voices than in the prayer service. Yoel ben Eliezer refuted those accusations in a clever fashion in rhymed verses printed in both Hebrew and Yiddish. (see Kehillat Ha-kodesh: Creating the Sacred Community, JTS, New York, 1997, Figure 13).
III) Five Medieval Responsa
Polemics aside, there are at least 60 responsa on this topic written from the 8th to the 20th centuries. (Otzar Hashe'elot Uteshuvot, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1971, pp. 123-126).
The following five responsa were written during the period of the Geonim (500-1000 c.e.) and Rishonim (1000-1500 c.e.) and they grapple primarily with the sources presented above (Paragraph I).
1. Rav Yehudai Gaon (ca. 760 c.e.) was asked about a "shliah tzibbur who does not understand so much, but has a pleasant voice and the people like him vs. a scholar whose voice is not pleasant - which is preferable?" He replied: "The scholar is certainly better because he understands what he is saying, and the one whose voice is pleasant does not speak properly (Or Zarua, part I, paragraph 116 = Otzar Hageonim to Ta'anit, p. 27, paragraph 54).
2. One of the Geonim was asked if a shliah tzibbur who is rumored to have done bad things, can be replaced. He replied that "he should obviously be replaced. A person who appeases between the people of Israel and their Father in heaven must be a tzadik, honest, clean in his body without blemish. If not, the Sages already said in the gemara (Ta'anit 16b) "My heritage has become unto Me as a lion in the forest; she has uttered her voice against Me; Therefore have I hated her" (Jeremiah 12:8)". (Otzar Hageonim, ibid., paragraph 55 and cf. paragraphs 56-58 for other responsa)
3. Rabbi Yosef ibn Migash (Spain, 1077-1141) was asked in his responsa (No. 95) about Reuven who was a hazzan in one city and they invited him to be a hazzan in another city. He possessed most of the attributes enumerated by the Sages except that he had a bad reputation in his youth. Rabbi Yosef replied that if the rumors about his youth persisted, he can be removed, but if they are about something in the distant past and now he is not suspect and has repented, he should not be removed because of something in the past.
4. Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (Barcelona, 1235-1310) was asked in his responsa (Vol. I, No. 215) about a shliah tzibbur who has a good voice, but he stretches out the prayers so that people should hear his pleasant voice, and he is proud of this and rejoices in his voice. Should we protest that he should make his prayer a supplication, and how can he supplicate out of joy?
The Rashba replied that these matters follow the heart's intentions. If he is happy in his heart because he is giving praise and thanks to God through a pleasant voice and he is happy out of awe - may he be blessed [and then he quotes Ta'anit 16a], but if he intends to broadcast his voice and he is happy that the people should hear his voice and praise him, this is reprehensible and about him it is said "My heritage has become unto Me as a lion in the forest; she has uttered her voice against Me; Therefore have I hated her" (Jeremiah 12:8).
This responsum of the Rashba was codified in the Shulhan Arukh (OH 53:11)
5. Rabbeinu Asher ben Yehiel, the Rosh (Worms and Toledo, 1250-1327) was asked (Responsa Rosh 4:22) about the custom in Toledo of appointing people of lowly families as shlihey tzibbur as if it's not a worthy profession for wealthy families.
The Rosh replied that he has a different complaint about the hazzanim of Toledo, that they sing for their pleasure to hear a pleasant voice; even if the hazzan is a complete rasha (wicked person), the congregation is only concerned that he be a good singer, but God said "My heritage has become unto Me as a lion in the forest; she has uttered her voice against Me; Therefore have I hated her" (Jeremiah 12:8).
IV) The Ideal Shliah Tzibur
There is no question that the ideal shliah tzibur combines all the qualities of Ta'anit 16a-b with a good voice and a good pronunciation of Hebrew, but it is also clear that it is very hard to find a person who actually possessses all of these attributes! This explains the frequent criticism of hazzanim by rabbis (above, paragraph II). It appears from the sources above that the rabbis have always preferred a pious, God-fearing shliah tzibur who knows Hebrew, to a shliah tzibur with a good voice who lacks these other attributes, while Jewish communities seem to have preferred a shliah tzibur with a good voice regardless of his other attributes.
We would like to conclude with two descriptions of the ideal shliah tzibur:2
1. In his book Ahavat Shalom (Vaethanan), the Kossover Rebbe says that
the shliah tzibur is the pipeline, through him pass the influences on Jews and the Jewish people... He must be filled with all sorts of the best spirituality, with Torah, prayer, good deeds, repentance, a broken heart, and by this he is always connected to He who receives the prayers. And the shliah tzibur needs to connect to the collective Jewish people reciprocally and then he mediates between the Jewish people and our Father in heaven and binds them together (quoted by Rabbi Gedalia Felder, Yesodei Yeshurun, Vol. 1, Toronto, 1954, p. 42).
2. In his book Lifnim Min Hahoma (Jerusalem, and Tel-Aviv, 1975, pp. 31-32), S.Y. Agnon tells of a holy hazzan in Jerusalem named Rabbi Avraham Hayyim, who was born in Volozhin. One Friday night Agnon was joined by a researcher who collected all sorts of tunes and songs from Jews from all over the world. (It is pretty clear that he is referring to A. Z. Idelsohn [1882-1938], the famous musicologist.) When they left the synagogue, the researcher was depressed. "I have 10,000 records of prayers and songs, but I have never in my life heard such a beautiful and holy prayer as this! I will give ten Israeli lirot in order to record one prayer from him, whichever one he wants!"
After Shabbat, Agnon went to tell Rabbi Avraham Hayyim. He lived in a dark house and he sat me down on a rickety bed and I told him that he could earn in five minutes what he earned in ten months praying three or four times a day. He replied: "I cannot". I said: "What do you mean 'I cannot'? Are you afraid that it is halakhically forbidden?" He replied: "I have no musical voice". He saw that I was puzzled. He added "When I come close to the ark [to pray], God gives me a musical voice and I pray before Him.
May the spirit of Rabbi Avraham Hayyim of Volozhin inspire all of our cantors and shlihey tzibburey to pray with Kavanah and piety.
1. Yom Tov Lipman Zunz, Hadrashot B'yisrael, Jerusalem, 1947, p. 220 and notes 110 and 111; Israel Davidson, Sefer Hasha'ashuim, Berlin, 1925, p. 48, note 1; Daniel Sperber, Minhagey Yisrael, Vol. 4, Jerusalem, 1995, Chapter 6.
2. For two more recent discussions, see A. J. Heschel, "The Task of the Hazzan", Conservative Judaism 12/2 (Winter 1958) pp. 1-8 = The Insecurity of Freedom, New York, 1959, pp. 242-253; Max Wohlberg, "Beiti Beit Tefillah", Conservative Judaism 13/3 (Spring 1959), pp. 31-32.
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