Everyday Life: Be a shammes

Mr. Julius was a fixture of my childhood, but I never knew if “Julius” was his first or last name and have no memory of actually speaking to him. He chanted Torah in the synagogue, nothing fancy, very matter-of-fact. I loved the matter-of-fact way he chanted. But even more remarkable than his chanting was the fact that he never missed a service. He couldn’t. He was the shammes.

The shammes (rhymes with Thomas) is “the sexton in a synagogue” according to most of the online dictionaries. Chanting Torah isn’t part of the job. Unlocking the door and taking care of the property is.

It’s pretty easy to forget about the shammes. Synagogues have rabbis; mosques have imams; churches have preachers/ministers/priests; schools have principals; companies have CEOs. Who ever notices the shammes? But let’s hear it for the shammes in all her/his incarnations: the person who is always and reliably there.

A long time ago I had a sort of shammes-like job. Fresh out of college I was the only office staff person in a tiny business. I forget what the business was, but part of my job was to be there at 8 a.m. to answer phones and speak to anyone who came in. Of course at 8 a.m. nobody called and nobody came in, not even the other workers there, and I found it harder and harder to drag myself out of bed to get to work on time. Sometime during the second week, with the best will in the world, I just couldn’t make it. First I was five minutes late, then 10, then 15. And then I was fired.

I didn’t understand. Nobody had called. Nobody had come in. Why did it matter whether I was there or not?

But of course it mattered. I was the shammes. The shammes doesn’t sit around figuring out whether this time people will probably be late. The shammes is simply there, whether anybody else is or not.

Then there’s the other half of the job: maintenance. The shammes doesn’t wait for someone to call with a problem. The shammes’ job is to pay attention. It’s the shammes who notices when a drain is a little slow, the paint beginning to crack, the door a little stuck. Everyone else can go around preoccupied with whatever happens to be preoccupying them in that moment, but a shammes has to notice things.

Back in graduate school I had a spectacularly non-shammes moment. Walking across the relatively vast expanse of Sproul Plaza at the University of California when it was essentially empty, I managed to trip and fall on a peach pit. A peach pit! In Sproul Plaza! In broad daylight! Nobody blocked my view. Why didn’t I see it? Because I wasn’t looking, that’s why. You’d better believe a shammes would have seen a peach pit on the ground. And cleaned it up. Instead of being sprawled on the ground like me, needing a Band-Aid.

So let’s hear it for the shammes. And, even better, let’s learn to act like one.