The Hasidic Parable
Publication Year: 2001
Published by: Jewish Publication Society
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After examining narrative dimensions of earlier phases of Jewish mysticism, I was drawn to the hasidic parable as a logical continuation of my previous research and writing. This book is the natural culmination of my immersion over the past several years in a study of the parables. While seeking to clarify their meaning as well as the historical and literary significance and concepts inherent in them, I also became ...
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When one thinks of Hasidismm—the Jewish pietist movement that emerged in the eighteenth century in the Carpathian Mountains of the Ukraine and spread with remarkable rapidity among a large sector of Eastern European Jewry—certain basic cultural associations almost immediately come to mind. Among them is parable. An impressive array of striking parables can be found in texts from Hasidism's classical period, ...
Paradox and the Unexpected
Sadness in Finding a Treasure
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The above parable is found in a collection of comments on verses from the Book of Psalms in the name of the Maggid, Dov Baer of Mezherich (d. 1772). It echoes, however, an association found in a much earlier source, Mekhilta derabbi Yishma'el, a tanna'itic legal midrash on the Book of Exodus, which contains the following comment: "Booty signifies Torah, as it is said, 'I rejoice...
The Clown on the Day of Judgment
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Having set the stage for a situation of awe and fear, the parable story then appears to escape from that very situation as it takes on the effects of fantasy and hyperbole. It has a charming ending, even though the hearer cannot avoid feeling that it is told in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Just imagine such an occurrence in a courtroom! But the real significance of...
Chipping Away at the Mountain
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The above parable, told by the Maggid, Dov Baer of Mezherich, begins with what would seem to be an utterly ludicrous and impossible command given by the king. However, using their intelligence, the servants find a way to execute it. Both the directive to move the large mountain from its place and the servants' strategy of breaking up the mountain into manageable parts...
God in Transit
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The above parable, which Rabbi Elimelekh of Lyzhansk had heard from the Maggid, is included in his interpretation of the names of the sons of the biblical patriarch, Jacob. The name Zebulun (one of Jacob's sons) suggests the noun zvul, which signifies a residence, in particular the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. Elimelekh saw in that association the intent of the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) to find a dwelling place during the exile when the Temple was no longer standing. While the exegetical context...
The Correct Motivation
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This parable, related by both Efrayim of Sedilikov and Ya'akov Yosef of Polonnoye, startles the reader as the kavvanah (the inner intent and devotion) of a sinner is held up as a model! Even evil—the parable conveys with tongue in cheek—one must do with a wholeness of motivation! It is this very...
The Talking Bird
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The opening of the above parable conveys the impression of a king who squanders his time and interest with an entertaining bird. In the art of this particular parable, such a foolish king, however, comes to represent God. This parable of the talking bird, presumably related here by the Maggid, Dov Baer of Mezherich, and alluded to in other homilies of the Maggid,2 is found also in a homily of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, who...
Compassion as Punishment
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The above parable, found in a homily by Menahem Mendel of Rymanovv—a student of Elimelekh of Lyzhansk who led a hasidic community in Rymanov in southeastern Poland until his death in 1815—shares with any number of hasidic tales the pattern of a person doing something seemingly bizarre and irrational, which upon explanation is seen to possess a definite logic. In the parable story, any other punishment...
That Each Occasion Be like the Very First
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In his homily, Ze'ev Wolff of Zhitomir related the above parable to the jew's reciting formulary prayers before God, with the danger that with repetition, the act of prayer, like the violinist's melody, can become stale and lose its inner vitality. The parable is one expression of an ongoing and deep-rooted tension in jewish worship between keva and kavvanah, between accepted form, structure, and expression on one hand and spontaneity in prayer on the other. Recognizing...
The Evil Inclination
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The classical rabbinic view of humanity regards each person as having both a good and an evil inclination. Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, here identifies the Evil Inclination with worldly desire and striving. The above excerpt resembles a fusion of fable and allegory in its personification of the Evil Inclination as a figure in the story. The appeal of the Evil Inclination is its almost magical aspect, as individuals view it in terms of fulfilling their own personal desires. The surprising...
The Crown and the Container
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The above parable is found in a text, Or Yitzhak, which was published only in 1961 from an old manuscript found among a collection of books passed down through the family of the author. Yitzhak of Radvil, who died in 1831, was in his earlier years a student of the Maggid, Dov Baer of Mezherich, as was his father, Michael Yehiel of Zlotshev,2 an important hasidic figure in Eastern Galicia.3 The reader...
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The above parable, related by Moshe Hayyim Efrayim of Sedilikov, a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, raises a question concerning petitionary prayer—prayer in the form of a request. The school of the Maggid of Mezherich2 taught emphatically that the essence of prayer is not making a request, and if a request is made, it is at most but an occasion for prayer, an excuse to speak with God. The act of...
Sound without Words
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"Our Father's language," by its very nature, goes beyond human language and words, and the recourse to the raw sound of the shofar expresses a realization of the inadequacy of words. The above parable, which the Maggid of Mezherich himself is said to have related just prior to the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, is found also in another text containing his teachings 4 where the context goes on to relate it to the thought that in offering prayer of petition, man is not attuned to God's language. Hence...
On the Language of Melody
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Some thoughts and feelings cannot be expressed by everyday language—deep emotions of the kind that require that one go beyond the realm of direct, conventional discourse. In the homily that includes the above parable, Yitzhak of Radvil discusses the songs and praises recited on the festival of Pesaḥ (Passover) that refer to the mutual love between God and the people of Israel. The homilist recalls the idea, found in classical...
When Truth Confronts Limited Understanding
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The above parable as told by the Maggid, Dov Baer of Mezherich, and repeated in numerous variations in the Maggid's homilies and comments, is present also in a parable related by one of his students, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev: If a very young child speaks any word of wisdom at all, the father is delighted in the child's words, even though the intelligence of the father is far greater—much beyond the grasp of the child. Nevertheless,...
When a House of Sticks Is Shattered
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The Maggid of Mezherich brings two very different perspectives into comparison in this parable. The human and divine perspectives are represented respectively by that of a young child and of a mature parent. The child is unable to understand his father's indifference, even to the point of mocking the son's plight. The two vantage points are never bridged within the parable story. The child will of course never understand, but ...
The Suffering of the Shekhinah
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The above parable, related by Binyamin ben Aharon of Zalozetz, though stylistically different from the more specifically hasidic type of parable we have been reading, voices a significant theme in early hasidic thought: in prayer a person must be concerned neither with his own needs nor his own distress, but rather with the distress experienced by the Shekhinah, resulting from one's misdeeds. To the Maggid and his ...
Unconventional Ways to Serve
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Quoting his teacher, the Maggid of Mezherich, Ze'ev Wolff of Zhitomir explains in the above parable that when one wishes to offer a gift to God, "to adorn the Shekhinah with decorations," gifts in the form of Torah study and prayer are not highly treasured in God's eyes insofar as they are already found in the king's storehouse "in works of ines timable value." Much more preferable are those gifts of true brightness ...
On the Need for the Spontaneous
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Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav was keenly cognizant of the danger of routine and repetition in the life of prayer—the danger of prayer becoming perfunctory and mindless. He spoke of such prayer as being captive to a demonic force that situates itself along a well-traveled route, ready to capture the words of prayer. It was obvious to him that holy acts such as prayer are not immune from being captured by the demonic. Once something ...
The Miraculous within the Everyday
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The subject of miracles is a frequent topic of discussion in the homilies of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, and a glance at his treatment of the subject is helpful in understanding the larger context of the above. In those discussions, the Berdichever built upon a basic distinction between overt miracles that are manifest and obvious to all, for example, ...
Seeing a Woman's Beautiful Clothing
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The contrasting thrust of mashal and nimshal—key element in the art of parable—is clearly evident in the above example from a text by Meshullam Feibush Heller of Zbarazh. What the mashal severely denigrates as carnal and sinful becomes, in the nimshal, analogous to a spiritual relationship to God. The story text reflects a rather conventional and accepted modesty (tzeni'ut) , an attitude toward sexuality that takes clear ...
Deepening the Implications of Divine Oneness
The Barriers to the Palace
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Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Efrayim of Sedilikov related this parable in connection with the verse, "I will keep my countenance hidden on that day ... " (Deut. 31:18). The parable is found in a homily, included in Degel maḥane Efrayim, in which Efrayim of Sedilikov wrestled with the logic and fairness of God's concealing His Presence from man. In ...
The King's Two Messengers
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The Maggid, Dov Baer of Mezherich, who related the above parable, provided for it the follOwing explanation: In this manner, whatever emotions come to a person in life, whether they are expressions of love or fear, that person will go to the King, the Holy One, blessed be He, and will elevate all [his emotions] to a higher plane. Whether he experiences an emotion of fear or injury, or of joy and delight, he will...
On Evil as a Divine Instrument
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The opening of this parable is somewhat reminiscent of numerous folktales in which one person tests another or, more specifically, in which a ruler tests his subjects. The above parable, however, changes course from the familiar and expected pattern to exemplify a paradoxical viewpoint concerning evil. Citing a similar parable found in the Zohar,2 Rabbi Ya'akov Yosef of Polonnoye explained in connection with his own parable that while the ...
On Intruding Thoughts
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Building upon the foundation of kabbalistic thought, Hasidism deepened the meaning of monotheism to negate not only other divine powers but to deny any existence separate from and independent of God. Accordingly, faith in the One who is the Creator and Master of all, according to Moshe Hayyim Efrayim of Sedilikov, implies that when an extraneous thought (maḥshavah zarah) comes to one's mind during ...
It Is God Who Awakens Our Minds
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The Maggid, Dov Baer of Mezherich, who told this parable, identified the guest who comes to probe the child's learning—and possibly also to embarrass him if necessary—with the yetzer ha-ra (the Evil Inclination), and in the Maggid's homily, the mashal is said to exemplify an overcoming of that Evil Inclination. The guest, a person steeped in talmudic learning, occupies a role in the parable counter to that of the child, ...
Child and Parent
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This seemingly very simple parable told by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev exemplifies a recurrent contrast in the teachings of the Berdichever between what might be designated as thingness and personness. Reward and consideration of reward are associated with the quality of thingness. They are marked by concern with what one can derive for ...
The Ultimate Disloyalty
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Hasidic teaching emphasizes that apart from ḥiyyut (the divine life force activating all that is),4 nothing whatsoever could exist. And it is that same life force—Divine in origin and nature—that accounts for whatever capacities we have, including the ability to see and hear, speak and think, etc. The concept of ḥiyyut implies also that our perceptions of multiplicity, along with those of separateness and separate identity, are ...
Transforming Sadness from Within
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Joy—it is often maintained in hasidic literatur—brings one closer to God, while sadness and depression distance a person from God. The hasidic attitude toward joy and sadness convey in their way some rather obvious psychological insights, namely that sadness, often bound up with guilt, is also associated with a preoccupation with self, whereas joy opens the human heart to go beyond such preoccupation with self in favor ...
The World Is Like a Wedding Feast: A Parable Tradition
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Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, who related this parable, went on to explain that "only the person who looks above all the good things and considers the Root from which all the various goods are drawn" is able to rejoice in all the goods at the very same time. That is true because "there, at the Root, all is one." That higher Source transcends the divisions and differentiation and the utter variety of phenomena, sensations, and emotions ...
The Exiled Prince and the Gem on the Ocean Floor: A Parable Tradition
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Unlike most of the parables found in classical hasidic sources—parables that were contrived for their particular context in the discourses and sermons of the hasidic masters—the above parable has the marks of an older story, a type of quest tale, a staple of folk literature, adopted by the early hasidic preachers or teachers for their own purposes. While disguise—a familiar folktale motif—is generally for the sake of cunning or ...
The Polemics of an Hour of History
Arms without Fire
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The parable's juxtaposing of military activity with worship, which might initially make for a jarring effect, exemplifies an aspect of the art and literary power of many hasidic parables in which mashal and nimshal appear to come from totally unrelated spheres of life, even areas of endeavor with sharply differing value patterns. The parallel between the two is explained and justified in the nimshal in that mitzvot comprise ...
On the Inability to Hear the Melody
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A verse from the Torah, "All the people witnessed the thunder" (Exod. 20:15), occasioned this parable, which Moshe Hayyim Efrayim of Sedilikov related in the name of his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov. Those words could also be read as "All the people saw the sounds," referring either to the blasts of the shofar at the moment of the Revelation at Sinai or to the voice of God,3 which was said to reverberate throughout ...
A Holy Man's Dependence upon His Followers
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In another of his homilies found in the same volume,2 Efrayim of Sedilikov wrote, "It is good that the people of Israel always be united in one fellowship, for then even those situated on a lower spiritual level assist their fellows to attain a greater level of holiness than would other wise be possible .... The person on a higher level has need for the person ...
Parables by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav on Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav
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The court sitting in judgment in a synagogue in Jerusalem resembles a rabbinic court—a beit din—which might have met in a synagogue of any Eastern European town. The listener imagines an extremely humble setting as the scene of the judgment. The particular nature of the judgment, however, adds to the scene an ambience of uncertainty and terror. And within that scene, already filled with anxiety, comes a naked man whose very nakedness assumes the dimensions ...
To Break Down All the Doors and Locks
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This parable is included in Keter shem tov by Aharon ben Meir ha-kohen of Apt, who related it in the name of Rabbi Baer—most likely Dov Baer of Mezherich—whose teachings are frequently included in that work by Aharon of Apt. The following version of the above analogy is found in a homily by Binyamin of Zalozetz, who ascribed the parable to the Maggid of Mezherich....
Which Class Really Makes the Wheels Go Around?
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Though the meaning of the above parable itself might be quite transparent, Rabbi Efrayim of Sedilikov nevertheless explains that the two types, the foot soldiers and the horsemen, represent respectively anshe tzurah (people of spirit and mind) and anshe ḥomer (people of material bent and means).2 The former are materially disadvantaged and dependent upon the anshe ḥomer, who do not respond to their needs even though ...
More Treasure Tales
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Our collection of hasidic parables opened with a parable about a treasure. Nearing the end of our journey, we return to that same subject. While quite a number of the parables we have read seek to illuminate differences between the spirituality of Hasidism and the non-hasidic Jewish world, the following parables—which both refer to a kind of ...
Where the True Treasure Is to Be Found
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We conclude, as we began, with a parable about a treasure, this time with a passage suggesting that each person is a treasure, that each has a unique treasure in one's own inner life and must seek that spiritual treasure precisely within the self. The late Dov Sadan2 pointed out that Izik the son of Yekelish was actually an historical figure who, over time, became the subject of folk ...
Glossary of Terms and Personalities
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Sources and Bibliography
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Publication Year: 2001