ḤEVRAH, ḤAVURAH (Heb. חֲבוּרָה. חֶבְרָה, Aram. חֶבְרָא), a formal membership association in the framework of the traditional Jewish community, now limited in scope. In Ashkenazi communities, each such society bore the generic appellation kaddisha (קַדִּישָׁא), "sacred," sometimes superfluously, as for example the "Sacred Society of Tailors," while the burial society was identified specifically as the ḥevrah kaddisha. Among Sephardim it was known as ḥevrah (ḥebra) ḥesed ve-emet. The best-known ḥevrah is the one which dealt with the reverent disposal of the dead, to which, in time, the name ḥevra kaddisha became confined. It probably existed in talmudic times (see *Ḥevra Kaddisha). The term ḥevrah, however, and even ḥevra kaddisha, was applied to associations of all kinds formed for religious, philanthropic, or educational purposes.
The ḥevrah with specific religious purposes went back at least as far as the 14th century. At Saragossa in Spain, mention is made in 1378 of the lelezmuroz (apparently, leil ashmorot, the night watch). Later there were, especially in Italy, groups designated Shomerim la-Boker, engaged in early worship. Mystic associations of kabbalists and Shabbateans met in special conventicles for the pursuit of their esoteric lore. Others served the existing synagogues; bedek ha-bayit cared for needed repairs, ner tamid for lighting. Groups such as shivah keru'im consisted of an elite, who, not content with the rare aliyah (call to the reading of the Torah) in the main synagogue, met in small groups in special rooms.
Educational associations were of two kinds. Benevolent associations provided instruction for poor children, chiefly the *talmud torah association. Associations for adult education covered a wide network of groups and provided a variety of courses, including study of the Mishnah, Talmud, or Midrash, and the chanting of psalms.
Philanthropic groups were also numerous. (In 1800 a testator in Amsterdam bequeathed funds to 210 charities.) Among the host of philanthropic associations were *bikkur ḥolim for visiting the sick and general *sick care; *gemilut ḥasadim providing free loans; pidyon shevuyim for *ransoming captives; hakhnasat oreḥim for care of transients; and *hakhnasat kallah providing dowries for poor brides.
Vocational associations comprised *guilds of artisans. Such professional fraternities were formed within every craft
The ḥevrah was distinguished from the modern association by its essentially religious nature. While each organized group served its stated purpose, the major benefits to be derived from membership were the heavenly rewards. In sickness and in death the member was assured that his fellow members would pray for his recovery or for the peace of his soul. This intercessional aspect was its greatest attraction. Next in importance was the social element: the honors conferred in the society's chapel, the conviviality of periodic feasts for members only, and the mutual aid benefits of a fellowship group. The association also exercised powerful control over the religious and moral behavior of its members. Rules of proper conduct were inculcated at admission; breaches of discipline were punishable by fines, expulsion, or the threat of being denounced to the kahal which possessed punitive powers, including that of excommunication. In structural and organizational patterns the various associations were remarkably similar. The fundamental law of each association was framed in a set of ordinances by legal draftsmen, ba'alei *takkanot. On admission the name of the new member was inscribed in the society pinkas, or minute book. Often there were periods of apprenticeship and journeymanship prior to full membership status. Children were admitted at the circumcision ceremony or somewhat later. Women, although inadmissible for membership in a ḥevrah, could enjoy its intercessional benefits either by making donations in cash or in kind, or by good deeds such as the performance of ritual ablution of deceased women, collection of charitable funds, or sewing garments for the poor. The revenues of the association consisted of membership dues, usually paid in weekly installments, as well as special assessments, voluntary contributions, profits from property acquired, fees for services, or compulsory taxes authorized by the kahal. The ḥevrah served a vital need before the development of modern social services. As an organized social cell it performed many necessary functions for the individual Jew. It played an important role in the fabric of autonomous institutions that kept Jewish life vibrant and diversified. In its modern context the complexion of the ḥevrah has entirely changed.
See: *Autonomy, *Community, *Fraternal Societies, *Hekdesh.
Baron, Community, index; I. Levitats, Jewish Community in Russia, 1772–1844 (1943); J.R. Marcus, Jew in the Medieval World (1938), 446–9; I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (19322); M. Wischnitzer, History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (1965); K.R. Scholberg, in: JQR, 53 (1962/65), 120–59; I. Halpern, Yehudim ve-Yahadut be-Mizraḥ Eiropah (1968), 163–85, 313–32.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.