The ḥazan plays a central role during the Days of Awe, since he leads the prayers. Sometimes the whole congregation recites the prayers along with him, while he sets the pace, and at other times he recites the prayers alone, serving as the representative of the congregation (shli’ah tzibur), while the congregation then responds with “amen” (such as during the repetition of the Amida and the recital of Kaddish). Thus, it is important to make sure that the ḥazan is worthy of this sacred task. He must be upright, meaning he should not be a sinner, and especially not a thief. He should have a good reputation and should not have been known as a wanton sinner even in his youth. He should be humble, and the congregation should be happy with him, as he is their representative. He should know how to recite the prayers with precision and should be someone who regularly studies Torah and rabbinic texts. He should know how to perform the proper melodies and should have a pleasant voice, as this allows him to honor his Creator and to engage the congregation, inspiring the people and improving their concentration. If they are unable to find someone who has all these virtues, they should choose the wisest and best person available (Ta’anit 16a; SA 53:4-5).
It is proper that the ḥazan be married, just as the Kohen Gadol had to be married, and that he be at least thirty years old, just as the Levites began to serve at the age of thirty (Rema 581:1). Someone dedicated to Torah who is young and single should be given preference over a thirty-year-old, married ignoramus. Even if the choice is between an older man who has a good voice and is well-liked but is ignorant, does not understand the prayers, and makes mistakes reciting them, or a youth of thirteen who does not know the melodies but understands the prayers, the youth is preferable. A long-standing ḥazan should not be replaced even if a better candidate is available, unless there is something specific which now disqualifies him (SA 53:25).
Depending on the circumstances, there may be additional qualities to look for in a ḥazan. For example, if a community is fasting because of a drought, it is proper to look for a ḥazan who is poor, who has young children whom he has difficulty feeding, and who works hard in the field, as the drought causes him great suffering. In general, if the congregation is praying due to some threat, it is good to choose a ḥazan who is personally affected by it, or a leader who truly feels the suffering of the congregation (Ta’anit 16a; MB 581:10).
During the time of the Sages, it was forbidden to write siddurim because it was only permitted to put the written Torah – the Tanakh – into writing. It was forbidden to write down any orally transmitted material, including prayers and blessings instituted by the Sages (Temura 14b). Therefore, it was necessary for a ḥazan to recite all the prayers out loud, in order to fulfill the prayer obligation of the people who did not know them by heart. Thus, a community would appoint a ḥazan for the entire year, making sure that he had all the virtues discussed above. According to Sefer Ḥasidim (§758; MB 581:10), anyone who helps get an unworthy ḥazan appointed deprives the congregation of a worthy advocate and will be called to account for it in the future.
Over the course of time, the Sages permitted writing down the Oral Torah. With the advent of the printing press, siddurim became widely available. It was no longer necessary to appoint a regular ḥazan for all the prayers, because everyone prayed from their own siddur. Therefore, a different ḥazan now leads each service, and we are not as particular about his qualifications.
Nevertheless, on the Days of Awe, when we are begging God to forgive our sins, deliver us from troubles, and hasten the redemption, a community should be careful to select a ḥazan who meets all the criteria mentioned above. This is especially important for the Musaf service, as it is during Musaf of Rosh Ha-shana that we blow the shofar, and it is during Musaf of Yom Kippur that we recite the Kohen Gadol’s avoda (Temple service). If someone knows that he is not fit to be a ḥazan, he should turn down the honor if approached, because heaven promptly punishes an unfit ḥazan for his sins (Eliya Rabba; MB 581:10).
Even if an unfit person is chosen, it is not appropriate to have a quarrel over it. First of all, a quarrel is a serious sin in its own right. Second, even on the Days of Awe, all have maḥzorim and need not rely on the ḥazan to fulfill their obligation (Ḥatam Sofer OḤ 205; MB 581:11).
It is extremely important for a ḥazan to have a pleasant voice and familiarity with the melodies, and to use them for the glory of God. He should not engage in flourishes to show off his voice. A ḥazan who arrogantly extends the prayers is addressed in the verse, “They roar at Me, so I hate them” (Yirmiyahu 12:8). But if he uses his sweet voice and pleasant melodies to make the prayers beautiful in order to honor God and help the congregation focus, he will be blessed and his reward will be great (Rashba; SA 53:11).