In order to talk of the role of the Hazzan or Cantor, one must speak about the role of public prayer. As humans, we have a spirit which needs nurturing. Prayer is the conduit through which we might nurture our souls. We pray with a community to give us strength when we are weary of spirit and cannot pray by ourselves. And what about when a community in its entirety is bereft of spiritual strength? It is up to the Hazzan to take on the burden of inspiration and spiritual fortitude in order to bring a congregation on a spirit walk of song and poetry to lift the spirit when it is down, or to provide a healthy dose of humility when a congregation is too haughty.
What we call “prayer” today is not what prayer or “services” were while the Temple stood. Instead, “t’fillah” and “avodah,” terms referring to “prayer” and “service to the Divine” related directly to animal sacrifice, performed for a God who demanded to be fed. The two millennia evolution of the Jewish people has transmogrified such archaic notions of prayer into a spiritual dialogue between humanity and the Divine. Along that evolution, words and song took the place of animal sacrifice, and along with those words was a healthy change in attitude about the relationship between the Divine and humanity. The synagogue has become a prayer space through which we wrestle with Divine ideas and values, a safe place to struggle and engage with what it means to be human, to relate to our neighbors, nature, and more.
Not everyone has the words with which to begin such a dialogue or struggle. The Talmud provides a framework through which we might conduct that dialogue. We call this framework the rubrics of prayer; but it is only an outline. Before the invention of the printing press, it was the duty of the prayer leader, the Hazzan or payyatan to write piyutim or liturgical poetry, taking the themes of the rubrics of prayer, and being inspired by the day and time in which they found themselves. They had to look at the world around them, see what a community desperately needed to pray about or for, and give it voice, both through the content of the poetry and through its rendering in song. Thus, the term for the Hazzan, which we call in English “Cantor,” is rooted in the word “Hazzon” which means literally, “Vision.” The Hazzan’s duty through prayer and song is to provide vision for a community. Their main job is not to sing but to provide a brighter and better vision of a world yet to be.
This is the dilemma of the modern Jew who prays on a regular basis. The prayer book of today, by and large, does not change from week to week, let alone year to year. The prayers are fixed, immutable. On top of that, the Traditional synagogue prays in Hebrew, which most American synagogue attendees do not speak with a degree of fluency nor understanding. Sure, the words are familiar as are the themes if one attends worship with regularity, but the actual syntax and meaning are by and large lost.
Which brings us to the music. The language of music is by and large universal and accessible. When we hear joyous music, we feel jubilant; when we experience a sad melody, we get what’s happening. In a world where people might not understand the context or meaning of a language that they only experience during ritual—here I mean Hebrew—it is the music that brings a layer of meaningfulness.
The traditional music of the Ashkenazi or Western synagogue in the past was governed by a musical framework called “nusakh hat’fillah,” or “version of prayer.” Often just called “nusakh,” it is a collection of melodic phrases, scales, melodies from Middle Germany, and passages of cantillation. All together, it is a musical language that a skilled Cantor used to look at any one prayer in the siddur, and emote the meaning of a prayer as it might pertain to the mood of that particular moment. For example, if singing a V’shamru, a passage of Torah describing how we should preserve the Sabbath for all generations, an objective reader might read said text and think, “This is about a Day of Rest, so when reading this, I should feel restful and meditative.” A Cantor might look at the same text, and on one Shabbat, render it in a triumphant, joyous way because it was a hard week and T.G.I.F.! We’re excited to start our Shabbat! Or another week, the Cantor might, indeed, chose to sing its words in a more contemplative manner, more literally setting the mood of the text.
This is the Vision of the Cantor—the Hazzon of the Hazzan: It is the ability to consider when preparing to lead a congregation in prayer what is the pulse of his or her community, what are the spiritual needs of that community, and through song, inspire that community to become better people. Human beings are always growing, always changing. Our spirits are never in the same exact place on any given day. Whether the state of the nation, the state of our city, the state of our family, or the state of our selves, the synagogue has always been a safe place to struggle, learn, commune, and through the language of prayer, come together and consider the bigger picture. The Cantor, with sensitivity and understanding, has the task to give our hearts and spirits a voice. That voice isn’t the same every Shabbat. There are different things to say in our devotions as we grow. This is why we need vision.
Congregations today have lost both the fluency of Hebrew as an understood language by and large—and on top of this, have settled into the comfort of familiar melodies for prayer instead of the spontaneous expressions a Cantor can provide. Even Cantors themselves have turned away from the improvised stylings of Nusakh in favor of melodies that the congregation can sing along with. This has made for a prayer experience that is predictable and lacking of emotional variety in many synagogues across movements.
I’m not here to criticize or change on a global scale the nature of Jewish prayer, but rather to suggest that the Vision of the Cantor is something that can only add to our worship experience. It’s fine to be comforted by familiar tunes that help us connect to one another and to the Divine; But the job of prayer is not only to make us feel good—it’s also to challenge us, to push us, and ultimately, to rise from prayer with a new outlook on life.
How have I, as a Hazzan, done this in my Cantorate? Over my 18 year career on the pulpit, I have found myself on a given Thursday, preparing for Friday night worship looking through my rather large music library, trying to locate that one tune for V’sham’ru or Mi Khamokha, or some other liturgical moment that needed emphasis that particular week—and not finding one out of the many (and there are so many different tunes for these texts!). So I took it upon myself to sit down at the piano and compose something that would work for the next evening’s prayer service. Not every Cantor does this, but it was a skill I felt I had to provide to my communities—to create new music for old text so that I could express exactly what needed to be expressed that week. Other Cantors insert the improvised stylings of Nusakh Ha’tfillah; and other still use familiar tunes but approach them in different ways, like slowing down a normally fast tune, or inserting a new musical phrase into an old congregational hymn. This Vision of the Cantor still exists, but to varying degrees.
My hope this evening is that by exposing you to such various musical expressions, familiar and not, you have gained refreshing insight into ancient words of prayer, or at the very least, have opened your minds and hearts to how varying approach to prayer can be valuable. Ultimately, each one of us has a vision of a world yet to be, a world which we all need to come together and help build. May the music within each of our hearts be the Vision and Inspiration we need to help make that world—one of peace and wholeness—a reality soon in our days.
And let us say: Amen.
I really appreciate this post. I serve as one of the cantorial soloists for a Reform congregation (and am a baritone). You inspire me to get to work studying and preparing myself to write settings of some of the prayers in the siddur we use.