A town or village in Eastern Europe was known in Yiddish as a "shtetl." In his inspiring book of memoirs, "Once Upon a Shtetl," Chaim Shapiro describes the spiritual life of Jews in the shetls of Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. In his description of the “menuchah” – rest and tranquility – that these Jews experienced on Shabbos, he discusses how this menuchah not only gave them the opportunity to engage in more Torah study; it also gave them the opportunity to engage in storytelling. Women had a major role in the transmission of stories, especially grandmothers, and in the following excerpt, he describes the special role of his “Bobbe” – Grandma:
On the long winter Friday nights, while the last of the Shabbos candles cast dancing shadows on the walls, Bobbe would tell stories to us spellbound children. The shadows on the wall would leap higher as the candles sank ever lower, and we would cling closer to Bobbe. When one by one, the kerosene lamp and the candles went out, this was the signal for Bobbe Faigl to begin the story about King David, the narrative interwoven with proper verses from Tehillim (Psalms), making us feel safer. From the next room we could hear Zeide (Grandpa) learning the Gemara of the Talmud by heart, and we were certain that the shadows on the wall were no less than malachim (angels). What else could fly around a house in which Tehillim resounds from one room and Gemara from the other?
The same scene was repeated in the next evening, after Shalosh Seudos (the third Shabbos meal). As the lengthening shadows gave way to darkness, Bobbe was always ready for a story that stretched until it was full night, when she recited “Gott fun Avraham,” the famous prayer people would say before the departure of the Shabbos Queen.
Just as Shabbos reminds us that we were created for a higher purpose, so too, a good Jewish story reminds us that we were created for a higher purpose. This is why traditional Jewish stories tend to focus on the lives of men and women who became elevated human beings through emulating the Divine compassion, love, and justice. The following stories are therefore in the spirit of Shabbos:
As a preparation for the approaching Shabbos, I would like to share with you some of my favorite stories about the Chofetz Chaim, the beloved sage in Radin, Poland, who served as a spiritual guide to our people.
The Chofetz Chaim was a living example of how a human being can emulate Hashem – the Compassionate One. For example, he was able to empathize with any individual or group that was oppressed, and he once described to the Polish Prime Minister how he prayed for the Polish people during the period when they were being persecuted by the Czar of Russia. The following are excerpts from his remarks to the Prime Minister which are recorded in the ArtScroll biography of the Chofetz Chaim by Rabbi Moshe Yashar:
"Sixty-four years ago, I was witness to the sight of Poles being taken through my small town, bound in chains. Cossacks and military police of the Russian Czar beat them and drove them along, on their way to exile in Siberia. This tragic scene left me heartbroken. I went into a room alone, and entreated, 'Sovereign Ruler of the world, these poor Polish people are in the right. They want to live their own lives in freedom. Why then, do they deserve to be tortured?' "
During the 1920’s, anti-Semitism was on the rise in Poland, and the purpose of the Chofetz Chaim’s meeting with the Prime Minister was to discuss the increasing persecution of the Jewish people by the Polish government, including their attempts to weaken religious Jewish education. The Chofetz Chaim therefore added the following message:
"Remember: 'God seeks the pursued one' (Ecclesiastes 3:15). He takes up the cause of anyone who is persecuted and treated unjustly. So you should not be pursuer or persecutor of the Jewish people. Never forget, honored Prime Minister, that the time will come when the Jewish people will also come into their own, and they will be freed from their oppressors."
The Polish Prime Minister was very impressed by this elderly and holy sage of the Jews, and there were indications that the government would take steps to alleviate Jewish suffering; however, the anti-Semitic forces in the Polish government prevailed, and the harassment increased.
During this period of increasing anti-Semitism in Poland, a rabbi who had returned from a trip to the Jewish community of South Africa came to visit the Chofetz Chaim, who was then in his 90’s. The Chofetz Chaim asked him, "What is the situation of the Blacks in South Africa?" The rabbi, who was aware of the Chofetz Chaim's deep involvement with the serious problems and dangers facing the Jewish people, asked the elderly sage, "Why is the Rebbe so concerned about the Blacks in South Africa?" To which the Chofetz Chaim responded, "First, they are also people. Secondly, it says that eventually the entire world will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, which includes everyone, so shouldn't I be concerned with their welfare?" (Jewish Observer, Kislev 5663)
According to Jewish tradition, our primary role is not to “preach” to the peoples of the earth; our primary role is to become an example that will inspire the peoples of the earth. The Chofetz Chaim reminded us that we achieve this goal through fulfilling the Torah, as the Torah helps us to become "mentschen" – true human beings. The mentschen of the world, he taught, recognize that we are placed on this earth in order to serve the life-giving purpose of the Compassionate One, the Owner and Sovereign of the world. During the long life of the Chofetz Chaim, the technological progress of humankind led many to view the human being as the owner and sovereign of the world. This led to the development of secular ideologies which emphasized complete faith in the reason and power of the human being. A granddaughter of the Chofetz Chaim was greatly influenced by these secular ideologies, and she abandoned the path of Torah. In her old age, she was able to leave Russia and come to Israel. Her cousin, Rabbi Hillel Zaks - a grandson of the Chofetz Chaim - welcomed her, and she told him the following story about their mutual grandfather:
"When I was eighteen years old, I left home and went to university. During a visit to my family, I went to Zaide (Grandfather) and told him: 'Zaide, why are you sitting in the dark? Come out into the world of light and feast your eyes on the beginnings of the revolution of technology! It's a beautiful world out there!' Zaide pointed to an airplane flying by, and told me, 'You see those airplanes? During World War I, they used to throw a box of dynamite out of the window of a plane to bring destruction on humanity below. Someday they are going to reach the moon. And those bombs? They are going to create bombs that will be able to destroy the whole world. That is what they make. But we make mentschen.' "
I heard from my own Rebbe, Rav Aharon Feldman, the following story about the Chofetz Chaim: There was a noted sage in Israel during the 1950's who had been a yeshiva student in Lithuania before World War I. During this period, many young Jews were attracted to various revolutionary and secular movements, including communism, that promised to create a new and better world for all humanity. This yeshiva student began to wonder which was the best path to achieve this noble goal – the path of the Torah or the path of the secular revolutionaries? He decided to travel to Radin and discuss his doubts with the Chofetz Chaim. When he arrived, he was told that the Chofetz Chaim had just gone into his room to pray. A woman from another village had arrived and asked the Chofetz Chaim to pray for her baby who had become seriously ill. The student decided to wait outside the house of the Chofetz Chaim. His curiosity got the better of him, and he walked over to the window of the Chofetz Chaim's room. Standing there in awe, he saw the loving face of the Chofetz Chaim drenched with tears, as he cried out to Heaven on behalf of the baby. The student stood by the window deep in thought and decided to return to his yeshiva. He did not even wait to speak to the Chofetz Chaim. Years later, when this student became a head of a prominent yeshiva, he told his close disciples that when he saw the Chofetz Chaim weeping and praying for this child, he realized that he was given the answer he was seeking: The path which can produce overflowing love for a single human being is the path that can lead to a new and better world for all human beings.
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. The book, “Once Upon a Shtetl,” is published by ArtScroll: http://artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/shtp
2. There is an excellent biography of the Chofetz Chaim by Rabbi Moses Yoshor which is published by ArtScroll. The softcover edition is no longer in stock, but the hardcover edition is still available. For further information, visit: