Traditionally, the gabbai or shamash was responsible for the smooth day-to-day running of synagogue logistics.
An important functionary of the hassidic court is the gabbai (sexton or beadle) of the rebbe. The office was not an innovation of the hassidic movement – the term itself appears in the Talmud – though the role evolved with the movement.
Traditionally, the gabbai or shamash was responsible for the smooth day-to-day running of synagogue logistics. His purview may have included other Jewish institutions such as the cemetery. In practical terms, the gabbai would decide who was to lead the service, who should be called to the Torah, and so on.
The term gabbai is of Aramaic origin, and in talmudic times was used to describe the collector of moneys, be it communal taxes or charities for the needy, a treasurer of sorts (see B. Sanhedrin 25b and Rashi). In Anglo- Jewry the term “warden” is often used, a term borrowed from the Anglican Church, though the job description is not identical.
The beadle in the hassidic world, however, is no ordinary beadle. The gabbai is often more like a personal secretary to the rebbe, or even a chief of staff, the gatekeeper. The gabbai – it could be said – serves at the pleasure of the rebbe. The role is not considered a chore; it is a privilege to be part of facilitating the divine service of a hassidic master. This honor is reflected in the term used for the gabbai in the hassidic court – the shamash is often called a meshamesh bakodesh (one who serves in holiness). Frequently the abbreviation mashbak is used. The job of the mashbak is full-time and depending on the size of the hassidic court, a rebbe may have a number of beadles.
The role of the gabbai changes from one hassidic court to the next.
Some beadles are trusted advisers and confidants. Some are charged with chores in the rebbe’s home, others with managing the rebbe’s schedule. A gabbai may serve as a minder, escorting the rebbe on his travels and providing a measure of protection of privacy against invasive overtures from the public.
In many hassidic courts, the gabbai assists hassidim in writing a kvitel (Yiddish for note; plural kvitlach), a written slip of paper with the name of the petitioner and a short request asking the rebbe to pray on behalf of the hassid. As a more accessible office to the hassidim, the mashbak often serves as a conduit for the flow of information and directives from the rebbe. Some beadles are learned in their own right; others are more loyal than scholarly.
In hassidic parlance, the unlearned, simple mashbak may be called a Ropshitzer gabbai, for the great hassidic master Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz of Ropczyce (1760-1827) preferred the simple type of assistant, pure of heart and unsophisticated in mind. Hassidim explained R. Naftali’s preference: The simple mashbak would do the bidding of his master, leaving R. Naftali to focus on serving the Almighty. He did not need to consider the impression made on an inquisitive or nosy gabbai.
The tale is told of how R. Naftali might find an appropriate candidate to serve in this position. In those days there were no professional guards stationed around the village to protect against intruders, arsonists and other criminals. By official order, guarding the environs was entrusted to different individuals each night. The appointed guards would spend the night walking through the streets with a watchful eye. Needless to say, the wealthiest people did not do guard duty: When their turn arrived, they would hire the needy to fill their place.
One night, R. Naftali went to immerse himself in the mikve. One of the guards, seeing an unidentified figure walking through the desolate streets in the dead of night, approached him. Instead of demanding identification and an explanation, the guard calmly said: “I am guarding the south side of the village,” and asked: “Where are you guarding this evening?” R. Naftali replied: “You would be a good gabbai for me.”