The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 6 January 2003


1. On His Way to Heder

An anecdote about Rabbi Yehiel of Moush, a disciple of Rebbe Mordechai of Lechovitz: When he was seven years old he was walking to heder (religious primary school) and saw a Jew traveling on his wagon, which was his livelihood. Suddenly the horse fell down and died. The driver began to weep bitterly; how would he make a living for his family? When little Yehiel saw this it touched him deeply and he said, "Master of the world, I won't go to heder until this horse gets up and revives!" And so it was. The horse got up and the wagon driver went on his way. (Yehi Or, p.210)

2. How to Pray

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav once told a story: There were two boys who were such close friends and loved each other so much that they actually could not live without each other. Once, one of them became sick and the other boy was very troubled. He asked what he could do so that his friend would get well, and was told to recite psalms. In his innocence, he began to recite psalms, and after each few psalms he asked if his friend was well. This happened a number of times and they told him that his friend was still sick. But he kept saying psalms until his friend was completely well. Rabbi Nachman told this tale to teach his hasidim to pray and to pray with simple innocence until the needed help arrived, and to believe that with each prayer the judgments are ameliorated little by little, until all the judgments are completely sweetened. (Siach Sarfei Kodesh (Breslov, vol.1, p.58, #163)

3. Even the Horses

Rabbi Noson of Nemirov was once traveling and he davvened in the carriage with his usual tremendous fervor. When they reached an inn for a rest, the carriage-driver told the innkeeper, "Today, I'm traveling with a Jew who was praying with such fire that not only was I crying, the horses were crying too!" (Siach Sarfei Kodesh [Breslov], vol.2, p.137, #593)

4. Asking for Blessings

Someone once came to receive a blessing from Rebbe Zev of Zbarazh, for children. The rebbe asked him for a pidyon (soul-redemption gift of money) of three rubles and told him that for a full year he should always be certain to have a guest at his table whenever he eats and to ask his guest to bless him for children. The man fulfilled the rebbe's command and the next year came joyfully to the rebbe to tell him that he had had a son.

When the rebbe heard this he went to his drawer and took out the three rubles that the man had given him for a pidyon and showed him that he had not used the money. He told him that when the man had come to him the previous year to ask for his blessing, he had seen in himself that he could not help him by his prayers or blessing. Therefore he advised him to take in every day when he ate, a guest who should bless him. And certainly, over a year, one of those guests would be worthy and a tzaddik, whose blessing would have an effect in heaven and his prayer would be received. "Therefore, I didn't make use of your three rubles so long as I didn't hear that you'd been saved. Because if my advice didn't work, it'd be theft on my part to use your money. But now that you've been saved, I can use it." (Maamar Mordechai, vol.2, p.106)

This tale has many depths, but its advice can be followed by those in need of blessing. When you have guests for Shabbat, for example, ask them to bless you for your need. Even if none of them is a tzaddik, the prayers of the many are heard in heaven.

5. Loud Blessings

Rabbi Hayim ben Attar, the Or HaHayim, once attended a Passover seder in the home of some simple but pious Jews who recited the Haggadah with joy, holy awe, liveliness, and very loudly. Although they were simple people, he saw to his surprise that the face of the man of the house was shining with a great holy light. He was even more surprised to see that lady of the house's face was shining much brighter. So he asked them why he sensed such holiness in their home. The man told him this story about the way they conducted their home:

They had always made it a point in their home to recite all blessings and prayers loudly, with life and sweetness. And for a long while everything in their home went along smoothly, peacefully, and quietly. Despite their difficulties with livelihood they rejoiced in their portion and trusted in God. They were especially gratified to watch their precious children grow up to be God-fearing, pious Jews as they desired.

Seeing all this, the Satan was filled with jealousy and decided to darken the light shining from their home. One day the Satan appeared at their home in the guise of a wealthy elderly Jew with a long white beard. He acted as if he was delighted with the family, was always full of smiles for them, and gave them generous monetary support to fulfill all their needs. He moved in with them and after some time even replaced their worn and tattered furniture with new, high-quality furniture. When he had achieved full rule over the family he began to instruct them spiritually, questioning why they always prayed and recited blessings so very loudly, which is not a civilized way of acting. After all, the Holy One, blessed be He, hears even prayers said in a whisper! He uttered other poisonous words, dripping with honey, as if all he desired was their welfare.

When the simple householder saw this scholarly, dignified, and generous Jew, who had saved them from starvation, speak so "reasonably," he began to listen and obey him, while the wicked one continued to shower on them money and gifts. He even had their home repaired and whitewashed! So this man had cooled off the fervor for our Father in Heaven that had always dwelt in their home. The woman, the lady of the house, who was also simple-heartedly pious, at first also listened to the rebellious elder who injected this snake poison into them. But before long she began to feel the alien spirit that was blowing in her home from the time that the demonic elder had taken up residence with them. She detected more and more laxity and frivolity in a home that had until now been filled with sincere and true piety. Her greatest pleasure in life had always been hearing her children sweetly reciting blessings, and studying and praying with desire and fervor; it was that which soothed her spirit in the face of all her troubles and difficulties. Now, things had taken a disastrous turn. True, there was now some material expansiveness in their home; but the joyful and free spirituality they had always delighted in was gone! What had taken its place was an indifference and coolness that bordered on frivolity.

She went to her husband and said in a tone that could not be misinterpreted that she wanted everything to return to how it once was. She felt there had been a terrible spiritual deterioration because of the elderly guest and things could not go on as usual until this affair was taken care of. Her husband was quickly convinced by her clear words, but what could he do, how could he defy his benefactor? The woman said firmly that she was willing to totally give up all the stranger's gifts and support. Better to live in poverty than to defy God, blessed be He! Her husband, who was God-fearing from his youth, also agreed to these words that came from his wife's pure heart. The next time the elder appeared, laden with gifts as usual, he was no longer received warmly. They told him clearly and firmly that they would no longer listen to him or obey his instructions. With his honey-sweet words he began to try to persuade them that they were destroying their talented children's future with their own hands by their strange ways. But their ears were already closed to his insidious persuasion. No, no! They refused to continue to follow his teaching and to ruin the pure education of their precious children! Seeing that his prey was about to escape, he began to scream and threaten that he would deprive them of all his support. But they easily gave up on all his help because their children's piety was more important to them than all the gifts in the world! The elder furiously packed up his things and left the house, slamming the door, and leaving behind him a family utterly destitute with no one to help them, but suffused with the purest piety. Slowly, slowly the fervor and sweetness and loud recital of blessings returned to the home that was poor but very happy; blessings and the Grace after Meals were once again so loud that they "split the roof."

Only after hearing this tale did the holy Or HaHayim know why this home was full of light; and he especially appreciated the part that this holy woman played in elevating and illuminating her household. (Ish Hasid Haya, p.348.)

One way to interpret a tale is to realize that it is all about each of us: we are the family members-- the husband, wife, and children-- we are the elderly satanic sage. The Rabbis teach how the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, begins as a guest in our "home" and ends up taking over; the Torah itself speaks of the evil inclination as an elderly foolish king (or ruler). The Rabbis also sometimes speak of the Satan disguising himself like an elderly Torah scholar. We all have an internal struggle between the pious childlike side of our nature that is willing to loudly and fervently recite blessings that draw us to God-awareness, and the elderly, cooler, more intellectual side that thinks we are too civilized to be unashamedly pious. Yet our more "rational" side is actually biased toward materialism and rationalizes our religious laxity by presenting it as mature thinking. But the sad truth is that this cooler attitude deprives us of the joys of simple faith. May God help us to remember to recite blessings and to pray loudly with faith, devotion, and fervor! May our feminine side that is sensitive to our internal emotional life-- and knows when we have gone astray-- guide us back to love for God and people. And may we always remember to tell tales of our holy women!

6. His Real Mother

Rabbi Meir HaLevi Rothenberg of Apta had been orphaned of his father when he was still a child and his mother, who loved him dearly, raised him by herself. She never woke him from sleep. Once, when he was a youth, he dreamed that his mother was waking him, but he did not want to get up yet, and kept sleeping. Again, he dreamed that his mother was trying to wake him, and he was surprised, because he knew that this was not her custom. He got up from his bed and saw that his mother was still asleep; and he realized that his mother had not indeed waked him. It was the Mother of All Living, the Real Mother [the Shechinah], who had awakened him, so that he would rise to the service of his Creator. (Z'chut Avot, p.306)

7. The Fires of Gehinnom

Rabbi Hayim ben Attar was a great Moroccan sage; his Torah commentary Or HaHayim was beloved by his contemporary, the Baal Shem Tov.

When Rabbi Hayim ben Attar went into "exile" [to share the exile of the Shechinah and elevate spiritually] he arrived in one of the Western lands [of Eastern Europe]. On Friday afternoon he saw a woodcutter, who as he worked chopping trees, kept saying l'kavod Shabbos kodesh! "for the honor of the holy Sabbath!"-- so Rabbi Hayim knew that Jews lived there. He entered the city for the Sabbath and received hospitality at the home of the rabbi. That night during the Sabbath meal the rabbi said words of Torah at the table and the Or HaHayim offered some minor addition to what he said. The rabbi said, "Ah! You must be Rabbi Hayim ben Attar, since I heard this very Torah teaching said in his name in the Heavenly Academy."

At the third Sabbath meal the rabbi spoke words of Torah for a very long time and the Prince of Gehinnom came and asked him to conclude, since he was not allowed to stoke up the fires of Gehinnom until the rabbi finished speaking Torah, prayed the evening prayer, and made havdalah to divide holy from profane. But the rabbi paid no attention to him. The Prince of Gehinnom returned a number of times, until the rabbi became annoyed at him and rebuked him, saying, "Why are you in such a rush?" But then the rabbi immediately asked for after-water to be brought to the table and he said the Grace. He told Rabbi Hayim ben Attar, "Because I became angry, he already has permission to stoke the fires of Gehinnom without waiting for me." (Maamar Mordechai, vol.2, p.320, #3)

What disasters our anger brings on us and on the world!

8. The Main Joy of a Holiday

Once, on the first night of Sukkot, when the late Rabbi Yehuda Horowitz of Djikov-Jerusalem was on his way home from the synagogue, and as always was walking quickly to hurry to fulfill the mitzvah of the night, he became aware of someone who had a sick person at home and was very preoccupied with this. The rabbi stopped and mentioned to the person accompanying him the words of the Rambam that the main joy of a holiday is to cheer up the broken-hearted. He then went to the sick person's home, stayed there for the whole festive meal, talked with the sick man and his children, telling them stories of tzaddikim, along with other things that would cheer his broken heart. Rabbi Yehudah stayed there until everybody was ready to go to bed, so that he arrived at his own home close to midnight. (Z'chut Avot, p.271

May we too remember that the main joy of a holiday is to cheer up the broken-hearted, and fulfill this awesome teaching, like Rabbi Yehudah!

9. Rabbi Eliyahu Roth, Zeviller Hasid

a. How to React When Things Break

The following story illustrates this teaching: The poritz (gentile landlord) of Kilbitsh was very fond of the Breslover hasid, Rabbi Aharon of Kilbitsh, and gave him as a gift an Italian cow that produced a lot of milk. This provided the poor Rabbi Aharon with a good livelihood. Once, when he returned home, his whole family came out to him crying out bitterly, telling him that the cow had gotten entangled in the straps of its halter and had strangled; it was dead! As soon as he heard this, Rabbi Aharon jumped up with great joy, saying, "Heaven took her in exchange for one of my family!" And he repeated this a number of times with great joy. (Siach Sarfei Kodesh [Breslov], vol.4, p.102, #346)

Rabbi Eliyahu Roth was the aide and also a top disciple of Rebbe Shlomo of Zevill-Jerusalem. Once, Rabbi Eliyahu was in the rebbe's home and was carrying a lamp, when it fell and shattered into little pieces. Rabbi Eliyahu was troubled at breakiing something in his rebbe's home and to soothe his mind asked the rebbe to accept payment for what he had broken.

The rebbe understood Rabbi Eliyahu's sensitive nature and understood that, if he refused to accept compensation for the damage, Rabbi Eliyahu would be pained; on the other hand, the rebbe did not want to accept money from him. He said, "Certainly you know that when a household item breaks it's a soul-redemption and atonement for something worse that might happen. [The Rabbis say that God warns us to repent for our sins by inflicting very minor sufferings on us, beginning with the loss of small possessions. If we repent, well and good; but if not, more serious sufferings occur-- damage to more valuable possessions, then illnesses in the family, etc.] So instead of being sad when something breaks, one should rejoice that the family is spared something worse! If I take money from you for the damage, it'll soothe you, but it'll also detract from the atonement! Do you want to diminish my atonement?" (Ish Hasid Haya, p.116)

b. In Refuse and Trash for the sake of God

Someone once saw Rabbi Eliyahu Roth by the sewer near his home, scraping away muddy trash that was blocking the flow of the sewage. "Rabbi Eliyahu!" he called out in surprise, "What ... what are you doing?" Rabbi Eliyahu turned to him, his face beaming with fervor and said, "I'm doing just what the high priest did once a year in the holy of holies! God wanted the high priest to perform the service in the holy of holies; shlepper that I am, to make a distinction, He wants me to clean out the sewer for the good of other people!" With drops of perspiration pouring from his forehead, he concluded, "I can only thank the Master of the world for the gift he gave me!" And he eagerly went back to work. (Ish Hasid Haya, p.390)

c. Aleph-bet

Rabbi Eliyahu constantly repeated the saying that the Zeviller Rebbe always used to repeat: "One must begin by learning the aleph-bet [alphabet]!: that is, to learn and repeat to ourselves constantly without cease [as a mantra] emunah bitahon! [faith; trust; which words begin with aleph and bet respectively]." (Ish Hasid Haya, p.393)

d. Thanking God at Every Stage

Rabbi Eliyahu once entered the Zeviller synagogue during the intermediate days of Passover before Minha and made a characteristic request to one of his students. He told the student that he had an urgent matter to deal with regarding his home, had gone out onto the street to deal with it, and by diviine providence, he met, the moment he left his house, a certain person who asked him why was out and about, and when told, promised to take care of the problem. Rabbi Eliyahu wanted to thank God for this by reciting psalms and wanted his student to recite with him. They recited fifty psalms, until the time came for Minha.

Aside from Rabbi Eliyahu's wonderful care to thank God for each and every good thing that occurred to him, there is another lesson here for us about divine service: to thank God not just for the final resolution and help, but at each and every stage on the way. In this urgent matter that caused Rabbi Eliyahu great worry, and even though it was not certain that this man would actually succeed in resolving the matter, despite his good intentions-- Rabbi Eliyahu felt obligated, even at this stage, to offer special praise to the Creator for His goodness. (Ish Hasid Haya, p.385)

e. A Praiseworthy Yeshiva

Rabbi Eliyahu once told a friend, another great rabbi and tzaddik, "It would be fitting to open a yeshivah called "Tell of All His Wondrous Deeds" [Yeshiva]-- to praise and thank and sing before the Holy One, blessed be He, about all His wonderful kindnesses and about all the good that He does for his creatures, to implant in young students faith in divine providence. And he added that this would certainly draw down great flows of goodness to the world." (Ish Hasid Haya, p.393)

The Rabbis say that Judaism rests on three pillars: Torah study, prayer, and kind deeds. I have wondered why most yeshivahs just seriously train students in Torah. Why not train them truly in praise and prayer and also send them on missions of kind deeds out into the world?

10. An Opportunity

A Breslover hasid was once traveling with merchandise when it started to pour. The hasid took out a big piece of cloth, made it a "tent" over him and began to study Torah. Rabbi Noson of Nemirov passed by in another carriage and called the man to get up into his carriage. And he said that he saw that the hasid was happy about the rain for because of it he had an opportunity to serve God since he could not do business while it was raining. (Siach Sarfei Kodesh [Breslov], p.299, #689) We too can be as clever.

11. God's Mysterious Ways

Once, when teaching about God's hidden and mysterious ways, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav told this tale:

"There was a certain poor Jew with many children who rented an inn from a gentile landlord three years at a time; he lived there and that was his livelihood. And he rented that inn for many years. Every three years when the lease ended, the landlord announced that it was open for bids, but no one ever bid on it, even the gentiles, because they knew that it was the livelihood for the poor Jew with all the children. But one year a certain Jew came along and made a larger bid on the lease and he rented the inn. The other Jew was forced to vacate in the middle of the winter with his small children. The new innkeeper had for many years not been blessed with children, but that very year that he outbid the poor Jew and deprived him of his living, his wife gave birth to a boy. It's a wonder! It's not enough that he committed a sin against the poor man, but he merited to have a son after many years with no children!" The rebbe finished his tale: "That is the way the Holy One, blessed be He, conducts His world." From this we see that it is impossible to understand God's mysterious ways, which are beyond our comprehension. (Siach Sarfei Kodesh [Breslov] vol.2, p.21, #86)

12. Blinded

A story was once told to Rabbi Noson (the great disciple of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzav): The disciples of Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov once asked him why he had become blind in his old age. He answered, "When my holy wife kneads the flour to make challahs on erev Shabbat, she repeats over and over again [like some of the most pious women] 'l'kavod Shabbos! l'kavod Shabbos!'[for the honor of Shabbos!]. And when she prepares other Sabbath foods and makes other Sabbath preparations, she repeats again and again 'l'kavod Shabbos!' Every word creates an angel. So over the years our home became so filled with angels, until their brilliance blinded me." Upon hearing this tale, Rabbi Noson said, "That's the way it is!" (Siach Sarfei Kodesh [Breslov], vol.2, p.121, #539)

When he was asked why he had become blind in his old age, the Sassover did not attribute it to God's punishing him for his sins; nor did he complain. His mind probably went first to the fact that in the Torah people are (temporarily) blinded by angels. Then he asked himself, "Which angels are blinding me?" and his thoughts turned to his wife's great holiness. According to the tradition, one category of angels is that created by our deeds or utterances, for good or for bad. Today, people might use the term "vibrations." Our actions create karmic processes--angels or vibrations-- that go out into the world and later affect us and others. For example, a generous compliment offered to a friend might have an affect on me later in the day and on him too, and cause good things to happen that might otherwise not have happened. The Sassover was overwhelmed by his wife's piety and praised God for it. If he was asked, he probably would have replied that God had blessed him in his old age by making him blind, so that he could more easily go inward to commune with his Maker.

13. Forbearance

Once, on a cold winter day, a hasid entered the home of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and saw that the whole house was full of smoke, because of the wood stove that the servant was tending. The hasid immediately started to yell that the servant should put out the fire and air out the room. Afterward, he asked Rabbi Nachman, who was sitting there, "Why didn't you tell the servant about all the smoke that was accumulating?" Rabbi Nachman replied, "The first time, one orders gently. The second time, one raises one's voice. By the third time, one is already angry. Therefore, I was silent from the beginning." (Siach Sarfei Kodesh (Breslov), vol.3, p.49, #107)

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