This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary


For a longer time than I care to measure I have been serving my synagogue in the capacity of "gabbai." As we shall see, the precise terms of reference for this position are not easy to define, but in general they involve making sure that the synagogue is properly set up for services, and assigning roles to the participants in those services.

As with several of the terms that we now use to designate communal functionaries, the current usage of the word gabbai bears little resemblance to its original significance. The term derives from the Hebrew root meaning "to collect money" and, indeed, in Talmudic literature that is how it is employed consistently, whether with reference to tax collectors in the employ of the government, or to administrators of the Jewish communal charities.

In either capacity, the ancient gabbai was not the most welcome of visitors. Furthermore, suspicions naturally arose that they might be skimming off the top of their pushkas. Even though procedures were put in place to preclude such distrust (e.g., by having them work in teams), the Mishnah still advises against accepting personal donations from "gabbais and tax-collectors" for fear that their contributions were not theirs to give.

The gabbai's duties as currently defined overlap those of several different functionaries in medieval Jewish society.

In Arabic-speaking communities, the distribution of tasks in the synagogue service, such as the leading of the prayers and the reading from scripture, was usually a prerogative of the "muqaddam," the official head of the local Jewish community whose authority was acknowledged by the government.

In the hierarchical societies of yore, the privileges of leading prayers or reading from Scripture were taken very seriously as confirmations of one's status in the congregation, and the rabbis of those communities were faced with frequent complaints about alleged slights by synagogue officials.

It was not merely a matter of who did or did not get an aliyah to the Torah. Respected individuals were acknowledged in special blessings, and the honourees were adamant that their names be recited along with a full and precise sequence of honorific titles. One prominent donor prepared written texts to insure that he would always be identified as "pride of the priests, delight of the nobles, trustee of the merchants, eye of the congregation, light of Israel and Judah"--in that exact order.

Even in our world or democratic and egalitarian ideals, the synagogue can often serve to highlight distinctions of communal status. A contemporary anthropological study of synagogue dynamics focuses on the gabbai's role as a power-broker within the community: "The gabbai, as keeper and dispenser of kibbudim [honorific tasks], thus handles what is perhaps one of the group's most essential properties. As such he shares in its power and importance."

On the other hand, some of the gabbai's more menial chores parallel those of the medieval "shammash," a general factotum (similar to a church sexton) whose list of responsibilities reflects the centrality of synagogue to Jewish communal life. These responsibilities could extend to some unlikely areas, such as that of the town crier who stood atop the synagogue roof to announce items ranging from the decisions of the court to the approach of the Sabbath, punctuating his proclamations with a shofar blast or the bang of a mallet (by virtue of which he was known as the "schulklopfer").

For all that the shammash occupied one of the more humble rungs in the synagogue hierarchy, the occupants of that office had a reputation for acting like royalty, and in some places, such as the kloyz of Vilna, individuals would actually pay for the privilege. An Egyptian contract from 1099 had to stipulate that disrespect for the muqaddam or members of the congregation would be considered grounds for dismissal from the office. The frequency with which similar warnings were repeatedly issued by the Jewish councils in Poland and Lithuania demonstrate clearly how difficult they were to enforce.

Astute readers of this column may have noted that all my recent articles have contained references to practices and records from medieval Egypt. Our intimate knowledge of that community, including the behaviour of its shammashim, is of course based on the thousands of records preserved in the Cairo "Genizah," which is presently celebrating the hundredth anniversary of its discovery.

It is therefore timely to observe that if the modern successors of those synagogue functionaries had had their way, those precious records might not have survived at all. For when Prof. Solomon Schechter arrived in Cairo to collect the Genizah's manuscripts and ship them to England, he noted that the documents had a tendency to disappear. In an 1887 letter written from Cairo to the librarian at Cambridge he summarized the lamentable situation:

The beadel & other infernal scoundrels are helping me to clear away the rubbish and the printed matter. I have constantly to bakeshish them, but still they are stealing many good things and sell them to the dealers in antiquities.
As a practicing "beadel," I find it humbling to trace my craft back to such enterprising and colourful scoundrels.

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Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, October 23 1997, p. 8.

  • Bibliography:
    • I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, New York, 1958.
    • S. W. Baron, The Jewish Community, Philadelphia, 1942.
    • S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1971.

    • S. Heilman, Synagogue Life: A Study in Symbolic Interaction, Chicago and London, 1976.
    • S. Schechter, "Schechter shares Cairo secrets," Genizah Fragments 32 (1996).