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Talmud Brachot mentions some of the duties of the shali'ach tzibur in terms of some of his halachic responsibilities during prayer. But, I haven't been able to locate anything in the Talmud that explains why congregational prayer required a shalia'ach tzibbur to begin with.

Was this a historical phenomena that began because few people were familiar with prayers, and thus they needed a "leader" to recite prayers for them? Or is there some other basis? If so, since most people know how to read prayers, now, why do we need a chazzan, currently?

When did shlichei tzibbur, or for that matter, congregational prayers begin, in the format that we still have today? I assume that before the formalized siddur, people said whatever prayers they wished, individually.

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    How would you know the prayers if there was only one written copy of them in a 50-mile radius? – Double AA Oct 15 '15 at 19:37
  • Consider the sfardim who rotate among the congregation. It appears that someone must say aloud even if everyone knows them. – sabbahillel Oct 15 '15 at 20:05
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    If there's no shaliach tzibbur who would fulfill the duties that you mentioned? – Daniel Oct 15 '15 at 21:43
  • @Daniel OK, you seem to imply that the reason for the chazzan is completely historic, as I mentioned. If you can source that, and answer why we still need the chazzan, today, since most people have access to prayer books, than please post as an answer. – DanF Oct 16 '15 at 13:18
  • @DanF yeshiva.org.il/wiki/… – Daniel Oct 16 '15 at 13:42
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+100

You ask why we historically needed a shali'ach tzibur, when did they begin and why do we still need today?

R Ari Jacobson provides a first summary according to two different approaches

Back in the days when printed texts were not yet accessible, many Jews didn’t own siddurim and sefarim as we do today. Although there was a small segment of very learned scholars, there was also a significant percentage of people who were less educated than the masses of today and could not daven on their own. This was the original context in which the concept of chazarat hashatz evolved. The shaliach tzibur would repeat the text of the amidah in order to enable those who didn't know how to pray to fulfill their obligation.

This is in consonance with the principle of shomea k’onah. If I listen to a blessing and I have in mind to fulfill it, it’s considered as if I actually recited the blessing myself. The source for this is in the Navi that describes the reading of the Torah by Shafan Hasofer, the scribe of King Yoshiyahu. The Navi says that King Yoshiyahu read from the Torah. Actually, the king just listened with the intention of fulfilling his obligation and it was considered as if he read the words himself. So too, in early times, the chazzan would pray out loud and those who couldn’t do so on their own would listen, answer amen, and receive credit for having prayed.

Most people today pray on their own. Why do we still continue the custom of chazarat hashatz? The Rambam has a famous responsum in which he writes to a community that was not careful with chazarat hashatz. He states that today there isn’t much of a reason for the chazzan to repeat the amidah and even if we say one must hold on to the customs of our forefathers, if people will just sit and talk it is better to do away with the custom. Most communities did not accept this view.

There’s a second approach that suggests that perhaps the repetition of the amidah and other prayer services is not just to help those who cannot daven. Rav Soloveitchik notes that in the time of the Beit Hamikdash the Jewish nation brought individual sacrifices as well as communal offerings. Today the silent portion of the shemeonei esrei represents the individual sacrifice and the repetition represents the communal sacrifice. Even if one can pray on his own, there is still an obligation of participating in the offering of the congregation.

Earlier sources such as the Beit Yosef and the Maharik reflect this approach. For this reason, the Maharik suggests that just as in the Beit Hamikdash, the kohen who offered the korbonot had to do so with the agreement of the people, so too the shaliach tzibur represents the community with his public prayers. The Avnei Nezer writes that a chazzan should be careful not to lengthen the davening. Just as a korbon was brought on behalf of the participants, so too the chazarat hashatz is offered on behalf of the congregation and should be done with their full consent.


R Adin Steinsaltz in A Guide to Jewish Prayer offers a similar view

Initially, the function of the Shaliah Tzibbur' in public prayer services was created by reason of practical necessity. Since the prayers had not yet been written down and many people did not know them by heart, there was a need for someone well versed in the prayer formulations. This person was to intone them in a strong voice, so that others could repeat them after him, or could listen and respond with Amen at the end of every benediction thus fulfilling their obligation to pray. Even when the number of people familiar with the prayers grew, every congregation still had some individuals in need of a Shaliah Tzibbur. For this reason, it was ruled that after the congregants conclude the silent recitation of the Amidah, the Shaliah Tzibbur would repeat it aloud, thus enabling the general public to fulfill its prayer obligations. This is what is called Hazarat ha-Shatz — the repetition of the Amidah prayer by the Shaliah Tzibbur which is an integral part of public prayer to this day (Shatz comes from the initials of the words SHAliah TZibbur).

The repetition of the Amidah was of particular importance on festival days, and even more so on Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur whose special prayers were not remembered accurately by most of the worshippers, and certainly could not be fluently recited by all (see TB Rosh haShana 34b and 35a). However, in time, as the prayers were written down and compiled into books that were taught even to little children who had just learned to read and prayer formulations became familiar to all, the repetition of the Amidah continued merely as a traditional practice, not as an actual necessity.

Indeed, Maimonides in his day ruled that this repetition should be abolished, since everyone had already recited the Armidah in a befitting manner; as a result, people would converse during its repetition by the Shaliah Tzibbur, or engage in other activities, demonstrating disrespect for the prayer and the synagogue, which mould be considered a form of desecration. However, this ruling of Maimonides was adhered to by only a limited number of communities, mainly in Egypt, and perhaps also in some neighboring countries where he was considered the indisputable authority of his day.

A few centuries later, the Amidah repetition was reinstated even in these communities, as in Jewish communities everywhere else. The reason was that, beyond being a traditional custom, the Amidah repetition had acquired additional significance by complementing and elevating public prayer.


See also yeshiva.co where interestingly, he mentions a different Rambam that even if everyone is familiar with the prayers the regulation stays, specially since it is a congregational prayer, and the peak of the prayer is saying Kdusha with a Tzibbur.

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    You've done some great research on this, and I immensely appreciate the diversity of resources, here, as each one supplements the other. Interestingly, my shul chazzan mentioned Rambam's comment (I wonder if it was b/c he felt there was too much schmoozing in our shul?) and I was surprised to hear that shul schmoozing was, sadly, common in his time as well. I didn't know that Steinzaltz wrote a book on Tefilla. I like his works a lot. Have you read it and would you recommend it for someone who wants a historical aspect of tefillot? – DanF Dec 1 '17 at 15:37
  • Yes I read the book and liked it a lot - it is mostly a description of the prayer service with a great intro on the parallel between tfila and the mishkan. I took pics of the table of contents and uploaded them here - tell me when you have read them as I don't want to leave them on forever – mbloch Dec 2 '17 at 17:57
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    Excellent! Thanks so much. I added the photos to my Google album, so you can remove them. This looks like a very comprehensive book covering some topics I didn't think of, myself. I think I'll but myself a nice Chanukah present. Thanks for this info. – DanF Dec 3 '17 at 1:05
  • Congrats on the bounty. Well deserved. I have to see when the best answer competition ends. If it hasn't ended for this quarter, B"N, I'm nominating it. – DanF Dec 5 '17 at 23:21
  • @DanF too kind of you on many levels, many thanks ! – mbloch Dec 6 '17 at 4:30
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The gemarah in Rosh Ha'Shanah 17'b' reads as follows.ויעבור ד' על פניו ויקרא א''ר יוחנן אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו מלמד שנתעטף הקב''ה כשליח צבור והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה אמר לו כל זמן שישראל חוטאין יעשו לפני כסדר הזה ואני מוחל להם. Meaning;from the posuk va'yaavor the gemarah learns out that Hashem(ke'vayochol)clothed himself in a Talis like a sheliach tssibur and called out the slosh esrei midos and taught us to follow suite when having been involved in sin.

The Maharsha adds from mekubolim that Hsham clothed himself as he did on the day of creation with the light itself as they understand the posuk Ooteh ohr ka'salmah in Borchi nafshi to imply.

The Ben Yehoyadah explains there that Hashem acted it out rather than just instructing them on the way to do it,being that the impression of and appreciation of this act shall be far stronger upon visualizing it,as we find concerning the peddler who went around selling life and when asked to show his wears he read to them in a most appreciating manner the posuk Mi ha'ish he'chofets chaim bringing out the extent of the implication of that posuk

What we see from here is that the phenomena is definitely an old one, from the times of kabolas Ha'Torah,as well an understanding of the sheli'ach tzibur being the one who shall create the momentum and power in the air along side the emotion in the heart by vividly bringing out the extent of whats transpiring in this moment of our prayer,via cloaking himself in the talis and letting out an out pour of aspiration and passion.

(Adding the understanding of the mekubalim that Hashem cloaked himself in light,Hashem and our shali'ach tzibur too cloak themselves in the light of the words being said letting each word shine in our hearts.)

In conclussion the affect of the shali'ach tzibur will portray the words in tefilah as significant and crucial for our life and continued growth.

  • Thanks for the interesting and useful answer. It's sometimes tough to decide the answer to award a bounty to. I don't necessarily judge by vote count. However, the other answer provided more of a thorough historical perspective as well as providing useful links to additional material, so I have awarded that one. I may place an additional bounty on this question in the future, as I think there are multiple views on this interesting topic. – DanF Dec 5 '17 at 23:20

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