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Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky Explains the Position of Cantor and What Their Duties Are During Jewish Religious Service
A cantor, also referred to as a hazzan in Judaism, has played an important role in the synagogue throughout history. Beyond their primary function of directing liturgical prayer and leading chants, cantors serve as pillars of the Jewish community, with their modern roles often extending to that of teacher, government official, chaplain, and choir director. Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky of New York serves as a prime example of the important role that cantors play. Rogosnitzky currently serves as Cantor of the prestigious Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He has lectured widely on Cantorial music and its application to prayer, as well as taught and guided many of today's well-known cantors. Further, Rogosnitzky has a unique flair for organization and the implementation of community projects and is thus involved at the leadership level in many charitable organizations. Below, Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky offers his insight into what exactly a cantor is and what their primary duties are during Jewish religious service.
What is a Cantor?
According to Benny Rogosnitzky, Cantor of the Park East Synagogue in New York City, a cantor is a highly valued member of the congregation whose primary role relates to music. Specifically, cantors oversee the music and lead the chants at a synagogue. Some cantors serve the congregation for an entire year, while others are brought on to help with certain holidays or events, such as Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. The modern cantors have been around for approximately 300 years although the concept of the cantor, under the term “hazzan” first was found in writing from the 6th century. Cantors can be people from the community who volunteer as cantor, but often they have attended cantorial school and are thus ordained clergy members. Depending on the denomination of Judaism, cantors might only be of a specific gender. For example, in Orthodox Judaism, cantors must be men, but in Conservative or Reform Judaism they can be male or female.
The Duties of a Cantor During Jewish Religious Service
Throughout history, cantors have taken on a multi-faceted role within the Jewish community. In fact, the cantor is largely considered to be the most constant fixture of the synagogue from the medieval period all the way until the early nineteenth century, shares Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky. Centuries ago, the cantor was the congregation member who was responsible for the overall upkeep and care of the synagogue. This role encompassed announcing the start and end of the sabbath, removing Torah scrolls from the Ark of the Law before a service and replacing them after the service, educating young children in religion, and even caring for the ill or poor in a community. Some cantors even served as government officials and performed circumcision. In addition to all these different responsibilities, cantors also had incredible knowledge of both music and Hebrew, and so over time, they began assisting the reader, which eventually transitioned into the cantor leading the chants during service. In the present day, while their role still heavily involves music, cantors might also teach bar/bat mitzvah students how to read from the Torah, teach members of the congregation how to pray during service, and even conduct weddings or funeral services. In some cases, cantors who live in the United States, like Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky, may also take on the role of a mentor in religious schools. So, while many people think of a cantor as being synonymous with music, this isn’t all that they have been or are currently responsible for. One thing is for certain, although the role of a cantor has evolved throughout history, they have remained an integral part of Jewish religious service.
When it comes to a Jewish religious service, Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky claims that a cantor’s main role during service is to lead the congregation in song and prayer. It is important to note that what has changed is the audience’s reaction to such songs or chants. In the past, congregations mainly listened to the cantor who sang on their own. In the 20th century, this shifted as the synagogue underwent liturgical reform. Such reform included the introduction of choral music, and so cantos came to have an accompanying chorus or at the very least, a handful of singers who performed with them. Along with this, the congregation was encouraged to actively participate and sing along to the chants being sung. So, while cantors still sing and lead the congregation in song, they are responsible for creating an inclusive environment that incorporates communal singing into the service as much as possible.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes.