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  • Writer's pictureLeann Shamash

The Dissonant Music of Prayer


When choosing a good cantor, whether a professional or simply a member of the congregation, what are the most important attributes which one should look for?

(This material is taken from


I) The Primary Sources

A professional Cantor is called a hazzan in modern Hebrew. In this responsum, we shall use the term shliah tzibbur (“emissary of the congregation”) which refers to both a professional hazzan and a layperson who chants the services.

There are three primary sources which emphasize three different attributes of a shliah tzibbur: personal piety, a good voice, and proper pronunciation of the Hebrew prayers.

1) The Eleven Attributes of a Shliah Tzibbur

The Mishnah in Ta’anit 2:2 describes the special prayer service held on public fast days to avert a drought:

1. one who is "regular"- conversant with the prayers

2. someone who has children

3. someone who has no food in the house so he can concentrate on the prayers

A baraita (ca. 2nd century c.e.) found in Ta’anit 16a adds more details:

Rabbi Judah said: they send up one who is burdened with children and no way to feed them, who has painstaking labor in the field and whose house is empty, who is humble and acceptable to the people, who knows how to chant and has a pleasant voice, who is well-versed in Torah, Prophets and Writings, and midrash, halakhot and aggadot, and in all of the blessings.



As is noted later in the full article, having a pleasant voice was not at the top of the list when it comes to the qualities of a chazzan or chazzanit, a cantor, yet when we attend synagogues or other places where someone chants prayers on our behalf, we might cringe when prayer is chanted in tones that are off tune. Some, although certainly not all, worshipers attend a service because of the voice of the chazzan or chazzanit.

As I travel virtually around the country to join different minyanim in order to recite the kaddish prayer in memory of my mother, I have seen various ways that congregations conduct minyanim via Zoom. Many are scrupulous, now that they are learning the ins and outs of Zoom, to silence each of the participants as they enter the virtual sacred space. Just as the words of the kaddish magnify the glory and goodness of God, Zoom magnifies each and every sound that emanates from the desk of or the footsteps or the munching or the crunching or the sipping of each individual in the room. Sometimes a well meaning participant unmutes themselves accidentally and the room is treated to the sound of them speaking to their significant other, or walking from place to place in their living room. These

sounds are often not welcome during the time of prayer, but totally understandable as we learn to navigate this new and unfamiliar Zoom territory.

Last week I visited a congregation in Chicago. The participants were not muted for the duration of the shacharit (morning) service. During the course of the service there was more background noise than one would expect. The person who didn't realize they were unmuted would probably be embarrassed for us to hear his/her sounds moving around the house and sitting down at their table.

Most of what stays with me from that service though, was the sound of the mourners saying kaddish. The sound is hard to describe. Most of all it is other worldly, as if being transmitted from a planet far from her. The sound is dissonant and grating on the ear. As I recall it now, my mind wanders to the story of the Tower of Babel where masses of people all spoke different languages and no one understood each other, causing mass confusion. This kaddish was two minutes of dissonance of disorder. The mangled words of magnification were magnified indeed. They amplified the pain, the feelings and the absolute confusion of this moment in time that we live in. The sounds echoed in my head and brought tears to my eyes. What a fitting way to embody grief and our confused state at this time.

I am so grateful for the rabbi in Chicago who allowed for these moments of atonality.

They were real and raw and filled up the silence with sounds that I can appreciate. There are times that are best for sweet sounds to fill the room and there are times for moments of disharmony to fine tune our ears to the chaos among us. Looking at the other people in that Zoom room that day I knew that the atonal words coming from our mouths, spread like

raindrops through cyber-space brought us together in an unforgettable way for a few moments. Thank you, Rabbi Minkus, for this opportunity and for allowing me to join your minyan last week.

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