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The Obstinate Rabbi

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The Obstinate Rabbi

The distinguished Rabbi of Yanov was well known for his piety and high level of Torah scholarship. On the occasion of the wedding of his son to a bride in a faraway town, he invited the dignitaries of his town to travel with him to the wedding. A caravan of carriages, carrying Yanov’s most prominent citizens, set out in honor of their Rabbi and to share in his joy.

The Rabbi rode in the lead coach, accompanied by the bridegroom, the lay leader of the community, and a certain gifted young scholar. When the time came to recite the afternoon prayers, they all climbed down from the carriage to find a quiet spot in the forest in which to pray, the Rabbi choosing to stand under a tall tree at a little distance from the others. The other three waited respectfully in the carriage for his return, but even when the sun had set there was no sign of him. They set out to look for him among the trees, expecting that he had tarried over his prayers, but they could not find him. As night fell they became increasingly anxious. Returning to the highway they found that the rest of the caravan had caught up with them. The others reassured them: “A short while ago one of the worthies of our town drove past us alone in his coach on his way to the wedding. The Rabbi must have joined him for some reason.”

This assumption sounded plausible enough, so they set off again to the town of the bride, feeling much relieved. On their arrival at their destination, however, they were stricken with consternation: the father of the bridegroom was not there.

Guesses of all kind were proposed, but finally, the wedding ceremony had to take place without the missing father. It was solemnized in the most dismal spirit imaginable. All the way home the guests asked passersby whether they had seen the Rabbi, but in vain. Nor did they find him at home at Yanov, nor did the messengers sent out to various other places bring back any clue.

Actually, the Rabbi had lost his way in the forest. Wanting to return to the highway, he had become confused by the roundabout tracks leading in all directions, and in fact walked on in the dark for several miles deeper and deeper into the wilds. As the sun rose he paused to rest, and was obliged to recite his morning prayers with neither tallit nor tefillin. On he wandered for weeks on end, surviving on whatever fruit he could find. So distressed was he by his tribulations that he lost track of time, and honored Shabbat in whatever humble ways his predicament allowed one day early.

The virtue of his Torah study over the years stood him by. The Al-mighty protected him from harm, until at long last, after all manner of adventures, he found his way back to Yanov, and recounted his unenviable story to a family wild with joy.

Came Thursday afternoon, and the Rabbi busied himself with all the traditional preparations for the approaching Shabbat. When he expressed his puzzlement that his family did not do likewise, they explained that his calculations had become confused: Friday was only the next day. But the Rabbi since his youth had always been an exceptionally stubborn person who never ceded an argument, and now, in addition, all the suffering he had undergone must have left its somber mark on him. No matter how earnestly his relatives and townsmen debated and argued the subject with him, nothing could make him budge from his irrational fixation: he alone was correct in his calculations. They became secretly worried about his sanity, but what could be done? On Friday he desisted from travel, and did not put on tefillin at morning prayers, as if the holy day had already arrived.

But the next day, the bizarre aberration took on tragic proportions, as the Rabbi treated Shabbat like a weekday, doing all sorts of forbidden labors. He also reprimanded his family for their stubbornness  while their buoyant joy at his return was overlaid with dismay.

In the weeks that followed, rabbis and sages from all around tried to convince him, with the aid of entire batteries of invincible scholarly arguments, that this time he was in the wrong. To no avail. Though rational in all other respects, his harsh experiences in the forest had further toughened his innate obstinacy.

Some of the townspeople decided to convey word of the bizarre situation to the famed Chassidic RebbeRabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg, who was a close friend of the Rabbi of Yanov since their youthful yeshiva years together. Reb Shmelke, who was then the Rabbi of Shiniva, immediately set out for Yanov, arriving on Thursday. Overjoyed at seeing his boyhood friend, the Rabbi of Yanov asked his guest: “Would you do me the honor of staying with me for Shabbat?”

“Why, of course,” said Reb Shmelke. “In fact I was hoping for such an invitation.”

“Then you do realize that tonight is Shabbat?” said the Rabbi in wonder and delight.

“What is the question?” replied Reb Shmelke simply.

“Thank G?d!” sighed the Rabbi, exuding relief. “You don’t know what a difficult time I’ve been having with the stubborn people here. Ever since I came back they have been laboring under the delusion that Shabbat is a day later, and I can’t seem to convince them.”

“Perhaps I can help,” Reb Shmelke smiled. “Trust me.”

On Thursday afternoon the two men set off to immerse themselves in the mikveh. The local folk were stupefied: surely their Rabbi had not won over Reb Shmelke! At first opportunity he privately reassured them, and then asked that everyone come to shul that night in their Shabbat finery. He also took aside his host’s family and told them to prepare for Shabbat that same evening, and to bring to the table a few bottles of old strong wine.

As the beaming sun dipped behind the trees, all the menfolk duly dressed up in their fur shtreimels and black silk kapotes, and proceeded to the synagogue for evening prayers. The Rabbi was amazed at what Reb Shmelke had managed to accomplish in such a short time. “Could it be that there is something to this Chassidic rebbe stuff after all?” he mused to himself.

The guest turned down the invitation to serve as chazzan, and insisted that the host lead the prayers of welcome to Shabbat, saying that would be one of the pleasures of his visit. The Rabbi began with a pleasant tune, while Reb Shmelke and all the other congregants quietly recited the weekday evening service.

As if it were Friday night, the Rabbi and his family returned joyfully home, where they were joined by a great many guests who had come in honor of Reb Shmelke. They sang Shalom Aleichem, welcoming the ministering angels whose appointed time is Friday night; they recited the Kiddush of Friday night over goblets of wine; and in between the courses of gefilte fish and other delicacies not normally reserved for Thursday nights, they exchanged favorite gems of Talmudic lore, as Jews all around the world are wont to do on Friday night.

In the course of the festive meal Reb Shmelke remarked to his host that it would be only right to turn this occasion into a Thanksgiving Meal for his miraculous survival — by serving a few extra bottles of wine, for example. He then saw to it that his host drank a considerable quantity of the kind of old wine that throws a person into the extended stupor of deep sleep. When the Rabbi duly fell asleep at the table, Reb Shmelke asked that the curtains be drawn and a pillow placed under his head so that he should be able to slumber on, undisturbed. Finally, taking up his pipe and puffing happily away, he turned to the townsfolk who were at the table: “You can now all go off and rest. Everyone can go ahead with his usual occupations, and with the help of the Almighty, everything will work out well. And tomorrow night, on Shabbat eve, at this same hour, I would ask you all to come here again after your meal.”

Reb Shmelke personally stood on guard all that night and throughout Friday, enforcing silence around the house as well as within it, lest the slightest noise disturb the Rabbi in his sleep. On Friday night he did not even go to the synagogue, but prayed alone in the house of the Rabbi. After their meal, the townsfolk filtered in and found the Rabbi still sound asleep. They assumed the same positions around the Shabbat table as they had done the night before. Reb Shmelke partook of the Shabbat meal joyfully, delighting his listeners with discourse after discourse until midnight. Then woke up his host.

“Rabbi of Yanov,” he said, “please join us for the Grace after Meals.”

After Shabbat all the local dignitaries came to offer Reb Shmelke their whispered thanks, to which he responded by making them give their solemn promise never to make the slightest mention of the whole episode.

And until the day of his death the Rabbi never discovered what had happened. On the contrary, he was proud of the fact that so many people had finally seen the light and were now observing Shabbat according to the way he had argued all along.

“Mind you,” he would add, “one must give credit where credit is due. It took none less than my esteemed friend from way back, to do the trick. Funny, isn’t it? Some people can be so obstinate!”

Biographical note: Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke HaLevi Horowitz of Nikolsburg (1726-1778) was a major disciple of the second leader of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, along with his younger brother, Rabbi Pinchas, who became the Rabbi of Frankfort. Many of the leading Chassidic rebbes in Poland and Galitzia were originally his disciples. Among the books he authored are Divrei Shmuel and Nazir HaShem.

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