The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 1 Dec. 1998


An excerpt from a forthcoming book of mine about Hasidic Tales

Rabbi Shlomo of Zevill
An excerpt from a forthcoming book of mine of hasidic tales


Direct Prayer


    Sugar or Coffee First?

    The daughter of Rabbi Meir of Premishlan told this story:

    She used to prepare coffee for her father, Rabbi Meir, every day. One day, her sister said to her, "why don't you et me have the mitzvah for once?" So she let her sister prepare the coffee that day.

    But when she offered the cup to her father, he pushed it away; he didn't want to drink it. When she asked him why, he said,

    "If you want to serve me coffee, you have to know how to do it. First, one puts in the coffee, which is the aspect of judgment; then, one puts in the sugar, which is the aspect of sweetening judgment. But you put them in in the reverse order! You put the sugar in and then the coffee. So the judgments are floating on top!"

    * * *

    Milk Or Coffee First?

    Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev once visited the Seer of Lublin. The Lubliner brought him some coffee and wanted to pour the coffee into the cup first and then add the milk. The Berditchever, however, asked him to please put the milk in first, and then the coffee, since, he said, "when I drink milk with coffee, I intend mikveh," because milk, halav, in gematria is mem and the letter mem together with kiveh (coffee) equals mikveh.

    When the Berditchever drank coffee, was he meditating on the mikveh somehow?

    * * *

    Coffee In The Sukkah

    Rabbi Yisrael, the Rizhiner Rebbe, said that when he drank coffee in the morning, his intention was as if eating and drinking in the sukkah.

    The Premishlaner, the Berditcher, and the Rizhiner did every act with kavvanah, with holy intentions. The lesson from these anecdotes is not that we must use the same kavvanot that they used, but that we should also use holy intentions that resonate with us, to keep our mind on God.

    * * *

    Stale Coffee

    Once, when Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk and his brother Rabbi Zusya visited their spiritual master, the Maggid of Mezritch, the Maggid told them that he would like to offer them some food, but all he had was some left over coffee from Shabbat. They arrived on a Monday and the coffee was from Shabbat! So he served them the stale coffee. Much later, Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zusya said: "that coffee kept us going for a whole year!"

    Hasidic custom and teaching is that remnants of a meal, or even as here a drink, from a holy person has a special potency and even a healing property. But perhaps the idea in this story is also that being served by their Rebbe transmitted to them spiritual power. That is, because the Rebbe was holy, he treated them as if they were holy -- and that energized them to live up to their Rebbe's view of them.

    * * *

    Serving Coffee

    When the Baal Shem Tov was younger, but already a holy man, he once traveled to be with Rabbi Yitzhak of Drohobitch to offer him personal service, for personal service to a sage purifies the soul. When he was in Rabbi Yitzhak's house, the Besht brought Rabbi Yitzhak coffee in a pot and served him. After Rabbi Yitzhak drank the coffee, the Besht removed the coffee pot, the cup, and spoon from the table and brought them into the kitchen.

    Rabbi Yitzhak's son, Rabbi Yehiel Michal of Zlotchov, asked the Besht, "Holy Rabbi, I can understand why you wanted to serve my holy father. But why did you also trouble yourself to carry out the dirty dishes?"

    The Besht replied, "carrying out the spoon from the Holy of Holies in the Temple was also part of the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur."

    Everything we do should be God-aware, even cleaning up.

    Coffee Medicine

    Once the father of a young hasid had a heart attack and he couldn't find a doctor, so the hasid ran to the Tzanzer Rebbe and told him the situation.

    What should he do? The Rebbe told him, "give him coffee!" Now everybody knows that coffee is bad for a heart condition, but since the Rebbe said to give it to him, he did. And, thank God, his father got well.

    A year later, his father again had a heart attack. This time the hasid thought he knew what to do, so he gave his father coffee and his condition became even worse! Oy! So he ran to the Rebbe and told him what he had done. The Tzanzer yelled, "don't you know that coffee is the worst thing for a heart condition!"

    "Rebbe, what should I do!" cried the hasid.

    "Give him coffee!" said the Tzanzer.

    * * *


    Rabbi Shlomo of Zevill was a great hasidic rebbe of the last generation. There is a photograph of him on the cover of his Hebrew biography, Tzaddik Yesod Olam (The Tzaddik Who is The Foundation of the World). The moment you look at this photo of his holy face, you become his disciple.

    Rabbi Shlomo, who was a great rebbe in Zevill, Russia, went, in the middle of his life, to live in Israel and chose to become anonymous. Eight years later, someone who was visiting Israel from the Zevill area recognized him and told everyone, "This is the famous Zeviller Rebbe!" From then on, many people came to him and he was once again a big rebbe. Following are some anecdotes about him.

    * * *

    The Rebbe's Cats

    The Zeviller Rebbe was compassionate not only to humans but to animals. He cared for a number of cats in his home, something very unusual for a hasidic rebbe! The hasid who wrote the Rebbe's biography mentions that he collected many tales about "the Rebbe's cats," but that they are too shocking to put in print! That he did not do so is our loss. Here is one tale, though, that he does record:

    The Zeviller Rebbe, like some other holy people, never asked any human of flesh and blood for help. He always trusted in and relied on God alone. Once, when he was lying on his bed, he asked a hasid who was in his room to hand him a book. This hasid knew that the Rebbe never asked anyone to do anything for him, and became worried; perhaps the Rebbe was sick! So he asked him.

    The Rebbe explained that he was not sick. He simply did not want to wake up the cat that was sleeping on the bed with him!

    * * *
    Ecstasy From Tefillin

    Tefillin are leather phylacteries, little boxes containing scriptural verses handwritten on parchment that men wear strapped on to their head and arm while reciting the morning prayers. According to the hasidic rebbes, tefillin symbolize and induce d'vekut, God-consciousness, being attached to God in a tight bond of love. And d'vekut produces bliss. Since tefillin are holy objects and a person is supposed to be in an elevated state of consciousness while wearing them, there are certain restrictions relating to their use, for example, that one may not sleep while wearing tefillin.

    The Zeviller Rebbe was attached to God every minute of the day, heart and soul, and experienced ecstasy from his d'vekut. His ecstasy deepened when he donned tefillin. When he was living in Jerusalem anonymously, the Zeviller used to pray in a certain synagogue and no one knew who he was, that is, they did not know that he was anyone special or that he had once been a famous rebbe. But when he said the Sh'ma, the "Hear O Israel" prayer, during the morning prayer service, he always went into an ecstatic trance. He would nod out.

    Once, someone noticed him, and said, "Hey! You're not allowed to sleep in tefillin!"

    Occasionally, hasidic tales, such as this one, tell of simple people and even some sophisticated religious people who did not realize that a rebbe had entered a state of d'vekut, a God-conscious trance, and instead thought that he had fallen asleep or fainted.

    The Zeviller Rebbe once told his hasidim that he "knew someone" in Jerusalem who got more pleasure from putting on tefillin than the most lascivious person got from his lewd behavior. The hasidim later realized that the Rebbe was talking about himself.

    * * *

    Learning Patience

    Hasidic rebbes have a custom to eat Sabbath meals communally with their hasidim in the synagogue, particularly the third Sabbath meal. Some rebbes conduct a Sabbath meal where everyone is quiet and meditative. The rebbe might teach Torah and there might be singing of Sabbath table hymns, but there is no conversation; everyone sits silently and eats in a holy meditative awe.

    The Zeviller Rebbe would often be in a meditative trance at his table. But, as is the way of the world, there were a few crude people who did not under- stand what was proper in such a holy setting, and would converse -- even about secular matters, which is actually forbidden on the Sabbath!

    Once, one of the Rebbe's closest hasidim, a very pious and spiritual person, turned to the Rebbe, when some people were talking at the table. He was disgusted and said, "What's the point of having a tish, a holy meal, together, when this goes on!"

    "At the table," said the Rebbe in a soft voice, "you can learn . . . patience."

    * * *

    The Baker's Donkey

    A certain Jewish baker in Jerusalem used a donkey to deliver his bread. Some friends told him that they had seen some suspicious-looking Bedouin Arabs eyeing his donkey. But he paid them no heed. Shortly after that his donkey was stolen. He searched for it everywhere, but could not find it. He went to the police, who said they would investigate, but nothing came of it.

    Then, he went to Rabbi Shlomo of Zevill and told him what had happened. What was he to do? He had no money to buy another donkey! How would he earn his living? He was distraught.

    The Rebbe calmed him and told him to say over and over throughout the day the traditional pious phrase when something bad happens, "Everything that God does is for good." Wherever he was, he should whisper constantly, "Everything that God does is for good."

    The day passed, and the donkey was not found. The next day, he went back to the police, who told him that a short time earlier an Arab had suddenly appeared, leading a donkey that he tied up to a post in the square behind the station. The man went out, looked, and found that it was his donkey.

    This tale would suggest to a hasid that the Zeviller Rebbe's prescription to utter the pious saying worked a miracle. The true spiritual interest of the tale is not, however, in its miraculous ending, but in the Zeviller Rebbe's lesson about trust in God -- to utter the pious saying that "everything that God does is for good" not only once-- as pious people normally do-- but to repeat it over and over, like a "mantra," for when a person is troubled by anxieties and worries, his mind returns to them continually, and to counter that disturbing effect he needs also to express his faith and trust in God again and again and again.

    * * *

    Three Anecdotes About The Rebbe's Holy Dancing

    (1) The Zeviller Rebbe's holy dancing at family weddings was famous, for he danced ecstatically, with great joy and d'vekut. Sometimes, after one round of dancing, he would enter a trance and fall to the ground in a "faint."

    (2) On Simhat Torah (The Celebration of the Torah) people dance with the Torah scrolls in circles around the synagogue. Since there are many more people than Torah scrolls, the dancing is done in groups so that each person gets a chance, and it takes a fair amount of time.

    Once, on the day of Simhat Torah, a Russian army unit composed of Jewish soldiers showed up in Zevill, returning from the front during the First World War. The Rebbe was anxious to see that these hungry soldiers had kosher food to eat, so they could celebrate the holiday. He entered the group of dancing hasidim and told one of his closest hasidim to take a sack and go out to the Jewish houses and collect holiday challah bread for the soldiers.

    The dancing was just then beginning, so the hasid was waiting for it to finish, which could take hours, before he began the task the Rebbe had assigned him. But the Rebbe saw him and called out, "The Torah can rejoice without you, but these soldiers are hungry and need food now, so they can celebrate the holiday!"

    The hasid immediately left the synagogue and went to collect the bread. After some time, as the dancing was ending, he returned with a large sack full of loaves of challah. The Rebbe was so happy! He took the sack of bread and, instead of a Torah scroll, danced with it around the synagogue!

    (3) Whenever the Rebbe danced at some holy celebration, the whole town of Zevill used to come to watch. And people wept from joy as they watched him. His biography says that they did not know why they were weeping....

    Why were they weeping? Because their dream had come true. Watching someone like the Zeviller Rebbe rejoice, seeing his holy ecstatic dancing, they realized that there surely is a God. So they wept for joy....

    * * *

    Various towns in Eastern Europe that had many Lubavitcher hasidim also had a mashpia, someone who transmitted the Rebbe's teaching. Not every hasid could visit Lubavitch and hear the Rebbe's teaching, so the mashpia would go, return, and tell the others what the Rebbe had said.

    There was a Lubavitcher hasid, named Rabbi Dov-ber Zev Wolf Kozevnikov, who was a mashpia in his town. When he transmitted the Rebbe's teachings, it is said that he gave lengthy explanations, for hours at a time, until his listeners fell asleep. Then, when he finished, he would remove his shoes, and tip-toe out in his socks, so as not to wake them.

    * * *

    This tale is from Jerusalem of the last century. Leah Shenker was the daughter of Rabbi Yosef Hayim Sonenfeld, one of the Chief Rabbis of Israel.

    Once, when she was having difficulty in childbirth, Rabbi Yosef Hayim advised his son-in-law, named Rabbi Shmuel, to go to the Lelover Rebbe, Rabbi Duvid'l Biderman and ask him for help. The Rebbe told him to tie a string to Leah's hand and tie the other end to the Holy Ark in the synagogue. Then let her pull: The Ark would open and she would be saved, with the help of God. They did it and she soon gave birth to a healthy baby.

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Copyright 2004-2005, Yitzhak Buxbaum. All rights reserved.