“The Role of the Cantor in the High Holiday Services”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. It was in that Temple and the First Temple that preceded it that the majestic Yom Kippur service was conducted. The high point of the service was the scapegoat ritual, described extensively in parashat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16).

A lottery was cast on two identical he-goats. One was designated to G-d, the other to Azazayl. The goat that was selected for Azazayl was sent to the wilderness and most likely devoured by wild animals. In later generations, that goat was taken to a cliff and cast off. The goat that was designated to G-d was offered upon the Temple altar as a national sin offering for the people.

On Yom Kippur, at the conclusion of the he-goat ritual, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to perform the incense service in order to arouse G-d’s compassion toward the Jewish people. If the service was effective, the crimson cord outside the Temple would turn white, as would the crimson cord on the horns of the Azazayl he-goat.

Today, sadly, we have no Temple and no High Priest. The closest contemporary representative that we have to the High Priest of old is the Sh’liach tzibbur, the emissary of the community, who conducts the service as cantor or prayer leader. The Hebrew words “Sh’liach tzibbur” literally mean a representative of the community, whose function is to help the people effectively fulfill their prayer obligations. As the people’s representative, he is sent to petition the Al-mighty and to plead before Him to have compassion on His people and forgive their transgressions.

The Code of Jewish Law describes the care with which this public emissary is to be chosen, not only on Yom Kippur but throughout the year. On Yom Kippur, however, when the divine ledgers are open and the people seek to become pure before G-d, a special effort is made to find a particularly appropriate representative. The qualifications recorded in Tractate Ta’anit 16a, however, are not easily fulfilled: The candidate should be sinless, possess an unblemished reputation, be humble, be loved by the people, have a pleasant voice, be proficient in reading the Torah and knowledgeable in all the blessings. Acknowledging the challenge of finding such a rare individual, the Code of Jewish Law suggests that communities designate the most learned and wisest representatives, who have good deeds and who are particularly cherished by the community members.

A dispute is recorded in tractate Rosh Hashanah 33b regarding the role of the Sh’liach tzibbur. The sages say that just as the Sh’liach tzibbur, the public emissary, is required to pray for himself, so is each individual. The function, therefore, of the public emissary is simply to help those who are not knowledgeable, allowing them to fulfill their requirement to pray through the emissary’s public prayer. Rabban Gamliel, however, disagrees, stating that the cantor’s prayers actually fulfill the entire community’s obligation to pray. Therefore, just as the cantor fulfills the obligation for those who are not knowledgeable, so he fulfills the obligation of prayer for those who are knowledgeable.

While the Code of Jewish Law follows the opinion of the sages that anyone who is knowledgeable in prayer must pray for himself, this decision, however, applies only to the Amidah, the central prayer. With respect to the blessings of the Shema, Kiddush, and Havdalah, the cantor’s recitation actually fulfills the blessings for others. Similarly, due to the fact that the nine blessings of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah are so long and complicated, one can actually fulfill that requirement by simply listening to the cantor. In fact, in certain communities there is no silent Amidah for Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah, and only the cantor recites the prayers while the community answers Amen.

Like the High Priest of old, the cantor may fulfill the requirements of pronouncing the confessional for the community. In fact, a number of High Holiday prayer books contain a special introductory meditation for the confessional in which the cantor states that the confessional that he is about to recite is not for himself alone, but rather for the entire community whom he represents. Being as candid as possible at this solemn moment, the cantor states that although he is not worthy to confess even for himself, he nevertheless assumes this responsibility for himself and for others.

The rabbis ask: If the Sh’liach tzibbur is indeed unworthy to ask forgiveness for his own trespasses, how can he possibly represent the community? They respond with a parable:

In an ancient kingdom, wicked kidnappers snatched an innocent victim from the capital city. In their haste to escape, they mistakenly entered the public marketplace. Capitalizing on the opportunity, the victim began to cry out: “O King, O King.” In response to the victim’s cries, the criminals immediately released the victim and fled.

The rabbis explain that all year long every person is similarly held captive by their evil inclination. There is no escape until the cantor rises on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and loudly proclaims the words at the start of the morning service, “O King, O King.” Upon hearing the cantor’s cry, all sins flee. The cantor is then able to lead the prayer service, fully assured that he is clear of sin and that through G-d’s special grace his prayers will be favorably answered.

When performing his duties in the ancient Temple, the High Priest always wore his eight special ornate (gold) garments. On Yom Kippur, however, he wore only white linen garments. Similarly, the cantor today dresses only in white, the kittel. The external change in clothing is intended to reflect the change in the cantor’s “internal garb.”

The ancient priest would confess three times–first for his own sins and the sins of his household, then for the sins of his priestly brothers, and finally for the sins of all Israel. Similarly today, before beginning his prayers on behalf of the community, the cantor acknowledges his own shortcomings. He states that if he is not personally worthy of leading the community, then perhaps he may do so in the merits of his fathers. With the very moving prayer that precedes the Mussaf service, “Hi’neh’nee he’ah’nee mee’mah’ahs,” the cantor then asks permission from the congregation to be their representative, stating “I am unworthy of deeds” and pleading with G-d to accept him despite his shortcomings.

Just as the High Priest of yore would celebrate after he successfully concluded the High Holiday service and emerged from the Holy of Holies in peace, so the Sh’liach tzibbur, the contemporary community representative joyously sings: “Ha’yom te’ahm’tzay’noo,” O G-d, strengthen us today! The final kaddish of each service is also sung with great joy, especially at the conclusion of the Ne’ilah (final) prayer on Yom Kippur, reflecting the happiness of having completed a successful “mission.”

Yom Kippur this year is observed on Friday night and Saturday, September 21 and 22, 2007. May it be a meaningful day of fasting and forgiveness for all of Israel.

May you be blessed.