Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cantors behaving badly

Some dozen years ago, I was hired by a great mentor of mine to translate the Aruch haShulchan's Laws of Shabbos. It was an incredible learning opportunity, on many levels - and one of those was intense exposure to R' Yechiel Michel Epstein's views on halachic debates of his day.

Here is one of my favorite passages, on disobedient chazzanim; it came to mind today because I included it in this week's Toronto Torah, in our Biography/Torah in Translation section:

For some decades, due to our great sins, a tzara'at has spread among cantors. These cantors hold a small silver fork or a lump of iron (termed kamar tone) when standing before the platform on Shabbat and Yom Tov, for setting the song’s pitch. The cantors place the fork between their teeth, and they hear a musical sound; they then know how to arrange the song.

This is, literally, a musical instrument, designed to produce music. We do not have the power to protest their claims that they cannot generate music without these instruments. Due to our great sins, our generation is loose and the masses support these cantors. Not only are we unable to protest, but even exiting the synagogue causes a fight, as is known.

Perhaps it is possible to suggest that this device is not among the “musical instruments” which our sages prohibited, for the following reasons:

•The sound of this music is not heard other than from the cantor’s mouth to his ear,
•The sound is only momentary, and
•The purpose is to generate vocal song, which was never forbidden.

This matches what we wrote regarding whistling and placing one’s hand in one’s mouth.

We need to justify this; it would be disgraceful to say that the Jewish nation would stumble in a shevut (rabbinic Shabbat prohibition), all the more so when standing in prayer before the King of Kings, Gd Himself!

[Further, regarding the practice of saying words, and repeating them twice and three times, and spreading notes before the platform to sing in the style of a performance – all who have awe of heaven are pained by this, and they cannot protest, for the masses are undisciplined, and they will not listen to the words of the sages in this matter! They say that this is their enjoyment of Shabbat and Yom Tov!

In truth, perhaps there is no prohibition in this, but one who is good before Gd will flee therefrom. We have come to justify the actions of the sanctified descendants of Israel, whose eyes are sealed. Perhaps, from the fact that our Sages said one silences a cantor only for repeating the word “Shema,” we may say that this is not true for other words that they repeat twice and three times.

As to the notes they spread before the platform, we cannot present a reason to state a clear prohibition here, and so, “Let Israel practice as it will; better for them to practice in error, etc.”]


  1. Elsewhere he writes about how they used to have regular cantors and now everybody (especially aveilim) takes the amud even though they aren't capable, but what can you do (hmmm, I thought everyone was superfrum in the alte heim)

    BTW your example is a good one of how he defended the mimetic tradition (perhaps because he was a "pulpit rabbi" vs. a rosh yeshiva)

    Joel Rich

  2. Was this translation ever published?

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  4. Joel-
    Yes, he was not a fan of chazanim of the day... I do think that the mimetic/text dichotomy is somewhat oversimplified, though.

    Only on my hard drive, and in source sheets for some of my shiurim.

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  5. In my shul, we have a choir. The conductor uses a watch that functions as a tuning fork. However, unlike the tuning fork which must be struck to produce a sound, the watch produces a constant sound and is therefore usable on Shabbos. They were only developed in 1960 according to Wikipedia ( so I guess they didn't have that option in the Aruch HaShulchan's time.

  6. Still, Joel Rich makes an interesting point. The Aruch Hashulhan regularly takes pains to defend behaviors that he actually objects to on purely halachic grounds. It is interesting and important to see that he looks to defend and legitimate something that he would normally forbid. I don't think, though, it is just 'mimetic tradtion vs. book-based ruling'. In many cases, such as this one, the examples are relatively recent innovations. It is a worthy post in itself to consider what example of the attitude of deciding halacha is he displaying and teaching us.

    The problem of cantors was indeed considered a problem by many significant rabbanim. The Hayei Adam writes something to the effect of 'if I had the influence, I would do away with this evil custom'. Turning the prayer service into opera was not favorably received by many rabbanim in Europe. But it became widespread nonetheless. There's another post for you to consider, Rav T. - the role of music in worship, originally and throughout the exiles. The importance and styles certainly vary over time and place.

  7. So propose a theory that explains more of the data points(BTw by mimetic tradition I meant to include actual practice)
    Joel Rich

  8. Michael-
    Fascinating. How loud is that sound, and is it really constant? (I'd imagine it would need to be very low, so as not to be incredibly annoying...)

    R' Mordechai-
    Care to write a guest post on either of those worthy topics?

    I have yet to find the pattern, but perhaps one day...

  9. I wonder what the Aruch Hashulchan's views would be on the "Kosher microphone" that has been given the approval of the Zomet Institute and used in several large Modern Orthodox shuls. Thoughts? What are your personal vieews on the matter?

  10. Moshe-
    An interesting question, but perhaps more of an issue for some of his other writings in hilchot shabbat than for this particular note, I think. If I had the time I would bring some examples, but I can't at the moment.