“No Special Treatment”
Here are 13 not-unlucky, it is hoped, items from 100,
drawn from The Hasidic Anthology by Louis I. Newman (New York, 1944), itself
containing around 2000 pieces. Newman’s anthology was among my father’s
books, along with a few other collections of Jewish lore. Only very
recently, however, did I read it, simultaneously noting those pieces which
particularly held my attention. The selection is thus an index to
my own understanding or evolving state of mind, but hardly more than that.
However, as I typed out this material, again leafing through Rabbi Newman’s
book and paying more attention to his careful identification of 200 topics,
it became evident how rich the original offering had been and how reductive
my own selection inevitably was!
Still, my purpose was served, this being in the first
place to familiarize myself somewhat with the material. I did not,
as I had been advised to do, “dip into” the Newman collection, but read
it through from beginning to end. In making my own selection, I was
guided, pleasurably and even flatteringly, by my own inclinations.
The original compiler’s evident aim was to survey the Hebrew and Yiddish
sources, with some reference as well to important German compilations,
his immediate purpose being to provide a homiletical handbook for Christian
as well as Jewish preachers and teachers,.
It at once occurred to me that the procedure adopted
by me somewhat resembled another with which I was more familiar, to do
with the compilation of anthologies of poetry. I even considered indulging
myself and extemporizing various “poetic” comments and notes, or maybe
even poems. I was pleased to find some support for what at first seems
like a “self-denying” approach in, for instance, Martin Buber’s Preface
to The Legend of the Baal-Shem: “The existing material was so formless
that I was tempted to deal with it as with some kind of subject-matter
for poetry. That I did not succumb to this temptation I owe to the
power of the Hasidic point of view that I encountered in all these stories.
There was something decisive here that had to be kept in mind throughout.”
This clearly applies to any commentary as well, and so mine will be taken
with a pinch of salt!
What, among much else, impressed me about these excerpts
was their realism, wit, understanding of human nature (also of the human
capacity for self-deception), The Hasidic rabbis evidently not only
lived among, but were very much of their people; though exacting, they
were also tolerant or indulgent to the point, it sometimes seems, almost
of blasphemy, judged by more conventional religious attitudes. Truthfulness
is valued above all else, even if, as is so often the case, it be at the
expense of image or reputation. Deceiving others is one thing; self-deception
is quite another. Thus, warning against eloquence, too, are quite explicit
and relevant, it has to be said, also to my own project, in that if things
seemed to be going swimmingly, there was often good reason for concern!
I deleted numerous bibliographical references, but
left a few which allude to the Bible itself. More problematically
perhaps. I excluded most of the names of rabbis, making an exception for
the Besht himself (The Baal-Shem Tov, or Master of the Good Name, the eighteenth-century
founder of Hasidism), With other named rabbis and/or their disciples, I
usually substituted more general terms. Since these excerpts, in
my selection, now appear for the most part as authorless wise-sayings,
it is perhaps fitting that I should point out again that all are attributable
to the rabbinical authorities and none to myself,
In making the selection, I was influenced by a fondness
for paradox and irony. In many cases the rabbis seem almost to be
toying with The Almighty, attempting to take Him on or even in! There
are a number of excerpts which emphasize the importance, the moral worth
or at least the usefulness of joy, and the corresponding dangers of sadness
or grief. One knows that Hasidism emphasized joy as the highest form
of worship. At first I could not accept what appears at first seemed
a rather mechanistic demand – for happiness – implicit in Hasidic thought.
Surely, we should not be blamed for feeling sad! And yet I am also
more than half persuaded by the notion that if you do good, for instance,
you may eventually become good.
A word about Sin! Hasidic wisdom, as noted,
acknowledges human weakness, along with human aspiration. But, in
any case, the responsibility for sin cannot rest wholly with the individual
since the All-knowing must have made his creature vulnerable. Without Evil,
there is no apprehension of Good.
1. He who is able to write a book and does not write it, is as one who
has lost a child.
2. More likable is the wicked man who is aware of his wickedness, than
the good man who is aware of his goodness.
Complacency is detestable!
3. Two hasids were travelling by wagon to visit the Besht. On
a narrow road, they had to to slow down, because a nobleman’s carriage
ahead of them had something wrong with a wheel. “At this rate,” one hasid
complained, “we’ll never reach Medziboz by the sabbath.” The other replied:
“What God brings to pass, is for the good.” They soon came to an
even narrower pass, and found it blocked by a milk-wagon which had broken
down. The nobleman ordered the milk cans transferred to another wagon,
and the broken wagon pushed aside. Later the nobleman took a branch
road, and the hasids were able to drive on at speed. “Now you see
that I was right,” said the non-complainer. “Had the nobleman not
been ahead of us, we would have had to wait until the milk wagon was repaired.
The owner would never have transferred the milk cans on our account. ”
But was the Holocaust also something God brought to pass? Do stories
such as this, then refer to a pre-Holocausrt reality?
4. When you perceive Satan diligently trying to persuade you to commit
some evil deed, you must realize that he is only doing his duty.
Learn from this that your duty is, as diligently, to resist him.
Satan as a kind of model!
5. An ailing man came to a pious Jew and asked him to pray for his health.
The pious man told him to make the request of one named Shalom, in a nearby
town. The only Shalom there was an alcoholic who lived in a hovel,
on the outskirts. The sick man waited until Shalom sobered up, and
then made his request. Shalom demanded a flagon of brandy and advised
the man to bathe in the river, telling him he would be cured. And
so it was.
Later, the man asked why he had been sent to a drunkard. The
pious man’s answer was: “My friend Shalom has an exceedingly kind
and helpful nature. His only weakness is an over-fondness for strong
drink. But this craving saves him from all other sins.”
Characteristically, the pious man is open-minded. That one major
fault can make one immune to all others is an appealing notion.
6. A man commented: “The Talmud tells us that when a man runs away from
honours, honours run after him. I have run away from honours,
but honours are not pursuing me.” “The reason,” explained the rabbi,
“is that you keep looking back,”
i.e. do not hanker after honours!
7. A rabbi’s wife accused her maid of having stolen something.
The girl denied it. The woman decided to appeal to the rabbinical
court. The rabbi put on his sabbath best too, although his wife said
he need not accompany her, that she was quite familiar with the procedure.
“I know that,” said the rabbi, “but the poor orphan, your maid,
is not familiar with it. And who but I can ensure that she is justly
To serve justice takes precedence over loyalty owed one’s wife.
8. A rabbi was late for the Kol Nidre service. Some of his congregation
went looking for him. Nearby they heard him crooning. It was the
home of a widow, and they found him there, lulling a child to sleep.
The rabbi explained that the mother had left the infant to attend the service.
The baby had woken and its cries summoned the rabbi as he passed in the
A question of priorities.
Kol Nidre, the opening words of the formula of release from vows which
have not been and cannot be fulfilled, spoken on the eve of the Day of
Atonement, Yom Kipur, he most solemn day of the Jewish year.
9. A confirmed sinner visited the rabbi, saying he had been sent by
an erring friend who was too shy to come himself. His friend had
committed certain offences and wanted to repent. The rabbi at once
guessed that the visitor was talking about himself: “What a foolish
person your friend is! Why did he not come himself to me, and pretended
the sinner was a friend?”
An implicit compliment and so more likely to be effective.
10. Satan came to a rabbi and warned him that unless he stopped trying
to persuade people to repent, he, Satan, would concentrate on tempting
him. The rabbi replied: “I am sure you are already doing your best
to lead me into temptation. You do your job, and I’ll get on with
11. The Besht was about to enter a synagogue but stopped at the entrance
and exclaimed: “This place is overfilled with prayer and learning!”
“Why do you hesitate to enter so holy a place?” asked his disciples.
“Were it really a holy place,” commented the Besht, “the prayers and
learning would have mounted to hea9ven and the synagogue would now be empty.”
12. A learned man who shared a Sabbath meal with a rabbi said to his
host: “Let us now hear you discourse on doctrine; you speak so beautifully!”
“May I be truck dumb!” responded the rabbi and fell silent.
Suspicion of eloquence, in writing or speech. Important is
the message, not the medium, which should not draw attention to itself.
13. When the rabbi gets up in the morning, he prays that all who
are in trouble be relieved. He does not want them to come to him
afterwards and say that he helped them by praying for them in particular.
No special treatment!