Feature: Cantorial music - The Origins of Chazanut          Back to Features page


The man who is charged with the responsibility to lead the service of the Synagogue is called, in Hebrew, the Chazan, (ch pronounced as in the Scottish Loch). He is often also referred to also as the Cantor. The style of the florid compositions that he sings is called Chazanut.

This short article is an unstructured glance at a subject that has been treated to considerable scholarly research. It is by no means comprehensive, but is intended to be merely introductory in character.

At the outset it needs to be said that what one person considers Chazanut won't coincide with someone else's view. Those who listen to Cantorial music have their own perceived notions of what a 'good' Chazan is and certainly, for the aficionado, these views are usually based on comparisons with the 'great' Chazanim of the Golden Age of Chazanut (about which, more later).

The fact is that, since its beginnings Chazanut has constantly changed in character, and indeed it needed to if it was to fulfil its function of being the means by which to inspire congregants. Times change, circumstances alter and the environment in which Jews live has varied over the ages. When people had much time to spare, they would gladly stay in the Synagogue throughout a four hour service, to be 'entertained' by a Chazan and choir.

In the modern world of the sound-bite, an attractive melody or two and a business-like approach to the remainder of the service, is more to the requirements of the times. But most people still like the service to be conducted in the traditional way by someone who is competent and knowledgeable.

What are the elements of Chazanut that are still popular and of importance today?

Undoubtedly a Chazan has to have a 'good' voice. It needn’t be an outstanding voice, although there have been, and there still are men who could easily have made their profession in the operatic world, had they so desired. Indeed, it is well known that certain Cantors were approached to sing in opera and turned down the opportunity. By the same token there have been men such as Richard Tucker, Josef Schmidt and Jan Peerce who were primarily opera singers, but who also frequently occupied the pulpit as Chazan.

It's imperative, indeed a requirement of Halacha, (Jewish Law) that the traditional melodies are absolutely adhered to, and every Chazan worthy of the title will ensure that he keeps strictly to the ancient prayer modes that have become hallowed by time and usage.

A Chazan should also have good diction and a full understanding of the prayers he utters.

The period between the wars is generally regarded as the 'Golden Age of Chazanut.'  This is the time when legendary Chazanim such as Leib Glanz, Kwartin, David Kussevitsky, Sirota, Israel Schorr, Josef Shlisky, Hershman, and Rosenblatt flourished. These men, as well as many others, had the ability to make a profound impact on the emotions of their congregants. Their singing and pleading with the Almighty would send shivers up and down the spines of those who heard them and they were able to raise their listeners to high levels of communion with God.

The 'professional' Chazan was also an entertainer, and his role developed out of the need for culture that was felt by a people who couldn't afford, or were often denied the right, to attend local places of entertainment.

A Shaliach Tsibbur - (Hebrew. lit. messenger of the congregation), someone to lead the service, was required from earliest times. The earliest Jewish legal tract, the Mishna (c.200 C.E.) talks about the one who was called upon 'Leireid Lifnei Hateiva' - which literally means 'to go in front of the Ark', and say part of the service aloud.

In these earliest times, knowledge of the prayers was all that was required to qualify a man for the role. However, when men were being invited to lead the service, obviously, the man with the good voice would be more likely to be asked, than the one who couldn't sing in tune.

The 'art' of Chazanut was developed by these men who could sing and who were encouraged to do so by congregations who were often thirsty for culture.

One of the most important elements of Chazanut is called 'Nusach Hatefillah'. This expression has two meanings: one is the form and order of the prayers, and the other refers to the traditional melodies that must be used to chant them. It is this second one that is specific to Chazanut.

These 'chants' or Steiger (from the German steigen - ascending, hence 'scale'), are very important and a Chazan who deviates from them must not be allowed to conduct the service. Their purpose is to set the mood for the day.

There are also many melodies, rather than modes, which are very ancient. In the Ashkenazi rites (Jews who emanate from Western Europe, Germany, Poland, Russia etc.) they are referred to as 'Scarbove Niggunim, (the word Scarbove is probably a corruption of the Latin word sacra meaning 'sacred'), or Misinai-melodies, ie, melodies transmitted from Sinai (!). These titles undoubtedly came about as a means by which to invest them with sanctity and so discourage Chazanim from altering them.

Most of these Scarbove tunes came from Southwestern Germany, from the old communities of Worms, Mayence and the Rhinelands.

Most of the recordings of Cantorial music that are to be found in this site are founded in the Ashkenazi synagogues. Where they come from a different tradition, they will be clearly marked as such.


Rabbi Geoffrey L Shisler