Beit Midrash

  • Prayer
To dedicate this lesson
Chapter four-part one

The chazan

who should be a chazan? there is such a thing "proper chazan"?


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

1. An Appropriate Prayer Leader
The chazan leads the prayer service. Sometimes, the whole congregation says the prayers together with him while he sets the pace; other times, he recites the prayers and the congregation responds Amen, such as in Chazarat HaShatz (repetition of the Amidah) and the recital of the Kaddish prayers. Hence, the chazan must be an upright, highly regarded, humble, amiable person, who has a pleasant voice and is accustomed to reading the Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Sacred Writings) (Ta’anit 16a; Shulchan Aruch 53:4).
We must be especially meticulous about this on the High Holy Days, and on fast days, when we pray to Hashem and beg Him to forgive us for our sins, save us from our troubles, and bring our redemption closer. For if there is fault in the chazan, the congregation’s prayer will not ascend properly (Rama 581:1).
During Chazal’s time, it was forbidden to write siddurim because only the written Torah (Torah Shebichtav) was permitted to be written down. Anything that was transmitted by word of mouth, including the prayers and blessings instituted by the Chachamim, was forbidden to be put into writing (Temurah 14b). At that time the chazan’s task was very important because all the prayers had to be recited aloud in order to fulfill the obligations of the congregation. Therefore, the congregation designated one chazan for this honorable task, and all the laws that apply to appointing the chazan on fast days also pertained to the regular chazan. L'chatchilah, each and every person in the congregation would have to agree to the chazan's appointment, since he fulfilled everyone's obligation. However, today, when everyone has a siddur, the chazan's job is less important and selecting a permanent chazan for the whole year is no longer customary. Instead, every day a different person can lead the prayer service; therefore we are less meticulous in choosing a chazan (Shulchan Aruch 53:19; Mishnah Berurah 53:53).
Even so, when appointing chazanim, the gabba’im (synagogue coordinators) must try to choose decent people who abide by the Torah and observe the mitzvot. They should be people whom the congregation agrees to have as its prayer leaders, for the chazanim are the ones who repeat the Amidah and recite the Kaddish prayers on its behalf (see Kaf HaChaim 53:86). Additionally, on Shabbat and festivals, when it is customary that the chazanim sing and chant part of the prayer service, the chazanim should be musically gifted with pleasant voices.

2. Chazanut for the Sake of Heaven
While singing, the chazanim must have kavanah for the sake of Heaven, but if they prolong their chazanut (cantillation) and their only intention is to show off their beautiful voices, the Torah writes about them, "It raises its voice against Me, therefore I have hated it" (Jeremiah 12:8). They are using the holy prayer service to arrogantly boast as if on a stage. Even a person whose only intent is for the sake of Heaven should not excessively extend his cantillation so as not to burden the congregation (Rashba; Shulchan Aruch 53:11).
While chanting the prayers, the chazanim are prohibited from repeating any words of the berachot and Kaddish, because doing so changes the nusach that the Chachamim established. If the repetition of the words alters the meaning of the berachah, those words are considered to be an interruption (hefsek) and the chazan must recite the berachah again from the beginning. However, if the meaning does not change, b’dieved he does not need to recite the berachah again, because he did not interrupt its recital with another matter (see Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, part 2, 22; Yabia Omer, part 6, 7).
One must be strict not to appoint a singer who is accustomed to singing indecent songs to be a regular chazan, or a chazan for the High Holy Days (Rama 53:25).
The poskim disagree whether or not it is permitted to use melodies of offensive songs for prayers and liturgy. In practice, when the congregation is not familiar with the vulgar song’s lyrics, it is customary to be lenient and adjust the melody to suit the prayer. But if the congregation recognizes the song, its tune may not be used for prayer, because when people sing it, they will be reminded of the crude theme of the song and their concentration is likely to be disrupted. 1

3. Appointing a Chazan
The chazan is the emissary of the congregation, and therefore a person is prohibited from taking hold of the chazanut unless he is asked to do so by the congregation or by the gabbai as its representative. Hence, one may not respond Amen to a person who appointed himself to be chazan against the congregation’s wishes (Rama 53:22).
When the gabbai asks someone in the congregation to lead the prayer service, it is polite to initially decline, so as not to appear as one who desires to flaunt his voice. However, when the gabbai insists, he should prepare himself to ascend, but wait to see if there is another person more appropriate than he. If he is asked a third time, he should comply and begin to pray. However, if an important person asks him to ascend, he should accept immediately, for it is not proper to refuse a distinguished individual (Shulchan Aruch 53:16). Additionally, when the gabbai asks a person who declined in the previous prayer service to ascend, he should consider it a second request and ready himself to stand, but wait to see that there is no one more appropriate. If asked again, he should concur immediately.
If a person is able to lead the prayer service but declines more than the Chachamim instructed, he offends the respect due to the prayer and to Heaven (kevod Shamayim). Likewise, a person whom Hashem endowed with a talent for singing and a pleasant voice should not decline on Shabbat and festivals since the prayers on those days are rich with song and melody. If he refuses to pray out of stubbornness or laziness, and does not praise Hashem with his voice, it would have been better for him not to have come into this world (Sefer Chassidim 768). The Chachamim said about Navot the Israelite, who had an exceptionally pleasant voice, that he would ascend to the Temple in Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals (shalosh regalim) and all of Israel would gather to hear him. The one time he stayed home to guard his vineyard, he was punished - lawless people testified that he rebelled against the king and he was put to death (Pesikta Rabbati 25).

4. Indecent Attire and the Importance of a Beard
The Chachamim say (Megillah 24a) that a poche’ach, a person whose clothes do not cover his body in a respectable manner, may not read from the Torah nor lead the prayer service. Therefore, a person wearing a sleeveless shirt or shorts may not be appointed chazan.
If his sleeves are very short and do not reach near his elbow, he should cover his arms until his elbow with his tallit. However, one whose short sleeves almost reach his elbow may serve as chazan. 2
Likewise, the Chachamim state that a person whose beard is not yet full may not be appointed a regular chazan, since it is disrespectful towards the congregation and the prayer service to select someone who has not yet completely matured. However, on a temporary basis, even an adolescent whose beard has not yet started to grow may lead the prayer service.
An eighteen year-old whose beard has started to grow slightly may be appointed a regular chazan. Similarly, appointing a twenty year-old whose beard has not yet sprouted is permissible, since it is clear to all that he is an adult and there is no disgrace to the congregation or to the prayer service (Shulchan Aruch 53:6-8).
Based on this, some Acharonim write (Pri Megadim; Bei’ur Halachah) that a young boy who has lost one of his parents may not be a regular chazan for Shacharit and Minchah, rather he should suffice with saying Kaddish. But for Ma’ariv, in which there is no Chazarat HaShatz, even one whose beard has not yet grown in completely may lead the prayer service regularly. 3
^ 1.Yabia Omer, part 6, Orach Chaim 7, summarizes that according to the Ma’aseh Roke’ach and Rabbi Chaim Palaggi , it is forbidden to use non-Jewish tunes for prayer. By contrast, Maharam Lunzanu and the Birkei Yosef (section 570) permit it, and this was done by many great Jewish leaders. That is also what the Yabia Omer rules in practice. Still, the Tzitz Eliezer 13, 12 is stringent in this matter. Regarding melodies that were composed for the sake of idol worship, most poskim rule stringently (Sefer Chassidim 238; Bach, old responsa 127). However, the responsa of Krach shel Romi is lenient and relays that there were prominent leaders who listened to Christian melodies and employed them even for the High Holy Days’ prayers, but as mentioned, most poskim are stringent against this. See Tzitz Eliezer there, who emerges strongly against his words. In summary, most poskim are of the opinion that if the secular vulgar songs are not familiar to the congregation, there is no prohibition against using their melodies. However, melodies of decent secular songs, although recognized, are permissible to use.
^ 2.Rashi interprets "poche’ach" as one whose thighs are showing. It is from here we learn that one’s legs must be covered at least until the knee. I do not distinguish here between above the knee and below it, because today most people do not usually stand in front of important individuals with knee-length pants, and therefore the chazan is prohibited from wearing such pants. However, in kibbutzim or youth organizations, where the people regularly wear shorts even when they approach respected people, it is permissible for the chazan to wear pants that only reach the knee.
Concerning the upper limbs: The Rif, Rambam, and Tur maintain that a poche’ach is one whose shoulders are exposed. Therefore, if one wears a shirt with very short sleeves yet his shoulders are covered, he may be appointed chazan. That is how the Mishnah Berurah 53:39 rules. However, the Shulchan Aruch 53:13 rules based on the Itur, and so rules the Bach, that even if one’s arms are showing, he is considered a poche’ach. According to this, the chazan must be wearing sleeves that reach his elbow. However, it seems that even according to the Shulchan Aruch it is not necessary to measure exactly, but near the elbow is also considered until the elbow itself. There are those who are stringent that the chazan must wear long sleeves because it is accepted and modest to go before prominent people in that manner (Yaskil Avdi, part 7, p. 329). Nevertheless, since the Rif, Rambam, and most poskim are completely lenient regarding arms, one may be lenient and permit sleeves that reach close to the elbow. Those who seek to glorify the mitzvah cover their entire arm with a long sleeve. My rabbi and teacher, HaRav Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook, would meticulously insist that the chazanim wore long sleeves.
^ 3.In Chullin 24b it is written, "Once a person’s beard has filled in he is fit to become an emissary of the community and descend before the ark." The Tosafot ask: but didn’t we learn in Megillah 24a that even a 13-year-old boy may descend before the ark? They answer that he may be a chazan temporarily, but not on a regular basis, nor for fast days. That is also the opinion of most of the Rishonim. However, the Ramban and the Ran maintain that one whose beard has not yet filled in may not serve as chazan even temporarily, and only if no one else there can lead, a 13-year-old may be appointed. Additionally, although one who shaves is considered someone whose beard has filled in, my rabbi and teacher, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, was accustomed to enhance the mitzvah by only appointing a fully bearded person to be chazan. (Perhaps in doing so he also intended to encourage the yeshiva boys to grow beards of their own).
Concerning a young boy who is mourning the death of one of his parents, the Pri Megadim and Bei’ur Halachah 53:6 s.v. "Yuchal," write that he may not be a regular chazan. Shut Shivat Tzion 18 writes that where he lived the minhag was not to be strict about this. Instead they let the mourning youths lead the services throughout the whole year, since the congregation relinquishes its honor. However, it should be noted that only according to the Rambam a congregation can relinquish its honor, but according to the Rosh, a congregation does not have the authority to do so (because there is also the matter of the respect of Heaven, kevod Shamayim). Furthermore, the Acharonim discuss the case of a yeshiva of young adults. Beit Baruch 29:45 maintains that because all of them are young, they surely relinquish their honor. Again, his words are justified based solely on the opinion of the Rambam. Moreover, if there are 15 and 16-year-olds present, there are almost always some there whose beards have filled in. Since this is a matter of uncertainty, the rabbi of the yeshiva must determine what is best according to the situation at hand.
The Magen Avraham, brought by the Mishnah Berurah 53:25, writes that it is not necessary to testify whether or not a 13-year-old has two hairs, for we rely on the presumption (chazakah) that he has. However, the Pri Megadim writes that according to the Rambam, who maintains that prayer is a biblical commandment, testimony is necessary. Nevertheless, it seems that since today the chazan does not fulfill a person’s obligation to pray for him, all poskim agree that testimony is unnecessary.
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