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Shabbat Parashat Nitzavim 5779

Ask the Rabbi: An Avel as a Chazan for Yamim Noraim

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: Is it permitted for an avel (mourner) to serve as a chazan for Yamim Noraim (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur)? Whose decision is it – the shul’s or the avel’s?

 

Answer: The classical source on the topic is the Maharil (15th century, Ashkenaz), based on the Maharam. In contrast to the rabbi who asked him the question, the Maharil (Shut 128) states that the minhag is that an avel does not serve as a chazan on Shabbat and Yom Tov or on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The Rama (Yoreh Deah 376:4) cites this minhag in regards to Shabbat and Yom Tov and adds on “… even though there is no prohibition in the matter.” The Shach (ad loc. 14) and Pitchei Teshuva (ad loc. 8) posit that the rule is the same for the Yamim Noraim. 

The Meir Netivim (80) posits that there is no problem with an avel being a chazan on special days. What the sources are saying is that as opposed to a regular weekday, when an avel makes a point of being the chazan, the minhag is that they do not make an effort on Shabbat, etc. However, if it works out for the avel to do so, there is no reason to stop him.

However, the great majority of Acharonim understand that we do not allow an avel to be the chazan on these days. The Rama only means that it is not a classic prohibition but a bad idea which we do not choose to allow (see Noda B’Yehuda I, OC 32). The Maharil implies that the problem is that all of these days are happy days (in varying degrees and aspects). It is possible to explain either that it is not appropriate for an avel to expose himself to the happy tefilla as a chazan (Shut Maharam Shick, OC 183) or that the avel is insufficiently capable of giving the tzibbur’s tefilla the level of festivity it deserves (see Zera Emet III, 164).

There is another approach to the reason for the avel not to be chazan on special days. The Pri Megadim (Eshel Avraham 581:4) invokes the idea (see Taz, OC 660:2) that during aveilut, there is an element of din (strict judgment) that hangs over the avel. Therefore, it is unwise for the community to be represented by one who is more likely than usual to attract negative judgment. According to this approach, even if the avel decides that he wants to be chazan, it is appropriate for the tzibbur to refuse. The Pri Megadim raises another ramification of this approach. Although the onset of Rosh Hashana after completion of shiva removes the halachic status of avel from a mourner for a relative other than a parent, the spiritual situation of the effect of din continues until thirty days have passed. Therefore, even such a person should not be a chazan at that point.

The Maharil (ibid.) says that if there is no viable alternative to the avel as chazan, then he is allowed to serve. The biggest difference in practice between different communities is in determining what is and is not an alternative. According to some (see opinions Divrei Sofrim, YD 376:92), it is enough that the chazan serves on a yearly basis so that it not look as if he is being chazan because he is in aveilut. The Afarkasta D’ania (I:156) explains that we don’t want it to look like the deceased is wicked, as others do not need protection on special days. He also suggests that having been chazan once before is enough (once may create chazaka rights – Shaarei Teshuva 581:7). The Mateh Ephrayim (581:24) says that it is permitted as long as the avel is clearly more qualified (on cantorial or religious grounds) to the alternative. If the avel receives payment that is financially significant for him, this is reason for leniency (ibid.).

In a past discussion, about an avel as chazan on Rosh Chodesh, we explored the topic of whose decision it should be to allow the avel to serve as chazan; the findings were not conclusive. This is true here as well, and much depends on the reasons given above. It is best if a decision is made based on consultation between the rabbi and the chazan, and it is best if all involved explore the matter with flexibility and sensitivity. Certainly, a congregant should not make a fuss over the matter (see Meir Netivim ibid.). 

 

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