How did people wake up in days of old? Generally, a crowing rooster, babbling birds, or simply the sun driving away the dark was sufficient to do the trick. But, what if you wanted to wake up long before dawn? What would wake you up then? Chazal discuss a number of techniques people used to wake them up when it was still dark outside, some miraculous and some mundane. The Gemara (Brochos 3b) mentions how Dovid Hamelech was woken at midnight when the north wind blew through his harp and how Rabi Akiva took a rooster along with him on his travels to wake him up at midnight (ibid. 60a), and the Zohar (Lech Lecha 92b) describes how a Jew woke himself up at midnight with the help of a water operated alarm clock:
“Rabi Aba. and his son, Rabi Yaakov, arrived at the village of Tarsha. When they wanted to sleep, Rabi Abba said to the householder, ‘Is there a chicken here’ to wake us exactly. He answered, ‘This is as I have a sign in my house. this weight before my bed water and it comes out by drop. At exactly midnight, when all the water is depleted, an implement [attached the weight falls] and makes a noise, and the noise heard in the whole house.”
Gevini the Announcer What happened when there was a need to wake up an entire tzibbur on a daily basis? During Medieval times, this was the of the shulklappers (a term first appears in a non-Jewish published in 1225) whose was to klap (knock) on peoples’ shutters and doors to indicate it was time to get up and shul. This was generally the shamash of the shul. The profession must have been common as surnames like Shulklapper and Klapper are still extant.
The custom of rousing people up for avodah and prayer extends all the way back to the Bais Hamikdosh. Among the people appointed over various duties in the Bais Hamikdosh, the Mishnah (Shekalim 5:1) counts Gevini the Announcer, whom, the Yerushalmi (ibid) explains, used to cry out every morning, “Rise, Kohanim, for the sacrificial service, Levi’im to sing, and Yisroel to stand by [as representatives of the nation].”
The Yerushalmi adds that he had a powerful voice. When King Aggripas once heard him yelling loud enough to be heard from eight parsa’os (8,000 amah, a few miles) distant, he was so impressed that he gave him many gifts. The Bavli (Yoma 20b) cuts down the distance somewhat, reporting that his voice reached the distance of three parsah. The Yerushalmi (Beitza 5:2, according to some texts) also also mentions shul officials who knocked on people’s doors to summon them to shul and the practice is mentioned by the Rishonim. The Oshri (Beitza 5:6) writes, for example, that although one may not knock on a surface in time to music, a shamash is permitted to knock on people’s doors to call them to shul. The Maharil writes that that it was the duty of the shulklapper to wake people every day except for Tisha B’Av. In his 17th century Sefer Haminhagim, Rav Yutzpa Shamash of Worms describes his city’s shulklapper had the dual task of waking people for davening and opening the ghetto gates that were sealed shut during the night. “In the morning,” he writes, “the shamash knocks for people to come to shul. In summer he does this at 4:30 in the morning and in winter as soon as he notices it is daylight. First, he knocks at his own building as he goes out. Then he goes to the outer room of the women’s shul and knocks a second time. He then enters the shul, says Ma Tovu, and sits in his place for a short while. Afterwards he goes to the house of the av beis din and knocks. Then he goes to the lower gate at the east end of the street and knocks and opens the large gate and the small entrance within, and proceeds to the upper gate at the west end of the street. As he walks, he knocks at the places he is specified to knock, and also opens the upper gate.” (abridged). In another sefer he wrote, Maasei Nissim, Rav Yuzpa relates how two strangers the shulklapper came across one morning saved the kehillah from a massacre. “One year before Pesach, the Gentiles were parading through the Jews Street [sic] with their idols when a Jew, not knowing that there were idols below, poured waste-water from his window onto one of the idols. It was announced that all the Jews would be killed unless the culprit turned himself in and the culprit refused to come forward. On the morning of the seventh day when the shamash was calling people to prayer, he opened the Jew’s gate and saw two strangers before him. “‘We have come to nullify the evil decree by confessing that we spilled the waste water onto the idol,’ they said. Immediately after making this confession to the Gentiles, they were killed with much suffering. As long as the Worms kehillah survived, the Jews made a hazkoras nefashos for these two strangers every seventh day of Pesach. Perhaps Hashem sent two angels in human form to nullify the evil decree.”
A Coded Hint
In addition to summoning people to shul or announcing the arrival of Shabbos, the shulklapper’s job often entailed announcing the news of people’s passing. This is mentioned by Rav Alexander Ziskind in the ethical testament to his sons at the end of his Yesod Veshoresh Ha.avoda (paragraph 39): “It is customary in all communities of the holy people that when someone dies at night, the shamash calls people to shul in the morning by knocking only twice on the door as a sign that someone in the town has passed away. Whenever I heard that he knocked only twice, I would induce great sadness into my heart for someone had been taken from the holy nation of Yisroel., and whenever I heard three knocks, I induced joy into my heart that no member of the holy nation was missing in this time. Generally, I gave thanks for this saying, .My Former and Creator, I give great thanks to you that no member of Your holy people has been lost in this town this night.”
The shulklapper’s job entailed more than simply waking people up. In Neustadt, Germany, the shulklapper used to knock on people’s homes with a peculiar rhythm: knock . knock . knock knock. Rav Moshe Isserlein (the Remah) who spent part of his life there explained that this rhythm was no coincidental convention, but hinted at the verse, Avo eilecha uveirachticha, I will come to you and bless you (Shemos 20:24). The two single knocks hinted at the aleph of the first two words, while the double knock hinted at the beis of the third word.
Yet another duty of the shulklapper was to invite people to simchos. This dates back to the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, when a shamash accidentally invited the wrong person to a wedding and set off a sequence of events that led to the churban. In Eastern Europe too, shulklappers would go to people’s home on the morning before a wedding and inform them that they were invited.
During the days of Selichos, shulklappers woke people with a special chant: Shter auf, shteit auf kinder, shteit auf la’avodas haBoray. Shteit auf tzu Selichos. Wake up, wake up children, wake up for the service of the Creator. Wake up for Selichos. Longer nusachaos continued with the message the Rambam ascribes to the shofar blast: “Wake up sleepers from your sleep and slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds and return in penitence. Sluggard, until when will you lie down, when will you rise from your slumber” (Mishlei 6:9).
Even longer versions concluded with the anonymous poem often inscribed on the amud of shuls and batei medrash in those days: “Adam do’eg al ibud domov ve’eino do’eg al ibud yomov, domov einom ozrim, v’yomov einom chozrim. A person worries over the loss of his money, and is not concerned over the loss of time. Money does not help and days do not return.” The minhag of waking people for Selichos was also prevalent throughout the Middle East. In some Sephardi communities, the shamash called each baal bayis by name to rise for the Selichos, and in Kurdistan even children were invited to come along. In cases where the household included an unnamed newborn, the shamash would call out, “Buna” or “Bruna” (child), “come to the Selichos.” In the Kurdish town of Zakho, the shamash would even call on the names of the recently deceased to come and join the prayers. Muslims living in that town believed that rising up on Selichos nights was good luck and paid the shamash to wake them up as well!
In Yemen, children tied a string to their leg and left the other end at the window for the shamash to tug on during his rounds. They would then accompany him on his way while blowing on small shofros and calling out for everyone to come to Selichos.
It has been claimed that the custom of waking people with a shulklapper died at the end of the 19th century and that its only remnant are antique shulklapper hammers on display in museums. This is not strictly true. The shulklapper persists in modern guise. Instead of old time shulklappers racing through the marketplace warning shops to close up, Shabbos niggunim now waft from loudspeakers to apprise people when Shabbos or Yom Tov are about to begin. Although funerals are no longer announced by a klap at the door, some communities still announce them from car-mounted loudspeakers.
And even Selichos have not been forgotten. Every year, R. Eizik Fried of Kiryas Belz makes the rounds of his Yerushalayim kehillah in his car. As a concession to modernity and perhaps due to the height of the apartment buildings, he has replaced the shulklapper’s hammer with a speaker on his car from which the ancient words still resonate: Yisroel am kodosh, kumu la.avodas haborei.
(Sources: Rabbi Chaim Simmons, Jewish Religious Observance by the Jews of Kaifeng, China, Kiryas Arba, 2010; Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin, Yomim Nora.im etzel Eidos Hamizrach, Machanayim vol. 60, pages 64-67).