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[Columns 565-157]

Translations by Mira Rivka Blum

 


Eli Weiner, the Headstone Engraver

Hassidism, Stories,
and Poems

 

The Teacher, Isaac Fox

[Columns 567-568]

Table of Contents

[Columns 569-570]

How the sheketz t'shoktzeu Drove Away the Demons

by Nathan Hadas, (Herzliyah, Israel)

The “minyan” had decided once and for all to put an end to the company of demons and evil spirits that had settled in their shtetl. They simply couldn't take it any more.

On Hoshana Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkot), after there was a break in the heavens, the minyan came out of the large study hall, bringing with them the town's Shamesh, the Proverbs Reciter, and the town's “Shul Knocker” (who knocks on all the doors and windows to wake people up for Shul).

Everyone had a palm and willow branch in their hands, and they promised each other that they would stay silent on the way and copy everything that “the minyan” did.

They headed out on the path between the dried stream beds. It was cut out deep from the mountain and led to the Hutchva river, which encircled the shtetl like a snake.

On the right side from the sliced-away mountain stood the church, which exuded a sense of dread and foreboding among the shtetl residents.

On the left, far back, practically inside the mountain, lived the dogcatcher. Sometimes for the whole night one could hear the howling and whining from poor canine souls. Some people said that the sounds were really from ghosts and demons. Often people said that the dogcatcher, a coarse and violent man, was connected to the cadre of wicked shtetl spirits. It was an eerie path to take by day, and even more frightening at night.

When they had arrived at the river, the group stopped at Simchale Plachte's cottage, which was almost halfway in the water. We didn't see a living soul there. We made the first round of prayers over the four species (for Sukkot), and continued further along Bath St., and from there to the large Bridge of Chelm. But they didn't see anything there either.

From there down a non-Jewish street they arrived at the Svinitiner Bridge, which was always more underwater than above the water. Another small footbridge could be found on the left.

They went over the little bridge, looked around, and couldn't find anything. From there, they started heading back, passing the oil field via Panska St., and passing both churches (on the right, the Polish, on the left, the Russian).

Of course, at that point, we had to utter “sheketz t'shoktzeu”[1] seven times, spit, and continue onward until the Zamochsher Bridge. There wasn't a lot of work for them to do there - because the bridge was in the middle of the town - who would take any chances there? We didn't even make any of the Sukkot blessings there.

Crossing the bridge, they were already on the path that heads towards Paheriye, and from there goes back into town via the Krilover bridge. This was the final stop. We slowly crossed the bridge, made the sukkos movements shaking the four species in all four directions, also up and down, and we thought it was over, but it wasn't over.

Not far from the bridge, where Berl Stelmach's cottage stands, there was a still pool of water. For an entire year, it had been covered with a layer of green slime. Around the mountainside a lot of thick leaves had grown, and green frogs used to dance and croak there day and night without rest.

A kind of grass used to grow there, called lepach, which by Shavuos would cover the ground, and little boys used to make little whistles out of it. And from the still pool, one could often hear a quiet “plop”, as if a fish had just jumped out of the water. Suddenly we caught sight of a young Polish nobleman in a black cape with two lacquered boots and a hat with a shiny brim. He began to approach us.

We didn't panic, we just stuck our left thumbs into our pockets casually, which was a well-known method of avoiding danger, just as Jews have done since the days of old under such circumstances. With his right hand, squeezing the palm branch close to his head, one of us called out:

“Jews[2], stand your ground - this is the ‘head honcho’ himself!” The young nobleman slowly, but with certain steps, continued his approach. Behind him he was schlepping an entire family of different kinds of animals. We could tell that a sinister battle was about to unfold.

The minyan however didn't just stand by with folded hands. We quickly gathered into a corner and started reciting a well-known chapter of Psalms: “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” A second Jew said, “A thousand will be stationed at your side.”[3] And a third said, “but he will not approach you, you will just gaze with your eyes.”[4] And they continued to recite the psalm back and forth until they had finished it.

Suddenly the nobleman had grown in size to the point that he was standing right next to the minyan. Pointing to the palm frond (lulav), he asked, “What is that sir?”[5]

“This is a lulav, God save us,”[6] was the answer that he received.

“That's not true,” answered the nobleman, “that is a broom.”

“No, it's a broom.” Everyone answered him the same, until he came to the Shamesh, who he sensed was the weakest point, and if it didn't work with him, then he would have lost.

As a result, he knew he had to rely on other tricks. With exaggerated movements, he opened up a large handbag filled with golden coins before the Shamesh's eyes, and called out with a triumphant tone:

“Say, it's a broom. If you do, I'll give you this entire bag of coins.” The town's Shamesh then thought about his five daughters sitting at home like, may the evil-eye do them no harm, the first of whom, by Jewish community standards, should already have married a long time ago, but how could he get a dowry for her? Now the poor thing's braid has already begun to turn grey.[7]

“Oh, Master of the Universe, loving Father,” moaned the Shamesh, “God, maybe you are the one who sent this to me? The summer is already over and I still haven't received a cent of community welfare, aside from the few dollars that I took from the shul's Yom Kippur collection box. Oh Master of the Universe, winter is coming, and I still don't have a single log of wood to warm our home. The children are barefoot and practically naked, oh dear God, please help me overcome this trial!”

“Say, broom!” Screamed the nobleman.

“Oy,” says the Shamesh, “For you, oh God, save us.”[8]

When the nobleman saw that this ruse also hadn't helped, he tried a second approach. Suddenly the Shamesh felt like his head was spinning and fiery coins were twinkling before his eyes. Suddenly he felt like he was back in Shul the eve before shabbos with his broom, sweeping the floor, and then he realizes that he's sweeping golden coins, whole piles of them, without pause.

“Shabbos eve, in shul, golden coins? Master of the Universe, where am I?”

“What are you raking up the coins with?” Asked the noblemen. In his head the words are spinning around around around, “broom”, “save us”, “golden coins”, “shabbos,” - what is happening?

“You say that you're sweeping with a broom?” Screamed the nobleman.

The Shamesh, half-fainting, wants to open his mouth and say…
but then he hears other voices.

[Columns 571-572]

“Say, ‘save us’!” He hears voices thundering around him.

“Say, broom!” And then other voices:

“Save us!”

It was as if two warring bands suddenly unleashed heavy artillery on each other at the same time. The Shamesh was paralyzed and did not know what to say. In one hand, he had a palm frond, and in the other, a broom for sweeping the shul - it was honestly hard to decide.

It appears as though the minyan would be victorious. With all of his strength, the Shamesh suddenly tore out a yell: “Save us!”

Right after that, there was some kind of booming sound, as if thunder had just struck where they were standing, and then they heard an other-worldly laughter, “ha ha ha”, which was heard throughout the entire town.

 

The sheketz t'shoktzeu and the Bal-Shem-Tov

Stepping into the shul's large study hall, right after one opens the door, one will notice a table set up on the Southeast side. No one knows exactly how long that table has been there or how old it is. Probably only the table itself knew the answer.

From time to time, we used to add a board or some molding to the wide side and the long side of the table's feet. But the table top itself was never touched - not a single hammer or nail had dented its surface. Generations of Jews had touched the table and its silk and atlas coverings until it shone, more than any polished table, enough so that one could really see one's own reflection on its surface. The coverings from year to year became thinner and thinner, until it appeared patchy like shmura matzah.[9]

At this table, only the most important members of the community would sit - the leaders of the town. In recent years, that honor belonged to the wealthy townsman Avrom Brand.

At this very table one hundred years ago, the minyan had decided that they would bring about the arrival of the messiah. They sat down during a fast and decided that they wouldn't get up until they heard the approaching footsteps of the messiah.

On a winter's night when the town's Jews had tucked themselves in and were toasty warm under their fluffy comforters, the minyan was still sitting at the table, hungry and thirsty, deeply immersed in their learning. Suddenly they heard the chiming of the clock. They exchanged glances, but none of them said a word. Their swiftly beating hearts wondered if perhaps that was a sign that their prayers had been answered.

The large, heavy door swung open, and standing at the threshold was none other than Rebbe Yisroel, the Bal Shem Tov. There was a sudden cry:

“Wait a second! Stop it! It's not time yet!”

“We, holy Rebbe, will not leave this table” was their answer.

The Bal Shem Tov could not break their stubbornness. He left with a loud knock on the door and with the following words: “Those who make predictions about when the messiah is coming shall be cursed.” And then he left.

It turns out that the Bal Shem Tov was right - it was not yet time for the messiah to come. The entire minyan passed away[10] in a single day, and they were buried together, one next to the other.

Still today one can find in the old cemetery ten headstones in the shape of the letter ches (ח). Doctor Yitzchak Shifer, Alter Katzizna, and other writers had searched for their grave. A few of them thought that they had died because the Bal Shem Tov had cursed them. The misnagdim (non-Hassidim) thought that they simply died from fasting.

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. This phrase comes from a passage in Deuteronomy (7:26) about rejecting idol worship. Considering the elaborate visual representations of God/saints/Jesus in Eastern Orthodox Churches and Catholic Churches, some Jews considered such depictions (and theology, such as the idea of the trinity) to be examples of idol worship, so this appears to be some kind of protective oath against these places. It is probably not a coincidence that “sheketz” here is the same Hebrew spelling of “shegetz”, which was the term often used for a non-Jew, or for a Jew (often children) as a form of jest or reproach. Return
  2. More or less the equivalent of saying “you guys” in Yiddish, since one was usually addressing other Jews in the language. Return
  3. Another line from the same Psalm (91) Return
  4. From the same line of the same Psalm that the second Jew said Return
  5. His question was in Polish, but transcribed with Yiddish (Hebrew) letters. Return
  6. He added the words from the prayer said in Sukkos, which gives a touch of irony/double-meaning, since not only is this the prayer that they say at this time anywhere, but they are also praying that God save them from that scary moment when a wealthy non-Jew could cause them serious harm. Return
  7. Referring to a “grey(ing) braid” is a common way in Yiddish to refer to an “old maid” or spinster. Return
  8. Same double-meaning described in footnote 6 - he is reciting part of the Sukkos prayers but also praying that he survives the dangerous encounter. Return
  9. Regular machine matzah has an even-looking surface, but hand-made shmura matzah usually have holes and burnt patches. Return
  10. The verb for passing away, borrowed from Hebrew (נסתלק - nistalek), is generally used for the passing of saintly or holy individuals. Return

 

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