The Golden Mountain, by Meyer Levin, , at sacred-texts.com
The meal of Sabbath eve was ready upon the table. Rabbi Israel's head was sunken, and anxiety was deep upon his face. His scholars, seated about the long table, were silent.
The Baal Shem arose and began to speak the blessing over the wine. He lifted his glass.
And all at once a golden shine of joy spread over his cheeks and eyes; he raised his glass, threw back his head, and broke forth in merry laughter. He laughed until he had to wipe bright tears from his eyes.
The scholars could not understand what might have caused the Rabbi's laughter. They looked one to another, they looked at the Rabbi, they looked all about the room. But everything was as always. The candles burned, casting their shine upon the long white tablecloth, and upon the plates that bore the Sabbath meal, and upon the cups of Sabbath wine.
The Master had ceased laughing. But all the sadness was gone from his face. He drank his wine, and sat cheerily to his meal.
He began to eat of the fish. Suddenly he set down his hand. His eyes looked far away. And again he broke out into laughter.
During the entire Sabbath, it was the custom of the scholars never to ask questions of the Baal Shem Tov. Therefore they could not ask him the cause of his
strange and sudden joy. They ate, and looked one to the other, and wondered.
And when Rabbi Israel was eating soup, he broke out for the third time into laughter. And this time he laughed with the easy contentment of a father watching his children at play.
That night, and all through the Sabbath, the students gathered in groups and discussed the Rabbi's laughter. Three times he had laughed. And they sought in the Torah for explanation of his joy. But they could find no certain answer.
It was the custom of Rabbi Israel in the evening after the out-going of Sabbath to receive one of the scholars into his cabin, and to answer any question that might have arisen among the disciples during the day of rest.
As evening came, the scholars all gathered together, and chose Rabbi Wolf from among themselves to go to the Master and ask why he had broken out three times into laughter during the Sabbath meal.
Rabbi Wolf went to the hut in the forest, to which the Baal Shem Tov often withdrew for solitary contemplation. Rabbi Wolf knocked, and entered.
Rabbi Israel asked, smiling, "What questions have the scholars today?"
"They would like to know," said Rabbi Wolf, "why the Master laughed three times during the meal on the eve of Sabbath."
"Come," said the Baal Shem Tov, "we will get into the wagon and ride, and perhaps you will find out the answer to your question."
Often, on the evening after Sabbath, Rabbi Israel and his students would get into his wagon, and ride on the country roads.
Now they harnessed the horses, and all of the scholars got into the wagon, and all were silent.
The night was soft, it was pleasant. The Baal Shem left the reins lying loosely over his knees. The horses ambled down a forgotten lane. And the Baal Shem hummed to himself, and soon all of the chassidim were humming.
So they rode hour after hour, and instead of turning back they rode onward, and they rode all through the night.
On Sunday morning they found themselves in a village which they had never before seen. Rabbi Israel halted the wagon in front of a tiny synagogue; he got down, and called the shamash.
Soon it was known among all the Jews in the village that the great Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, was come among them. Men and women hastened to the market-place, and mothers ran carrying their children to the Rabbi for his blessing, while childless women sought the touch of his hand.
When a great many people had assembled, he said, "Are all the Jews of the village here?"
The head of the congregation looked from one to the other and said, "All."
But Rabbi Israel looked among them as though he sought for someone; and at last he said, "Where is Sabbatai, the book-binder?"
The shamash ran at once to call the aged Sabbatai. In a moment the shamash returned, followed by a small, grey-haired man, whose blue eyes shone clearly in a mild face.
"Let his wife also be called," said Rabbi Israel. Then Sabbatai hurried and fetched his wife. When the two of them were there, Rabbi Israel
asked them to stand in the centre of the market-place. On one side of them were all the Jews of the town. And on the other side were Rabbi Israel's scholars.
"Now," said the Master, "tell me, Sabbatai, exactly what you did on last Sabbath eve! But tell me everything, and do not be ashamed, or afraid to speak!"
"Master," said Sabbatai, "I shall indeed tell you everything that happened to me, and what I did; and if it is God's will that I be punished, I am ready to accept his punishment, asking no more than to serve Him."
Then the aged book-binder told his story:
You must know that since my youth I have lived in this village and practised my craft as a book-binder. In those early years, when I was filled with vigour, I was able to manage a thriving business, and I lived on all that was best in the world.
My little wife and I loved to dress well and to have good things to eat, and this we permitted ourselves, for as long as I had enough work to do there was no lack of money. Perhaps we were even somewhat extravagant in buying costly clothing, but my wife was the prettiest girl in the village, and I wanted to see her clothed as became her beauty. And when we drove to the neighbouring villages, I too had to be dressed in a way that would not put her to shame.
So it happened that we spent all the money that I earned, never putting away anything for later years.
With all that, we led honest and observant lives. From my earliest youth it was the custom in our house to strictly observe the Sabbath. On Thursday afternoon my wife would go to the market and buy fish,
meat, flour, candles, and all things that were needed for the Sabbath. On Friday morning at ten o'clock I would put aside my work, close my shop, and go to the synagogue. There I would remain until night fell, when I would go home to the Sabbath meal. Coming toward the house, I would see the lighted candles shining through the window, and I would know that everything was well in my house.
But during these last years, the weakness of old age has come upon me. I have no sons to help me. And it seems that, little by little, the world is forgetting me. I no longer receive much work from the neighbouring villages. And as I am not as vigorous as I was in my youth, I cannot go out to seek more work. Therefore it goes hard with me these years.
There have been days when we did not have a penny for buying bread. On those days, we fasted. For I said to my wife, "The people among whom we live are kind-hearted and charitable, and they would be generous toward us if they knew of our plight. But I have lived all my life without asking help of anyone but God, and so I would finish my days."
Last Thursday, when my wife was ready to go out to the market, she saw that there was no money in the house, and no food, not even a bit of flour-dust to bake into bread. She came to me and asked me what money I had, but I had earned nothing at all that day. "Perhaps by tomorrow morning," I said, "some work will come into the shop." Then she went home, and for the first time during our years of marriage, my wife did not do her Sabbath marketing on Thursday afternoon.
On Friday morning no work came. Then I said to
my wife, "Let us fast throughout this Sabbath. But above all we must not let our neighbours know that we are in need. For the neighbouring women would come with meat, and fish, and Sabbath-bread, and you would not be able to refuse their offerings."
Then I made a plan, and said to my wife, "I will tell you how we must manage. I will remain late in the synagogue, later than usual. I will stay until all the others have gone. Then I will be able to come home without meeting anyone who may ask me: Sabbatai, why are there no candles lit in your house? I would not know how to answer such a question. And when I come home at night, we will praise God, accepting what he has given us."
So my good wife agreed. And at ten o'clock in the morning I closed the door of my shop, and went to the synagogue.
In our little house my wife sat, and as there was no Sabbath meal to prepare, she had nothing to do. As she did not like to sit empty-handed, she began to clean the house again. She cleaned the bare table and washed the empty pots, she brushed the vacant cupboard, she swept and dusted where there was no particle of dust, and when she was finished the house was perfect as a jewel.
Still time went long with her. Then she began to seek for other things to do. And she bethought herself of the great chest filled with old clothing. "I will put the old clothing in order," she said, "and clean it, and mend what needs to be mended."
In the chest were all the fine clothes we had worn in our youth. And there among the garments she found a coat that I had worn when we went to the
villages to dance, and on that coat were seven buttons covered with gold. My wife was overjoyed! She took her scissors and cut the golden buttons from the coat. She ran with them to the goldsmith. He weighed the gold, and paid her the worth of it in money. Then she hastened to the market. She bought meat, and fish, and flour, and fine tall candles, and she had enough money to buy wine for the Sabbath blessing, and to buy all the other necessities for a perfect Sabbath! Then she went home, and all during the afternoon she was busy preparing the Sabbath meal.
When darkness came, and all the others had gone from the synagogue, I walked slowly toward my house. I met no one on the way, and for that at least I was glad, as I thought I would not have known what to answer if someone had met and asked me, "Sabbatai, why are there no candles in your house tonight?"
But as I came near the house, I saw the light of candles! Then I thought, my good wife has not been able to withstand this trial, and has taken the help of neighbours.
I came into the house. I saw the white cloth spread on the table, and upon the cloth was arranged a beautiful Sabbath meal. I saw fish and meat and fresh-baked Sabbath bread, and soup, and wine for the blessing.
Then, as I did not want to break the peace and joy of the Sabbath, I said nothing to my wife. I withheld-the disappointment that I felt when I thought that she had accepted gifts from our neighbours. I spoke the blessing over the wine, and over the meal, and I sat down to the Sabbath table.
But after a while I spoke to her as gently as I might,
so that she would not feel hurt at my words. I said, "My good wife, I see that you were not able to refuse the kindness of our neighbours, for you are a softhearted woman."
But she smiled in a strange joyous way, and laughed at me, and said, "My honest Sabbatai, do you remember the costly coat you had when you were young, your coat with the golden buttons? Today, having nothing with which to occupy my hands, I searched in the old clothes-chest, and I found your coat. I cut off the buttons and took them to the goldsmith, and he gave me money with which I bought all that we needed for the Sabbath, and there is enough money left for food for another day!"
Master! My heart was so filled with joy that I could not contain myself. Tears went from my eyes. Once more I praised the Lord for not having forgotten his children. And I praised him again and again, happy that it was from God himself, and not from man, that we had received our Sabbath.
My heart was filled with singing. I forgot the majesty of the Sabbath. And I took my wife by the hands, and led her out, and we danced in our little house. Then we sat down to eat. But when she served the fish course, I was so overcome with joy that I took her in my arms and danced with her again. And when we ate our soup, we danced a third time, and laughed and cried for happiness. For my soul overflowed with the glory of God, and I could not shut my heart over the terrible joy that was in it.
But, Master, it came to me afterward that perhaps our dancing and laughter had disturbed the sublimity of God's Sabbath; and if we have sinned in such a
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way, and you have come here to find us out, then speak a full punishment over me and my wife, and we will accept it, and do all that remains in our power to fulfil the punishment that you put upon us, and come once more into the grace of God.
So spoke the book-binder, Sabbatai, while his wife stood by his side.
Then Rabbi Israel said to his scholars, and to all who were assembled there, "Know, that all the hierarchy of Heaven sang, and laughed, and was joyful, and danced hand in hand with this aged man and his wife when they were happy on Sabbath eve. And there was a golden joy spread all through Paradise, and joy filled the Eternal Heart. And for the three times you heard my laughter, my friends, I was here with them when they went out three times to dance, and I danced, and I sang with them!"