|A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Festivals
- Volume 2
Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin
Translated by Uri Kaploun
A COLLECTION OF INSPIRATIONAL CHASSIDIC STORIES RELEVANT TO THE
MESORAH PUBLICATIONS, Ltd.
Brooklyn, New York 11223
In conjunction with HILLEL PRESS, Jerusalem
A TREASURY OF CHASSIDIC TALES - ON THE FESTIVALS VOL. II
© Copyright 1982
by MESORAH PUBLICATIONS, Ltd. 1969 Coney Island Avenue / Brooklyn, N.Y.
11223 / (212) 339-1700
0-89906-914-2 (Hard cover) 0-89906-915-0 (Paperback)
The Colonel's Seder Night
Quite soon after the wedding the bride detected that something was
amiss. The young couple had recently married in some obscure township in
the Vilna district, and now she observed the oddest behavior in her
husband. He would rise at midnight like some chassidic mystics do and
lament the exile of the Divine Presence, while reciting the passages of
Tikkun Chatzos; at dawn every day he would immerse in the mikveh; and he
was fond of reading a certain book which he kept hidden under his
The young girl reported these phenomena to her father, who strode
straight into the bedroom to discover for himself what dread secret lay
hidden under his son-in-law's pillow. The shock was greater than his
worst nightmare: the book was Toldos Yaakov Yosef, the work of one of
the leaders of "the Sect" Reb Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye, the disciple
of the Baal Shem Tov!
It could not be denied: his own son-in-law had become ensnared by the
growing chassidic movement ...
By the time he found the young man he was a seething cauldron of wrath
and abuse all of which he poured forth over his son-in-law's head. But
this left no impact whatever. He therefore tried another approach, and
deployed instead all the arts of gentle persuasion in an effort to
implore the young fellow to desist from his evil ways. The effect was
the same. He now tackled the problem from a third direction, and
demanded that the recalcitrant fellow give his bride a divorce. The
young man would not cooperate: on the one hand he was bound to the
chassidic movement with all his soul, and on the other, he did not want
to divorce his wife.
Helpless and frustrated, the father-in-law turned to his townsmen for
advice as to how to rid himself of this embarrassment in the family.
This threw the little town into turmoil, as one by one the local
misnagdim vied with each other in advising their unfortunate friend.
Some held that pressure should be applied to force the depraved young
wretch to divorce his wife. Others pointed out that a divorce issued
under duress would only lead the poor young woman into an endless
labyrinth of legal disputes and rabbinic responsa as to whether it was
in fact valid. The only way out, therefore, was to offer the husband
such sums of money that he would agree to give the divorce of his own
These consultations simmered away for so long that word of the episode
eventually reached the ears of the squire who owned that region. This
paritz was a retired military officer. When he heard that the whole
uproar was sparked off by a book, he asked who its author was. He was
told that this was an individual who misled his fellow Jews from the
path of their traditional Law; his name was Yaakov Yosef HaKohen, from
the town of Polonnoye. Hearing this, he asked at once to see the book,
and there he was able to read for himself the title and the name of the
author printed in Russian at the foot of the title page. He now summoned
before him the parties to the dispute together with all their friends
"The time has now come," he began, "to relate an incident which happened
in my youth. Listen carefully, please.
"Many years ago, when I was serving as a colonel, I was encamped late
one winter with my unit near Polonnoye. We received the order to move.
The procedure for such occasions was a full parade before dawn at which
the men were given their marching orders. At roll call, three soldiers
were missing. So I ordered a few of their friends to go to the nearby
town to locate them and bring them back. After a little while they
returned, but with the weirdest report. They said that they had found
the three soldiers in a certain house which was lit up by candles. At
the table inside sat a venerable gentleman of impressive appearance. And
our three missing soldiers were standing there, speechless and
motionless, as if they were paralyzed.
I, of course, couldn't believe such a strange story, so I sent off a
different squad to check up on this report. But they repeated exactly
the same story. I decided to go and find out the truth for myself. I
took a few of my men with me, but as soon as I walked into the room and
saw that old man looking like an angel from heaven sitting at the table
deep in thought, I literally shuddered from awe. And the missing
soldiers, sure enough, were standing there petrified in their places as
if they were nailed to the floor.
"I finally mustered the daring to disturb his sublime meditation, and
said: 'I see, sir, that you are a holy man. You see, my soldiers here
have to leave this district today together with the whole unit. So could
you please do something so that they will be able to leave your house?'
"The old man answered: 'No doubt they have stolen something. If you
remove the stolen objects from their pockets they will be able to
"We searched their pockets, and found that they were full of silver
vessels of all kinds. As soon as we took them out two of the men began
to walk away, but the third was still stuck to the floor. His friends
said: 'He must have hidden something in his boot.' They were right. We
took out a small silver goblet, and then he too walked away."
Now all this had taken place on the first night of Pessach. When the
Seder was over the family had all gone to bed, leaving the head of the
house Reb Yaakov Yosef himself sitting at the table in holy
meditation. The door of the house had of course been left open, for this
night is leil shimurim, a night guarded against all harm. The three
soldiers had passed by, and seeing through the windows that the whole
household was asleep apart from the old man at the table, who seemed
to be as good as asleep had walked straight in through the open door
and helped themselves to the matzah and remnants of food which had been
left on the table. They had then stuffed the pockets of their greatcoats
with silver utensils which had been taken out according to custom in the
honor of the Seder. And it was then that they had discovered that they
could not budge.
The retired colonel continued his story: "Now when I saw this miraculous
thing I asked the holy man to give me two blessings. Firstly, children
for I was childless until then; secondly, long life.
He obliged, and blessed me.
Then I asked him to tell me when my days on earth would come to an end.
'The end of man is hidden and cannot be revealed," he said. "But listen:
towards the end of your days an occasion will arise through which you
will make my name known amongst Jews who did not know me."
"The old rabbi's blessing has been fulfilled. The Almighty blessed me
with children, and as you see I have been spared to a ripe old age."
"Now tell me, gentlemen," concluded the old squire, "is there any man
amongst you who would still dare to say an evil word against a holy man
like that? Is there anyone here who could see it as a sin that a young
man should study a book written by a man of God? I am now ordering you
to make peace between yourselves at once and let no one say a harsh
word to this young man here!"
After listening to his narration, all those present solemnly undertook
to follow his instruction.
"It is now clear," the aged paritz added, "that my end is near, for I
see that the last words of the holy man have at last been unfolded.
Nevertheless I am pleased that I have been able to bring peace between
you, thanks to the name of the holy man who now reposes in the Garden of
And indeed, a few months later the old man passed away and was laid to
Reciting Kiddush at the Seder Table
Dancing in the Dark
For the last thousand years the fifteen stages of the Seder service have
been introduced by the chanting of a rhyming mnemonic: "Recite Kiddush
and wash hands" and so on. According to time-honored custom, when
schoolteachers prepare little children for the Seder they teach them to
recite by heart a simple explanation of each item in homely Yiddish
The first item, for example, which refers to the blessings to be
pronounced over the first of the Four Cups of wine, runs like this:
"Kadesh When Father comes home from shul on Pessach eve he has to
recite Kiddush straight away, so that the little children will not fall
asleep, and will ask the Four Questions beginning Mah Nishtanah."
Then, as the family reaches each successive stage of the ceremony on
Seder night, the youngster who asks the Four Questions explains in his
quaint singsong what is about to take place.
On the first Seder night one year at the home of the Shpoler Zeide,
his young son announced "Kadesh," and proceeded to explain: "When
Father comes home from shul on Pessach eve he has to recite Kiddush
straight away" and at that point stopped short.
"Why don't you carry on?" his father asked him.
"That's all my teacher taught us," said the little boy.
His father thereupon told him that the explanation must be added "so
that the little children will not fall asleep, and will ask the Four
Questions beginning Mah Nishtanah."
At the next day's midday meal the child's teacher was one of those
invited to the rebbe's table.
"Why don't you teach the little ones the reason given in Kadesh," he
asked, "as has been the custom since the distant past?"
"I thought that there was no need to go to such lengths with small
children," the teacher answered, "especially since this is not really an
important reason for this requirement of making Kiddush early in the
evening applies uniformly to everyone, even if there are no little ones
in the house."
The Shpoler Zeide protested vigorously:
"How dare you contend that this is not an important reason? Are you
wiser than the schoolteachers of all the past generations? You simply
don't begin to understand why our forefathers required children to be
taught this way. Don't you ever take it into your head to diverge from
the customs of our venerable forebears by following dictates of your own reason!"
"Listen now to the inner meaning of these words.
"These words : 'Recite Kiddush and wash hands' serve as an
introduction to the entire Seder. Now in the Zohar it is written, 'Rabbi
Chiyya opened his discourse and said:
The words in the Song of Songs, "I am asleep but my heart is awake,"
are the plaint of the entire House of Israel, which says: "I am asleep
during the exile ... "
'We see then (continued the Shpoler Zeide) that during the exile Jews
are as if asleep, bereft of the higher reaches of spiritual sensitivity,
for they are afflicted and pursued. And this is the mystical truth that
the explains why our forefathers instituted the custom that toddlers
recite their introduction to the Seder for it resembles the
introductory teaching of Rabbi Chiyya in the Zohar.
This, then, is what it all means.
"When Father comes home from shul on Pessach eve that is to say: When
our Father in heaven returns from shul after the evening prayers to his
abode On High, having seen that even though every single Jew was
exhausted from the heavy work of preparation for Pessach they all
nevertheless came to shul for the evening prayers, and poured out their
souls in the recitation of the thanksgiving psalms of Hallel, each man
according to his level of worship; then,
"He has to recite Kiddush straight away that is to say: He straight
away has to renew his betrothal of Israel, his Kiddushin with His
forlorn bride, according to His promise brought to us through his
prophet, 'And I shall betroth you to me forever.' And why must he
redeem us from our exile straight away?
"So that the little children will not fall asleep! For out of their
Father's love for them the People of Israel are sometimes referred to by
His prophets as small children. Thus Amos asks: 'How shall Yaakov stand?
For he is small!' And so too the prophet Yirmeyahu: 'Is not Ephraim my
beloved son, a precious child?' So the Almighty must act quickly, lest
these children fall too deeply into the slumber of exile, and despair
(God forbid) of ever being redeemed.
He must act quickly,
"So that they will ask the question: Mah Nishtanah? Why is this night
different from all other nights? Why is the long dread night of this
exile being prolonged more than all the dark exiles which we have
With these words the Shpoler Zeide broke out in tears. He threw his
arms heavenward and cried out: "Father Above! Redeem us quickly from
exile while we are still only in the kind of sleep in which our hearts
remain awake! Do not let us fall into a deep slumber!"
Every man present was moved to tears, every mind was fired with thoughts
of repentance; some men fell to the floor, and quietly sobbed.
Their rebbe afterward roused them: "It is time to gladden our Father
just a little. Let us show him that his toddler can dance even in the
With a clap, the air sprang alive with a joyful
tune; and to the rhythm of the song, the tzaddik began his dance, describing sweeping circles of