In the 1946 film The Big Sleep, based on the Raymond Chandler mystery of the same name, Carmen—the promiscuous, drug-addicted younger sister of Lauren Bacall’s character—sizes up Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart, and asks him, “What are you, a prizefighter?” Bogart responds, “No, I’m a shamus.” “What’s a shamus?” she inquires. “It’s a private detective,” he answers. Yes, Bogart is using the Yiddish version—more popularly spelled “shammes”—of the Hebrew word, “shamash.” But how did a Yiddish word for the ninth candle on a Hanukkah menorah turn into a term for “private detective”?
Shamash wasn’t originally a Hanukkah word. It first appears in the Mishnah (c. 200 C.E.) and Talmud (c. 500 C.E.) to describe a person who is a “helper,” “servant,” “assistant” or “functionary.” The festival of Hanukkah was celebrated for more than 1,000 years before the word became associated with it. The first written mention of a shamash light to kindle the other candles of the menorah appeared in the 16th century. Joseph Karo’s Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, stated that “One should place it [the shamash] at a distance somewhat from the other lights which serve for the mitzvah.” In other words, the service light was placed next to, not attached to, the menorah. Over time, the role of the shamash as “helper” or “service” candle became as much a part of the menorah as its “holy” counterparts.
By the 13th century, the word’s general meaning as a helper or functionary had come to be applied to a synagogue sexton or beadle, according to Israel Abrahams, a British rabbinics scholar at the turn of the 20th century, in his seminal book, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. Some of his tasks were indeed servant-like or ministerial, such as handing out candles to students studying in the evenings in the synagogue study hall, blowing the shofar to announce the coming of Shabbat, knocking on doors to call people to the synagogue—the schulklopfler (literally “synagogue knocker”). However, the shamash was not a lowly position. He played two critically important functions in the Eastern European synagogue, says Jeffrey Saks, who has edited and translated many of Nobel Prize-winner S.Y. Agnon’s Hebrew short stories, including a tale about a Galician shamash, “Until Elijah Comes.” First, while the rabbi was the community’s “holy man,” making halachic decisions and pronouncements about what “should be,” it was the shamash who “saw things as they really are and got things done,” whether they pertained to money matters, implementing policy or resolving personal conflicts—combining functions that today are performed by two synagogue officers, the president and the executive director, Saks observes. In addition, he notes, the shamash was the rabbi’s “eyes and ears” in the community, alerting the rabbi about people “falling through the cracks,” a poor soul needing a Sabbath meal or a bride in need of a chuppah.
It’s this meaning of shamash that likely led to its use as a word for detective. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary suggests that the connection comes “from a jocular suggestion of similarity between the duties of a sexton and those of a house detective in a department store.” However, there is another possible reason why shamus and detective are linked. The 1961 Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English suggested that the word’s derivation came from the popular Irish name Seamus. The plethora of Irish cops earned them the nickname Seamus, and it later morphed into a term for police detective or simply detective.
Sarah Bunin Benor, author of the Jewish English Lexicon website and professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, thinks it’s likely that both the Irish and Yiddish words influenced this use. She notes that a detective story called “The Shamus” was published in 1920, and the term was in common use in the 1920s and 1930s. Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939.
Bogart’s shamus did follow the Yiddish pronunciation (like “promise”), while the 1973 comedy Shamus starring Burt Reynolds pronounced it like the Irish name “Seamus” (“shay-mus”) as does the private eye in the 1998 cult favorite The Big Lebowski. As recently as 2007, the Yiddish pronunciation made somewhat of a comeback in Michael Chabon’s novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The novel’s main character, Meyer Landsman, is a jaded homicide detective and “the most decorated shammes in the District of Sitka,” the Yiddish-speaking Alaskan Jewish homeland. However pronounced or spelled, the word is being used less and less to refer to a sexton or a detective. Fortunately, it shines once a year in the Hanukkah menorah.
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