The Hasidic Tale
One of the most striking elements of Hasidism is the Hasidic tale. Much Hasidic teaching, beginning with the Ba'al Shem Tov, was communicated via parables and tales. There are a few paradigms of the tales. The first is represented by the book Shivkhei HaBesht (Praises of the Ba'al Shem Tov) published in 1814–1815. Much of this book is based on accounts of people who knew the Besht; most of our biographical knowledge of him comes, in fact, from this book. The publisher of the book pieced it together from various manuscripts. Explaining his reason for publishing the book, he quoted the Besht as saying that “one who engages in praises of the Tzaddikim [the righteous or saintly] is as though he engages in Ma'aseh Merkavah [contemplation of the divine chariot].”
The Besht's grandson, the author of Degel Machaneh Ephraim, says that one of the amazing things about his grandfather was that he would worship the Eternal One even through the telling of non-Torah stories, clothing his great wisdom in simple folk tales.
The earliest stories of the Ba'al Shem Tov as found in Shivkhei HaBesht tell much of his travels and his teachings. It was primarily in the anthologies of Hasidic tales that began to emerge long after the deaths of the praised Tzaddikim that miraculous stories became more commonplace.
There are many stories in which the prayers of someone totally unlearned are more meaningful and powerful than those of scholars, stories in which a sincere tear brings one closer to God than most prayers. Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav was quoted as saying, “Nothing is as whole as a broken heart.”
Another story found in numerous versions concerns the tradition of the thirty-six hidden Tzaddikim for whose sake the world exists.
What is a lamed vavnik?Lamed vavnik translates as the number “thirty-six,” which, besides being twice the gematria for khai (which means “life”), refers to a legend stemming from the Talmud that there are thirty-six righteous souls (Tzaddikim) in each generation who keep the world in existence. A lamed vavnik is a person believed to be one of these hidden thirty-six Tzaddikim.
Time and again, these stories reveal that the main individual in the story is not at all what he appears to be. Someone who initially seems to be the antithesis of a Tzaddik is ultimately revealed as a lamed vavnik, exposing a truth hidden beneath the surface.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav
A unique type of Hasidic tale is that told by Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav (1772–1810). Rebbe Nachman was the great-grandson of the Besht. At the end of his short life he decided that he would do his teaching through the form of tales, creating thirteen stories that he told to his disciples from 1806 to 1810. The most famous of the tales was the last, entitled “The Seven Beggars.” The tales are filled with Kabbalistic symbolism, narrative drama, and autobiographical elements incorporated into the fiction of the stories.
Rebbe Nachman's tales were originally told in Yiddish and most books have them written in Hebrew and Yiddish, although some English translations exist. Nachman's followers were (until recently) the only group of Hasidim who refused to appoint a successor, feeling that no one could replace Rebbe Nachman.
Nachman's tales are often tales within tales that explore the difference between reality and appearance. In each segment of “The Seven Beggars,” a beggar tells his story. Over the course of each story, the beggar contradicts his initial appearance, once again revealing a spiritual truth at the conclusion of the tale. The beggar who stutters, for example, is in reality extremely eloquent. He appears to stutter because the words of this world are not worth saying unless they have to do with the Holy One. Nachman does not reveal the story of the seventh beggar, the legless dancer. Instead, he makes readers wait for his appearance at the wedding feast just as they must wait for the Messiah.
Parables, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms
Levi Yitzkhak of Berditchev was known as a great, original teacher, a defender of the people and friend to all. Once when encountering a Maskil (a believer in the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment movement) Levi Yitzkhak said, “the God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either.” In another encounter with a Maskil who was publicly breaking the laws of Shabbat by smoking, Levi Yitzkhak said, “surely you've forgotten it's Shabbes [the Yiddish pronunciation of Shabbat].” The Maskil replied that he knew very well what day it was. Levi Yitzhak continued, “then you must be unaware that smoking is forbidden,” to which the Maskil replied that he knew all “their” rules. Levi Yitzkhak then addressed the Eternal One: “Riboyno Shel Oylam [Master of the Universe], he may break some of your commandments, but no one can make him lie.”
Another classic story is that of Reb Zusya, a disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch, about whom it was said that he claimed he wasn't worried that after he died the Eternal One would ask him why he wasn't Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher), but rather that the Master of the Universe would ask him why he wasn't Zusya.