If I had a dime for every time I have been asked this question, my income would exceed the Mega Millions jackpot! It’s a question that, on the one hand, seems perfectly valid and reasonable, and on the other, tells the story of one of the biggest marketing failures in Jewish history.

It’s really code for a different question, though, which is “How is being a cantor actually a job?”

Back in the “old country,” it would never have occurred to anyone to ask what cantors do. The answer would have been obvious: he travels from town to town with his boy choir of meshoyrerim hoping to eke out a living from davening; he works another job, such as being a shochet (butcher) or a mohel or Torah teacher; he brings in an unsteady stream of income from officiating at weddings, funerals, or other life cycle events; or he does some combination of all three.

But that’s not the model that we have today. Our current system allows for three different types of positions strictly related to our core training: 1) Full-time employment by a single congregation; 2) Part-time employment by one or more congregations; 3) Seasonal employment for Yamim Noraim and other chagim.

While it may seem obvious, I think it bears mentioning that people only ask this question of the full-time cantor, so that is the model I will explore in this post.

So what do cantors do all day?

The answer is that there is no single answer. Cantorial duties are as varied as the kehillot that we serve. To be sure, some actually “do” more than others, and we’ll get into some of the most common duties below. But there is one thing that all cantors do, regardless of their overall job description, regardless of the kehillot they serve and regardless of the movement they’re a part of:

All cantors are professional pray-ers.

(And you thought I was going to say they sing.)

So what, you may ask, is a professional pray-er? Or perhaps more to the point, what is a pray-er?

I would define a pray-er as “someone who prays, either for him or herself or on behalf of someone else.” In that vein, one might argue that we are all, at one time or another, more or less, pray-ers. Regardless of your own personal orientation towards tefillah or daily practice, every time we say, “Thank God,” or “Oh, God,” or “Dear God,” we become, in those moments, pray-ers.

There is one thing that all cantors do, regardless of their overall job description, regardless of the kehillot they serve and regardless of the movement they’re a part of: all cantors are professional pray-ers.

But for the vast majority of Jews, even regular shul-going Jews, such momentary forays into the world of prayer are just that—momentary. In fact, so fleeting and rare are our relative abilities to enter into that ephemeral world that the sages, many centuries ago, decreed that every community should appoint its own designated pray-er.

Over time, those designated pray-ers evolved to become the professional pray-ers that we have come to know as hazzanim. The sages recognized, almost from the very beginning of post-Temple life, when the center of Jewishness in the world had been destroyed, at first temporarily by the Babylonians and then permanently by the Romans, that if personal and communal prayer were going to replace sacrifices as THE primary means of connecting to God, then, like the Kohanim (Priests) who oversaw the sacrificial system, a new sort of functionary—separate and apart from the rabbi—would have to be created to ensure that prayer would “work” as the new essence of Jewish self-expression no matter where it was practiced.

Before I continue, I think it’s worth taking a second look at that last statement, which I believe to be one of the single most important and underappreciated pillars of what it means to be a Jew.

You can be a secular, cultural, religious, American, Israeli, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Litvish, Chassidic, Reconstructionist, Renewal, LGBTQ, straight, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi, Indian, Ugandan, Chinese or any other kind of Jew you can think of, but if you don’t set aside regular time to talk to God, then you are not engaging in the most primal form of Jewish self-expression.

Prayer is the singular, most essential form of Jewish self-expression. Period.

Let me be clear that I am not saying that if you don’t pray that you’re a bad Jew or, as an increasingly and frighteningly large percentage of Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe, not a Jew at all. I am simply asserting that you are not engaging in the most elemental form of Jewish self-expression that the sages have bequeathed to us.

Now, let’s say you are the type of person who believes, as I once did, that eating lox and bagels, or listening to Leonard Bernstein (or just going to Broadway musicals written by Jews) are every bit as valid expressions of Judaism as wearing peyos, a long black coat and a streimel are. To you, I would say that you are 100% correct: those are firmly expressions of cultural or ethnic Judaism.

Or what if you’re someone for whom study of Torah (Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, etc.) or observance of Jewish law hold primary sway in your spiritual self-expression as a Jew? To you, I would say absolutely that you are, indeed, committed to one of three foundational pillars of Jewish self-expression as noted in Pirkei Avot: Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chassadim. Learning Torah requires its own professional teacher and guide. Such a person has been known throughout the centuries as a rabbi.

At the risk of oversimplifying the role of the rabbi, especially the modern rabbi, whose job description has expanded dramatically beyond that assigned by history, one could argue that the rabbi’s primary responsibility was and still is to take God’s word off the page and help the rest of us understand it.

But the sages, rabbis all, also recognized the critical need for another sort of functionary to take responsibility for communication in the other direction, i.e. from us to God.

This person, called a ba’al tefillah, or master of prayer, driven by the ever-increasing complexity, length and variety of prayers and liturgical poetry, evolved over the centuries to become the hazzan that we know today. While every community is not required to have a hazzan, per se, each is required to designate particularly pious, knowledgeable and capable individuals to lead communal prayers on behalf of the community.


Simply put, our sages recognized that the overwhelming majority of pray-ers needed, and would continue to need, constant guidance and support to conduct their ongoing conversations with our Creator. Whether because of lack of understanding of the language, lack of knowing or being able to find the right words, lack of being able to read in the first place, or most especially, lack of a written text that hadn’t even been invented yet, our sages recognized the need for functional leadership to address these needs, as well as the aesthetic needs of all pray-ers.

With the exception of the printed book, all the other difficulties continue to plague the overwhelming majority of our congregants, hence the continuing need for strong leadership during prayer.

Along with the evolution of the functionary described above, though, came the evolution of a corpus of musical modes that accompanied the ever-expanding canon of prayers that would eventually come to be known as the siddur (prayerbook). These musical modes, nusah, which are particular to each tradition (Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, etc.) and were very much influenced by the surrounding geographical, cultural and historical milieu in which they developed, evolved in parallel with the liturgy, to the point where an entirely new genre of music was born, known as “hazzanut.”

What differentiates the synagogue music of today with that of our predecessors is simply that melody now predominates over the solo to such an extent that many now question whether there is still a need to have a trained professional in the role of shaliach tzibbur.

Whatever other associations you might make when you hear the word hazzanut, the truth is that hazzanut developed because worshipers needed and wanted it.

If nusah is the emotional glue that binds the words of our liturgy together, hazzanut is the cement that binds our souls to God.

Or at least that’s what it was meant to do.

Before I go on, I want to dispel one myth about hazzanut that appears to be almost universal: hazzanut has never been just about a cantor wanting to hear the sound of his own voice. To be sure, there have been plenty of self-indulgent cantors--perhaps too many--but that is the subject for another post. Nonetheless, an essential feature of hazzanut has always been the dynamic, musical interchange between the cantor and gathered pray-ers, interspersed with more expressive solo music from the soul of the cantor.

The cantor “indulged” in flowery self-expression not simply to flatter himself, but to help evoke the souls of the assembled pray-ers.

Synagogue music has, therefore, always existed on a spectrum with congregational davening and melody on the one end and vocal solo and improvisation on the other. What differentiates the synagogue music of today with that of our predecessors is simply that melody now predominates over the solo to such an extent that many now question whether there is still a need to have a trained professional in the role of shaliach tzibbur.

In short, do we still need hazzanim at all?

(Stay tuned for part 2, next week.)