The Chazzan-The Congregation’s Representative

Question: In the synagogue where we pray, the Gabbaim(synagogue officials) appointed a Chazzan who is not careful regarding Torah and Mitzvah observance to lead the High Holiday prayers. What should we do?

Answer: The Chazzan who leads prayer services in the synagogue acts as the representative and agent of the entire congregation and must transfer the prayers from the congregation to their Father in Heaven. It is for this reason that the Chazzan must be righteous, a man of utmost integrity, and free of any slander, all year long and especially during the Days of Awe (High Holidays).

The Seder Rav Amram Gaon (Volume 2, Chapter 55) states: “It was asked before the scholars of the Yeshiva: May a Chazzan about whom well-based, unsavory rumors have emerged be dismissed and replaced with someone else? They replied: Is this a question? Certainly, Halacha dictates that such a person must be dismissed and replaced with someone more suitable, for the individual acting as the intermediary between the Jewish nation and their Father in Heaven must be righteous, upright, and free of any slander. If he is not, our Sages (Ta’anit 16b) have already said that the verse (Yirmeya 12, 8) ‘She has uttered her voice against me, therefore I have hated her’ refers to an unworthy Chazzan who leads the congregation in prayer. All this applies to a Chazzan who leads the prayer during the course of the year; how much more so does this apply to a Chazzan on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and other fast days when there is a greater need for increased supplications and mercy.”

Thus, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l  writes (in his Chazon Ovadia-Yamim Nora’im, page 36) that an individual who transgresses Torah prohibitions, such as shaving with a razor, may not be appointed as Chazzan, even occasionally in honor of the Azkara (Yahrzeit, anniversary of death) of a parent. This is especially true if the individual desecrates the Shabbat; even if one does not desecrate Shabbat out of wickedness, such an individual is nevertheless disqualified from serving as a Chazzan.

If the synagogue officials are not so careful with their Torah observance and have hired or appointed such an individual to serve as Chazzan, one should find another synagogue to pray in during the Days of Awe. Maran zt”l  writes (ibid, page 37) that if one cannot find another synagogue to pray in, it is preferable for each member of the congregation to recite the High Holiday prayer services alone at home as opposed to praying in a synagogue where one who is not Torah and Mitzvah observant serves as Chazzan. The responsibility for the sin of disrupting communal prayer services rests solely upon the shoulders of these synagogue officials.

Although there may be room to judge a Chazzan who is not Torah and Mitzvah observant favorably by claiming that he is not acting out of rebellion or wickedness and merely because he is ignorant or uneducated, he is nevertheless unworthy of serving as a mediator and faithful advocate between the congregants and Hashem. Only if such an individual has repented fully and it is noticeable that his repentance is genuine may such an individual be returned to his position to act as a representative of the congregation before their Father in Heaven.