Prayer – waking people up to pray

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. 

Selichos 
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).

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