What Does a Cantor Do?

Image: Three Cantors: Allan Michelson z”l, Nathan Lam, and Ilene Keys

A cantor, or chazzan, is an expert in Jewish liturgy and dinei hat’filah, the laws concerning prayer, who leads services and teaches.  In the Reform Movement, that means that the cantor has completed a grueling five year postgraduate course of study in Jerusalem and New York. You will find cantors on the bimah in larger synagogues.

From the view in the pew, cantors lead services and sing service music, and they may seem indistinguishable from a cantorial soloist, who may also do those things. Both may have very good singing voices, and both may have had extensive musical training.

The cantor, however, has something extra: a deep background in Jewish worship and Hebrew language, knowledge of both present and past liturgies, and training in leading and teaching a wide variety of Jewish musical forms. A cantor is clergy, qualified to officiate at all lifecycle events (weddings, funerals, namings) and to provide pastoral support.

Cantors are teachers as well as service leaders. Here’s an account of an adult who learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys of Temple Sinai, Oakland. What I love about Ilana DeBare’s account is that she gives a good description of how that process works, how many different ways of approaching the texts her cantor provides. Cantors teach all ages and abilities, from the talented youngster to the devout Jew who wants to learn to leyn (chant) Torah but can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Cantors are part of the shalshelet hakabbalah, the chain of tradition, the means by which Torah is handed down through the generations. I learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys. She learned from Cantor Nathan Lam. Cantor Lam learned from Cantor Allan Michelson z”l. According to his obituary in the LA Times, Cantor Michelson learned from his father, also a cantor, in Latvia. Beyond Cantor Michelson’s father, the chain continues back all the way to the Masoretes, who found a way to safeguard the Torah text by inventing vowels and cantillation marks for it, and the Levites in the days of the Temple, when they sang to accompany the worship in the sacred enclosure:

There were never less than twelve Levites standing on the platform and their number could be increased into infinity. No minor could enter the court of the sanctuary to take part in the service except when the Levites stood up to sing. Nor did they join in the singing with harp and lyre, but with the mouth alone, to add flavor to the music.

Mishnah Arakhin 2:6

Cantors, like rabbis, strive to be klei kodesh, sacred vessels transmitting Torah from one generation to the next. They do this by first putting in years of study, filling themselves with skills and with Torah, and then by devoting their lives to the faithful transmission of tradition and to service to the People of Israel.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

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