Wednesday, February 25, 2009

“Not Me” is alive and well in Gabbailand

This is something of a rant on behalf of Gabbaim around the world.

I was an addict of newspaper comics for many years, even though I knew the jokes never changed. There was always someone – Hagar, Ziggy, Dagwood - who ordered a large sundae with everything and then asked them to withhold a cherry because he was “on a diet.” There were teenagers who refused to clean up their room. There were kids who were rude, or precociously cute. New laughs were rare, but I read them anyway.

One of the comics I liked least was Bil Keane's Family Circus, but it must have made an impression on me, because I remembered his “Not Me” ghost the other day, in shul.

You know “Not Me” if you’ve ever had kids.
“Who broke the vase?” “Not me.”
“Who’s taking the first bath?” “Not me.”

“Not me” is like Eliyahu haNavi, condemned to attend every shul, especially when the Gabbai makes his rounds, trying to find a chazan. It seems that people are very careful about the Shulchan Aruch’s advice (Orach Chaim 53:16) that one must refuse a little when asked to serve as chazan – but they ignore his qualification ולא יותר מדאי, that one should not refuse too much.

We should really have a כסא של אליהו, an Eliyahu's Chair, for Not Me, right next to the chazan's amud. (And maybe a duplicate for board meetings, but that's another topic.)

The following is a dramatization, but not really fiction. Gabbaim know what I mean:

Time: Shabbos morning, sometime during Psukei d'Zimra, the first phase of the Shacharis service.
Location: Anyshul, USA

Gabbai (hopeful): “Musaf?”
Potential Chazan #1 (face still in his siddur, not saying any actual words of davening but studiously avoiding the gabbai's eyes): “No, thanks.”

Gabbai looks at watch, knows he still has a few minutes before the shul reaches Borchu. Sighs resignedly. Wishes he could wrap up assigning davening early on, so that he could daven with kavvanah himself. Moves on.

Gabbai (hopeful): “Musaf?”
Potential Chazan #2 (not looking very sorry): “Sorry. Sore throat.” (coughs for emphasis)

Gabbai looks at watch again, noting time rather than listening for the chazan; they are always at the same point in the davening at the same minute, anyway. Moves on.

Gabbai (hopeful): “Musaf?”
Potential Chazan #3: “If you have nobody else.”
Gabbai (very hopeful): “I have nobody else!”
Potential Chazan #3: “What about [Potential Chazan #1]?”
Gabbai (starting to look downcast): “Tried him.”
PC#3: “And #2?”
Gabbai: “He says he has a sore throat.”
PC#3: “Sore throat? He's been talking to Shmuel non-stop since 9:00 this morning!”
Gabbai: “Maybe that's why he has a sore throat?”
PC#3: “Give him a push, I bet he'll do it.”

Gabbai wanders off, answers “Borchu,” returns to seat since he is under rabbinic edict not to distribute what are laughingly called “honors” between Borchu and Kedushah. Turns around every time the shul door opens, to see whether another potential chazan might have entered.

Shacharit Chazan (ending Kedushah): “HaKel haKadosh – eh?”
Gabbai has just thrust a siddur into his field of vision, the page turned to Yekum Purkan. Gabbai looks questioningly – beseechingly, even – at the chazan.
Shacharit Chazan waves him off with a look of disgust that clearly asks, “No one else will step up? Come on!”

Gabbai shuffles over to rabbi, who pre-emptively waves his hand at the three small children beside him. “I'm taking care of these already,” his wave says.

Gabbai returns to PC #1, tries the Puss eyes he learned in Shrek, to no avail.

Gabbai returns to PC #2, who is likewise insensitive.

Finally, PC#3 has mercy on the gabbai and deigns to lead musaf. Gabbai sits back down, another week's responsibilities faithfully executed. One day, he knows, he will have the opportunity to daven with proper concentration – specifically, when someone has a yahrtzeit that day and insists on being chazan for everything.

Then the problem will be the complaints from people who don’t want that one to serve as chazan…


  1. Sadly, I used to be much like that as well. What's even worse, I am a ba'al kriah. Laining, no problem. Daven for the amud? Horrifying stagefright.

    However, a few years ago, I bit the bullet and didn't demure when asked to daven Mussaf on Shabbos. Since then I've become far more comfortable with davening for the amud. I'm no Caruso or Pavorotti, but I can get by okay.

    The Wolf

  2. Wolf-
    Thanks for commenting.
    I don't really mind when it's a matter of shyness; I'm more troubled when it's a "don't bother me" inertia. I like my gabbaim, and want to keep them in their positions for a long time.

  3. i can't help but notice, around these parts any way, that people are reluctant to commit to anything - they have this "what's in it for me" kind of attitude or as i like to call the "does it come with a free t-shirt" syndrome...

  4. Shorty-
    Sad to hear it. I hope that's an exaggeration...

  5. I am glad to daven for the amud. My problem, though, is showing early enough to be caught up by the point they need a chazzan...

  6. This gave me a good LOL - I'm also a gabbai - in Israel. Unwillingness to step up to the plate is not just a US thing... :)

  7. Shaul B-
    In Israel, too? I'm stunned! (not really, no...)