Song in the Synagogue

By Bloom, Cecil | Midstream, January-February 2006 | Go to article overview

Song in the Synagogue


Bloom, Cecil, Midstream


Music has always been important to the Jewish people, and it has formed part of the traditional element of worship from ancient times. Its first mention in the Bible is when Laban reproached Jacob in the Gilead mountain after Jacob had fled from him. Laban told Jacob he would have given him a good send-off with "celebration and with songs and with tof" (i.e. a little drum or perhaps a tambourine) "and with kinnor" (i.e. a harp [Genesis 31:27]). Moses' song at the Red Sea is the first song of freedom (Exodus 15:1-18), and one of his last acts was to sing on the banks of the Jordan in sight of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 32:1-43). The Second Book of Samuel (23:1) refers to David as the "sweet singer of Israel." The Bible is full of references to music, especially in Tehillim, The Book of Psalms. Psalm 92, for example, instructs us to give thanks to the Lord by singing praises unto his Name, and Psalm 100 tells the people to "enter the presence of the Lord with singing." That music is important in Jewish prayer is illustrated by a hymn commonly sung at the end of the Shabbat Musaf service--An'im Zemirot--which begins with the words "I will chant sweet hymns and compose songs, for my soul yearns for You."

The golden age of Ashkenazi chazzanut ended with the destruction wrought by Hitler. From Solomon Sulzer in Vienna in the 19th century, the founder of modern cantorial singing, to Gershon Sirota in Warsaw, there was a great line of personalities who all helped to enrich the synagogue service. Some great chazzanim did survive the Holocaust to continue the traditions of their predecessors, mainly in the United States, although for some the concert platform and the stage became rivals to the bimah. Now there are some quite gifted amateurs conducting services.

Throughout the centuries, the role of the chazzan has been an important feature of Jewish life. The synagogue has been the spiritual center for all classes of society, and his devotional chant has brought comfort and consolation to many worshippers. He has had much influence on Jewish liturgy and music, and without him, many services would be dull and lifeless. Older readers will remember how much gramophone recordings of the great chazzanim meant to people in the early decades of the 20th century. The advent of CDs with the ability to remove many of the imperfections of the old gramophone record has also played a part in a resurgence of interest in cantorial song. One movement, the Chasidic, however, has musical customs that differ quite substantially from those of the others prevalent in Jewish religious life.

The golden age may have started with Sulzer, but the function of the chazzan is an ancient one that goes back many centuries. There have been dramatic changes in his role, however, and the early rabbis would find it hard to understand the changes brought by Sulzer's time. In the Temple, the Priests and the Levites intoned the liturgy, but in ordinary assemblies of worship, a "precentor" or "baal tephillah," a learned member of the community, would lead the prayers. As these prayers began to be amplified with chanting--cantillation--it became more and more necessary to have someone with a decent voice to lead the prayers, and it was from this that the chazzan developed. Rabbi Yehuda Gaon, the head of the famous Sura Academy in the 8th century, was a leading precentor, and he was responsible for arranging the musical tradition of synagogues in Babylon, but he did favor professionals. Another Sura Academy head, Amram Gaon, recommended that every congregation should have a fully qualified "messenger of the people" or 'shaliach tzibbur," that is, someone with deep learning to lead the prayers, but he accepted that, if such a person was unavailable, then any male above the age of 13 could conduct the service. Rashi and his school agreed with this.

The word chazzan is of Assyrian origin. In rabbinical literature, the term chazzan indicated a number of different officials with different functions. …

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