The cantor, or chazan (hazzan) in Hebrew, leads the prayers in synagogue. In ancient times, the term chazzan actually referred to a person with authority over communal affairs. However, today it refers exclusively to a prayer leader.

Who Is the Chazan?

In some congregations, the chazan is hired by the synagogue, and he invests significant time and effort into learning and perfecting the tunes with which he will lead the prayers. In some cases, he may even work together with a choir, crafting an experience that is spiritual, uplifting, musical and moving.

However, in most Orthodox communities today, the chazan is simply a member of the congregation who volunteers to lead his brothers and sisters in prayer.

What Does the Chazan Do?

In Ashkenazi tradition, the chazan reads the opening and closing lines of every paragraph of the prayers aloud, reciting the body of the prayers quietly along with everyone else. In Sephardic communities, however, virtually all the prayers are read aloud by the chazan (or a series of volunteers during certain parts of the service).

There are some things, however, that are said (almost) exclusively by the chazan, and said only when there is a minyan (quorum of 10 Jewish adult males) present. Here are some of those prayers:

Kaddish: This short Aramaic prayer serves as a bookend between various prayers and beseeches G‑d to bring the era of Moshiach, when His presence will be felt by all. There is also a version of Kaddish that is traditionally said by mourners, following the passing the death of a loved one. Read more about Kaddish.

Barechu: Before Shema, in the morning and evening prayers, the chazan calls the congregation to praise G‑d, saying, Barechu et Hashem hamevorach, “Bless the L‑rd who is blessed.” The congregation responds by saying Baruch Hashem hamevorach le-olam va-ed, “Blessed be the L‑rd, who is blessed for all eternity.”

Repetition of the Amidah: In the morning and afternoon (but not at night), if there is a minyan (quorum), the chazan chants the Amidah (“The Standing Prayer”) after the congregation has said it quietly. There is also the addition of Kedushah, a responsive chant that tells of how the angels praise G‑d. Read more about the Amidah here.

How Do You Become a Chazan?

One of the most famous cantors of the 20th century, chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt
One of the most famous cantors of the 20th century, chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt

Professional cantors often study their craft for years and are then hired after an auditioning process. However, a lay chazan can be any male member of the congregation over the age of bar mitzvah, provided that he can read the prayers well, has a pleasant voice and is accepted by the congregation. Note that the congregation’s prayers ascend through the chazan, so this is an awesome responsibility and privilege.

Watch a Chazan Sing a Cantorial Classic