Before "he" was called "Cantor," and long before "he" was also "she," the Cantor was the "Chazzan."
Most scholars have traced the root of this word to the Hebrew root "hazah," meaning, "to see." Thus, the Chazzan became the overseer, or director of those assembled for worship. Other scholars believe the word also to be derived from "harzan," meaning "versifier" or "rhymester," referring to the common practice of early "chazzanim" of supplementing the prayers with their own poems and hymns. All of these terms refer to that functionary of the service who led the prayers from Talmudic times and predominantly in the sixth and seventh centuries.
The liturgical composition of these "chazzanim" became associated with the singing of self-styled prayers, hymns and poems, some of which still remain in our modern prayerbooks. Subsequently, some of our most meaningful prayers actually derived from the personal poetry of those "chazzanim," those Cantors of the past.
The Chazzan is defined by the Encyclopedia Judaica as, "The Cantor officiating in a Synagogue used in this specific sense since the Middle Ages." Before the Middle Ages, the Talmud describes various duties performed the "Chazzan Ha-Kenesset" (Cantor of the Synagogue) such as blowing a ram's horn to announce the commencement of the Sabbath and Festivals. He was not, however, regularly required to chant the Synagogue Service but could do so by request. In Talmudic times (from the first half of the third century CE to the sixth century) there was no permanent Cantor, and any member of the congregation might be asked to lead the public prayers.
It was during the Gaonic Period (from the end of the sixth century to the middle of the eleventh century) that the Chazzan Ha-Kenesset became the permanent "Sheliach Tzibbur" (leader of prayers). Some reasons for these changes were the increasing complexity of the liturgy and the decline in the knowledge of Hebrew, as well as a desire to enhance the beauty of the service through its musical content. The Chazzan Ha-Kenesset, who traditionally guarded the correctness of the texts and selected new prayers, was a natural choice for this new permanent role. When the liturgy came to include "piyyutim" (poetry), it was the Chazzan who would compose and recite them and provide suitable melodies. This recitation of the poetry became known as Chazzanut, and then this term came to refer to the traditional form of chanting, not only of the poems in the service, but the service in its entirety.
In Talmudic days, the office of the Chazzan encompassed many diversified tasks, not unlike the role of the modern day Cantor. He was, among many roles, the superintendent of prayer meetings, officer at proceedings, the instructor of children, and, with special permission of the congregation, the Torah reader for special occasions. His more unusual duties included, blowing the shofar on Shabbat and holy days from the roof of the synagogue, serving as town crier or sheriff, and patrolling the streets as a town guard!
Of course, today, the Cantor, as well, has many and varied duties, including, but not limited to, overseeing the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program; overseeing the musical interpretation and repertoire for our adult volunteer choir; creating and leading the music curriculum for our religious school; teaching in the adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah program; consulting to the youth program; singing at funerals, weddings and shiva calls; creating and producing an on-going music performance and education series and remaining a Jewish music resource for members of the congregation and community-at-large.
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