Translated by Hannah Kadmon
(drawn by Israel Zussman , based on guidelines of the old Jews of Horodets)
My shtetl Horodets boasted about its old cold shul [synagogue]. Passing by wood-merchants who stayed for Sabbath in Horodets - to ferry their merchandise to Danzig through our river - never missed praying in this shul, regarded as a real holy place. The Staliner Chassidim use to boast that R' Aharon Karliner or R' Aharon the Big, when they visited town, they went with all the Chassidim from the Shtibl [small house of prayer] to pray in this shul.
The shul was famous not because of its architecture which was quite simple, but because it was old. Nobody knew when it had been built. The dominant opinion was that it was eight hundred years old. It was truly imposing with its antiquity and simplicity, inside and outside. I remember it quite well from the time before it was renovated. As a child, when my parents used to come from the village to the city [the author considers Horodets a city] for The Days of Awe [High Holidays, ten days from Rosh Hashanah toYom Kippur], we prayed in the shul where my father had a shtot [reserved place] which he shared with my uncle Zalman, an inheritance from grandfather Menashe. I was enchanted by the shul's appearance, as well as by its atmosphere of holiness and dignity. The shul was the tallest building in the city, about 50 foot tall from its base to the tip of its roof, and the windows were about 20 foot above ground level. The walls on the outside were grey-black because of old age. The external planks were cracked like the wrinkled face of an old man. In many spots moss and grass grew in the cracks and under the cornices of the shingled-roof there were many bird-nests made of the black greasy dirt from the surroundings.
Inside, the shul left a different impression. Since the windows were high above the heads of people, and the panes were of quite thick and unclean glass, the light of sun was never strong inside. People felt as if withdrawn from the world outside. A thick silence dominated the inside of the shul and created an atmosphere of awe. From time to time we could hear a faint hum of a dove or the squeal of a bird under the cornices. It seemed to me that what I heard was the still small voice that Elijah heard on Mount Carmel. [Kings I 19;12].
The walls were covered with various paints, but already quite blackened. On a background that was once white, but in my time was already yellow or blackened by dust, there were paintings of the four animals mentioned in a saying by Yehuda Ben Teima. [Mishna Avot 5;20 he said: Be ] strong as a tiger, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and brave as a lion [to serve the will of your father in the heavens]. Some very well known prayers from the sidur [prayer-book] were inscribed within painted frames of various colors such as brikh shmaya [bless heavens], blessings of the Torah, yehi ratzon from the first of the month prayer, yehi ratzon read on Mondays and Thursdays, and other verses and graces. On the eastern wall, there were paintings of vines with big grapes. In my childhood I was certain that this was the bunch of grapes that the spies brought from the land of Canaan. On both sides of the Holy Ark, the motif of the vine with large leaves and bunches of grapes was carved of wood of various colors,
Large, heavy chandeliers hung on chains from the ceiling which was made up of thick yellow-grey planks resting upon heavy beams. The ceiling had never been painted. It looked as if the community did not have enough money to complete the work of decorating the ceiling.
The shul was approximately 50 foot wide from south to north, and about 75 foot long from east to west. The pulpit was positioned not in the middle as is the custom of the Ashkenazi Jews - but rather in the first third from the entrance, in accord with the Sephardic Jews. * [see author's footnote at the end of the article] in the area between the pulpit and the lectern, on the two sides of the Holy ark, there were two big chests, about 3 X 5 foot, containing white sand. These chests had a twofold purpose: 1. on Yom Kippur, the landlords used to stick into the sand big strinave or wax candles. 2. The whole year round the two circumcisers of the shtetl used to hide in the sand the cut foreskins from the bris [circumcision ritual].
Around the walls, as well as around the chests, and near the pulpit area described above, there were benches made of thick boards, separated into shtet [sections, seats] above which were inscribed the names of the landlords to whom these sections belonged. Behind the pulpit there were no benches in the cold shul. Props, big and small, of various forms and colors, filled the shul close to all the benches.
The floor was made of hardened clay, or cement. It looked like a stone floor.
When I asked why they spread hay or straw for Yom Kippur, I got the explanation that it was to avoid bowing, or kneeling kor'im [kneeling in awe], on the stone-floor. If the floor is not covered, it [bowing or kneeling] would be just like idolatry.
In the past, there was no separate women's section. Only, the southern wall had an added falush [also pronounce polish = an anteroom or corridor in a synagogue] where some old women use to come to pray during the summer month, and on the Days of Awe. The falush was narrow, half-murky, and very dirty. The women could not hear the cantor in shul. There were only four square holes about 6 X 4 inches. When a woman would stand on the bench, she could peep in and catch a word said by the cantor.
A second narrow falush, adjoined the western wall, had right in its middle two heavy doors that led into the shul. That falush was divided into three parts. The middle part was the ante-room that led to the entrance. On its left and on its right, there were two small rooms that were never used. Sheimes [stray leafs of sacred books] and torn old taleisim [the prayer shawls] were scattered in the two rooms. The dust and dirt of tens or perhaps hundreds of years had accumulated there.
The area between the shul and the Beit-Midrash [the study house, where people used to pray as well] about half an acre ground was named the shul-yard, the place where all wedding ceremonies of the shtetl took place.
Before the end of the previous century [that means: the 19th century] this place was neglected. In a rainy weather it turned into a sea of black mud. In dry weather full of holes, small pits, and dust. However, in the nineties a rumor started circulating that the old shul was about to collapse, God forbid, because of age. Many people thought that the walls started to curve. The landlords decided to strengthen and recondition the shul. That is when the shul-yard was also salvaged.
The head of all the workers of the community was Berl Rodetzer, the gvir [the richest man] of the shtetl. I remember him quite well. He was an elderly heavy Jew, of medium height, with hoary-grey hair and quite broad hips, adorned with a heavy silver chain on the kamzelke [vest; waistcoat]. He always used to carry a long fine caftan [worn by observant Jews], with a black common cap. For a man of his age and heavy figure he was quite lively and energetic. He threw himself into the job of renovating the shul.
I never knew from what source the shtetl got the needed sum of money for the job. One morning, I noticed with joy the piles of new logs long wide boards thrown around the shul. Ziske, the carpenter, with some helpers, started working. Work continued a whole summer. On Rosh Hashanah we already prayed in the renewed shul. The four walls, inside and outside, as well as the floor and the ceiling, were covered with new boards - The old shul in new clothes. Indeed, it had become cleaner and had more light, but the atmosphere of holiness was gone. The four animals and the blessings of yehi Ratzon as well as the heavy hanging chandeliers and the props, were no more there. The sand chests remained as before. The walls were bare. The eyes could not find anything to fix one's gaze on. Personally, I felt like in a big crate, made of plain boards stuck together, and the fragrance of fresh resin impregnated the atmosphere.
The falush next to the southern wall was completely removed. Only a tall cabin, with a roof above the stairs that led to the balcony, was left. It became the women's section. The falush next to the western wall stayed the same. Only one of the rooms was cleaned. It was used as a Kheder for a few Gemore children during the summer months.
The best and most beautiful improvement in the renovated shul was, in my opinion, the fence that Berl Rodetzer had built around the shul-yard. It was made of round patches all of one size, sturdily built, with broad gates leading to the left side of the Beit-Midrash. The gates were always locked. They were opened only for a wedding. Now, the shul-yard had a quite aesthetic appearance. The chickens that used to peck in the sand and the pigs that used take a nap in the mud all disappeared. Fresh grass started growing and some dozens of trees were planted. Together with the tall wall of the shul it looked festive.
The access to the shul was through a side small street. In front a run down fence of a garden that belonged to Uncle Benjamin., on the right the fence of the shul-yard, and on the left an old fence of a garden that belonged to the city bathhouse. The small street which had only five or six small old bunks, across from the bathhouse and the hegdesh [poor house; place where things were gathered for the poor], led to the cemetery. All funerals used to proceed past the shul. When the deceased was from among the distinguished landlords, they used to stop at the shul for the hesped [funeral oration].
The fact that the small street led also to the cemetery, left a strange psychological impression. The locals were sure that the dead from the cemetery got together to pray collectively in the shul, during the night, wearing their white shrouds and three-tasseled prayer shawls. [The dead are exempt from fulfilling religious rituals. The talis has four tassels on four corners. It is possible that in Horodets they used to bury the dead in the prayer shawl with only 3 tassels. It is also a common custom to cut off all four tassels for the burial ]
Of course, nobody saw the dead. However, everybody was sure that it was so. At night they did not walk past the shul but rather ran past it. Many men and women from the shtetl would, at all times, swear that they had heard all kinds of sorrowful sounds from the shul, when they walked past the shul in the darkness of night.
Even as a child I did not believe in the legends about the dead in shul. I craved to spend an hour alone in that holy place. It was so still and relaxed, so secluded from the world, so close to God. However, my strict mother never allowed me to do that. She strongly believed in the fantastic and tall stories, and was quite adamant that the beit midrash was good enough and I was not allowed to go alone to the shul.
Not always could I resist the attempt to go and study an hour in the shul. From time to time I would steal in, when nobody was looking, lock the door and spend some hours with a Gemore or with another book. It was not difficult for me, because a relative of mine, Yedidya, son of Zalman, was the official attendant of the shul. On Fridays he used to come a bit earlier to stick the candles in the hanging candle-sticks and light them up. He was always the last person to leave the shul in order to lock the door. During the winter months, in the worst cold, he was the first among the volunteers - together with other young people - who, wearing a pelt, would form a minyen [ten men for the prayer] every Sabbath morning, so as not to shame the shul. I found out where he used to put the big key. Very quietly I stole the key, and through side ways I would steal into the shul when nobody was looking.
I did so many times and I was quite successful. However, in the end, a thief must be caught. One summer day, I woke up quite early and went to beit hamidrash to pray, while the key to the shul was left in my pocket from the previous day. I craved for the stillness and seclusion of the old shul. I knew that my mother was expecting me for lunch a few hours later. I believed that I was safe.
I had made a mistake in my estimate. By accident, I was caught red handed, and that was the end of my seclusion in the old shul. When I had already been engrossed in studying and chanting heartily: Raba said Abaye said [Two distinguished names in the Gemara], I suddenly heard a sharp blow on the door, followed by frightened sounds: Open open . When the door opened, I saw my mother in front of me, scared, breathless and her face as pale as lime. Next to her, stood my uncle Aharon, son of Itche-Leizer, burning with anger. I don't remember what they told me because I was very shocked from the sight of my mom. I remember only that she, herself, locked the shul, stuck the key in her pocket, and said: Don't ever dare to take the key in your hand. Come .
Disgraced, my head bent down, I was walking between the two of them, like a real thief caught red handed. Walking past the beit hamidrash, my mother said harshly: Go in and pray, and return straight home.
I ran swiftly up the stairs of the beit hamidrash. My mind wasn't set praying. I was thinking of the punishment awaiting me at home, and figuring what measures to take so that my friends in kheder would not discover the whole story. Had they known what had happened, I would have been put to shame and humiliation.
I entered my house quietly. Aunt Foygel, (Yedidya's mother. We lived together in the same house) cast a sharp glance at me, but said nothing. To my great amazement, my mother also kept quiet. While she served me a good lunch, she said: Will you never more do such things? Never, I answered in a low voice.
In the evening, my mother told me what had occurred previously. It so happened that just that particular early morning, uncle Aharon, son of Itshe-Leizer, came to pray in beit hamidrash. In the middle of the week he seldom came there because he traded in the villages and used to pray in the marketplace. From the beit hamidrash he walked behind the bathhouse, and passed by the shul. By chance, he heard my voice. He knocked on the door, but I did not hear him and did not respond.
Actually uncle Aharon was a nice Jew. I had a lot of respect for him. However, he liked to stick his nose in other people's matters. He loved to scold others and very often used to raise his voice to very high tones.
When he knocked quietly on the door and I did not hear, he was frightened because of his own fantasy and superstition. All the yarns about the dead, ghosts and spirits came to his mind, and he ran to my mother. Breathless, he arrived in the house and this is what followed:
Where is Yaakov?My good mother felt, pitifully, very guilty. Very frightened, she ran with uncle Aharon and using all their strength they knocked on the door until I heard and opened it.
He went to pray in beit hamidrash.
This is what you think, but he is not there. I know that he has locked himself up in shul and is studying there all alone. I heard his voice. I knocked on the door and he did not open it for me. Is this how you neglect your son? You are his mother and father. (my father was already then in America). Alone in shul he is in the greatest danger. God knows what can happen to him, God forbid
This episode put an end to my seclusion-visits to the old shul, but not to my love for that holy place. The key to the shul was strictly hidden away and I did not look for it anymore. Not long after that I left Horodets and traveled to study in a Yeshiva.
All my life in America, I hoped and dreamed to travel again to Europe, to see my shtetl Horodets and once more lock myself in the old shul. Now it is too late. Neither the shtetl nor the shul exist any more.
It seems to me that the facts indicate that the original builders of the shul had a Sephardic tradition, and perhaps came from the eastern lands or were of the Spanish expelled Jews. My family name, Bosnyak, means in every language a man who is from Bosnia, where the Jews were all descendents of the Spanish expelled Jews.
Translated by Hannah Kadmon
We cannot know how exactly old was the Horodetser Cold Shul. However, it was already an old shul in 1632. We learn that from the Register of the State of Lithuania. In that register (side 116) we find that at the session of The Council of Communities in Khomsk, 6th of Tevet 1632, they assigned 25 gildn for the renovation of the Horodetser shul. It was a great deal of money for those times. At the same session they also assigned the same sum of gildn for the Pinsker shul.
Another fact can establish the antiquity of the Cold shul: in the old times there was no women's section like in the very old European shul in Worms, etc. [Worms= וורמיזא is a German city on the banks of the Rein. Rashi was active there].
Also, the old Holy Ark [where the Torah Scrolls are deposited] had a past history. When they renovated the shul, they noticed the following script on the Ark: בזאת יבוא אהרון אל הקדש [with this will Aharon come to the holiness] and above certain letters there were drawn marks from which it could be learned that the Ark was already 190 years old.
Also, at the end of the last century [19th century] there was still an old metal plate [in the shul] on which the following was inscribed: אלוף התורני ר' זרח....לפק [Torah champion R' Zerakh the year ], from which it could be established that R' Zerakh donated this plate to the shul 170 years previously.
The last renovation, or what was called; geshalevet [sparing, salvaging] was done in 1904, and it ended around the Shvues holiday. The money for the renovation came from Shmuel Kaliker's bequest, as he had written in his will that a big part of his money should be spent on the renovation of the shul.
The Horodetser shul served as a fortress in time of war or attack, like the shuls of Lutzk, Ostra, Tulchin, and others. Also, almost the same legends were woven around the Horodetser shul. Namely, in the time of one of the wars (Zaksish?), the Jews hid there. The enemy fired at the shul but did not hit anybody, except burning holes in the shul. These holes could be seen before they renovated the shul, where new boards disguised them.
The boards were placed high. Children used to say that it reminded them of the Ark, the boards of which were also elevated. The palush [also pronounced falush or polish = an anteroom or corridor in a shul] of the shul served in the old times also as a jail for Jews, like in other communities. When someone committed a sin they placed him in the palush, his feet stuck in small wood blocks, (according to a piece of news that R' Alter Shefes had heard).
A dispute arose around the last renovation of the shul. The Misnogdim [opponents of the Chasidim] wanted to pull down the old wooden shul and build a new shul made of stone. However, the Chasidim who were very influential in Horodets were against it and they won. They held, by tradition, [orally passed on from the elders] that R' Aharon The Big, the founder of the Karlin-Stalin dynasty (1739-1772) prayed in the Horodetser shul. R' Zusha from Hanifalye and R' Elimelekh from Lizensk also prayed in the Horodetser shul when they observed [accepted willingly] exile (around 1747). When the old Staliner (1802-1872) used to visit Horodets, he, too, prayed in the shul. He was so fond of the shul, that once, when he came to the shul to pray, he kissed the walls and exclaimed: How do we get this shul for the High Holidays in Karlin?
As for the location of the platform it merits to dwell upon it a bit. The honored R' Yaakov Bosnyak speculates that since the platform was near to the door, it confirms that the shul was build according to the Sephardic style, and that the first inhabitants in Horodets were our Sephardic brothers. This is a fine assumption, but it has not been investigated. Also, in the old shul of Vilna the platform was near the door (according to a letter from Prof. Levi Ginsburg to R' Bosnyak), and the Gaon of Vilna remarked about it in his interpretation about Orah Haim [=lifestyle], in rules of a shul, mark 140. The Gaon relies upon Kesef Mishne, Yad Hakhazaka, rules of prayer, chapter 11, matter 3. The Kesef Mishne gives a reason for placing the platform near the door. In the past, when the shul was very big, they were supposed to place the platform in the middle of the shul so that people could hear the cantor or the Rabbi. However, nowadays, when the shul is small, it is more fitting that the platform is not in the middle.
By the way, it is worthwhile to note that legends about phantoms around the shul are not specific to Horodets. Such legends circulated in other towns that had owned old shuls, as well. (see Liberman-Viner's legends about the old shul in Fohrbishtza region of Kiev, Reshumot d' page 394; Philological script 2, 328, Vilna 1928, Yiddisher folklore side 154 Vilna YIVO).
The shul belonged to all Jews of Horodets, without exception, whether they were Misnogdim or Chasidim. Every home-owner had a shtot [=reserved seat] in the shul, and the shtot was passed on by inheritance from father to son.
In the shul the folks used to pray only on Sabbaths and Holidays even in winter. In order to have a minyen [=ten men] on the wintry Sabbaths they used to come to pray by turns; every Sabbath other home-owners. They used to pray in fur coats and in a hurry.
This is how the cold shul joined together all Jews of Horodets until 1915, when the Germans entered Horodets. The Russian troops were directed back to their posts, and left scorched earth before they retreated, to obstruct the enemy. One of the posts was in Horodets, where a horrible battle took place.
All this happened in the month of Av, the month of disasters [destruction of the Temple] when the Russians were forced to retreat from Horodets. As grandmother Shifra used to tell (she and grandfather Aharon-Yossl were the only Jews who remained in Horodets when the Germans entered the town) the Russians set the shul on fire once, but the shul did not succumb to the fire. Eventually it went up in smoke, and together with it, also, the fantasies of Jews who for generations wove legends around this remarkable shul.
By M. Rubinshtein
Translated by Hannah Kadmon
[Translator's notes in square brackets]
[the word Besmedresh is from the Hebrew: Beit Midrash = literally: a house of study (of Bible and Gemara). It is distinct from a synagogue. It did serve also as a place of prayer in the Jewish communities]
Regrettably, we don't have any photograph of the besmedresh which was built in the seventies of the last century [19th] (see the old Rabbi's sermon at the dedication of the building, Yeshuot Yaakov 82-86, Warsaw 1878). It was burnt down during WW1 like the synagogue.
As we do not have any photograph I will try, at least, to describe that besmedresh which played an important part in the life of the Horodetser community for tens of years, the way it was imprinted in my memory.
The base of the besmedresh was high. All four walls were painted white and had big windows. The roof was pointed on all four sides. In front, in the roof, there were two circular small windows.
The entrance to the men's Besmedresh, on the northern side, faced the street and had a big high platform with steps on three sides. The steps led to double doors coated with triangular panels, and strengthened with nails especially made by a blacksmith that looked like buttons. Upon opening the doors, one entered into a lobby with a window and a bench. From the lobby one was led into the entrance to the besmedresh. The entrance had a double door.
Inside, in the north-western corner, opposite the door, a wash-stand was installed, for hand-washing.
At the southern wall - where the door was - stood a long table and two long benches; one was close to the wall and the other opposite it, with an iron-rest. The wall had three windows overlooking the street. Two plain lamps hung above the table.
Close to the eastern wall, in the middle, there was a platform encircled by fence-pickets [paling]. The Ark was on the platform and it was reached by a step in front.
The pulpit was located on the right side of the step. Moshe-Mordechai's shtot [reserved seat] - a chair and a reading-prop - was on the left side of the step, close to the eastern wall.
On both sides of the Ark there were long tables. The benches facing front had iron-rests, and the ones close to the wall did not have them. That was the eastern wall, where the Rabbi and the pney [elite] had their shtet [reserved seats]. The walls on the north side had two windows, overlooking Pinye the butcher's house. Two lamps hung on chains above the tables and could be pulled up and down.
The western wall also had three windows, overlooking the synagogue, and had two long tables with benches the same as near the southern wall. Plain lamps hung by the tables. A long pendulum clock hung up high, in the middle of the wall. Moshe Mordechai used to wind this clock every Friday in his own way, making it run a bit fast so that people would get up earlier for prayers
In a corner of that wall, leading to the women's section, stood a cupboard with shelves, and up above the cupboard there were some more shelves. That is where the great books were arranged such as old six books of the Mishnah and new ones, as well as mishnayes, Ein Yaakov, Midrashim [interpretations] and other such books.
Two tall ovens stood in the middle of the western side where there was a partition between the men's part of the besmedresh and the women's section. The ovens almost reached the ceiling. Between the two ovens there was a door, through which it was possible to enter the women's section of the besmedresh.
On the side of one of the ovens, facing south, there was a low wall and on its top a wooden grid to enable the women to hear the cantor.
Opposite that wall, there was a small table with a drawer, where tehilim [psalms] books were stored. By the table there was a cupboard without doors, with lots of shelves on which were arranged khumashim [first 5 books of the bible] sfarbes (twenty four) [24 books of the bible] and other such books.
Next to the second oven, facing north, there was another wall with a wooden grid, the same as on the southern side. On that wall they used to hang their coats.
Opposite the two ovens there stood tables with benches only next to the ovens. Plain lamps hung above the tables.
In the middle of the besmedresh there was a platform. Steps led to it from the northern and southern side. In front of the platform, on the eastern side there were benches with props. On the platform opposite the Ark there was a table for reading the Torah. Under the table in the floor, there was a hole to stick into it the shemes [non-kosher mezuzes and torn pages of holy books].
On the platform, behind the table, facing the women's section, there was a box with wine for kidush [blessing over the wine] and havdala [ceremony when Sabbath is over], a tray, a yad [hand = a pointer used to read the Torah] etc.
Opposite the platform to the side of the Ark, three flash bulbs were hanging to throw enough light.
The women's besmedresh had two entrances. One was from the street, on the west, with many steps, and the second was from the men's besmedresh, that is: from the lobby of the men's besmedresh.
On the western side there was a room full with wood ready for winter - to heat the ovens. Upon opening the door to the room, one could see on the southern side three windows overlooking the synagogue. The western wall faced the street that led to the synagogue. By the eastern wall stood the two ovens that separated the women's from the men's besmedresh.
The women's besmedresh was full of benches and with small railings on both sides. Next to the benches there were props. Each woman had her own fixed reserved seat, like in the men's besmedresh. The seat reserved for the Rabbi's wife and other distinguished women was near the wall that separated the sections.
[Daveners = those who pray, the congregation]
By Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Bosnyak
Translated by Hannah Kadmon
[Translator's comments in square brackets]
The spiritual and, to a certain degree, the social life of the shtetl was reflected in the besmedresh, through the Sabbath day. The most beautiful and spiritually rich hours during this holy day, were before Minkhe [the afternoon prayer], when the folks came to study. In our besmedresh we did not have props except in the women's section. Only two men sat near a prop the Rabbi and Moshe Mordechai, the bal koyre [Reader of the Torah in the synagogue]. They had their shtat [reserved seat] in a corner, to the left of the steps that led to the Ark. On the right, there was the prop for the leader in prayer. The inside space of the besmedresh was occupied by four long tables and benches; two by the eastern wall on both sides of the Ark, a third one near the southern wall and a fourth one near the northern wall. There were also two short tables next to the two brick-ovens and two narrow tables in front of the platform.
All the tables were taken by men who were studying or merely browsing through a book. In one corner, Gedalya-Yudl the shopkeeper studied Ein Yaakov [a compilation of all the legendary material in the Talmud together with commentaries.] He was chanting it in his own manner, with 20-30 men sitting or standing around him, listening attentively to every word. In another corner, Shimonke Gdalya-Yudl's father was bent over a Gemore, twirling his beard and uselessly laboring to delve into a Talmudic issue. His son's chanting reached his ears and a smile of pleasure spread over his face. Not far from him, his neighbor, Shmuel the cobbler, was sitting, exerting himself over a big Gemore. He often derived pleasure from his son Moshe who used to drop in sometimes to study a page of Gemore. In another corner sat Berl-Leib the butcher and Ovadia the baker, learning together midresh [post Talmudic literature of Biblical interpretation] sharing the same book. Sender the melamed [teacher in kheider] was reading aloud the Zohar [the holiest mystical book of the Kabbalah]. Aharon, son of Itche Leizer, used to study mishnayes [collection of post Biblical laws and rabbinical discussions part of the Talmud]. Here and there, at every table, folks were studying. Some studied the first 5 books of the bible with the interpretations of Rashi [11th century interpreter], others used to recite psalms with meymedos [added interpretations] or just a chapter. It was really a spiritual pleasure to spend those hours before Minkhe [afternoon prayer] in the besmedresh. \Something quite different took place in the hours before Mayrev [evening prayer], at dusk, when it got dim-dark before the shames lit up the lamps. All the local folk of the shtetl assembled to pray Mayrev at those hours. Most of them used to say Tehilim [psalms], verse by verse, with enthusiasm. A mood of yearning and spiritual soul-searching got hold of every person who repeated the verses of אשרי תמימי דרך [blessed are the righteous]. However, not all those present were under the spell of chanting the psalms in the traditional melody. The young children became impatient waiting for the stars in the sky [to mark the end of Sabbath]. To pass the time, they used to throw peklakh [wads] quite lavishly. Quietly, in the dark, they formed a lump from a hard, wet, handkerchief, and threw it at somebody's head. This started angry voices, clamor, brawls and led even to a scuffle in the besmedresh.\Something even worse took place early on Sabbath at the time of reading the Torah. The cause was Moshe Mordechai, the Reader of the Torah. That man had a peculiar character. He insisted that only he must be the Reader of the Torah, although the whole congregation did not want him. He used to read with great ecstasy and devotion, but his voice was utterly hoarse. It irritated everybody and it was unpleasant. People asked him kindly and then threatened. They entreated him to allow another Reader to approach the reading table, but nothing helped. The everlasting Jewish stubbornness was reflected in Moshe Mordechai. Not once was he hit with a wad on his head while he was reading. Not once were people challenged to throw him out of the platform, but they could not carry it out. He used a belt to bind himself to the reading table that was built into the platform and they could not move him from the place. Not once was he beaten and even bled, but he stayed the only and permanent Reader in the besmedresh.
Often, he also ran to the pulpit wishing to pray only there, but he was held back. When he was asked, frequently, R' Moshe Mordechai, why are you so stubborn? he would give in and smile. However, when it was time to read the Torah, he forgot all and did as he wished. He could not restrain himself.
Moshe Mordechai had an additional weakness blowing the shofar. Only he deserved to blow the shofar and no one else. The congregation was against his blowing the shofar. However, can one fight with him on Rosh Hashanah High Holiday when even a fish trembles in water? Moshe Mordechai actually took advantage of the opportunity knowing that on Rosh Hashanah nobody would quarrel with him and nobody would throw him out from the platform.
Well, Moshe Mordechai had already finished reading out, in his hoarse voice, למנצח [lamenatzeakh - prayer preceding the blowing of the shofar], took the shofar to blow, but no sound came out. He did not have any choice and called out: Nu, Nu which meant: Someone help me, let somebody else mount the platform and blow the shofar. It did not take long and Se'adya, a healthy young man with broad shoulders, climbed to the platform, took the shofar in his hand, brought it to the right corner of his mouth and blew the shofar t'kiye [a medium length sound] shvorim [a series of broken sounds], tru'a [a long sound]. It was performed smoothly by him and the congregation breathed freely. They told each other: Not he who reads out למנצח can also blow the shofar. In fact, these words had become a saying, a proverb, in the shtetl and were used to describe a person who finishes only half a job
Translated by Hannah Kadmon
[Translator's notes in square brackets]
[Messengers and Preachers]
The besmedresh was not a place where only the folks in the shtetl derived satisfaction. Visitors from the whole world found in the besmedresh a place to introduce their activities.
In the old days the young men of Horodets used to sit in the besmedresh and study. They met there a few foreign young men with a great desire to study the Torah, who had left their birthplace and settled to study in the Horodets besmedresh.
Among the students, there were some Prushim [recluses; devote themselves exclusively to the study of the sacred books]. They left behind a wife and children, their livelihood and worldly pleasures and sat down to study Torah for its own sake.
All these foreigners knew that the Jews of Horodets would not forsake them and would provide them with teg [= days; eating as guests at a certain house at given days of the week], night's lodging, and even give them some pocket money.
Horodets was a gathering-point for messengers, preachers and poor people. The exchange was in the besmedresh. Almost every day another maged would present his sermon. They chanted and read out the Torah, but not all of them could attract the public. Some of them were already well known to the people of Horodets so that they were referred to by a nickname. For example: the pedestrian maged. One was nicknamed the sheepish maged. He was short with a reddish beard. He used to come for a wintry Sabbath. His audience was very small but he did not leave the shtetl empty handed.
If the mediocre maged gave his sermon in the middle of the week, the congregation would place a plate at the exit of the besmedresh and everyone used to throw in a coin, according to one's means.
On the other hand, when a renowned maged or meshulekh [messenger] arrived, all the Jews of Horodets would assemble in the besmedresh to listen to their sermon. After the sermon they provided them with food and lodgings. Someone would invite the renowned person to his house, or the shames would lead him to the house of one of the balebatim [home-owners]. Two balebatim would go from house to house to collect donations for him or for the Yeshiva that he represented. Thus he would make more money. However, if the sermon was not a success, or if he did not give any sermon at all, the congregation provided a helper to accompany him. They did not let a maged, meshulekh or any other important visitor, walk alone from house to house, but provided them with an escort. That was considered more respectable, and it also helped in getting larger donations.
The Meshulekh from Kaunas was one of the prominent meshulokhim that frequented Horodets. He dressed like a Chasidic Rabbi and wore a shtreimel [a fur hat]. He was famous in Horodets for being a saintly man and a miracle worker. When he arrived, it was a festive day for the shtetl. The richest home-owners in the shtetl wanted him to stay in their house over night and have his meals with them. Those who got him had the rare honor and felt privileged. Two of the finest home-owners used to round up the annual contributions for his institution.
He spent his day mostly in the Rabbi's house. All the folks used to come and greet him. They would come with their children so that he could bless them. Wives would come for blessing. The house was full with people as long as he was staying in the shtetl. He was a wise man and used to adorn his speech with biblical vocabulary.
Around the year 1900, Horodets supported three yeshiva boys in the besmedresh. They did not stay in Horodets at the same time. One of them left and the other arrived. Later on, the third one arrived. They used to sit alone all day long, studying gemore. They would finish one tractate of the Talmud and would start another one, and so on.
They did not eat teg [= days; eating as guests at a certain house at given days of the week]. However, the women of Horodets used to take care of all their needs. They brought them the best of food to the besmedresh. They treated them like the apple of their eyes.
These were great scholars. In addition, they were wise and understood how to manage their affairs. They were more or less worldly. When, in the end, they got married, they left the shtetl.
The third and last young man was interesting. He was an odd person. He was altogether detached from this world. He made the besmedresh his home. He studied there and he slept there, too. However, he slept very little, constantly studying. His language was mostly Hebrew or Aramaic-Hebrew. A small crowd used to stand around him listening to his reading out or commenting on what he was studying. He was quite versed in the six books of the Mishnah. He studied Zohar [the holiest mystical book of the Kabala] and other books of Kabala.
For the women he was an occupation. They used to bring him the best of food, but he did not eat everything. He was a vegetarian. He did not eat any meat. He liked cookies most of all. If he wished for cookies without sugar he would get them. At day time he used to walk about, come back to the besmedresh and resume his studying. He did not stay for long in Horodets. He left and no other yeshiva boys arrived after that.
[A self-proclaimed Jewish Messiah - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbatai_Zevi]
It was winter of 1912. The news spread that an eccentric man was in the besmedresh. He did not eat for a whole week, except for a potato baked in the oven of the besmedresh. The time of the arrival of Sabbath, as far as he was concerned, did not correspond to that observed by all Jews Friday in the evening. He greeted the Sabbath on Friday, around midnight. His Sabbath meal was entirely different from that of all Jews: twelve Hallahs, twelve pieces of fish and all kinds of dishes that the Jews of Horodets were not accustomed to. There were several people who provided this eccentric man with all these delicacies, and nice home-owners such as Zeidl the butcher and Chayim son of Rasel used to fuss over him.
It cannot be said that all the folks of Horodets thought alike about this man's queer customs. There were others who were of the opinion that he was an adherer of Shabtai Tzvi and he should be thrown out of the besmedresh and that they should not cater to all his idiosyncrasies.
The eccentricity of this man caught my interest. Once, on Saturday, after the meal, I went into the besmedresh to look at this odd man. I saw a man of middle stature, quite fat, with a black beard, covered with a tales [tasseled shawl], who ran many times to the bookshelves to take out a gemore, mishnayes, a midresh or a kabala book , turned the pages looking for every passage that dealt with the Sabbath, emitted some sounds and returned the book to the bookshelves.
The congregation had already gathered for the afternoon prayer. He climbed to the platform and held a sermon in Hebrew or Hebrew-Aramaic. Some people shouted: Get down, you Shabtai Tvi'nik Others said: Let him speak. So this Jew kept on with his sermon as though not he was mentioned. The congregation fixed ears and eyes on him but they did not understand a word. The Hebrew of this strange man was very queer. He finished his sermon, descended the platform, made a kiddesh [benediction over the wine], resumed praying and went back to studying once again.
After havdole [the ceremony at the close of Sabbath to differentiate between holy and profane] this strange man was still covered in his tales as if he did not want to part from the tales and from the Sabbath. For him it was still Sabbath. The people of the congregation were already smoking some had a cigarette and others a pipe but he kept doing his thing. For him it was still Sabbath. Why did he carry on like that? Why did he withdraw from the congregation? Who would ask him these questions? Even if someone asked him, would he understand Yiddish? And even if he understood what one asked him, would the one who asked understand the answer? He used such a Hebrew that nobody understood
All that was left to do was watch and keep quiet. However, how long could one sit in the besmedresh without dinner? And what about going to sleep? Did he plan to sleep in the besmedresh on a hard bench?
I decided to go home and return to the besmedresh early the next day, to see when Sabbath was over for this Shabtai Tvi'nik.
On Sunday, early in the morning, I was there. The congregation had finished praying and took off the tefillin and went home to their routine daily life. The Shabtai Tvi'nik was still saying the evening prayer preceding the close of the Sabbath. He had time. Why should he hurry? Thank God he finally finished the evening prayer. It was already noon time. He started the havdole to close the Sabbath.
I was the lucky one. I saw the big havdole candle over which the Shabtai Tvi'nik said the havdole prayer.
Thus the eccentric Jew carried out his whims for a few weeks, until he left Horodets.
It is worthwhile to ponder about that man. Perhaps there are other such Jews in the world.
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