Couples looking for a Jewish wedding officiant are most likely looking for a rabbi. But ordained Cantors are just as capable of working with wedding couples and marrying them—plus, we sing! So what exactly the difference between a Rabbi and a Cantor?

What is a Rabbi?

The term “Rabbi” comes from the Hebrew word “rav” meaning “teacher.” Prior to the late 1700’s, the role of the Rabbi was to be teacher, leader, law interpreter, and almost a de facto governor of a Jewish community. Jewish law was, for all intents and purposes, the only law for the Jews. After the Emancipation and Enlightenment of the 1700’s, the role of religion as a law making body was being supplanted by secular civil law and modern democracies. The focus of world religions—Judaism included—became more “spiritual” in nature. Although orthodoxies of all kinds in every religion persist even today, civil laws prevail in countries like the United States of America, leaving strict adherents of Jewish law to express their needs for Jewish law through areas where civil law doesn’t hold sway: Marital officiation; circumcision; kosher laws… areas of Jewish life in which ritual holds weight for those who believe Jewish law is equal—or greater than—civil law.

For we moderns, Jewish rites and rituals can enrich our lives, but do not have to govern them. Thus, the role of the Rabbi is not the judge and arbiter of Jewish life, or even life in general. Rather, the Rabbi remains teacher, but has also become spiritual guide. The Rabbi is fluent in all aspects of Jewish lifecycle, Jewish law, culture, heritage… but the Rabbi was never intended to be a Jewish surrogate. The Rabbi is supposed to inspire a community to engage in Jewish text, experiment in Jewish ritual, and find meaning through a Jewish path.

What is a Cantor?

It used to be that there was a very large distinction between the two roles. The Cantor—in Hebrew “Khazzan,” from the word “Khazon” meaning “Vision” (for the Cantor was to inspire a community with vision)—was considered a “Sweet Singer of Israel.” It was his job (as there weren’t female cantors due to Orthodox Jewish law’s prohibition about hearing a woman’s voice!) to lead a community in worship. The Shulkhan Arukh (A summary text of Jewish law) insists that one who leads a congregation in prayer should be without sin, have a good reputation, have a pleasant voice, and be versed in Jewish text. Beginning in the 1700’s, the role of the Cantor started to become more formalized and required more musical skills. But up until the second half of the 20th century, Cantors were mostly relegated to leading prayer and being a music director of sorts.

But beginning with the more modern Jewish movements, the needs of the Jewish community demanded the role of the modern Cantor to change and grow. Today, a Cantor is a very different career—one that now typically requires a master’s degree in order to serve modern Reform and Conservative congregations. They are still relied upon to lead a community in prayer, but are now trained alongside Rabbis in subjects of Jewish law, texts, education, spirituality… In fact, at both the Hebrew Union College (Reform) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), the training ground for a majority of today’s Cantors and Rabbis, the curricula for both roles have a gross amount of overlap, with Cantors deviating by studying much more liturgy and music and Rabbis studying much more Talmud and texts.

What’s the same?

Functionally, it is very difficult to argue that the ability of an ordained Cantor and that of an ordained Rabbi is radically different. Today’s trained Cantors officiate at all lifecycle events: weddings, funerals, bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies, baby namings… Cantors teach, preach, counsel, advise… And were it not for the term differentiation, one would be hard pressed to find anything a Rabbi could do that a Cantor could not.

So why the difference?

For one, even though we live in a modern world, Judaism does evoke the past and tradition weighs heavily in Jewish communities. Jews typically think about their childhood and the role that their Rabbis played in their lives. Rabbis today continue to hold the greater leadership roles in synagogues (although there are a smattering of Cantors who serve as sole spiritual leader of Jewish communities). Cantors have much greater responsibilities in modern synagogues than they ever had before, but continue to be subordinate to Rabbis with whom they work. In a few situations, the Rabbi and the Cantor serve truly side-by-side in their congregations, both having close to equal responsibilities and roles. But by and large, the role of the Cantor is seen as less than a Rabbi, despite having the training and ability to act otherwise—and including musical and vocal training to boot.

What does all this have to do with my wedding?

That all depends on what you are looking for in an officiant. If you’re looking for someone conversant and experienced in working with couples, counseling them, crafting the rites and rituals of your future ceremony with skill… both a Cantor or a Rabbi should be able to do so, especially if they are ordained by a reputable seminary. If you are beholden to tradition, you still can’t go wrong by engaging a Cantor for your wedding—for decades, even in “traditional” circles, Cantors have officiated at weddings. Sometimes, it just comes down to what a family feels most comfortable with, and that’s totally understandable. What’s most important is that the fit is right for you. The title of the person is much less important than what they are able to bring to your special day.

You can also learn more about selecting an officiant from my blog post about deciding on the right one for you.