GASTER, MOSES (1856–1939), rabbi, scholar, and Zionist leader. Gaster was born in Bucharest and studied at the University of Breslau and the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, where he was ordained in 1881. He taught Romanian language and literature in the University of Bucharest, 1881–85, published a popular history of Romanian literature, Literatura Popularǎ Românǎ (1883), and began his great chrestomathy of Romanian literature Chrestomatie Românǎ (2 vols., 1891). In 1885, because of his protests against the treatment of the Jews, he was expelled from Romania. He settled in England where he was appointed to teach Slavonic literature at Oxford University in 1886. In 1887 he was appointed haham of the English Sephardi community.
Gaster's abilities as a scholar and an orator gave him an outstanding position both in the Anglo-Jewish community and in those areas of intellectual life in which he became a recognized authority, e.g., folklore and Samaritan literature. However, Gaster had a stubborn and combative personality, and this led to an unwillingness to retreat from a position once taken, which did not enhance his reputation. When he was principal of Judith Montefiore College, Ramsgate (1891–96), he endeavored to make it an institution for training rabbis, but the attempt failed. In 1918, after disagreements with his congregation, Gaster retired from the office of haham.
Gaster was active in Hibbat Zion and later in the Zionist movement. He accompanied L. *Oliphant on his visits to Romania, Constantinople, and Ereẓ Israel, and also played a considerable part in the establishment of Zikhron Ya'akov and Rosh Pinnah in Palestine, the first colonies settled by Romanian Jews. He became one of Herzl's early supporters but opposed him on the *Uganda Scheme, and this also brought him into conflict with the leaders of the English Zionist Federation, of which he was president in 1907. Throughout these years Gaster was a prominent figure at Zionist Congresses, being elected a vice president at the first four. It was to Gaster that Herbert *Samuel, then in the British Cabinet, turned when he wished to establish contact with the Zionists. The conference held at Gaster's home in February 1917 between the Zionist leaders and Sir Mark Sykes of the British Foreign Office was an important stage in the events leading to the *Balfour Declaration. After World War i he returned to his dissociation from official Zionist policy; this was partly the result of his failure to satisfy his ambition of becoming the official leader of the organization.
Gaster's writings covered many branches of learning, including Romanian literature, comparative and Jewish folklore, Samaritan history and literature, rabbinic scholarship, liturgy, Anglo-Jewish history, and biblical studies. A selection of Gaster's scattered essays appeared under the title Studies and Texts in Folklore, Magic, Medieval Romance, Hebrew Apocrypha … (3 vols., 1925–28). Other publications are listed in the bibliographies below. Gaster assembled a magnificent library, including many manuscripts, most of which he sold to the British Museum in 1925, but he continued his literary work, despite almost total blindness.
His son, theodor herzl gaster (1906–1992), educator and scholar, was born in London, and taught comparative religion at Dropsie College, Philadelphia, and at several universities in the United States and elsewhere. His writings include Passover; its History and Traditions (1949), Purim and Hanukkah in Custom and Tradition (1950); Thespis; Ritual, Myth and Drama in the Ancient Near East (1950, 19612), Festivals of the Jewish Year (1953), Holy and the Profane (1955), and New Year; Its History, Customs and Superstitions (1955). He edited J.G. Frazer, The New Golden Bough (1959), edited and translated Oldest Stories in the World (1952), and translated the Dead Sea Scriptures into English.
B. Schindler (ed.), Occident and Orient… Gaster Anniversary Volume (1936), includes bibliography; idem, Gaster Centenary Publication (1958), contains revised bibliography; C. Roth, in: jhset, 14 (1940), 247–52; dnb, supplements, 5 (1949), 309–10.