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The History of Cantorial Development

The History of Cantorial Development Photo: Cantor Janis Guralnick.
Photo: Cantor Janis Guralnick.

By Cantor Janis Guralnick

Jewish music has been influenced by many different peoples in many different lands. The Greeks, for example, contributed a lot to Jewish music, as did the Orientals. There is also the music of the Sephardim (Jews from Turkey, Greece, Spain, Iran, etc.), which is quite different from the music of the Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe, Russia, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc.).

The Ashkenazim made most of the strides in Cantorial music as we know it today. Occasionally, the Ashkenazim will use prayers during a service different from those of the Sephardim by adding or deleting words. A physical difference is that the Sephardic Cantor chants in the middle of the room, with the congregation on either side of him.

Besides the different influences that sprang from different geographic origins, Jewish music was also influenced by certain musical instruments. The instruments of the First Temple in Jerusalem were the nevel (the big harp), and the kinnor (the little harp), kinnor being the Hebrew word for "violin" today. These instruments were important because no public religious ceremony of the time could be held without them.

These instruments have come down to us today only as historical artifacts, but there is another instrument which we still use just as it was used in the ancient times. That is the Shofar (ram's horn). The Shofar was useful chiefly for announcements and signals in both secular life, and in religious ceremonies to call on God to remind him of his duties to his people, or to awaken him from sleep. To the Shofar was attributed the magic power of frightening and dispersing evil spirits and the gods of enemies who were thought to help their people in battle.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, the idea of blowing the "Shofar of Redemption" was credited to the prophet Elijah, who is traditionally supposed to announce the coming of the Messiah.

The Shofar is the only instrument that has retained its position in the synagogue throughout the intervening ages to the present day. On New Year's Day, the Shofar is blown to remind God of his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But it also has a special meaning as a reminder of the sacrifice of Isaac by reminding us of the ram that was substituted for him.

In addition to instruments, singers have also had great influence on the development of Jewish music. This influence had its origins in the time of the Temple, when there was a chorus that sang prayers. In those days, a chorus had to consist of a minimum of twelve adult male singers, the maximum being limitless. Participation of women in the Temple choir is nowhere traceable.

A singer was admitted to the choir at the age of 30 and served until he was 50, the age when the decline of the voice began. Before his admittance, he had to have had five year's training. In addition to adults, boys of the Levites (one of the tribes of Israel) were permitted to participate in the choir "in order to add sweetness to the song." The Levites are descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah. They formed a sacred caste in ancient Israel, charged with guarding the Temple service and with supervising its musical activity. A Levite in the time of David was both a porter and a musician.

The Zohar asks, "Why were the Levites selected to sing in the Temple?" And it answers, "Because the name of Levi means cleaving." The soul of him who heard their singing cleaved at once to God. According to the Talmud, their musical performance manifested itself in a divine sound.

Another reason for the continued importance of music to Jewish observance is that our religion became a religion of prayers, and when one prays just by speaking, one might be more likely to be merely giving lip service to the prayer.

Thus, we see that in the days of the Temple, the choir was just as important as the instruments. Later, the tendency toward the superiority of vocal music was pronounced by the regulation that for playing the instruments even non-Levites were permitted, whereas for singers Levites alone were admitted. Furthermore, it was thought that the importance of music lies in the singing.

This predominance of vocal music naturally grew out of the attitude toward music as a tool for the conveyance of ideas. Vocal music, by its intimate association with words, carried and interpreted thoughts and feelings, while instrumental music, according to Semitic-Oriental conception, served only as accompaniment and embellishment.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the Levite Choir ceased to function, and the rabbis decreed that both vocal and instrumental music be banned as a sign of national mourning. Subsequently, this regulation was modified when Maimonides permitted a choir to sing at synagogue services and at all religious feasts. Yet some form of music was never totally absent from Jewish worship. For example, the Torah and the prayers are chanted rather than spoken, because the rabbis felt that the content of the Torah and prayers could be remembered more easily if they were sung.

Another reason for the continued importance of music to Jewish observance is that our religion became a religion of prayers, and when one prays just by speaking, one might be more likely to be merely giving lip service to the prayer, or praying with the mind only. The addition of music to the words aids in making the prayer come from the heart. Music involves the soul; hence, music in prayer was preferred. Even the most simple "amen" was never spoken, always chanted.

Thus, we can see that voices and instruments both had an effect on the origin, development, and survival of a Jewish musical tradition. But there were additional influences from the prayers themselves. One such important element in the prayer book, which had great bearing on the development of the music of the synagogue, was the piyutim - the liturgical poetry - the prayers and hymns for special Sabbaths, festivals and High Holy Days, fast and feast days, set in metric and often in acrostic alphabetic form. The Adon Olam and Yigdal are two examples of piyutim.

The creation of the piyut can be credited with a number of effects upon the content and practice of synagogue music. Among these effects were the fact that secular tunes and rhythms were adapted into use in the synagogue.

In addition to the adaptation of popular music to accompany the piyutim, their new poetic devices (among them, rhyme, a fixed number of syllables, refrains, involved stanzas, various uses of initial letters of words, and acrostics), stimulated the singing of a more intricate type of music, which was more difficult to learn and more important to remember. The new liturgical poetry gave rise to a professional leader of the service, and this is where we first encounter the position which has come to be known as the "Cantor." This professional leader, called the Hazzan, fulfilled the needs that most untrained laypeople could not handle in highly skilled ways. "Hazzan" comes from the word Chazah, "to oversee," as a Hazzan who became fully familiar with the prayers was often serving as a caretaker of a synagogue.

The Hazzan is also called a Shliach Tzibbur, a messenger of the community, since the person who performed the prayers for those who could not was thought to represent the congregation to God. As services grew to feature these Hazzanim, the congregation became interested in the new stimulation the "worship-entertainment" provided for them, and the use of refrains and responsive chanting eventually led to congregational singing as well.

The heart of Hazzanut (Cantorial singing) is known as nusach. Nusach is based on modes, which in turn are based on scales, most of which have been preserved by us for hundreds of years. Although nusach always has a melodic pattern, no two Cantors sing it the same way, and improvisation is permitted as long as the general structure of the nusach is maintained. Thus, Hazzanim were free to sing the music differently, within certain guidelines.

Because Hazzanim wanted to put their individual stamps on the material they prayed or sang, a Hazzan commanded a good measure of musical creativity. This custom has continued until today. A Hazzan does not simply reproduce a predetermined piece of music just like all other Hazzanim, but gives final shape to the general outlines of a theme by an improvisation of his own.

Gradually, over time, the qualities demanded of a Hazzan became fixed. He was required to have a pleasant voice and appearance, to be married, to have a beard, to be fully familiar with the liturgy, to be of blameless character, and to be acceptable in all other respects to the members of the community. While these strict requirements were modified occasionally, they were rigidly adhered to on the High Holy Days.

Ironically, the growing popularity of Hazzanim made a Hazzan a controversial community official. His dual role of religious representative and artistic performer inevitably gave rise to tensions, some of which persist into the present. In many communities, priority was given to a beautiful voice and musical skill over the traditional requirements of learning and piety. And Hazzanim were known to vie for each other's prayer-poems and melodies.

While nusach itself accounted for some of the variety we find in Cantorial interpretation today, other variations in modern Jewish liturgical music arise from very different - still controversial - sources.

One such source is the use of the organ and mixed choirs introduced by the Reform Movement These innovations radically changed some forms of Cantorial music. Another source is the increasing acceptance of women in the Cantorial field. In the Hebrew Union College (Reform Movement), women now make up a large percentage of those studying in the Cantorial school. In addition, in the Conservative Movement, where women were accepted as Rabbis in 1983, they gained the right to be certified as Cantors in 1987.

The Conservative Movement did experience some difficulty in fully accepting women as Cantors, because there was some resistance to making a woman the "messenger for the community." Women were not required by Jewish law to adhere to all of the time-bound commandments those that have to be observed at a specific time, to which men were obligated.

The certification of women as Cantors in this movement is at least partially the result of demographics. More and more women are interested in being Cantors, and fewer men are now entering training. This is an issue where ancient loyalties and modern leanings are reaching a compromise over time.

Cantorial development is thus a living process, and continues today as part of an ongoing rich and lengthy history. The beauty of our prayers evolves constantly, and will continue to do so into the future.


Cantor Janis Guralnick has conducted services at Temple Beth Zion in Los Angeles for 26 years. She is a teacher in the Los Angeles City School System, with a bilingual cultural language and development emphasis (Spanish).  As part of this work, she has also worked with children with learning disabilities. She provides Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons to individuals of all ages.  She entertains with popular music, musicals, and in all different languages. To contact Janis, call her at:  (818) 341-5582.

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