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[Page 448]

From the Literature

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Donated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

From Korot Beitinu (from the eighth volume of his legacy)

Sh. Y. Agnon

Now I will write about the deeds of our ancestor Reb Shmuel the son of our ancestor Reb Asher the son of our ancestor Reb Yosef. Our grandfather Reb Shmuel was of handsome appearance, had a good voice, expert in languages, and splendid in his garments. On weekdays, he would wear clothing in accordance with Italian custom, and on Sabbaths and festivals, he would dress in accordance with the Hassidim of the Land of Israel. He did not have renown among those who were expert in Torah but he was a grammarian, and knew all the texts of the Bible, the divisions, and the notations of the Masoretes. Already in his youth, he occupied himself in his holy work of editing books, a task that required wisdom.

Now I will describe how he married our grandmother from Poland, and how our grandmother arrived in Italy.

Our grandmother Yocheved's father, our ancestor Reb Ephraim of Szczebrzeszyn, was one of the arbitrators

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of the Council of the Four Lands. Once, he went to intercede before the great ministers who sat at the forefront of the Kingdom off Poland. There was one minister there who was the master of several towns and villages in which numerous Jewish lessees and tavern owners earned their livelihoods. The minister realized that Reb Ephraim was wise, wealthy, and expert in business. He said to him, “I appoint you over all my property, and now, expel all the Jews who live in my cities and villages, who banded together in unison to cheat me. Put others in their place in accordance with your wisdom and spirit of understanding.”

Reb Ephraim realized the direction in which things were leaning – that is to expel Jews from their livelihoods, heaven forbid. He was afraid to tell the minister to take back his offer, for in those days, the ministers ruled over the people in body and soul, and every minister ruled over his city an did what was right in his own eyes. If someone said something that displeased the minister, it would cost him his life. Reb Ephraim abandoned all his affairs to the hands of his sons and sons–in–law, and took his wife and young daughter Yocheved, the daughter of his old age whom he loved more than all his sons and daughters – for his fortunes had turned great from the day she was born – and traveled to the Land of Israel. Along the way, as he waited in Italy for a ship that was going to the Land of Israel, a letter arrived from his sons and sons–in–law stating that debtors are neglecting to pay their debts, claiming that their father has canceled them prior to his journey. Therefore, all of his sons, daughters, sons–in–law, and daughters–in–law were requesting that their father return to his house to repair the breach, for if not, all of his toil would have been for naught. Furthermore, there is no reason to be afraid of that minister, for out of his great anger toward Reb Ephraim who left him and went away, he severed a nerve and is now ill with paralysis. Combined with that letter was a letter from the leaders and barons of the communities who all agreed unanimously, along with the rabbis, may they be well, that Reb Ephraim must forego the benefit of a burial in the Land of Israel for the benefit of the public.

When Reb Ephraim was in Italy, he saw our grandfather Reb Shmuel, who was still a lad. He liked him, and found him fitting for his young daughter Yocheved, the daughter of his old age whom he had taken along for the journey to the Land of Israel. Our ancestor Reb Asher was already no longer alive.

After his wedding, our grandfather Reb Shmuel drew near to the people of Ashkenaz [Germany], to the point where he began to speak their language and pray in their synagogue. Even though his melodies were different from the melodies of the Germans, they would ask him to lead the prayer services, for his voice was pleasant and his melodies were fine. We have heard that he composed a melody for the piyyut Hakol Yoducha[1], composed with great skill, especially in the transition from Hakol Yomru Ein Kadosh Kashem, the meaning of which is that everything is subordinate and nullified, and there is nothing compared to the holiness of the Blessed One, Who is everything, and Whose holiness is everything. Such things cannot be explained in writing. That melody is beloved by the Ashkenazim, who use it to test cantors who wish to be appointed as prayer leaders.

After our ancestor Reb Ephraim and his wife returned to Poland, our grandmother Yocheved remained in Venice with our grandfather Reb Shmuel, and gave birth to sons and daughters.

[Page 450]

Our grandfather met difficulties due to the apostates, for the owner of the printing house made the enemies more senior than the friends, for the apostates came to the printing house on the Sabbath to do their work, and their masters did not have to forego an entire day on account of the Sabbath observing Jews. Nevertheless, our grandfather was happy, especially on the Holy Sabbath. When our grandfather returned from the synagogue on Sabbath eves dressed in the Sabbath clothes of the style that our ancestor Reb Asher worse when he came to Italy from the Land of Israel, he would sit at his table, with his wife, sons, and daughter around him, his pure soul would be aroused from the love of the Sabbath, as he would sing melodies sweeter than honey. The soul of anyone who heard them would be uplifted from the holiness of the Sabbath. We still have a pleasant tune for the hymn Kol Mekadesh Shevii, that our grandfather would sing on Sabbath eves, which aroused great salvation from G–d, as is described at length in the story LaEved Nimkar Yosef [Joseph was Sold as a Servant], which I transcribed from a copy.


23. The Book of Melodies

Now I will tell what happened to our grandfather Reb Shmuel, the firstborn of our ancestor Reb Asher of blessed memory, during the time he was living in Italy. One night, he was informed in a dream that the book of melodies of the songs of the Levites, that the Levites used to sing in the Holy Temple, was hidden in the archives of the pope. Our grandfather girded himself with strength, and went to Rome. The priests did not recognize that he was a Jew, for he was wearing the garb of the Land of Israel that our ancestor Reb Asher had worn when he came to Italy from the Land of Israel. As he arrived at the outskirts of Rome, both the Jews and gentiles inquired who this prince was, and from what country had he come, for his appearance was that of a prince and his garb exuded splendor and honor. The priests opened their archives to him, and he could go into every place he wanted. After he transcribed the book of melodies, he returned to his home and his Beis Midrash.

One night after midnight, at the time of Tikkun Chatzot[2], as we sat and lamented the memory of Zion, his longing for the Temple and the city overtook him. He rose from the ground, and stood up to take out the book of melodies. He read the psalm according to the musical notes that our ancestors the Levities would sing in the Holy Temple. When he reached the verse “May my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember thee”[3], his power of speech was removed from him and left him for several days. His wife found out about this, and hid the book away. After she hid it, he never found it again.


24. I Will Open my Doors to a Guest

We do not know the reason why our grandfather Reb Shmuel left Italy and went to Poland. Some say that our ancestor Reb Yosef left a chest of letters in Poland, and our grandfather Reb Shmuel went because of that chest. Other said that he was called with a summons of love to establish[4]

[Page 451]

printing houses in Poland. His name is mentioned in the communal ledgers regarding the etrogim he imported from Italy. It seems to me that the first reason is the main one, that our ancestor Reb Yosef uncovered some hidden matter in the Zohar regarding the end [of days], and our grandfather Reb Shmuel went there to search for the letters.

And so our grandfather Reb Shmuel left Italy and travelled throughout Poland, Podolia, and Wolhyn. He went to the community of Ostraha and met our relative Rabbi Shmuel, who wrote novella on most of the tractates of the Talmud – he is the Mahar'sha of blessed memory. The entire land quaked from his Torah.

When he entered to him, and saw the light of his countenance, he was confounded, for his facial appearance was similar to that of our ancestor Reb Asher of blessed memory, the father of our grandfather Reb Shmuel, although his beard was black and well–kempt, and his peyos did not reach his beard, as was the custom of our ancestor Reb Yosef, may the memory of the holy be blessed, wo conducted himself like his rabbi the Ar'i [Rabbi Isaac Luria] of blessed memory. The Gaon's peyos extended to below his ears, his beard was full, and his eyes were like the eye of the world when it was frozen. There was another difference between them. The light of the eyes of our ancestor Reb Asher was turned inward, whereas the eyes of the Gaon were open, peering with strength and fortitude. There were similar to each other in height and facial contours, an even their fingers were similar.

The Gaon placed a finger on the Gemara in the place where the guest had interrupted him, greeted him, and looked at him with surprise: why did this person come to disturb him from his studies.

Our grandfather responded to him with the language of wisdom, “I have come to see if the external matters are explained inside to the correct degree, or if the explanation is forced.” Some people said that he told him as follows, “If the matters inside are like the external matters, and there is no explanation to the essence of the acquisition, for both this and that are one matter.”

The Gaon understood that the guest wanted to see how the head of the house fulfils inside his home that which he writes outside, for the following verse is written atop the lintel of the Mahar'sha's house, “A stranger shall not spend the night outside, for I open my doors to a guest.” The Gaon told our grandfather that he did not have to make all this effort, for it is assumed that the descendants of Abraham welcome guests. However, it is somewhat difficult, for sir explains the verse according to its form, and it is said that if one explains a verse according to its form, it is definitive. However, one can answer: with regard to what is this stated? With regard to the verse, “And they saw the G–d of Israel,”[5], for it already had said, “For no person shall see Me and live.”[6]. Unkelos in his wisdom translates this as “The precious G–d of Israel,” but with regard to the hosting of guests, where it says (Tractate Shabbat 127a), the hosting of guests is greater than greeting the face of the Divine Presence – everyone who translates the verse in its form translates it correctly.

Our grandfather heard this and said, “Had I journeyed to Poland only to hear this, it would have been sufficient. And now I will tell him my name and my connection. My name is Shmuel, the grandson of Rabbi Yosef, the brother of the father of sir.”

[Page 452]

Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Mirror

Published by Y. L. Magnes at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem 5735 (1975).[7]

An error is no small matter – Levi–Yitzchak would say. And when one invited Kamtza to the feast, and Bar Kamtza came, Jerusalem was destroyed[8]. If one word is incorrect, a Torah scroll can be invalid. About a hundred years ago, and perhaps more, a scribe lived in Szczebrzeszyn named Reb Meshulam. That Reb Meshulam was famous. It would be said of him that he would immerse in a mikveh [ritual bath] every time he wrote the Divine Name. For that reason, it took him a long time to write. It was expensive to purchase the parchments for tefillin or mezuzahs from him. Poor people could not afford them, but wealthy people would come to him from all over, Zamość, Janów, Hrubieszów. He had a script –

[Page 453]

???. He used a gall nut ink and a format that he saw in Leipzig or in other far–off places. He made the rounds every day. On Sabbaths and festivals, he gathered young people around him and preached to them. My grandfather was of them. Usually, a scribe was unemployed, but Reb Meshulam was an accountant, and was invited to other cities to be an arbitrator. It seems that he did not have any children. I never heard that he left behind a generation.

There was a wealthy man, Reb Mottel Wolbromer, in Szczebrzeszyn at that time. He owned a house in the market and did business with grains and forests. One day, news spread in Szczebrzeszyn that Reb Mottel had begun to become unlucky. First, he became ill, and then – his wife. Later, the children became ill. He had a grain storehouse, which was set on fire and burnt down. Reb Mottele sent rafts over the Bug, but the storm winds disrupted them, broke them, and caused damage. It is said that if a person encounters tribulations, he must search his deeds. Reb Mottele was a proper, Torah observant Jew, and he made an accounting of his soul. He identified all kinds of sins, and began to fast for them. He began to arise earlier, and study before praying. He gave more charity. The wealthy people of those days were not like those of today.

Perhaps he did not have enough troubles. A good–for–nothing broke into his house. In the middle of the night, one heard steps and the wanton laughter of women. Doors opened by themselves. As Reb Mottele was sleeping, an invisible person broke in and pulled him of the bed. One becomes embarrassed from such an encounter and tries to keep it secret. It is not appropriate for business, and certainly not for matchmaking. Aside from this, one things: perhaps it was an illusion, someone who had gotten lost. However, for how long can one hide the truth in such a small town? The household had a maid, and she fled. A demon pulled her by the hair, and he does not forgive it for sullying the bedding. It got more serious day by day. During the night, there was steam from the attic. They rolled barrels, and

[Page 454]

pushed cabinets and dressers. They whistled in the chimneys. They whispered and giggled. One Thursday, Reb Mottele's eldest daughter was kneading dough. She adorned the trough with a cushion so that ??? could lie down to sleep. She gets up in the middle of the night and lies by her on the straw sack. She made a commotion and ??? woke up. My grandmother, peace be upon her, was their neighbor, and she knew everything. She told me everything. The bandits overturned all the pots, threw the food out of the closets, ate what was prepared, and even hauled out the Passover dishes from the attic. One evening, a bandit started to bang on a window with such a racket that half the city ran away. It was no longer a secret. We stated their name but it did not help. We knew that in Szczebrzeszyn, Meshulam the scribe had amulets that stemmed from the author of a Hassidic book. We went to him, and he asked for a high price. With all his fine traits, he was someone who demanded high prices. He could demand four guilders and even more for a few parchments. One could hang up the amulets in all nooks and crannies. Nevertheless, the klipot[9] were irritated, and they broke all the vessels into shards. A stone fell near Reb Mottele's feet that would have smashed his skull into tiny pieces had it hit him on the head. He fell in the ??? hot as if he was just taken from the fire.

When a tribulation comes, all ideas fall away. However, it is difficult for the intellect to comprehend. It was specifically on Thursday when the poor people would make the rounds to the houses. Some hobo came around, saw the commotion, and asked, “What is this?” The wife or a daughter explained the misfortune to him. The indigent asked, “Did you check the mezuzah?” Reb Mottele immediately entered the kitchen, washed his hands, and said, “Yes, perhaps the Jew is correct?” The wife claimed, “If a mezuzah is ??? with smoke, one does not inspect it.” Nevertheless, the warning hit Reb Mottele in the head. All of his mezuzahs were cut. He ordered that they all be taken down and be repaired. After he took once glance, he let out a bitter cry. The letter daled from Echad looked like a reish[10], and read as “Acher” which is blasphemous. He took the other mezuzahs and

[Page 455]

did the same thing. It seemed as if a letter was jumping out, however the ink was fresh. There was a tumult in town. What was going on here? Whomever had one of Reb Meshulam's mezuzahs found the same mistake. It was clear that this Meshulam was a follower of Shabtai Zvi. People opened up their tefillin and discovered that they were all invalid. The man must have believed that the Messiah can only come when the people are completely guilty. They tossed sins at Jews. They rendered books invalid. The tossed a bone of a dead body into the house, so it will become impure. In those days, the Council of the Four Lands would excommunicate people in a ceremony with the blowing of the shofar and black candles. They believed that there would not be any survivor, for many had requested this gold coin. Only small change remained, and Meshulam was one of them. I forgot to mention another error that he made in the mezuzahs and the scrolls: Instead of “so that you may remember¸ [lema'an tizkeru], he wrote “so that you may ???” or “so that you may lie” [lema'an tishkeru]. He wrote the names of ??? and the name of Shabtai Zvi, may his name be blotted out. That Meshulam should be ??? in the city. He should be torn into pieces. However, he had traveled to Lublin for an arbitration. He wife was a coarse Jewess, who did not know her right from her left. Nevertheless, they broke all her windows. The ??? even tried to remove the beams from her house. However, the rabbi came running and stopped them. What could they do, unfortunately?

It became clear that Reb Meshulam was not alone. There was an entire sect in Szczebrzeszyn. When it became clear that they had uncovered their ill deeds, they sent for a rider from Lublin to warn Meshulam that he should flee. They also left, and left their wives behind abandoned as agunot[11].

“What became of them?” asked Zalman Glezer.

“They all became apostates.”

“The wives were not allowed to get married?”

“A wife of an apostate remains a married woman. It seems that none of them were given a get [bill of divorce].”

“An apostate can give a get?”

“According to the law, he remains a Jew.”

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Portions of the Sabbath morning service. Return
  2. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tikkun_Chatzot Return
  3. Psalms 137:6. Return
  4. This ends in mid–sentence here. The next page begins in Yiddish rather than Hebrew, and is apparently a different story – and the page begins in mid–sentence. The continuation is on page 454 (it seems that there was an error in collating the pages of the original book, with 451 and 454 interchanged). I moved the pages to their correct places. Return
  5. Exodus 24:10. Return
  6. Exodus 33:20. Return
  7. On this page and the following pages, the first or last word of many lines is smudged. I put ??? where I could not make it out. Return
  8. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamsa_and_Bar_Kamsa Return
  9. A Kabbalistic word for husks or shells (i.e. non–holy or impure emanations), that does not translate well into English. See https://kabbalah.com/en/articles/klipot/ Return
  10. A mezuzah with errors in the text on the parchment is considered invalid from the point of view of Jewish law, and as a bad omen in Jewish thought. The error here is particularly serious, as the word “Echad” means that G–d is one, whereas the word “Acher” (exchanging the daled for a reish), would imply that G–d is “other”). Return
  11. An aguna [plural: agunot] is an abandoned wife, who is not allowed to marry. Return


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