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The punishment of holy Shabbat

A Friday parable about Rabbi Besht, who once failed to celebrate Shabbat, but came to understand everything.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (Hebrew ישראל בעל שם טוב)‎, which means “Good man who knows the secret of God”, or Besht for short, was born in the village of Okopy in Podolye (now the Ternopol Oblast in Ukraine). He was an outstanding expert on sacred teaching and a righteous man, and also the found of the Hasidic movement.

Once at the end of Shabbat, Besht and three of his respected pupils went on a journey. They walked for a long time, and the next day they realized that they were lost. The place through which their path lay was a desert – there were no towns or villages as far as the eye could see. Besht was at a loss, and did not know what they should do. They travelled for another three days and found themselves in a dense forest. It was murky and cold in the forest, and daylight did not get through the thick leaves – whether it was day or night, it was dark and frightening there. They wandered without knowing where they were going, and were still there on Friday. Where would they spend Shabbat? Out of fear and confusion, Besht lost all his remarkable qualities, and the further they went, the more bitter he felt.

From the long, pointless wandering in the forest and from his unhappy thoughts, Besht grew tired, lay down to rest and fell asleep. His pupils said:

“Perhaps the teacher fell asleep for a good reason. Perhaps the meaning of what is happening will be revealed to him in a dream.”

But when he woke up, Besht was just as helpless and dispirited – he was not told anything from Heaven. His companions became increasingly uneasy, and they involuntarily gave sighs of distress.

Midday came – and suddenly, the light seemed to shine from afar, breaking through the density of the forest. The Jews exclaimed:

“Blessed be the Lord in His charity Now we will certainly soon reach a town.”

The Jews hurried towards the light. The light became brighter and closer, until – a miracle! – they came to a little house in the forest.

The travelers entered into the house, and saw a Jew standing at the threshold, unsightly and unkempt: his caftan was threadbare, his tzitzit could not be seen, and his feet were bare. They asked whether they could spend holy Shabbat in his dwelling. The Jew replied:

“I do not wish you to stay here for Shabbat. As I can see, you are Hasidim, preachers, and I do not like such people, in fact I cannot stand them. So get out of my sight!”

They asked him:

“Perhaps there is another place nearby where we could spend Shabbat?”

The Jew replied:

“Yes, but it is far away – several days’ journey.”

When they heard this, our travelers began to remonstrate with the man, saying that they also needed a roof over their heads, and that they were prepared to pay for food and drink a hundredth fold. Here the man set them a condition, and not one, but three: not to pray loudly, so as not to scare the people of other faiths who came to him to drink and eat. And not to pray for a long time, because he was always hungry, and he couldn’t wait to sit down for a meal – both in the evening and in the morning. And not to be too exacting about kashrut, because he had heard that Hasidim were constantly checking and questioning things.

They had no choice, so the traveler sighed and agreed.

After they had rested a little from their journey, Besht asked the man if there were any creek or spring nearby to wash for the holy Shabbat. When the Jew heard this, he started swearing furiously:

“It’s obvious that you’re all thieves and hypocrites!” he said, and got so angry that he grabbed their things and threw them out of the house.

And once more the travelers begged and implored him, and persuaded him until his anger had died down.

It was strange for them to see a Jew who didn’t have a drop of piety in him. A lot of other things in his home seemed outlandish: there was not a table, or bench, only four poles hammered into the earth floor, and on them a board that served as a table. And they couldn’t find a single living room in the house – just a crib divided into partitions. And they didn’t encounter any inhabitants, not even chickens or cats – only the master of the house walking up and down. When they saw all of this, they became scared, not knowing what awaited them in this strange place.

The sun went down, and nothing had been prepared for Shabbat. The master of the house walked from one corner to the other, eating a watermelon, spitting out the pips and whistling, like a peasant. They thought: what if he doesn’t observe Shabbat at all? What will happen? But fearing to anger the man, they kept silent. The Jew took out a dark piece of linen, spread it on the rough board, put a piece of clay on it, spat on his finger, made a little hole and placed one small candle in the hole. He lit it and said a blessing.

The frightened travelers could not decide whether to say the “Mincha” prayer, but he had already started to celebrate Shabbat, praying quickly as if someone were chasing him. One, two, and he had finished the prayer, and they also had to hurry after him, as these were the conditions he had set. After the prayer, they uttered the words “Shabbat Shalom” to him, but instead of words of welcoming, he showered them with curses. Finally, he raised a glass, and after a fashion he did recite Kiddush, while they stood there, trying to put themselves in a holy Shabbat mood. First they tried to ask him for a little vodka, so they could recite the blessing themselves, but he interrupted them:

“If everyone recites Kiddush, the candle will go out before we start the meal.”

He almost finished off his cup, and gave the rest a little to sip, saying:

“I’m not letting you drunkards get drunk!”

He laid out black bread with bran, and when they asked for white bread, he just hissed at them. And he couldn’t find a clean bowl for them to wash their hands before the meal, but there was nothing they could do – he had warned them not to be fussy. They broke the bread, and he put a large bowl of lentil soup to the table, and gave the guests spoons, so that they could each have some. But no such luck! He hovered over the bowl himself and greedily attacked the food, stuffing his mouth full so that he couldn’t chew or swallow, and the soup gushed from his mouth back into the bowl. What sort of meal was that! The guests would have sung, but the master of the house did not let them. He didn’t let them say a blessing after the meal either. In short, their Shabbat turned out worse than a weekday.

In the morning, before the dawn, the master of the house was already fussing about – half-dressed, barefoot and with his hair uncombed, he started praying. He rushed from one verse to the next, suddenly started singing, but not blessed melodies, and rather as if he were singing drunken songs in a tavern! The shame! Our travelers also had to hurry so that they didn’t finish their prayers after he did. On the Shabbat day he treated them worse than he had on Shabbat evening. When the time for the last and third meal came, he didn’t give them anything at all:

“Gluttons, insatiable pigs! You just finished eating, and you’re already rushing to the table again!”

So the Hasidim did not have a meal, and instead of bread they sated their hunger and honored Shabbat by quietly discussing the weekly chapter of the Torah.

After Shabbat ended, the master of the house took mercy on them, invited them all to the table and sat with them until late at night, so they could not derive genuine pleasure from the sacred day - not the sweets of Melaveh Malkah, nor the joy of Hasidic songs.

The next day Besht and his pupils prayed as they had agreed to, and as soon as they finished, tried to leave. But the master closed the door and said:

“I’ve prepared a meal for you, sit down and eat, my dear guests.”

They tried to pay him the price of the breakfast without touching the food, but he became furious with them:

“What am I, a robber, to take money from you for nothing!”

They had to sit down at the table, and the day unnoticeably turned to night. They were afraid to leave as night approached, and spent the night in the house once more. In the morning, the same thing happened as the day before: after a long prayer the master forced them to share breakfast with him, which dragged out until twilight. This happened again on the third and fourth day, so they had no money left – everything went towards food and lodgings. Finally they were able to get out the strange house, but the master didn’t leave them alone, and went to see them off. They went to the exit and thought: what if he tries to kill us. Suddenly one of the doors opened and a woman in opulent dress came out. She addressed Besht:

“Rabbi, I ask you to spend next Shabbat with me.”

Besht replied to her:

“Your words make me doubly surprised. Firstly, how do you know that I am a rabbi? And secondly, if you had known that I was a rabbi, why did you allow to endure such suffering last Shabbat?”

The woman replied:

“Can it be that you do not know me, my teacher, mentor and master?”

But Besht simply shook his head.

“I am your servant Sarah,” she said.

This name did not mean anything to Besht when he heard it.

“My master, many years ago I was a servant in your house. I was a homeless orphan, with no father or mother, sickly and louse-ridden. And the Rebbetzin combed my hair and plaited it before every Shabbat. Once I resisted and refused to have my hair combed, because my skin was itching and I couldn’t stand the pain. The Rebbetzin got angry with me and slapped me on the cheek. And you, rabbi, sat there and saw my pain and suffering, you saw it, but you said nothing, you heard my cries, but you did not stand up for the orphan. Then the Almighty became wrathful, because his laws had been broken: “do not torment a widow and an orphan” – and he sentenced, you, rabbi, in the heavenly court, depriving you of a place in the world to come.

When I became the wife of this incredible person, a righteous man with sacred knowledge, we learned about this sentence and became upset, because we did not know how to help you in your plight. We began praying to the Creator, and with the power of prayer we mitigated the punishment and annulled the terrible sentence: the deprivation of a place in the world to come would be replaced with depriving you of the joy of one holy Shabbat. For holy Shabbat is part of the world to come. And as soon as we saw that no Jew would dare to desecrate the Shabbat of a Rabbi, we took this heavy task on ourselves. And now your place in the world to come has once more been returned to you, as it was before.

As soon as she stopped talking, the insight that Besht had been taken from him earlier returned to him, and he realized that what this woman had said was true – every last word of it.

Besht was delighted, and gladly agreed to spend the next Shabbat in the house of this righteous man.

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