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Rabbi Mirvis supports cantors at ECA's 8th Cantors' Convention

Chief Rabbi Elect of the UK and Commonwealth, Ephraim Mirvis, addressed the 8th annual European Cantors Convention on 19 June 2013.  

He thanked and congratulated all the cantors present and expressed wholehearted support to them and to the European Cantors Association.

His key messages were a reminder that the chazzan is the essential professional whose role it is to lead services, that a successful chazzan needs to have great familiarity and empathy with each of his congregants and that although being respectful to the wishes of congregants, Nusach should never be sacrificed.

He said “We have to guarantee that traditional melodies and ways of leading a service will be preserved for the generations to come” and concluded I am absolutely and totally behind you and would like to be a partner in all of your noble efforts.

Watch his speech here
Read the transcript below

Text of the words of Chief Rabbi Elect Ephraim Mirvis
to the 8th annual European Cantors Convention
London, Wednesday 19 June 2013.

Who was the original chazzan of the ancient Bet Haknesset?

The Mishna explains it was the man who would see to it that the chairs would be put out; that the Sefer Torah would be positioned at the right place; that the bimah would be standing there waiting for the services to take place and that everything was running smoothly.

The ancient chazzan was actually a hybrid of the gabbay and the shammes because he would oversee everything that was happening in the community – hence the chazzan is ‘the person who sees’ what is taking place and who looks after community.

In the Gaonic age from the 7th to the 11th century, there were two significant developments. The first was that our services expanded, we had more and more services with more and more prayers and eventually we arrived at a standard order of service.

But as our services expanded, ignorance increased as well. Fewer people were able to remember the services by heart and so (the second development was that) there was a need to appoint a professional to lead services in shul.

And who were the natural people to look to – the chazzan - the person who put out the chairs, the person who called people up to the torah, they were the most knowledgeable. They knew the shul and its congregants inside out and they were the obvious people to turn to. So therefore the Chazzan became the person to lead the service. 

As time went on, the person to lead the services was known as the chazzan for this historical reason.

But I think there is a powerful message here because our Chazanim need to be individuals who are in touch with the community I don’t expect the chazanim to put out the chairs but I do expect our Chazanim to be individuals to be familiar with members to be part of their lives.

If possible, to come to shul for Shacharit mincha and maariv on weekdays - if it is practically possible for them.

Because once you are part of the community the community appreciates you, loves you and looks up to you  and when you are on the bimah davening for the community they will welcome the role that you play.

Shaliach Tzibbur
You are the representative of the congregation : as the Talmud says, The chazzan represents the Jewish in the pew. In order to do so one needs to have (and this I think is the key word for all chazanim) Empathy.

And Steven [Leas], I loved your article which is in the Jewish Chronicle two Fridays ago – and its exactly what you said in calculating how many chazzonishe pieces to sing; what tone you set in the shul.

You think of what is going on in the minds of your congregants; are their eyes on the clock or not? Are they thinking about the Kiddush or not? Are they into chazzonishe melodies? Would they prefer to hear them at a concert or from the Bimah? To what degree do they want a performance? To what degree do they want to participate?

There are no absolutes here - it depends on the shul.

And what makes things complicated is, in any one given shul, you will have a number of views from within the community - so you have to understand that everybody needs to have something according to their taste.

So therefore perhaps on a Shabbat Mevorachin you might have a more chasonishe event

Perhaps from time to time you will have a choral service. But then often, you will get a move on - because that it what the community wants and then they will go to a concert to hear chazones.

You can't be too judgemental. Maybe they are right and maybe they are wrong – but that I how it is.

And as Shaliach Tzibur we can only succeed as a chazan if we are empathising with our community to identify with what their aspirations happen to be.

But I would add : on condition that we don’t compromise on nusach.

Nusach is being lost in the Jewish world in a very tragic way, and even though you might daven, on the odd occasion, a bit more quickly than on other occasions, it should never be through sacrificing nusach. Nusach is so important. We have to guarantee that traditional melodies and ways of leading a service will be preserved for the generations to come.

So I therefore want to thank all chazanim here, both within our communities in the UK and from abroad. Thank you very much for being the baal t'fila, for looking after our services and giving a tone to our services. Enabling us to have wonderful services that people want to come back again and again for. It's thanks to you that we have outstanding shul t'filot

I want to thank you for being chazanim, people who oversee what is happening in the community, people who take on a pastoral role as well. People who connect well with the members who are lovely individuals - as a result of which those in the community are proud of the man who is on the Bimah and identify with his t’filot

Thank you for being the Shaliach Tzibur for identifying with the aspirations of our congregants, for being in touch with the community and representing us before Ha’ Kadosh Baruch Hu.

So please G-d you will have great success tonight and through all your wonderful initiatives.
May they be continued through everything that happens upon the bimahs of all of our shuls throughout the years.

And ultimately, may your prayers be answered. For that is the true and ultimate purpose of all of chazanut – that Ha’ Kadosh Baruch Hu should hearken to all the prayers of our chazanim on behalf of our people, with mercy, for the sake of Am Yisroel in the future.

I congratulate you for everything that you are doing and you will do. I am absolutely and totally behind you and would like to be a partner in all of your noble efforts - and may Hashem bless you in everything you do.

Updated 21st July 2013