The Role of the Sheliah Tsibbur: A Historical Perspective

Long before Jews began to pray in a beit keneset, they had a sheliah tsibbur (messenger of the congregation). In fact, the concept of a sheliah tsibbur spans back to the time of the prophets. Yet, the connotation of this term and the function of this role has not always been the same. It is only after the destruction of the second Beit ha-Mikdash that the sheliah tsibbur took on its current, formal position within the beit keneset. Understanding the historical evolution of the role of the sheliah tsibbur is crucial to understanding the purpose of this central position in tefillah.

In the midrashic narrative, the first recorded sheliah tsibbur is God Himself. The Midrash tells us that God appeared to Moshe on Har Sinai, “wrapped in a tallit like a sheliah tsibbur,” in order to teach him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. While on the mountain, God not only presents Moshe with the words of this tefillah, but also teaches Moshe through example how this tefillah is meant to be performed.  God himself (garbed as a sheliah tsibbur) tells Moshe, “you [Moshe] perform this order of prayer before me, and I shall forgive them.”[i] In other words, God teaches Moshe that the sheliah tsibbur is the one who must lead this prayer on behalf of Benei Yisrael if they are to be forgiven.  Significantly, it is God who not only teaches us, but also demonstrates to us how to act as the sheliah tsibbur.

Many leaders throughout Tanakh take upon themselves the mantle of the sheliah tsibbur as well. When Benei Yisrael are threatened by the Pelishtim, they turn to Shemuel, asking him to pray on their behalf. Shemuel replies, “Gather all of Israel to Mitspah, and I will pray to God on your behalf.”[ii] Shlomo, too, upon the inauguration of the Beit ha-Mikdash, offers a lengthy prayer to God requesting of God that He “listen to the prayers that your servant prays toward this place [the Beit ha-Mikdash].”[iii]

The very term “sheliah tsibbur” may be based on a pasuk in Yirmiyahu. Distraught after the destruction of the Beit ha-Mikdash and the murder of Gedaliah, the people of Israel turn to Yirmiyahu, asking that he pray to God to give them direction: “Pray on our behalf to God… Whether it [the response we receive] be good, or whether it be evil, we will hearken to the voice of the Lord our God, to whom we send thee (sholekhim otekha elav).”[iv] As attested to by the wording, the people send Yirmiyahu before them as a shaliah – as a messenger with a mission to retrieve the word of God. Unable or unworthy to offer prayer, or communicate with God on their own, the people would send a navi, somebody whose own standing was worthy of God’s attention. The navi confronted God based on his own merit, not on the merit of the community that he represented.

The development of formalized tefillah concretized the role of the sheliah tsibbur. There is ample evidence, from as early as the era of the second Beit ha-Mikdash, of the existence of the beit keneset.  Historian Leo Landman explains that, in attempting to involve the general populace in the Levite-specific prayer services in the Beit ha-Mikdash, a system of ma’amadot (lit. “shifts”) was set up. Essentially, all Israelites were divided into twenty-four groups. Each group received a time allotment for when they were expected to assist in the service at the Beit ha-Mikdash. Yet, it was not feasible that everyone in the group could travel; therefore, each ma’amad, when its time came, would send only a few representatives. Those who were not sent were required to gather and read specific portions of the Torah and other texts instead. After the second Beit ha-Mikdash was destroyed, these places of ma’amad were transformed into locations of more formalized tefillah.[v]

As the beit keneset took on a more concrete form, so did the role of the sheliah tsibbur. One of the earliest mentions of the sheliah tsibbur[vi] in rabbinic literature occurs in Masekhet Ta’anit. The mishnayot there describe the procedure for prayers conducted on a day of communal fast for rain: “How were the last seven days of fasting conducted? They used to bring out the Ark into the open space in the town … they stood up in prayer, sending down before the ark an old man, well versed in prayer, one that had children and whose house was empty, so that he might be whole-hearted in the prayer.”[vii] Without nevi’im, the community appointed a new type of shaliah – the righteous old man. The community clearly invested in the persona of this sheliah tsibbur. Yet, what was the purpose and function of this newly transformed role? Was this zaken (old man) expected to be a mirror image of the navi?Was this shaliah expected to have sufficient personal merit to save the community through his own tefillot like the navi had done formerly?

In some instances, rabbinic literature seems to answer this question affirmatively. Many Tanna’im and Amora’im were well known for saving their communities with their personal tefillot.[viii] Most famous amongst these is, perhaps, the tanna Honi ha-Me’aggel (lit., “the circle drawer”) who, praying on behalf of Benei Yisrael, said, “O Lord of the world, Your children have turned their faces to me, for I am like a member of your household (ben bayit) … I will not stir until You have pity on Your children.”[ix] Honi’s prayer was clearly founded on utilizing his own merit (and chutzpah)to save Benei Yisrael.

There is another mishnah, however, which presents a very different notion of the role of the sheliah tsibbur in rabbinic literature. It is written in Berakhot: “If one makes a mistake in his prayer, it is an evil sign for him, and if he is the sheliah tsibbur it is an evil sign for those who have appointed him (i.e., the community), because a man’s agent is equivalent to himself (sheluho shel adam kemoto).” The mishnah then continues, “It was related of R. Hanina ben Dosa that he used to pray for the sick and say, ‘This one will live, this one will die.’ They said to him, ‘How do you know?’ He replied, ‘If my prayers come out fluently, I know that he is accepted (i.e., will survive), but if not, then I know that he is ruined (i.e., will die).’”[x] Here, the sheliah tsibbur is not presented as an individual, but, as the mishnah says, “sheluho shel adam kemoto,” he takes the place of the entire community. He stands before God, empowered not by his own merit, but by the merit of the community.[xi] The reason that the Mishnahchooses to recount a story of R. Hanina ben Dosa, after discussing the role of the shaliah,is clear. Like R. Hanina, the leader of prayer must realize that he stands before God not as himself but as the embodiment of the community. Thus, the repercussions of a mistake in prayer are enormous, affecting not just the shaliah but the entire congregation as well.

It follows that while it is praiseworthy to have a sheliah tsibbur who is meritorious, it is perhaps not absolutely necessary. The shaliah is granted his importance by the community, making his personal merits less significant. A careful reading of a passage in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah seems to echo this point, “One does not appoint a sheliah tsibbur unless he is the most prominent in the congregation (gadol she-ba-tsibbur) in terms of his wisdom and deeds; and if he is elderly, that is praiseworthy and one should try to ensure that the sheliah tsibbur has a pleasant voice and he is accustomed to reading tefillot.”[xii] These requirements, Rambamwrites, are “meshubah” (praiseworthy); however, they are not necessary. Tur states this even more clearly, “The Talmud did not intend this [the character traits listed for the sheliah tsibbur] to be a real obligation, but rather it is preferable [that he possess these traits].”[xiii] The sheliah tsibbur’scharacter does not have to be flawless because he does not represent himself; he represents the community.

If the sheliah tsibbur is a replacement for the entire community, one could perhaps suggest that he has the ability to fulfill the entire congregation’s obligation to pray. R. Gamli’el adopts this stance in an exchange with the Hakhamim that takes place during one of the first generations following the destruction of the Beit ha-Mikdash. The Gemarain Rosh ha-Shanah records this crucial debate: “The Hakhamim stated that just as the sheliah tsibbur is under obligation [to say his own tefillah], so too every individual has the obligation [to recite his own prayers]. R. Gamli’el, however, says that the sheliah tsibbur clears the whole congregation of their obligations [to pray an individual prayer].”[xiv] The Tosefta cited in the Gemara then records a discussion between R. Gamli’el and the Hakhamim regarding their respective opinions:

They [the Hakhamim] said to Rabban Gamli’el: “If your view is correct, then why

does the congregation [first] say the Amidah prayer? [Rather, the sheliah tsibbur should just say the prayer and fulfill everyone’s obligation.]” [R. Gamli’el] said to them, “[the purpose of the individual’s prayer] is to give the sheliah tsibbur time to prepare his prayer.” R. Gamli’el then said to them, “If your view is correct, then why does the reader go down [and stand] before the Ark [i.e. why do we need a sheliah tsibbur]?” They replied, “So as to fulfill the obligation of he who is not familiar [with the prayers].” He [R. Gamli’el] said to them, “Just as [the sheliah tsibbur] clears one who is not familiar [with his prayer], so he clears one who is familiar [with his prayers].”[xv]

This debate is crucial in defining what the early Tanna’im, the molders of rabbinic tefillah, thought about the newly revised establishment of tefillah and the role of the sheliah tsibbur within it. R. Gamli’el and the Hakhamim represent two distinct perspectives on the purpose of this “new sheliah tsibbur,” wrapped in its new context of a more structured prayer service. R. Gamli’el seems to have been the historical purist. For R. Gamli’el, the “new sheliah tsibbur” was no different from the sheliah tsibbur of the past. Tefillah, according to R. Gamli’el, despite formal changes, remained community focused. Thus, the tefillat ha-yahid (the prayer of the individual) was merely a way of ensuring that the sheliah tsibbur had the ability to properly “prepare his tefillah.”[xvi] Personal prayer did become a part of our tradition, but the focus of our prayers remained communal.

The Hakhamim on the other hand, promoted a greater revolution in the realm of tefillah. With the destruction of the Beit ha-Mikdash, tefillah had undergone a major transformation. Exile had caused prayer, by necessity, to lose its communal nature. Sensing this transformation in the nature of tefillah, the Hakhamim downplayed the traditional role of the sheliah tsibbur. No longer was the sheliah tsibbur the representative of the entire community. Rather, he was the representative of those who could not pray on their own. Tefillah had undergone a shift – and with it the role of the sheliah tsibbur had changed as well.

One aspect of the role of the shaliah,however, has not changed. The shaliah – whether a navi or a zaken – always has and always will feel inadequate, unprepared, and terrified when approaching his duties as the “messenger of the congregation.” How can he not feel this way? Just one mistake may determine “who will live and who will die.”[xvii] The task is daunting. Thus, standing the before the congregation, the shaliah hesitantly beseeches God to don His tallit and act as a teacher once again:

I ask God to grant me the gift of speech,

That I may sing His praise among people,

And utter chants concerning his actions,

A man may prepare his thoughts in his mind,

But the power of speech comes from the Lord.[xviii]


Dovi Nadel is a sophomore at YC, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.


[i] This midrash, expounding upon Shemot 34:5, appears in Rosh ha-Shanah 17a. It is cited in an essay by Gerald Blidstein entitled “Sheliach Tzibbur: Historical and Phenomenological Observations,” Tradition 12:1 (Summer 1971): 69-77.

[ii] I Shemuel 7:5. All translations are my own rendering unless indicated otherwise.

[iii] I Melakhim 8:29.

[iv] Yirmiyahu 42:2-6. See Blidstein, 76. Blidstein’s translation.

[v] Leo Landman, The Cantor: An Historic Perspective (New York, NY: Yeshiva University, 1972), 4.

[vi] The word hazzan appears many times in rabbinic literature (see, for example, Makkot 3:12 and Sotah 7:7-8). But the hazzan in rabbinic literature is not the sheliah tsibbur. Rather he more closely resembles our gabbai (functionary).

[vii] Ta’anit 2:1-2.

[viii] See the third chapter of Masekhet Ta’anit for more examples, including that of Nakdimon ben Guryon on 20a and R. Eliezer on 25b.

[ix] Ta’anit 3:8.

[x] Berakhot 5:5.

[xi] See Blidstein, 71.

[xii] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefillah, 8:11.

[xiii] Tur, Orah Hayyim 53.

[xiv] Rosh ha-Shanah 34a.Translation from Soncino Talmud, with my added clarifications.

[xv] Rosh ha-Shanah 34b-35a.Translation from Soncino Talmud, with my added clarifications.

[xvi] Rosh ha-Shanah 34b.

[xvii] Berakhot 5:5.

[xviii] Prayer recited during Musaf of the Yamim Nora’im. Translation from Landman, vii.