Question: May a chazan sing non-Jewish tunes during davening?
Short Answer: According to many poskim, a chazan may not sing non-Jewish tunes, especially if the tune originated from another religion’s hymn.
I. Improper Speech
The Rama (Orach Chayim 53:25), based on a Kol Bo, rules that a chazan who uses improper speech or sings non-Jewish songs should be removed from his post. The language of the Kol Bo (brought in the Darchei Moshe) implies that a chazan who sings non-Jewish songs even outside of davening should be removed from his post, similar to the chazan who uses improper speech outside of davening. This is also how the Levush (25) understands the Rama.
II. Interpretation of the Magen Avraham
The Magen Avraham (31), on the other hand, cites the Sefer Chasidim and understands that the prohibition only applies to a chazan who sings non-Jewish songs during davening. The Magen Avraham further limits this prohibition to songs that originated as non-Jewish hymns.
Both the Shulchan Aruch HaRav (32) and the Mishnah B’rurah (82) follow the opinion of the Magen Avraham. Hence, only a chazan who sings non-Jewish hymns during davening would be removed from his post.
III. Practical Halachah
The Sheivet HaLevi (9:19) extrapolates from the wording of the Magen Avraham that a chazan may not even use non-Jewish tunes – without words – during davening. Further, the chazan may not even use secular music of non-Jews.
Similarly, the Tzitz Eliezer (13:12) cites the Maasei Rokei’ach who rules that all non-Jewish music should not be used during davening – even tunes without words.
IV. Lenient Opinion
Nevertheless, Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l (Yabia Omer 9:7) is lenient. Citing numerous Acharonim (including the Sefer Krach shel Romi), Rav Ovadia holds that since parts of Sefardi nusach originated in Arabic countries and from other religions, there is no problem for a chazan to use secular non-Jewish tunes in davening. Indeed, Rav Ovadia compares this leniency to the law that a non-Jewish house of worship may be transformed into a shul.
However, the Minchas HaKayitz (p. 70) distinguishes the case of non-Jewish songs from the house of worship. It is only permitted to change a non-Jewish house of worship into a shul because the non-Jews presumably have been “m’vateil” the building from its non-Jewish origins.
This is not the case with the non-Jewish songs that are still in circulation and played in non-Jewish forums.
V. Ignorant Chazan
Another leniency is found in the Kaf HaChayim (also brought in the Tzitz Eliezer ibid). The Kaf HaChayim rules that a chazan may sing a non-Jewish tune if he does not know the lyrics to the song, as he will thus not be thinking about the origin while davening. The Sefer Chemdas Genuzah (38) likewise rules leniently in such a situation.
Next Week’s Topic: A man is saying Kaddish for a grandparent. Does he have the right to join the rotation of men serving as chazan in memory of their parents? Does it matter whether he is saying Kaddish for his maternal or paternal grandparent?