SHAMMASH (lit. "servant"):

Communal and synagogal officer whose duties to some extent correspond with those of the verger and beadle. In Talmudical times he was called "ḥazzan"; and then it was also a part of his duties to assist in reciting some of the prayers (see Jew. Encyc. vi. 284-285, s.v. Ḥazzan). But early in the Middle Ages the term "shammash" was already in vogue; and Rashi almost always renders it for the Talmudical "ḥazzan."


In the quasi-autonomous Jewish communities of the Middle Ages the shammash was an officer ofconsiderable power and responsibility. "He assessed the members according to their means . . . and . . . was a sort of permanent under-secretary-of-state, who governed while the parnas was supposed to rule" (Jacobs, "Jewish Year Book" for 5658 [1897-98], p. 262, London, 1897). He was the overseer of the synagogue and the executor of the sentences of the Jewish tribunal ("bet din"), in which capacity he also inflicted corporal punishment on those whom the Jewish court condemned to that penalty. In some localities it was part of his duty to announce every Saturday the results of lawsuits and to inform the community concerning properties which were to be sold. He acted also as the public crier, and, ascending to a high roof on Friday afternoon, notified the community, with a blast of the trumpet thrice repeated at long intervals, that work must cease. In later periods a wooden mallet was substituted for the shofar or trumpet, and notice was given by rapping on the gates that it was time to prepare for attendance at the synagogue. The shammash also made announcements in the edifice itself, sometimes interrupting the prayers to do so. He carried invitations to private festivities, and reminded members of the congregation of their duties, such as leaving their boots at home on the eve of the Day of Atonement and observing certain mourning rites on the Ninth of Ab in case it fell on the Sabbath.

Schul- and Stadt- Shammash.

In the large communities and in the Jewish cities which developed in Poland in the sixteenth and following centuries it naturally became impossible for the shammash to perform all the duties which were originally connected with his office in the small communities of the Middle Ages; and many of them devolved upon subordinates or upon special shammashim, while other services were relegated to men who no longer bore the title of shammash. Every synagogue in the Slavonic countries usually has a shammash, who is merely an overseer and is assisted by an "unter-shammash," the latter acting as janitor of the building and performing such manual labor as sweeping the floors, cleaning the candle-sticks, etc. The synagogal shammash and his assistant have charge also of the "baḥurim" and "perushim," i.e., the unmarried and the married Talmudical students who make the synagogue their home; and the influence of the shammash is exerted to procure "days" for the former, that is, to find seven households in each of which the poor student may be fed on one day in the week. A large community, however, has besides the "schul-shammash," whose duties and privileges are confined to his own synagogue, one or more "stadt-shammashim" or city shammashim, who are under the immediate jurisdiction of the rabbi and the Ḳahal, or of the representatives and leaders of the entire communal organization. The city shammash usually acts as shammash of the chief place of worship, and in very large communities, where there are often as many as eight or ten city shammashim, each of them in turn fulfils this duty for a certain time.

The Bet Din Shammash.

The Schulklopfer (one who calls the congregation to the synagogue by rapping on the gates with a wooden mallet), who is now disappearing even from the most backward communities, and who is only a memory in the larger cities of eastern Europe, and the "better" (inviter), who goes from house to house inviting the occupants to a marriage or a "berit milah," are two of the functionaries upon whom have devolved some of the duties of the shammash, but who have not inherited his title. There remains, however, the "bet din shammash," or shammash of the Jewish court of dayyanim, who is the "sheliaḥ bet din" (messenger of the court) of Talmudical times, and whose office probably always had a separate existence, except in very small communities. There is also the shammash of the Ḥebra Ḳaddisha (burial society), whose duties are analogous to those of a sexton.

In the United States every Orthodox synagogue has its shammash, who performs most of the duties of the "schul-shammash" of the Old World. He is as a rule better paid than his confrère in Europe, and often has much influence in congregational matters. The office of bet din shammash is found to-day only in the large Jewish centers where rabbis establish a bet din on their own account. As there are no separate communal organizations forming municipalities in the United States, the office of city shammash does not exist in that country.

In modern Jewish Reform temples the sexton performs all the duties of the original shammash which remain under the new arrangements.

The term "shammash" is applied also to the candle by means of which the Ḥanukkah lights are lighted and which has a defined position in every well-constructed Ḥanukkah lamp.

  • Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, pp. 8, 55-56, 81, London, 1896;
  • Kohut, Aruch Completum, s.v. Ḥazzan.
J. P. Wi.
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