A congregational rabbi’s job is to teach and guide a community, officiate at life-cycle events, answer appropriate questions and be the representative of the community. A rabbi must therefore have intelligence, scholarship and interpersonal skills…but a nice singing voice is not one of the requirements. So whose job is it to lead the prayer service?

In many small congregations, the leader of the prayer service can be anyone who steps forward to volunteer. This person is known as the Shaliach Tzibur, the messenger for the congregation. Some congregations will designate one specific lay person to lead services, particularly on Shabbat and festivals. This person is known as the Baal Tefillah, the master of prayer. Many congregations, however, take the more professional route and hire a chazzan, a cantor.

The chazzan is a trained vocal professional and is a recognized member of the congregational clergy. In addition to leading services, the chazzan is often responsible for teaching the youth and preparing them for Bar/Bat Mitzvah while sharing some of the pastoral duties with the rabbi.

While the term chazzan is found in the Mishna (Sotah 7:7-8), this refers to a general synagogue-helper type of position. It was not until the Geonic era (c. 600 – 1000 C.E.) that the community’s prayer leader assumed the formal title of chazzan. The great rabbinic leaders of the generations that followed the Geonim included the chazzan in their discussion of synagogue professionals and required chazzanim to be especially upright people, acceptable to the congregation and well-versed in Torah.

Different styles of chazzanut (cantorial performance) developed in different regions. In some area of Eastern Europe, the chazzan sounded more like an opera star. The “Golden Age of Chazzanut” was in the 20th century between the two world wars, when chazzanim would even offer concerts to packed concert houses.

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