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Responsa in a Moment
Vol. 17, No. 1
Should the cantor pray slowly, including many melodies to help the congregation achieve Kavanah or shorten the service to avoid tirha d’tzibbura (imposing on the congregation)? (1)
Orah Hayyim 53:11 & 281:1 in the Rema
By Rabbi David Golinkin
In memory of Brenda Kaufman Berman z”l
who sang to God with a pleasant voice,
who returned her pure soul to her Creator
3 Shevat 5754.
May her memory be for a blessing!
Question: Should the Sheliah Tzibbur (hereafter: cantor) pray slowly, including many songs in order to help the congregation achieve Kavanah or shorten the service in order to avoid tirha d’tzibbura (imposing on the congregation)?
Responsum: “There is nothing new under the sun”; our rabbis have grappled with this question from the thirteenth century until today.
I. One should prolong the service with a pleasant voice in order to help the congregation pray with Kavanah
Another explanation: “Honor the Lord with your wealth (meihonekha)” (Proverbs 3:9), if your voice is pleasant, declaim the Shema(2) and pass in front of the ark [to lead the Amidah], following the verse “Honor the Lord with your wealth”. R. Hiya bar Ada the nephew of Bar Kapara (Amora, Eretz Yisrael, second generation) had a pleasant voice, and Bar Kapara said to him: Hiya, my son, declaim the Shema and pass in front of the ark, following the verse “Honor the Lord with your wealth (meihonekha)”, with what He has endowed you (shehanankha).
This midrash is based on the wordplay “meihonekha/shehanankha” which is based on the fact that the Sages in Eretz Yisrael did not distinguish between the letter ה and the letter ח. As a result, “the rabbis do not refrain from explaining a ה as if it is a ח” (Yerushalmi Shabbat, chapter 7, fol. 9b at bottom). Indeed, this is a common phenomenon in rabbinic literature. (3) In any case, this Midrash states that those who have a pleasant voice should honor God with what He has endowed them — with their voice.
This derashah and similar derashot appear in Pesikta Rabbati and Midrishei Tanhuma, and are cited later on in the literature of the Geonim and Rishonim.(4)
Tenth: For he had a pleasant voice and was used to going down before the ark [=serving as cantor] and being an interpreter for his teacher [=Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi] and whoever needed it, to fulfill what was said: “Honor the Lord with your wealth” (Proverbs 3:9). And Rabbi Haya bar Ada followed him [he then quotes Pesikta Derav Kahana cited above with a different ending]: “He said: ahanyei [=give enjoyment] to your Creator from what d’ahanyakh [=from what He has given enjoyment to you], this is the meaning of “Honor the Lord with your wealth (meihonekha)”.
In other words, this is a similar derashah with a different play on words: meihonekha/ahanyakh.
“Honor the Lord with your wealth (meihonekha)” (Proverbs 3:9) – meihonekha — mimamonkha [=from your money]; meihonekha — mihenkha [=from your grace]. With the joy of the melody to make the heart happy, because this is the joy of the heart like the melody of the entire world.
Whoever has a pleasant voice and the Holy One Blessed be He does not enjoy his voice, it’s better for him had he not been born. And if the Holy One Blessed be He is pleased [=with his voice], about him it is said: “Let me hear your voice, for your voice is pleasant and your appearance is comely” (Song of Songs 2:14) and it is written “the sweet singer of Israel” (II Samuel 23:1), and it is written “My voice will call to the Lord” (Psalms 3:5).
He who has a pleasant voice will sing to God and not other songs, as it is said: “Sing forth, O you righteous, to the Lord” (Psalms 33:1) and not other songs. “The tents of the righteous resound with the voice of singing and salvation” (ibid., 118:15) and he did not state which song, that is why it is said “Sing forth, O you righteous, to the Lord” — and not other songs and praises.
A. And I heard from the mouth of Rabbi Yehudah Hehassid zatzal, that there was a great and distinguished rabbi who used to reprimand in the synagogue that they were stretching out the blessings [= the early morning blessings], for he was in a hurry to study, and he was punished for this in that world [=in the World to Come].
In other words, R. Yitzhak Or Zarua himself heard from Rabbi Yehudah Hehassid that a great and important rabbi used to reprimand the cantors who stretched out the early morning blessings (and probably also the Pesukei Dezimra verses) because he was in a hurry to study, and he was punished for this in the next world.
B. And I also heard in the name of Rabbi Yehudah Hehassid zatzal, who said that during the winter when it is very cold, it is better that those who are not warmly dressed should go home and they should not shorten the praise of God for their sakes.
In other words, R. Yitzhak Or Zarua heard in the name of Rabbi Yehudah Hehassid that when praying in the winter — and the winter in Regensburg is very cold — one should not shorten the prayers. He who is not warmly dressed, should go home.
C. [And Rabbi Yehudah Hehassid zatzal said that he knew a Jew from Worms] called R. Bunem and he was old and a gravedigger. And I heard from him in truth that one time he came to the synagogue early and saw a man sitting in the front of the synagogue and on his head a crown of grass… and he was afraid because he thought that he was a demon… And [Rabbi Bunem] said to him: Aren’t you so-and-so who just died and I buried you? And he said to him: yes. And [Rabbi Bunem] said to him: Where are you in that world? And he said to him: Very well. And [Rabbi Bunem] said to him: What merits do you have, for you were just an ordinary person? And [the dead man] said to him: Just the merit that I would recite the blessings in a pleasant voice in the synagogue, by that merit they brought me to Heaven and they honor me…
Rabbi Yitzhak Or Zarua concludes:
I, the author, wrote these stories so that a Godfearer would see and pay attention and say the praises of God in a pleasant voice and with Kavanah and he will merit to go to Heaven.
Mahari Segal taught that it’s a mitzvah to extend the prayer on Rosh Hashanah at least until noon. And this was the ancient custom of “half to God and half to you”. Therefore, a person should not feel remorse if the cantor prolongs the prayer, as long as his entire intent is for the sake of Heaven.
In other words, the Maharil cites the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua in Beitzah 15b, that on Yom Tov one should divide the day “half to God and half to you”, i.e., half a day should be devoted to study and half a day to eating and drinking. In contrast to the Rashba and others whom we will see below, the Maharil, in accordance with the approach of Hassidei Ashkenaz, states that it’s a mitzvah to prolong the prayers on Rosh Hashanah, provided that his intent is for the sake of Heaven.
Once, on the eve of the Sabbath, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak prayed before the congregation of a town in which he was stopping as a guest. As always, now too he drew out the prayer far beyond its usual length through the many exclamations and gestures not provided for in any liturgy. When he had finished, the Rav of that town went up to him, proffered the Sabbath greetings, and asked: “Why are you not more careful not to tire the congregation [=tirha d’tzibbura]? Do not our Sages relate of Rabbi Akiva that whenever he prayed with the congregation, he did so quickly, but that when he prayed alone, he yielded himself to his transports, so that frequently he began in one corner of the room and ended up in another” [Berakhot 31a].
The Rabbi of Berdichev replied: “How is it possible to assume that Rabbi Akiba with his countless disciples hastened his prayer in order not to tire the congregation! For surely, every member of it was more than happy to listen to his Master hour after hour! The meaning of this Talmudic story is more likely this: When Rabbi Akiva really prayed with the congregation, that is to say when the congregation felt at heart the same fervor as he, his prayer could well be short, for he had to pray only for himself. But when he prayed alone, that is to say, when he prayed with his congregation, but his was the only heart fervent among them, he had to draw out his prayer to lift their hearts to the level of his”.
This derashah is very far from the simple meaning of the Talmudic story, but it teaches us Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s approach, that the role of the cantor is to prolong the prayer in order to uplift the community and enable them to pray with kavanah.
In summary, thus far we have seen sources that say that the cantor needs a pleasant voice or that if someone has a pleasant voice it’s fitting for him to serve as cantor or that he must serve as the cantor. We have also seen that according to Rabbi Yehudah Hehassid and his student Rabbi Yitzhak b”r Moshe of Vienna in the thirteenth century, the cantor must pray in a pleasant voice and not shorten the service because of the cold or in order to rush to study, and whoever prays in a pleasant voice and with Kavanah will merit going to Heaven, even if he is a simple Jew. The Maharil ruled in the fifteenth century that it’s a mitzvah to extend the prayers on Rosh Hashanah if he is doing so for the sake of Heaven. And Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev maintained in the 18th century that the cantor must prolong the prayers in order to lift up the hearts of the congregation to pray with Kavanah.
II. Services must be shortened because of tirha d’tzibbura and when a cantor lengthens the prayers there is suspicion that he’s doing so in order to show off his beautiful voice.
On the other hand, there are many sources that emphasize that the prayers should be shortened because of tirha d’tzibbura or out of suspicion that the cantor prolongs the prayers in order to show off his beautiful voice.
However, on Shabbat and on Yom Tov they must pray so that they leave the synagogue and begin to eat at the fifth hour because it is forbidden to fast on Shabbat until the sixth hour [as it is said in Yerushalmi Ta’aniyot 3:11 and Yerushalmi Nedarim 8:1…]: It is forbidden to fast until the sixth hour on Shabbat (6).
In other words, on the one hand, Rabbi Yitzhak emphasizes that one must prolong the prayer in a pleasant voice, and on the other hand he warns that one must eat during the fifth hour on Shabbat because it’s forbidden to fast until the sixth hour on Shabbat! Indeed, the Rema briefly summarized the two opposing opinions of Rabbi Yitzhak in his Darkei Moshe to Tur Orah Hayyim 281 (Tur Hashalem, part 3, p. 172) and from there in his glosses to the Shulhan Arukh, ibid., 281:1.
And now that they repeat, it’s a sin since they are doing so in order to make their pleasant voice heard. And furthermore, it’s unnecessary tirha d’tzibbura, since the congregation already recited it slowly and did not hurry, what need is there to repeat what they have already said? … and the God-fearing will not do so.
[Question:] You also asked about a cantor whose voice is pleasant and agreeable to those who hear it and who lengthens his prayer so that the people will hear his pleasant voice. And he takes pride in this and rejoices in his voice and this is his intent when he prays. And he says that this is fitting and that he should be happy in his heart. Is it appropriate to reprimand him that he should make his prayer supplications and how can he supplicate out of joy?
Responsum: These things are according to the intention of the heart. If this cantor rejoices in his heart because he is giving praise and acknowledgment to God with a pleasant and melodious voice and he rejoices out of awe — may a blessing come upon him. For one of the requirements for cantors is that they have a melodious and pleasant voice. As we have learned in a Baraita in tractate Ta’anit [and then he quotes the passage cited above] … and he has a melodious and pleasant voice…
But one should pray with seriousness, as we have learned in the Mishnah (Berakhot 5:1 = Bavli Berakhot 30b) “No one stands to pray except out of seriousness”…
Therefore, if this cantor is happy and stands in awe as it is written (Psalms 2:11) “Serve the Lord with fear and worship him with trembling”, then this is praiseworthy [based on Berakhot 30b at bottom]. But if he intends to show off his voice and is happy for his voice to be heard and praised by the people, then it is improper. And about him and the like it is said (Jeremiah 12:8 as explained in Ta’anit 16b) “She raised her voice against Me, therefore I have hated her”.
In any case, whoever prolongs his prayer is not doing the proper thing, for in a number of places they said to shorten [the prayers] because of tirha d’tzibbura. “And Rabbi Yehudah said: This was the custom of Rabbi Akiva, when he prayed with the congregation, he would shorten his prayer. And when he prayed alone, a person would leave him in one corner and find him in another … because of the [kneeling and prostrations]” which he used to do (Berakhot 31a).
The Rashba establishes an important principle regarding our topic: “These things are according to the intention of the heart. If this cantor rejoices in his heart because he is giving praise and acknowledgment to God with a pleasant and melodious voice and he rejoices out of awe — may a blessing come upon him… But if he intends to show off his voice and is happy for his voice to be heard and praised by the people, then it is improper.” Yet, even so, he writes at the end that the cantor must shorten the service due to tirha d’tzibbura.
The Rashba’s responsum was quoted by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Bet Yosef to Orah Hayyim 53:11 (s.v. katav harashba, Hatur Hashalem, vol. 1, p. 236) and was summarized by him in Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 53:11:
A cantor who prolongs his prayer so that they should hear his pleasant voice, if it’s because he is happy in his heart for giving thanks to God may He be blessed with melody, may a blessing come upon him. Provided that he should pray with seriousness and that he stands with fear and awe. But if he intends to show off his voice and rejoices in his voice, this is improper. In any case, whoever prolongs his prayer is not doing a good thing because of tirha d’tzibbura.
In other words, the Maharshal disagrees with the Maharil quoted above. Even if the congregation wants to extend the prayer on Shabbat and Yom Tov, it’s improper to do so, as we have learned in the abovementioned passage from Beitzah 15b that Yom Tov belongs “half to God and half to you”. The Maharshal was subsequently quoted by Rabbi Avraham Gombiner in the Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim 528.
But I was disturbed because the cantors of this country [=Toledo or Spain] [sing] for their own pleasure, to hear a pleasant voice, and even if [the cantor] is a completely wicked person, [the congregation] is only concerned that he has a pleasant voice, and God says, (Jeremiah 12:8) “She raised her voice against Me, therefore I have hated her”.
In other words, the Rosh opposed wicked cantors who were chosen solely because of their good voices.
… Furthermore, they do not read even one verse of the Torah with its vowels and cantillation according to proper grammar, nor do they know the difference between good and bad, because the communities choose and desire those cantors who know how to prolong the prayers and the kaddishim with a pleasant voice and a beautiful melody, and “from month to month and Sabbath to Sabbath” (cf. Isaiah 66:23), the tunes continue to increase, “they are renewed every morning” (cf. Lamentations 3:23) which our holy forefathers could not have imagined (cf. Deut. 32:17)…
In other words, Rabbi Slonik objected to cantors who lengthen their prayers with a pleasant voice and a beautiful melody.
It was decreed that no cantor may sing on Shabbat more than three nigunim altogether in Shaharit and Musaf. And on Shabbat Rosh Hodesh or the four parshiyot [before Pesah] or [the Shabbat before] a wedding… and on a Shabbat with a Bris and Shabbat Hanukkah there is permission to do four nigunim but no more…
In other words, this Takkanah limits a cantor, that he may chant three nigunim (musical compositions) on a regular Shabbat and four on special Shabbatot.
… How much the more so, the cantors, who are the messengers of the congregation, that they know what they are saying and understand what they are reciting, and their intention should be on the things that come out of their mouths and not on the melodies, as I have seen [to our] disgrace due to our many sins… and there is no doubt that the length of the voices is the length of the exile due to our many sins…
9. Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Kaidanover (Eastern Europe and Ashkenaz, 1624-1676) was asked in his Responsa Emunat Shmuel (Frankfurt am Main, 1683, No. 16) about an elderly man over seventy years old who had served as a cantor on a voluntary basis for many years, but his voice was weak and he would pray at great length. He ruled that it is permissible to remove him from his position because he does not have a “pleasant voice” as mandated in the above-mentioned baraita from Ta’anit and because of tirha d’tzibbura.
10. Rabbi Avraham Danzig (Danzig and Vilna, 1748-1820) discussed our topic in his Hayye Adam (Laws of Rosh Hashanah 138:4). “And I do not like what I have seen that they arrange for the Days of Awe a cantor who will sing nicely”. He then quotes Rabbi Avraham Gombiner and the Maharshal quoted above. After that he adds (and this may be a quote from an earlier work):
Because the cantor, his intent is only that the melody be beautiful and good… and his intent is not on the prayers and requests that were arranged for us, and he confuses the minds of those who hear the prayers…, and if I had the strength, I would abolish this bad custom.
In other words, like many of the poskim in this camp, Rabbi Avraham Danzig is opposed to cantors who are only interested in the melodies and ignore the content of the prayers.
On Yom Tov, one comes late to the synagogue and rushes to leave because of the joy of Yom Tov [as per Megillah 23a], therefore, one should rebuke cantors who prolong the prayers beyond noon.
In other words, his approach is similar to that of the Maharshal and opposed to that of the Maharil
III. Summary and Practical Halakhah
It’s difficult to give a definitive ruling on this issue due to the disagreements cited above, but I believe that we can establish two guiding principles:
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart be acceptable to you O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
27 Tevet 5783
Allen — Rabbi Wayne Allen, The Cantor: From the Mishnah to Modernity, Eugene, Oregon, 2019, Index s.v. Cantors, Prolonging prayer
E”T – Entziklopedia Talmudit, s.v. Tirha D’tzibbura, Vol. 20, col. 666
Golinkin – David Golinkin, “What are the Attributes of a Good Cantor?”, Responsa in a Moment, Vol. II, Jerusalem, 2011, pp. 3-13; also available at www.schechter.edu
Landman — Leo Landman, The Cantor: An Historic Perspective, New York, 1972, pp. 43-44
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David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.