People have occasionally remarked (not always in a laudatory way) about my skill in pounding on the tops of tables and lecterns. This unusual talent is not a relic from my Cold War childhood, but a requisite of my position as a synagogue "gabbai." Especially (but not exclusively) at those moments during the service when one is not supposed to speak, a resonating blow on the lectern serves to draw the congregations attention to important matters, such as seasonal additions to the liturgy, an unacceptable noise level, or an imminent declaration by the rabbi.
In current practice, such interruptions of the service are designed primarily to enforce the authority of the community. However, through much of our history, it was just as likely that individual congregants would be the ones pounding on the table-tops in order to give public expression to their grievances against their leaders. The right of wronged parties to interrupt public worship in order to plead their cases is one that was respected in both European and Middle Eastern Jewish communities. There is reason to suspect that its beginnings go back to the Land of Israel during Talmudic times. In Islamic countries, the right to interrupt services seems to have been based on the legal assumption that the community as a whole, assembled in the synagogue, was in principle the highest tribunal; in accordance with the Biblical notion that "the people shall judge" (Numbers 35:24). Thus, to plead before the congregation was equivalent to addressing the highest court of appeal.
In documents from the Cairo Genizah, this practice is designated "calling the Jews for help." The proper time for such appeals was just before the reading from the Torah, as the scroll was lying on its table and the complainant had the power to stall the reading until the case had been heard. One writer even speaks of his intention to lock the ark until he was allowed the satisfaction of confronting his adversary. In the surviving records, the complainants are often women or girls, though they were probably represented by males. One touching petition was submitted on behalf two orphan girls whose older siblings had driven them out of their house. The matter was dealt with within a day of the complaint.
A virtually identical procedure, known variously as "interruption of worship," "closing the synagogue," or even "the suspension of the daily offering," was entrenched in the customs of the German and French Jewish communities from the earliest days of their documented history. The privilege is presupposed in one of the enactments attributed to the celebrated Rabbenu Gershom of Mayence, the celebrated "Light of the Exile," which had to set some practical limits to its use. According to the enactment, the complainants are initially given opportunities to voice their grievances at the conclusion of the synagogue service (or, according to some interpretations, at the more leisurely Evening service]. Only if satisfaction is not achieved after three such occasions may they now proceed to interrupt the communal prayers. A century later, an exception was made to the earlier enactment in a new statute that was issued by Rabbi Jacob Tam, responding to a frequently occurring problem: If the issue involved accusations before the gentile authorities, which threatened to remove the matter entirely from the jurisdiction of the Jewish court, then the complainers would be permitted to "interrupt the worship" immediately without going through other procedures.
In Fuerth, Germany, any individual was entitled to protest against abuses by the community by standing up in the middle of the service and calling out "ich klame!" Several liturgical compendia speak of the interruption preceding the morning invocation of the "Barkhu" as if it were a routine part of the morning prayers.
These interruptions could be serious matters. An extreme instance was the protest in Cologne that stretched out so long that it was completely impossible to read the Torah on that Sabbath, forcing the community to postpone the reading until the following week. The list of situations that justified the suspension of prayers is long and diverse. Examples range from poor tenants seeking to embarrass their hard-hearted landlords wielding eviction notices, to indignation at a communitys attempt to cancel a committee meeting. Not surprisingly, this democratic institution lent itself readily to abuse through excessive and frivolous overuse. Such a predicament was acknowledged in the bylaws issued by the Jewish community of Candia, Crete, in the 13th century, which decreed that all public protests must first be cleared with the communitys leaders, the contestabile--a change that must often have defeated the original purpose of the institution. In a similar vein, the Rhineland communities restricted the number of prayers that could be interrupted to less crucial ones, thereby diminishing the complainants leverage against the congregation. The medieval Book of the Pious expressed what must have been a widespread ambivalence with regard to interruption of the prayers. In one chapter it tells of a powerful community leader who was denied divine compassion at the end of his earthly life, in spite of a distinguished record of philanthropic activity, because he had been the occasion for several synagogue protests. "Because you," God reprimanded him "cause me delays in the prayers and Torah readings, you must bear your iniquity."
Other chapters in the Book of the Pious are less enthusiastic about the interruptions. The author advises worshippers to stay home and study , or to find an alternative minyan, rather than frequent a synagogue service that will be dragged out by announcements of grievances. Similar distaste were expressed by Rabbi Ephraim Luntshitz in 17-18th century Poland, who argued that the practice was offensive to God and brought public ridicule upon the Jewish community. I expect that our local synagogues will be reluctant to reinstate this venerable relic of populist democracy, not only because our congregants are so satisfied with their communal leaders, but principally out of fears that undue prolongation of the services would scare away worshippers.
Come to think of it, it might produce the opposite result. A parade of disgruntled congregants airing their complaints against each other and against their leaders might be just what we need to fill our pews and compete with the television talk shows.
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