The Chazzan - Part 1

The chazzan, also referred to as the ba’al tefilla or shaliach tzibbur, is no less than the acting representative between God and the congregation that has appointed him. There are many laws and customs regarding who is worthy of being appointed as a chazzan and the rules he must follow. This is especially true with regards to the chazzan appointed for the High Holidays. There are those who suggest that one who will be serving as the chazzan for Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur should distance himself from anything impure for three days beforehand and use those days to familiarize himself with the meaning of the prayers.[1] The honor of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana is considered to be the most prestigious honor of the day, even more so than serving as the chazzan.[2]


Although in our day and age we immediately associate the chazzan as the one who leads the prayers in the synagogue, this was not always the case. In fact, the Talmud lists a number of duties that the chazzan was responsible for, none of which was to lead the prayers. For example, the chazzan was the one who would hold the Torah and present it to the one leading services.[3] He would also assist the Kohanim in donning their ritual garments, administer court-imposed lashes,[4] supervise the Torah study of children,[5] store the lulavim of those visiting the Temple Mount,[6] and escort litigants to the court for their trials.[7] It is clear, therefore, that leading the services was not necessarily a task that belonged to the chazzan.[8]

Although there is some indication from the Jerusalem Talmud[9] that a chazzan would also lead services, the phenomenon of a chazzan doing so in a professional capacity seems to first originate in the Gaonic period.[10] Before this time the chazzan would fill the roles mentioned above, as well as some other clerical jobs in the synagogue, including serving as the security guard.[11] The chazzan's debut in leading services may have been with reading the Torah,[12] likely in response to the chazzan's need for gainful employment. As part of his benefits package, the chazzan often lived in the synagogue building itself in a specially prepared apartment which was provided to him and his family.[13]

It is interesting to note that there were many communities in the past where the practice was for everyone to recite the preliminary parts of the Shacharit service at home. In these places the congregational service only began with "Barchu" and continued with the remaining prayers that required a minyan.[14] Even today, many congregations do not appoint a person to lead the Pesukei d'Zimra. In such places the one designated to lead Shacharit simply ascends to the amud when most of the congregation has completed Pesukei d'Zimra.[15]


We should ensure that the individual chosen to serve as chazzan is recognized as both God fearing and one who engages in acts of kindness.[16] It is also considered ideal that a chazzan be over thirty years old, a Torah scholar, and married with children.[17] With such a profile, it is likely that the chazzan will be a more mature, responsible, and pious individual. In fact, some say that the three letters of the word chazzan stand for the words "chacham, zaken, nasui", wise, aged, married. Of course, a pleasant voice is essential for the job, let alone for making it through the interview process.[18] A bearded chazzan is also considered advantageous though it is not essential.[19] One who shaves with a razor, however, should not be permitted to serve as a chazzan at all.[20] Nevertheless, as long as an individual is desired by the congregation, objections need not be raised even if he lacks some of the preferred qualifications.[21] According to some opinions, a shochet - ritual slaughterer,[22] or a convert[23] should not serve as a chazzan, though the halacha is not in accordance with this view.

Some sources equate the chazzan with the Kohen who performed the service in the Beit Hamikdash.[24] The chazzan must keep in mind at all times that he is acting on behalf of the congregation, and he must intend to discharge all of their religious obligations.[25] Of course, the chazzan must be well versed in the liturgy, particularly with regards to the proper pronunciation of the words.[26] It is also encouraged to secure a chazzan from a distinguished family, as it is known to assist in having prayers accepted.[27] A chazzan should endeavor to immerse in a mikva prior to leading the prayers, especially on Rosh Hashana morning.[28] A chazzan with financial challenges is also cited as advantageous as such a person is likely to pray with added devotion, concentration, and fervor.[29] Ultimately, however, any individual in good standing who is agreeable to the congregation may serve as the chazzan.[30]

Proper Attire

It goes without saying that a chazzan must be properly dressed from both the perspective of modesty and dignity.[31] Some authorities frown upon a chazzan with short sleeves[32] and no one should wear gloves while praying, either.[33] It is preferable for a chazzan to be wearing socks though it is not truly essential in a place where people often dress without them, as is common in Israel where sandals are widespread.[34]

[1] Magen Avraham 581:9.

[2] Mishna Berura 595:3.

[3] Yoma 7:1; Sota 7:8.

[4] Makkot 3:12.

[5] Shabbat 1:3.

[6] Sukka 4:4.

[7] Shabbat 56a.

[8] Rosh, Berachot 5:17.

[9] Yerushalmi Berachot 19:1.

[10] Siddur Rav Amram Gaon

[11] Bava Metzia 93b

[12] Sofrim 11:4.

[13] Rambam, Hilchot Shabbat 28:3

[14] Rambam, Hilchot Tefilla 9:1

[15] See for example: Minhagei Eretz Yisrael (Gellis) 5:29.

[16] Rambam, Hilchot Tefilla 8:11; OC 53:4; Rema, OC 581:1; Kaf Hachaim, OC 53:23,25,26. See also Dvar Chevron 2:45.

[17] See Taanit 16a; Rema, OC 581:1; See Be’er Heitev, OC 581:7.

[18] OC 53:4.

[19] OC 53:6.

[20] Yabia Omer 19:8.

[21] Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:7, Rema, OC 581:1; Rivevot Ephraim 2:35.

[22] Maharshal 20; Sheilat Shlomo 3:12; Piskei Teshuvot 581:6.

[23] OC 53:19.

[24] Elya Rabba 53:23

[25] Rema, OC 581:1.

[26] OC 53:12.

[27] Rashi, Bereishit 25:21, Elef Hamagen 581:52.

[28] Mateh Ephraim 584:2.

[29] Taanit 16a.

[30] OC 53:5

[31] Rema, OC 53:25. See the Chapter on "Hats & Jackets" for more on this.

[32] OC 53:13; Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook cited in Miyam Hahalacha 1:23. See also Yaskil Avdi 7:1, hashmatot; Rambam, Hilchot Tefilla 5:5.

[33] Rashi, Pesachim 57b; Sefer Chassidim 18.

[34] Olat Yitzchak (Ratzabi) 17