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This book has many Hebraic terms. It may be difficult to follow without some knowledge of the Hebrew language and some Torah background.

  A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Festivals  - Volume 2

Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin
Translated by Uri Kaploun


Brooklyn, New York 11223
In conjunction with HILLEL PRESS, Jerusalem
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 pillow.

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 free will.

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 and relatives.

"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 leave."
"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 Eden."

And indeed, a few months later the old man passed away and was laid to rest.



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 phrases.

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 already endured?"

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 dark!"

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 inspired ecstasy.


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