Friday, December 11, 2009
The term Gabbai is derived from the Hebrew gavah which means ‘to exact payment.’ In Mishnaic times, the gabbai was actually a gabbai tzedakah – a charity collector. During this time gabbai’im worked in partnership with at least one other to make sure there was no misuse of these funds either in their collection or in how they were dispersed.
The term gabbai later came to refer to someone in the medieval Jewish world who was responsible for collecting and administering tzedakah for the broader Jewish community. By this time period, the gabbai was usually a volunteer who helped disperse funds for such purposes as to help with burial, support the ailing, or simply to provide for those in need. Thus the scope and purpose of the gabbai became greatly expanded. In some larger communities they may have had as many as twelve gabbai’m with one serving each month of the year. This gabbai was known as the gabbai hodesh.
However, the term gabbai over time also came to refer to those who helped out in synagogue life as well. These gabbai’m would sometimes manage congregational affairs, but more often than not, they would help to distribute honors during the Torah service.
Today the gabbai is a volunteer who is central to the Torah service. For example they find volunteers for the honor of being called up to bless the Torah, also known as an aliyah. The gabbai ascertains the Hebrew names of these volunteers as well. The gabbai also helps coordinate the flow of the Torah service. In some cases, they even help keep the rabbi or cantor on track. To do this, the gabbai stands next to the Torah reader, holding a version of the text with vowels and trope markings, following along in order to correct the reader if he or she makes an error.