Our tradition describes the person who leads services with an interesting title: shaliach tzibbur for a male and sh’lichat tzibbur for a female – shatz for short. Literally, the term means “messenger of the community.” It is an especially appropriate expression.
There are several ways in which the shatz functions as a messenger. In the most literal sense, the shatz gathers up all of the prayers of those praying in the room and delivers them, as the congregation’s messenger, to God.
In Jewish law, there are a number of mitzvot for which a person can designate an agent (shaliach/sh’lichah) to perform on his/her behalf. Praying is one of those. The shatz recites prayers on behalf of those who are unable to do so themselves. A person might not be able to read Hebrew or understand the words. A person may be unable to come to synagogue due to illness, or because s/he is caring for someone else with an illness. For all (legitimate) reasons why those who want to pray are unable to do so, the shatz prays on their behalf. They get credit for the shatz’s words. This is one of the reasons for saying “amen” after hearing a blessing. For the shatz’s agency to work, a person who is unable to pray must consciously think of the service leader as his/her representative (”have kavannah”), and the shatz must be aware that members of the community are entrusting their prayers to him/her. In addition to performing an important function for the community, the shatz should also serve as a dugma (role model) of religious behavior.
It is a big responsibility.
The following is a description of Congregation Sinai’s standards for those who are entrusted to be its shlichei tzibbur on Shabbat. As most of these standards are rooted in Jewish law and custom, primary sources from the Shulchan Arukh are included in the endnotes.
What are the ideal qualities of a shatz?[i]
Anyone who serves as a shatz should see him/herself as representing the Jewish people, both in and outside of synagogue. S/he should be humble, recognizing that leading services is not about “showing off” one’s voice or knowledge, but rather about serving a community and enabling worshippers to have meaningful experiences during synagogue prayer.
While there are some specific qualities that Jewish texts identify, much of the determination is made by the local community. The synagogue identifies for itself the kind of persons who would honor it by serving as a shatz.
The Congregation Sinai community is, to a large extent, lay-led. Many of our members are called upon to honor our community as its messengers. This especially includes post-B’nei Mitzvah teens. We want to encourage young people who have made the commitment to learn how to be a shatz to take on leadership roles in the community. We are honored to be led by them.
Standards for leading services
As the representative of the community, the shatz must personally recite all of the prayers correctly. During the silent portions of the service, the congregation is counting on the shatz to recite every word, ideally (but not necessarily) in Hebrew.
The shatz should understand what s/he is saying. This does not mean that s/he needs to know the meaning of each and every word, although knowledge of key words and phrases is important. The shatz should have an understanding of the themes that are being discussed by each prayer, as well as the dominant images and metaphors that are presented by the poetry and prose of the siddur.
The shatz should lead services using the correct nusach (musical mode). The style of chanting and singing should reflect the shatz’s interpretation of the meaning of the words, and should help other worshippers connect more deeply to prayer.
How long should services last?
The shatz should find an appropriate balance between leading services quickly enough to not be a burden to the congregation and going at a pace at which a person familiar with services can reasonably follow along. This means that a shatz must be aware of the time and conscious of the congregation’s mood so as to be able to make adjustments with regard to melody selection and speed. Music is a very important part of prayer, and Congregation Sinai’s services are participatory. As much as possible, the shatz should sing melodies in such a way that members of the congregation are able to sing along.[ii]
Is there a dress code for the shatz?
While Congregation Sinai’s culture is fairly informal, the clothing that one wears to synagogue should reflect the holiness of Shabbat and holidays. This is especially true for the shatz, given his/her role as a dugma and a representative of the community.[iii] What is acceptable or appropriate for a party, concert, or other occasion may not be appropriate in synagogue.
Because society’s standards differ for men and women, the specific guidelines are not identical for both genders. This is the basic rule of thumb: If there is any way in which a shatz’s clothing might distract a typical worshipper from prayer, it is probably not appropriate. (Exceptions made for holiday or parshah themed clothing. Eg: a matzah tie during Passover.)
For male and female shatz’s, clothing should be clean and not have visible tears. Jeans are not acceptable. Shirts should cover the shoulders, and should not have any writing or images that are inappropriate to a sacred setting. A shatz should not be barefoot. Out of respect for the holiness of the sanctuary and of Jewish worship, male and female shatz’s are expected to wear a head covering and a tallit.
Males should wear long pants and a shirt with a collar or nice sweater.
For females, skirts or dresses should be about knee length or longer. Slacks are also acceptable. A woman’s shirt should not be low-cut.
When should the shatz arrive at synagogue at Shabbat?
Because our services are so complete, it is important to start “on time” and stay “on schedule.” We ask that anyone serving as shatz arrive at synagogue by the following times to ensure that the community is well-represented and that services run smoothly. As much as possible, we do not want services to end later than necessary, thereby causing a “burden to the community.” Therefore, if the person assigned to be shatz has not arrived on time, the role may be assigned to someone else.
Birkhot HaShachar and P’sukei D’zimra
Services begin at 9:00 am. We ask that the person leading Birkhot HaShachar and P’sukei D’zimra arrive a few minutes early so that s/he can be ready to start leading services promptly on time (even if the Rabbi has not yet walked into the sanctuary). The Shatz should aim to complete Nishmat at 9:25 am. (Some especially quick davenners may end even earlier.)
According to the Shulchan Arukh, a person, especially the shatz, should only recite Shacharit after having already recited Barukh She-amar and at least some of P’sukei D’zimra (OH 53:2). The Mishnah Berurah adds that if the Chazzan comes to shul late on Shabbat (but still in time to lead Shacharit), s/he should recite Barukh She-amar, Ashrei, and Nishmat to him/herself before beginning to lead services.
In addition to these halakhic factors, it is stressful for those already in services when the shatz for Shacharit has not yet arrived towards the end of P’sukei D’Zimra.
Ideally, the person leading Shacharit should be in synagogue at 9:00 am. If this is not possible. that person should arrive with enough time to recite Barukh She-amar, Ashrei, and Nishmat to him/herself before shacharit begins – probably around 9:15 am.
The shatz who leads Musaf begins before the Torah has been returned to the ark at Yekum Purkan. This is typically at 11:15 am. Because the shatz is praying on behalf of the community, it is important that s/he has already fulfilled the other prayer obligations of the day. For this reason, s/he should have already recited Shacharit with the congregation, in addition to the minimum required from P’sukei D’zimra, as described above. Ideally, therefore, the baal musaf should arrive by 9:25 am.
Standards for Torah/Haftarah Chanters and Gabbaim
There are other ways in which individuals exercise leadership in services. Sinai members of all ages chant the weekly Torah and Haftarah portions. Gabbaim work behind the scenes to make sure that everything runs smoothly, including distributing aliyot and other honors, helping/correcting Torah readers, etc.
While Torah/Haftarah chanters and gabbaim do not technically function as “messengers of the community” in the same way as someone who is leading services, they indeed perform crucial function on behalf of the congregation. As such, they are considered to be role models, with basic expectations of appropriate dress and punctuality.
Torah/Haftarah chanters and gabbaim have the same expectations for dress as do sh’lichei tzibbur, with one exception. Women are not required to wear a tallit, although a head covering is expected since they need to go up to the bimah to perform their responsibilities.
Torah chanters should arrive in synagogue no later than 10:00. The person chanting Haftarah should arrive no later than 10:30. The Honors gabbai should arrive in synagogue no later than 9:45. The Torah gabbaim should arrive no later than 10:00.
[i] The Shulchan Arukh addresses this question.
A Shaliach Tzibbur must be proper. And what is proper? That s/he should be free from sins, and that s/he should not have a bad reputation, even from childhood, and that s/he should be humble, and desired by the congregation, and s/he should be pleasant, with a sweet voice, and that s/he should regularly read Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. (O.H. 53:4)
What if we cannot find someone who meets this criteria?
If there cannot be found someone who has all of these characteristics, they should choose the best in the congregation in wisdom and good deeds. And if there is an elderly uneducated person with a nice voice whom the community favors, and a youth of thirteen years who understands what s/he is saying, but does not have a pleasant voice – the youth takes precedence. A person who committed a sin unintentionally, such as killing a person accidentally and performing teshuvah – it is permissible to serve as a shaliach tzibbur. But if s/he did it intentionally – no… (O.H. 53:5)
A person should not be appointed unless his beard is filled in, because of the honor of the congregation, but a person who has merely begun puberty is permitted to occasionally “descend before the ark” (serve as shatz)… (O.H. 53:6)
[ii] A shaliach tzibbur who lengthens his/her prayer so that people can hear his/her pleasant voice – if it is out of the joy of his/her heart in offering thanks to Hashem Yitbarakh in a beautiful way, may blessing come upon him/her, as long as s/he prays with humility and stands in fear and awe. But if s/he intends to make his/her voice heard, and s/he is happy about his/her own voice, this is gross. In any event, whoever lengthens his/her prayer does not do good because of the burden to the community. (O.H. 53:11)
[iii] A person who is shabbily dressed, or whose clothing is torn and his/her limbs are uncovered, should not “descend before the ark.” (O.H. 53:13)