I was happy to read about the new film "A Cantor’s Tale," which your reviewer called "a love song to the art of chazzanut."
Perhaps this film will help us bring back that lost art of cantorial singing.
Alas, today, in many of our Orthodox synagogues, instead, we have DIY (do-it-yourself) davening.
That’s what I call it when a non-professional leads the services at the synagogue.
this area, that’s about all you can ever expect in an Orthodox shul.
It’s a rare occasion when a professional chazzan, a cantor, leads the
I don’t like DIY davening. First of all
I don’t favor it because I grew up in Manhattan where nearly all the
shuls had chazzanim. Hence I do know how formal davening sounds. I know
how formal davening changes the character of the sanctuary. A good
chazzan can create a palpable focus, a presence, a numinous, holy
quality in the house of prayer.
don’t like DIY davening because of its informality. When a layperson
leads the prayers, it contributes to a sense of casualness that is
conducive to talking. It engenders a lack of focus that frequently
leads to congregants daydreaming and engaging in idle chatter.
sometimes this background hum of conversation in the shul leads to
problems for the synagogue staff. The rabbi, who should maintain his
dignified leadership and stature at all times as the spiritual model
for the synagogue, sometimes finds it necessary to rise up at the
pulpit and berate the murmuring congregants — as if they were
schoolchildren talking during quiet time in a classroom.
are some examples: One local rabbi has gotten up in front of his flock
and announced, "We welcome you all to our shul, except for the four of
you who were talking during the davening."
rabbi once canceled the concluding Shabbat Musaf hymn, Ayn Keloheynu —
because there was too much talking — and he told everyone to go home.
Another time he simply told people who talk in synagogue to "stay home."
third rabbi usually stands in the middle of his shul’s pews as if he
were a monitor in the hall, waiting to catch children misbehaving.
feel bad for those rabbis who berate or monitor their members and are
forced to take leave of their assigned roles to add dignity and awe to
our holy rituals of prayer.
In the old days, that
monitoring, when needed, was the role of the shammos. Nowadays in our
DIY synagogues, that professional also seems to be absent.
I propose that we bring back these two professionals of the American
synagogues of yore. We should bring back the chazzan to ensure that a
consistency of quality and a sense of holiness permeate our services.
further propose that we bring back the shammos, who will patrol the
aisles of our shul. Then, on that rare occasion, when a congregant
leans over to speak with his neighbor, the shammos will politely and
privately ask him for respectful silence.
Rabbi Dr.Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has published extensively on the history and meaning of Jewish prayer.