Friday, 19 April 2013

To Be A Chazan / Hazan / Hazzan

In my weekly words, at this time, I am looking at the original meaning of three terms; Shaliach Tzibur, Hazan and Baal Tefillah. Last week's discussion of the Shaliach Tzibur can be found at


To understand the term Hazan, one needs to rewind to a time when Judaism was based around Temple service and the Priestly caste. In Mishnah Tamid ‘Hazan’ is the title given to the person responsible for assisting the Priests with their ritual garments and looking after the Temple utensils (some scholars say the term is related to the Arabic Khazin = treasure keeper). As Judaism evolves beyond Temple-based ritual, the role remains one of facilitation, rather than being the centre around and through whom all ritual service flowed. The Chazan was in charge of the lamps of the Synagogue (YT Shabbat) and was responsible for bringing out the Torah scrolls and rolling them to the correct place for ritual reading (M Sotah). 


The earliest references to the Hazan as prayer leader come in the post-Islamic Pirkei Rebbi Eliezer and the fringe/post Talmudic work Masechet Soferim (5th-6th Century). In its earliest and original  usage the term meant the servant of the community's ritual needs – it’s closer to the contemporary terms Shamash and Gabbai.


The point, I think, is this. The Hazan's job is to facilitate divine service performed by others. It's not to perform this service 'vicariously.' It's not to remove others from their own direct involvement in turning towards God. There are many different forms of leadership. The most holy of leaders, however, are not those who dazzle so mightily that they stun us into obeisance but those who draw out from those led more commitment, more integrity and more decency than we knew we possessed. The best leaders make us more than we thought we could be, not less. This is the quality of leadership we seek from our next Hazan.



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