The stories, anecdotes, and sayings below were selected from Tales of the Hasidim, a book largely written as well as edited by Martin Buber, which Schocken Books of New York will publish in March 1947 in a translation made from the German by Olga Marx. This book includes almost all the material contained in Dr. Buber’s two previous collections of Hasidic material, as well as much, much more—even though it confines itself exclusively to the “early masters” of Hasidism. It is by Schocken’s permission that we publish excerpts from it here. A second installment will follow in the February COMMENTARY.

Martin Buber himself is recognized as the greatest modern interpreter of Hasidism, and Tales of the Hasidim represents the latest fruits of forty years of work on his part as collector, compiler, and editor of Hasidic written and oral tradition. Editing in this case represents much more than is ordinarily understood by the term. Dr. Buber has had to sift, reorganize, and actually retell material that he found in a chaotic and unformed state. He has had to mediate confusion into order, decide between truth, half-truth, and fable; he has had also to eliminate material whose presence was illegitimate. And then he has had to find the connecting links and recast them in his own words. It is to Martin Buber’s patience, understanding, and talent that Hasidism owes a form by which it can live again, under the eyes of modern scepticism, as a precious phenomenon and essential chapter of the Jewish past.—Ed.

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A hasid who was traveling to Mezbizh in order to spend the Day of Atonement near the Baal Shem was forced to interrupt his journey for something or other. When the stars rose, he was still a good ways from the town and, to his great grief, had to pray alone in the open field. When he arrived in Mezbizh after the holiday, the Baal Shem received him with particular happiness and cordiality.

“Your praying,” he said, “lifted up all the prayers which were lying stored in that field.”

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The Baal Shem said this to a zaddik who used to preach admonishing sermons: “What do you know about admonishing? You yourself have remained unacquainted with sin all the days of your life, and you have had nothing to do with the people around you—how should you know what sinning is!”

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It happened in the days of the Baal Shem’s youth that one Friday he had nothing at all in the house to prepare for the Sabbath, not a crumb, not a penny. So early in the morning, he tapped at the window of a well-to-do man, said: “There is some one who has nothing for the Sabbath,” and walked on. The man, who did not know the Baal Shem, ran after him and asked: “If you need help, why do you run away?” The Baal Shem laughed and replied: “We know from the Gemara that every man is born with his calling. Now, of course, the heavier the load of one’s sins, the greater effort one must make to get the appointed calling to come. But this morning I felt scarcely any weight on my shoulders. Still there was enough to make me do a little something—and that is what I just did.”

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On A certain day of the new moon, the Baal Shem joined in the morning prayer standing in his own place, for it was his custom to go to the reader’s pulpit only when reading of the psalms began. Suddenly he trembled and the trembling grew greater and greater. They had seen this happen before while he prayed, but it had never been more than a slight quiver running through his body. Now he was violently shaken. When the reader had ended, and the Baal Shem was to go to the desk in his stead, they saw him stand in his place and tremble violently. One of his disciples went up to him and looked him in the face: it was burning like a torch and his eyes were wide open and staring like those of a dying man. Another disciple joined the first; they took him by the hands, and led him to the desk. He stood in front of it and trembled. Trembling he recited the psalms and after he had said the Kaddish, he remained standing and trembled for a good while, and they had to wait with reading the Scriptures until his trembling had left him.

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One Simhath Torah evening, the Baal Shem himself danced together with his congregation. He took the scroll of the Torah in his hand and danced with it. Then he laid the scroll aside and danced without it. At this moment, one of his disciples who was intimately acquainted with his gestures said to his companions: “Now our master has laid aside the visible, dimensional teachings, and has taken the spiritual teachings unto himself.”

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It is told: When Rabbi Wolf Kitzes took leave of his teacher, before setting out for the Holy Land, the Baal Shem stretched out his second finger, touched him on the mouth, and said: “Heed your words, and see to it that you give the right reply!” He refused to say anything more.

The ship on which the Baal Shem’s disciple had taken passage was driven from its course by a tempest, and forced to land on an unknown and apparently desert island. Presently the storm died down, but the vessel had suffered damage and could not put out to sea again immediately. Some of the passengers, Rabbi Wolf among them, went ashore to have a look at the unfamiliar foreign landscape. The others turned back after a while, but he was so deep in meditation that he went on and on and finally came to a big house built in an old-fashioned style, which looked as if no one had ever lived in it. Only then did he remember that the ship would not wait for him, but before he could decide one way or another, a man in a linen garment appeared on the threshold. His features were age-old, his hair was white, but he bore himself erect. “Do not be afraid, Rabbi Wolf,” he said. “Spend the Sabbath with us. The morning after, you will be able to resume your journey.” As in a dream, Rabbi Wolf followed the old man to the bath, prayed in the company of ten tall majestic old men, and ate with them. The Sabbath passed as in a dream. The next morning, the age-old man accompanied him down to the shore where his ship was lying at anchor, and blessed him in parting. But just as Rabbi Wolf was hurrying to set foot on the gangplank, his host asked him: “Tell me, Rabbi Wolf: How do the Jews fare in your country?”

“The Lord of the world does not abandon them,” Rabbi Wolf replied quickly and walked on. Not until he was on the high seas did his mind clear. Then he recalled the words of his teacher and was seized with such bitter remorse that he resolved not to continue his voyage to the Holy Land, but to go home at once. He spoke to one of the crew and gathered from his reply that he was already homeward bound.

When Rabbi Wolf came to the Baal Shem, his master looked at him sorrowfully but not angrily and said: “That was the wrong answer you gave our father Abraham! Day after day he asks God: ‘How are my children?’ And God replies: ‘I do not abandon them.’ If only you had told him of the sufferings of exile!”

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This is how Rabbi Barukh expounded the words in the Sayings of the Fathers, “and be not wicked by facing yourself only” (that is, do not think that you cannot be redeemed):

“Every man has the vocation of making perfect something in this world. The world has need of every single human being. But there are those who always sit in their rooms behind closed doors and study, and never leave the house to talk with others. For this they are called wicked. If they talked to others, they would bring to perfection something they are destined to make perfect. That is what the words mean: ‘Be not wicked by facing yourself only.’ Since you face yourself only, and do not go among people, do not become wicked through solitude.”

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A learned man from Lithuania who was proud of his knowledge was in the habit of interrupting the sermons of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev with all manner of hair-splitting objections. Time after time the zaddik invited him to visit him at his home for discussion of this kind, but the Lithuanian did not come but continued to appear in the House of Prayer, and interrupted the rabbi again and again. Rabbi Barukh was told of this. “If he comes to me,” he said, “he will not be able to say anything at all.”

These words were reported to the learned man. “What is the rabbi especially versed in?” he asked. “In the Book of Splendor,” was the answer. So he selected a difficult passage in the Book of Splendor and went to Mezbizh to ask Rabbi Barukh about it. When he came into the room, he saw the Book of Splendor lying on the desk and opened to the very passage he had in mind. “What an odd coincidence,” he thought to himself, and immediately began to cast about for another difficult passage that might serve to embarrass the rabbi. But the zaddik anticipated him. “Are you well versed in the Talmud?” he asked. “Certainly I am well versed in it!” the other replied and laughed. “In the Talmud,” said Rabbi Barukh, “it is said that when the child is in the mother’s womb a light is kindled above his head and he learns the entire Torah, but that—when his appointed time to issue forth into the air of earth has come—an angel strikes him on the mouth and thereupon he forgets everything. How are we to interpret this? Why should he learn everything only to forget it?” The Lithuanian was silent. Rabbi Barukh continued: “I shall answer the question myself. At first glance, it is not clear why God created forgetfulness. But the meaning of it is this: If there were no forgetting, man would incessantly think of his death. He would build no house, he would launch on no enterprise. That is why God planted forgetting within him. And so one angel is ordered to teach the child in such a way that it will not forget anything, and the second angel is ordered to strike him on the mouth and make him forget. But occasionally he fails to do this, and then I replace him. And now it is your turn. Recite the whole passage to me.” The man from Lithuania tried to speak, but he stammered and could not utter a single word. He left the rabbi’s house and had forgotten everything. He was an ignorant man! After that he became a servant in the House of Prayer in Berditchev.

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Rabbi Barukh’s grandson Yehiel was once playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for his playmate to find him. When he had waited for a long time, he came out of his hiding-place, but the other was nowhere to be seen. Now Yehiel realized that he had not looked for him from the very beginning. This made him cry, and crying he ran to his grandfather and complained of his faithless friend. Then tears brimmed in Rabbi Barukh’s eyes and he said: “God says the same thing: ‘I hide, but no one wants to seek me.’ ”

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When Rabbi Abraham, the Angel, entered the room on his wedding-night, his face was more awe-inspiring than ever before, and his lips uttered dark sounds of lament. His appearance and his voice terrified the bride to the secret core of her being, and she fell fainting to the ground. Until morning she lay in a fever.

When he entered the room on the following night, his wife’s heart filled with heroic strength and she endured his terrible greatness.

Rabbi Abraham begot two sons. After that he lived apart as before.

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Rabbi Abraham said: “I have learned a new form of service from the wars of Frederick, king of Prussia. It is not necessary to approach the enemy in order to attack him. In fleeing from him, it is possible to circumvent him as he advances, and fall on him from the rear until he is forced to surrender. What is needed is not to strike straight at Evil but to withdraw to the sources of divine power, and from there to circle around Evil, bend it, and transform it into its opposite.

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Once Rabbi Abraham visited his father-in-law in Kremnitz. The most distinguished members of the congregation assembled to welcome the holy man. But he turned his back on them and looked out of the window at the mountain at whose foot the city lay. Among those waiting for him was a man very much aware of his own learning and intent on his own importance. He said impatiently: “Why do you keep staring at the mountain? Have you never seen anything like it before?”

The rabbi answered: “I look and am amazed to see how such a lump of earth made much of itself until it grew into a tall mountain.”

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Rabbi Pinhas often cited the words: “A man’s soul will teach him,” and emphasized them by adding: “There is no man who is not incessantly being taught by his soul.”

One of his disciples asked: “If this is so, why don’t men obey their souls?”

“The soul teaches incessantly,” Rabbi Pinhas explained, “but it never repeats.”

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Once, when Rabbi Pinhas was at the desk reciting the Evening Prayer, and came to the words: “Who guardest thy people Israel,” he screamed aloud from the very bottom of his soul. The countess who owned the region happened to be passing the House o£ Prayer. She leaned over one of the low windowsills and listened. Then she said to those around her: “How true that scream was! How without any admixture of false-hood!” When they repeated her remark to Rabbi Pinhas, he said with a smile: “Even the peoples of the world know the truth when they hear it.”

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The wife of Rabbi Pinhas once scolded her servant. This annoyed the rabbi and he said to her: “One should never hurt a Jew. A Jew is precious, very precious!” He pointed to a water carrier by the name of Hirsh, who was just taking a pail into the house. The man was very simple-minded, and still unmarried although he was about forty years old. The rabbi said to his wife: “I tremble before Hershele—because he is so precious!”

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Once, when Rabbi Pinhas entered the House of Study, he saw that his disciples, who had been talking busily, stopped and started at his coming. He asked them: “What were you talking about?”

“Rabbi,” they said. “We were saying how afraid we are that the Evil Urge will pursue us.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “You have not got high enough for it to pursue you. For the time being, you are still pursuing it.”

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Once some women came to Rabbi Pinhas from a nearby town and bothered him with their trivial concerns. When he saw them at his door again on the following morning before prayer, he fled to his son’s house and cried: “If only the Messiah came, so that we might get rid of the zaddikim, ‘the good Jews.’ “ After a while, he added: “You think that it is the wicked who delay the coming of the Messiah. Not so—it is ‘the good Jews’ who are delaying it. A nail somewhere in the wall—what has that to do with me! But a pin sticking in my shirt—that’s what pricks!”

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Rabbi Pinhas said: “All joys hail from Paradise, and jests too, provided they are uttered in true joy.”

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Rabbi Mikhal once said to his sons: “My life was blessed in that I never needed anything until I had it.”

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A Hasid complained to Rabbi Wolf that certain persons were turning night into day, playing cards. “That is good,” said the zaddik. “Like all people, they want to serve God and don’t know how. But now they are learning to stay awake and persist in doing something. When they have become perfect in this, all they need do is turn to God—and what excellent servants they will make for him then!”

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While Rabbi Wolf was on a journey, a poor young hasid came up to him and asked for financial assistance. The zaddik looked in his purse, put back a large coin he had happened to find, fetched out a smaller one and gave it to the needy young man. “A young man,” he said, “should not have to be ashamed, but neither should he expect heaven knows what.” The hasid went from him with bowed head.

Rabbi Wolf called him back and asked: “Young man, what was that you were just thinking?”

“I have learned a new way to serve God,” the other replied. “One should not be ashamed, and one should not expect heaven knows what.”

“That is what I meant,” said the zaddik and accorded him help.

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It is told: Rabbi Leib, son of Sarah, wandered about all the days of his life and never stayed in one place for any length of time. He often stopped in woods and caves, but he also came to cities and there secretly associated with certain intimate friends of his. He also never failed to appear wherever a large market was held. On such occasions, he rented a booth and stood in it from the beginning to the end of the market. Over and over his disciples begged him to tell them the purpose of this strange habit of his. Finally he yielded to their importunities. A man with a heavy load on his shoulders was just passing by. Rabbi Leib called him and whispered in his ear for a while. Then he told his disciples to follow the man and observe him. They saw him go up to one of the merchants, set down his load, and heard him say that he did not want to be a servant any longer. The merchant shouted angrily at him and refused to pay him his due wages, but the man went silently away. Then the disciples who were following him saw that he was wearing a shroud. They ran up to him and adjured him to reveal his secret to them. “Hasty and transitory was my sojourn in the world of chaos,” he said to them. “I did not know that I have been dead long since. Now the rabbi told me and has given me redemption.”

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Once Rabbi Hayyim of Krosno, a disciple of the Baal Shem’s, was watching a rope dancer together with his disciples. He was so absorbed in the spectacle that they asked him what it was that riveted his gaze to this foolish performance. “This man,” he said, “is risking his life, and I cannot say why. But I am quite sure that while he is walking the rope, he is not thinking of the fact that he is earning a hundred gulden by what he is doing, for if he did, he would fall.”

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When Rabbi Shmelke was called to be the rav of Nikolsburg, he prepared an impressive sermon which he intended to preach to the Talmud scholars of Moravia. On the way, he stopped over in the city of Cracow and when the people there begged him to preach to them, he asked his disciple Moshe Leib, the later Rabbi of Sasov, who had accompanied him: “Well, Moshe Leib, what shall I preach?”

“The rabbi has prepared a splendid sermon for Nikolsburg. Why should he not preach that here as well?” answered Moshe Leib.

Rabbi Shmelke took his advice. Now a number of men had come from Nikolsburg to Cracow in order to welcome him, and these heard the sermon. So when the zaddik arrived in Nikolsburg, he asked his disciple: “Well, Moshe Leib, now what shall I preach on the Sabbath? I cannot dish up the same sermon over again to the men who heard me speak in Cracow.”

“We must take some time,” said Moshe Leib, “and discuss a problem of the law in preparation for a sermon.”

But up to Friday they did not have a moment’s time to open a book. Finally Rabbi Shmelke asked: “Well, Moshe, what shall we preach?”

“On Friday evening, they must surely give us a little free time,” said Moshe Leib.

They held in readiness a very large candle which was to burn right through the night, and, when the crowd had gone home, they sat down before the book. Then a hen flew in at the window and the whir of her wings put out the light. Said Rabbi Shmelke: “Well, Moshe Leib, now what are we to preach?”

“Surely,” Moshe Leib replied, “there will be no preaching until the afternoon; and so in the morning, after prayer, let us go into our room, lock the door, let no one in, and talk over a subject.” In the morning they went to prayer. Before the chapter for the week was read, the desk was moved in front of the Ark and the head of the congregation came and asked Rabbi Shmelke to give his sermon.

The House of Prayer was filled with the Talmud scholars of Moravia. Rabbi Shmelke had them bring him a volume of the Gemara, opened it at random, posed a problem from the page before him, and asked the scholars to discuss it. Then he too, so he said, would say his say. When they had all spoken, he put the prayer shawl over his head and remained like this for about a quarter of an hour. Then he organized the questions they had raised, one hundred and thirty in number, and gave the replies, seventy-two in number, and there was nothing that was not answered, and solved, and quelled.

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A poor man came to Rabbi Shmelke’s door. There was no money in the house, so the rabbi gave him a ring. A moment later, his wife heard of it and heaped him with reproaches for throwing to an unknown beggar so valuable a piece of jewelry, with so large and precious a stone. Rabbi Shmelke had the poor man called back and said to him: “I have just learned that the ring I gave you is of great value. Be careful not to sell it for too little money.”

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Rabbi Shmelke said: “The poor man gives the rich man more than the rich gives the poor. More than the poor man needs the rich man, the rich is in need of the poor.”

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A Zaddik told this: The delights of all the worlds wanted to reveal themselves to Rabbi Aaron, but he only shook his head. “Even if they are delights,” he said at last, “before I enjoy them, I want to sweat for them.”

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Hasidism was perhaps the last positive and creative gesture made by the “civilization” of the Jews in Eastern Europe before it began to disintegrate, along with the feudal society of which it was part, under the pressure of Western influences and economic backwardness. This is not the place to go into the history, the nature, or the personalities of the Hasidic movement. Suffice it to say that the fervor and enthusiasm it awakened rescued a good part of the masses of Ashkenazim from the mood of disillusionment following upon the collapse of the Sabbatian Messianic movement in the 17th century. Hasidism restored their confidence in religion as the containing vessel of Jewish life and enabled them to feel once more that politics with its frustrations was no concern of Jews.

Parables and stories, as well as sermons and prayers, had been traditionally a Jewish means par excellence of communicating religious feeling. The legends, anecdotes, and sayings of the Hasidic zaddikim, or wonder-rabbis, conveyed a message whose importance in its sphere far transcended the importance assigned by Christian usage to the lives of the saints. The zaddikim (zaddik: the completely righteous one) were regarded more as religious heroes than as saints; and in the absence of an independent Jewish political life, they usurped in the popular imagination some of the attributes that other peoples lend to their rulers and military leaders. They inspired their followers by their presence just as much as by their precepts, and the small details of their lives were not only lessons, but also commands, transmissions, direct evocations of religious states of being.

The Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”), whose real name was Israel ben Eliezer and who lived between 1700 and 1760, was the visionary preacher who founded Hasidism. But the more intellectual if less inspired Rabbi Dov Baer, the “Great Maggid” (maggid: wandering preacher), established it as a going concern, and in his “House of Study” raised up a group of preachers in the third and greatest generation of the zaddik line. These third-generation zaddikim became the source of an abundance of vivid legend and anecdote that as Martin Buber says, resemble the tales and sayings clustered around the Baal Shem’s name more than they do those centered around the Great Maggid himself, and his famous contemporaries Pinhas of Koretz and Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov, second-generation zaddikim who were primarily teachers rather than wonder-workers.

The Great Maggid died in 1772, and Rabbi Jacob Yitzhak of Lublin, the last famous zaddik of the third generation, in 1815. It was more or less this latter date that saw the close of the golden age of Hasidism. Though the line of the zaddikim has continued up into our own days and has even immigrated to this country, Hasidism in general is considered to have remained in decline ever since the middle 19th century. (One or two Hasidic yeshivas have survived the Nazis in Poland; there is still one in Rumanian Transylvania, a few small ones in Russia and Palestine; and one yeshiva originally transplanted to Shanghai from Europe has just been transferred, with its two hundred students, to the United States, where there are now about twenty Hasidic yeshivas.)

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