Want to know about the cantor’s prayer in the Rosh Hashanah service?

September 4, 2023 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple

In Israel, few synagogues have official rabbis, professional cantors or formal choirs. Services are mostly conducted by congregants, though they can’t always hold a tune.

Every Jew thinks he is a cantor – except that today, he has a cold.

In my shule the cantor and I worked together, lived in the same building, and he and his wife treated our family like their own grandchildren. I didn’t sing and he didn’t preach, though at times I led services. I couldn’t give the choir a lead in; they wanted to lead me out.

From the time of Moshe Rabbenu the rabbis were expected to be sages and judges. In time, the rabbi became a Jewish version of the Christian pastor, but in recent years the learning and teaching role has re-emerged.

Chazanim weren’t originally officiants but overseers and supervisors. They didn’t all have good voices: some didn’t pray but bray. Only when officiating by heart became too hard for lay people did the chazan become a professional singer.

The task of the chazan is to be “sh’liach tzibbur”, “the agent of the community”, since he does not pray for the congregation but gathers their prayers before the Almighty. From “sh-tz” (the initials of “sh’liach tzibbur”) derived the Jewish surname of Schatz.

A cantor must be pious, learned, of good reputation, upright, modest, possessed of a good voice, acceptable to the congregation: preferably a mature person who is married and has children… and worries.

Controlling the choristers was never easy. Choirs often sang from a gallery above the Ark; in one shule the choirmaster leant back and his kippah fell off onto the “ner tamid” (the Eternal Light), prompting the remark, “What a bright spark he is!”

In many congregations there is a cantor’s meditation on his role. Sung before the High Holyday Musaf, it comes from medieval Europe. We don’t know who wrote it. It is said quietly, with the congregation eavesdropping. The first word, “Hinneni”, is suggested by Abraham’s response to God’s call in Genesis 22.

When called to duty, the cantor wants to shrink back, but knowing that the rabbis say, “Where there are no men, you be a man!” (Avot 2:5), he summons the courage to say, “Here I am!” and to pray, “O God, make me worthy of my task!” He says:

In love, truth and peace, let no defect mar my prayer.
May it be Your will, O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
Great, mighty and awesome God, God most high, eternal,
That all the angels that carry our prayers
Wing my prayer to Your glorious throne, and offer it to You
In the merit of all the righteous, pious, honest and upright ones,
And for the glory of Your great, mighty and awesome Name,
For You hear the prayer of Your people Israel in mercy.
Blessed are You, O Lord, who hearkens to prayer.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


One Response to “Want to know about the cantor’s prayer in the Rosh Hashanah service?”
  1. william rocheblave says:

    thank you, rabbi apple, for that lesson in what a Jewish cantor is supposed to do. And the prayer at the end. I love this website because i learn a lot about the bible from the Jewish rabbi side.im a Christian and i live in Pensacola Florida.

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