Q. What is the function of a Parnas and Gabbai?A. In many synagogues, the lay leaders are called President, Vice-President and Treasurer. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London retains archaic part-Spanish titles such as Parnas-Presidente. The historic Jewish nomenclature called the president or chief warden the parnas and the treasurer or vice-president was the gabbai. Today the gabbai is usually the lay official in charge of synagogue services.
Parnas means “manager” or “trustee”; the root denotes “to support” or “to sustain”. In the Grace after Meals, God is mefarnes otanu – He who sustains us with food.
In Talmudic times the parnas supervised the religious, communal, social and commercial life of the community and even determined wages and prices and regulated weights and measures.
He had to be a man of personal integrity and enough of a scholar to explain “laws from any source, even from a tractate which is not generally studied”. At times men of lesser integrity sought office for personal prestige or material gain; the Talmud warns that God weeps over an arrogant parnas. Rabbi Eleazar says that a leader who rules benachat, “mildly”, on earth, will be a leader in the next world too.
As time went on, the parnas was usually the most influential (sometimes the richest) member of the community. Now the scope of his functions also changed, coinciding with the emergence in the Middle Ages of a salaried rabbinate, and he dealt with administration while the rabbi was the spiritual leader. Today the parnas is the Synagogue president.
The word gabbai is derived from a root which means to raise or collect funds. It originally referred to the Jewish tax collector appointed by the Romans, but subsequently the term was applied to the administrator of communal charities.
Before long the gabbai became the communal treasurer, though in modern times the term often denotes the officer who presides at the synagogue service, allocating ritual duties, awarding aliyot and even controlling the seating arrangements. He does not necessarily have any financial duties.
The gabbai, with the parnas and the communal council, had wide powers in the Middle Ages and could impose fines or the cherem. Some modern parnasim and gabbai’m dream of having this level of control, but rarely does it happen.