I was in an (Ashkenazi) shul on Rosh Chodesh morning, when a visitor who is an avel asked if he could be chazan for Shacharit or whether there were other avelim. The gabbai said that there were no other avelim but that normally avelim are not chazanimon Rosh Chodesh. The avel said that he received a psak to serve as chazan, which he proceeded to do until Hallel. Was that the right course of action? Answer:
We have to deal not only with the question of whether an avel should be chazan on Rosh Chodesh, but with whose call it is – the shul’s or the avel’s.
The Maharil (Shut 22) is the primary source about limiting when an avel can be chazan. He says that an avel should not be chazan on Shabbat, Yom Tov, and for Hallel because of the simcha associated with those tefillot. The Rama (Yoreh Deah 376:4) cites this idea only in regard to Shabbat and Yom Tov, writing that the practice is for them not to be chazan although it is not forbidden, but Ashkenazi Acharonim accept it for Hallel as well. There is quite an even set of opinions and varied practices regarding the rest of Shacharit as well as Mincha and Maariv on days when there is Hallel (Rosh Chodesh, Chanuka) and Purim (see a survey in Divrei Sofrim, YD 376:94). Therefore, both practices are legitimate, and that is not our main interest.
The minhag is related to a discrepancy between the festivity of the tefilla and the avel’s sadness (or an aura of strict judgment – see Taz, OC 660:2). But who are we trying to "protect"? If we are protecting the congregation from an avel who is not capable enough to elevate them to the proper mood, then it is clearly the shul’s call, and ostensibly the avel (unintentionally) acted improperly. If it is that it is wrong for the avel to thrust himself into the midst of excitement that is incongruous with his avelut, the matter likely depends on his rabbi’s ruling.
Sources that connect the matter to the suitability of the avel to act as a shaliach (agent) of the tzibbur include the Taz (ibid.) and Zera Emet (III:164). My reading of the Maharil itself and of the Maharam Shick (OC 183) indicates that it is a matter of inappropriateness for the avel’s mourning obligations. (I am not convinced my reading is correct; it is not feasible to share the nuances in this forum.) It is possible to distinguish between specific cases. Perhaps regarding Shabbat and Yom Tov and Hallel, the community demands festivity the avel lacks. Perhaps, though, the rest of Shacharit has no special requirements for the chazan, just that involvement in the public service of such a happy day is improper for him. Therefore, we leave the fundamental unconcluded.
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Some of those against an avel being chazan for any part of Shacharit, including the Gra (see Chayei Adam II, 138:4) and the Chatam Sofer (see Maharim Shick ibid.), "protested" against those who wanted to be chazan. Why protest what someone else wants to do if there are respected opinions to permit it? One explanation is that they indeed held that it affected the community, whom they represented, more than the avel. Another is that even regarding matters that affect the individual, it is innately wrong to contradict a local minhag (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 468:4). A third possibility, which I find difficult, is that these poskim were so convinced that the other practice was wrong, that they felt a need to save the mistaken person.
Our practical advice is as follows. An avel should ask the rabbi or gabbai if they/the community minds, as publicly conforming is important generally but especially about things having to do with their chazan (see Rama, OC 53:22). If not, there should not be a problem for him to do the part of davening of Rosh Chodesh that he wants. However, if the shul’s minhag is a strongly held one, then whether it is the community’s specific prerogative or a matter of the general rule of not differing publicly from those around him, he should not have been chazan.