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Cantor in Jewish Liturgy


The role of the cantor, called hazzān in Hebrew, as the leader of sung congregational prayer in Jewish liturgical services came into prominence with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in a.d. 70, resulting in local synagogue liturgies replacing Temple liturgies of animal sacrifice, public prayer, and choral psalm-singing. Originally the term hazzān meant supervisor, and it was applied both to a person having charge for a building and attending to its ritual readiness, as well as to a bailiff of the court who executed punishments, especially flogging. According to the Talmud his function was to take out from the holy ark the Torah (Pentateuch) scroll, open it at the appointed reading for the week, call the weekly portion, and return it to the ark after the service was completed. The oldest mention of the hazzān though not by this name, is in Lk 4.20, where he is called a [symbol omitted]πηρέτης (attendant).

The postSecond Temple period witnessed the emergence of the synagogue liturgy with its ever-growing repertoire of liturgical poetry that went beyond the capabilities of the average Jew, thus necessitating the musical leadership of a professional cantor. In the gaonic period after the 5th century, the reading from the Torah and the recitation of the prayers were as a rule duties of the cantor, who in this function was called the sheliah tzibbur (agent of the congregation). The position of cantor became more important as the art of composing liturgical poetry, piyyuim evolved. A skilled cantor could create both the piyut itself and its melody.

In the course of time, the musical performance became so demanding that the hazzān had to be assisted by other singers called tomechim (supporters), especially on festival days. This applied to richer communities. Poorer ones, unable to afford two officials, gave preference to a hazzān rather than to a rabbi, according to the directive given by Asher ben Yehiel (c. 12501327), one of the leading rabbinical authorities of his time. Nevertheless, both in late medieval and in early modern times, in the measure that the authority of the rabbi was in ascendancy in the synagogue as against the former lay leadership, there was a tendency to relegate the hazzān to a position completely under the rabbi's control. The rabbis demanded that all candidates be examined for piety as well as for voice and insisted that piety and learning count above musical distinction, in reaction to charismatic cantors who held sway over the congregation, and cantors whose vanity exceeded their piety. Nonetheless as long as the Jews have revered their sacred texts, they have required the offices of skilled precentors. This remains the case today as ordained cantors are in much demand throughout the Jewish world.

Bibliography: a. z. idelsohn, Jewish Music in Its Historic Development (New York 1929; repr. 1946). a. m. rothmÜler, The Music of the Jews (London 1953; repr. Gloucester, Mass. 1962).

[m. j. stiassny/

b. ostfeld]

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