Confessions of a Gabbai

Hello. How are you? I look familiar, but you can’t quite place me, right? No problem, let me help. I’m the gabbai (gäˈbī) at your shul and, in fact, was on the bimah at your son’s bar mitzvah. You know, the one who mispronounced the Hebrew names of all your relatives. Sorry about that. I meant no harm, but it’s not easy up there trying to manage that which amounts to organized chaos. Herding entire families is hard enough, let alone singling out one individual for a name. And, please, don’t get me started on that microphone.

Perhaps, some background is in order. Basically, the gabbai’s main job is to ensure that the Torah service proceeds smoothly; a tall order when considering how many factors are beyond one’s control. In fact, one marvels that things don’t go wrong more often than they do. Case in point: recently, while donning my Torah reading hat, I fell victim to an egregious error: a misplaced yad (or pointer). What appeared to be the beginning of my part was, in fact, the part just before it (beginning with the same few words). I had not caught the problem until I was midway through the first sentence, creatively inventing trope and forging new words. Of course, I well-understood the confusion.  An easy mistake to make. And a reminder that anything can happen up there.

So why did I accept the job in the first place? A fair question. Well, while wanting to help out, I thought that, perhaps, I might improve upon the gabbais of my youth (who were so often impatient and wholly ambiguous at every turn). I can still recall their wild gestures for me to do… something.  G-d knows what. And if I moved too soon, I was in no man’s land. Too slow, I was rushed and admonished. In such moments, I foolishly looked to my older brother who, understanding my predicament, naturally motioned me to go up at exactly the wrong time. It was not unlike the Lucy-Charlie Brown football gag. Each time I trusted him only to fail miserably and, essentially, land on my tuchas.

And so, I was determined to bring compassion and clarity to the role.   Not so easy. For example, calling Aliyot is not as straightforward as one might think. When one cues the individual for his name, there is often an uncertain hesitation followed by a well-meaning, but sometimes unintelligible effort to identify himself. Moreover, my lack of intimacy with the Hebrew language can tilt my perception of what is actually said, reducing an otherwise well-spoken name to a dysfluent string of guttural tics.  Was that ben-Shlomo? Or was that Shimon? And one can ask the honoree only so many times before risking a punch in the nose. At other times, someone completely blanks – and an awkward silence hangs in the air encumbering all present. Of course, this is when the gabbai needs to step in and use an “out” phrase, such as calling “this person” for the Aliyah. If done gracefully, few will notice.  If not, one risks, well, a punch in the nose.

The gabbai also needs to ensure that the procedure is followed correctly – and to be on guard for those who may not know exactly what to do.  Every once in a while, someone gets panicky and begins to chant the preliminary prayer before his name is called.  Once, I had to stop someone for just this reason; and despite my best effort, my discreet redirection was met with Wrath (1) and Indignation (2).  And Trouble (3).  Big trouble – with an act of passive-aggression so outlandish that his poor wife later apologized to me for his inexplicable conduct.

But all of those trials are a walk in the park when compared to what can happen during the Torah reading, itself.  First, it is essential that the gabbai knows exactly where every part begins; and for the yad to be placed accordingly.  However, between readings, there is often a short break where it is customary to respectfully cover the Torah.  Please understand that there is no fastener, super magnet, or heavenly power holding the yad in place; and so, it occasionally moves from being brushed against its mantle.  At other times, I imagine the yad is not unlike “Thing” from the Addams Family, having a mind of its own.  The point being, that displaced by even one word, locating the correct spot becomes a harrowing ordeal; the Torah’s crisp calligraphy transformed into an infinite sea of random scribbles.

And then, of course, there is the Torah reader, himself, who is often so happy to complete the reading that he might just as well throw the yad up in the air, Mary Tyler Moore style. Oh, praised be the Torah reader who places the yad back in its correct position.  A more virtuous gesture I’ll never know.  And should an 11th Commandment referring to said yad ever be handed down from above, I would embrace it with all my heart.

The gabbai’s last major task is the supervision (and correction) of the Torah reading, itself.  Mistakes fall into one of two categories:  mispronunciations.  And everything else. In either case, ‘do no harm’ is the preferred policy; and to help ensure its precept, one must quickly gauge both the reader’s proficiency and rhythm so that, should an error occur, one might anticipate a self-correction (with no need to intervene). Otherwise, treatment should be administered in the least invasive manner – just enough to steer the reader back on course. Too much help only leads to problems. Happily, such balance approaches my natural disposition. Yet, with the right set of characters, a one-upmanship can break out where correction begets correction – devolving into a free-for-all. All that delicate guidance?  Right out the window.

So, what happened during my Torah reading debacle of which I spoke? Dispersion of responsibility? Mass narcolepsy? Defensive indifference? Who knows? Stuff happens. And my deep empathy and past alliances have helped me to forgive this act of negligence; a benign transgression, in the scheme of things. And I’ll soon read again. But for what it’s worth, I’ve decided to step down from my gabbai-ing post. Maybe the old school gabbais had it right: do what you do and let the chips fall where they may I just know it’s not right for me. Though, in a pinch, I might climb back onto the bimah and try again. And if I do, I might even get your name right.

But don’t count on it.

About the Author
Greg is a licensed psychologist who works full time in the Bucks County schools and maintains a part time private practice. He belongs to Temple Sinai in Dresher, PA where he resides with his brilliant, beautiful (and very tolerant) family.
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