Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Repeating Chazzanim Chazzanim

‘Comfort you, comfort you, my people’, once quoted a rabbinical wag. ‘Why does Isaiah repeat himself? Was he a chazzan?’ The issue of repeating words in prayers has long been a source of conflict between some rabbis and chazzanim, for while rabbis claim that repeating words spoils the meaning of the ancient prayers, the chazzanim insist that reiterating certain phrases enhances the beauty of the music and hence their inspirational value.

It is noteworthy that there are Biblical texts used in our prayers that contain repeated words. The most well-known example is Exodus 34:6, in which God’s name appears twice – ‘Lord, Lord, merciful and graceful God….’ In the group of psalms known as Hallel, which are read on Yom Tov and other special occasions, tradition has determined that some of the verses are read twice. None of these repetitions need concern us, as they are absolutely integral to the prayers themselves. The debate arises over the repetition of words, phrases or even whole sentences by the chazzan during the course of leading the prayers.

The blessings that constitute most of the main prayers –Amidah, blessings surrounding the Shema and Hallel – were very carefully formulated by the prophets and early sages; each word is of significance, whether its choice, position; even the total number of words. The esoteric thinkers understand that every phrase expresses a lofty concept and quite literally moves worlds – as such, we interfere with the text at our peril. From a halachic perspective, since God’s name is invoked in every blessing, it must follow the correct form to ensure that the Divine name is not pronounced in vain. These restrictions will not apply to more informal parts of the service, such as the collection of verses read before the Torah is taken from the ark and liturgical poems added on special days.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, writing in 1870 Frankfort, viewed the repeating of words by chazzanim as a reformist tendency, and therefore adopted a very strict view on the matter. Referring to the repetition of God’s name (which is treated very seriously by the Mishnah, as it smacks of dualism), he said that the ‘repetition of words for the sake of the metre of the tune seems on many occasions to be like the most repellent example of rejection of the unity of God… Doing this mocks things of tremendous importance… Any community that regards prayer more seriously than a fools’ game must instruct the chazzan not to repeat words.’ He goes as far as suggesting that if the chazzan won’t comply, he must be sacked!

Moving to mid-20th century New York, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein took a more lenient approach. While acknowledging that repeating words is against the spirit of the prayers, he distinguished between repetitions that render the prayers meaningless (which he prohibits) and those which preserve the essential meaning (which he reluctantly permits).

Finally, from the perspective of the congregant, it has been suggested that the services are long enough without reading any of the words more than once!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.