#461 (s5766-51 / 27 Elul 5766)
Potatoes and Strings
While his grandfather the Baal HaTanya prayed, the Tzemech Tzedek played with his toy tefilin.
Potatoes and Strings
When Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (who was born on Erev Rosh Hashana 1789) was a child of four or five, he was often to be found in the study of his grandfather, Reb Shnuer Zalman of Liadi. It was known among the chasidim that when the tzadik was praying, the toddler would take the toy tefilin which he had carved out for himself from two potatoes, tie them with string to his head and arm, sway his little body as if in prayer, and sing happily away. When his grandfather removed his tefilin at the conclusion of his morning prayers, he would mimic that action too. That done, he would run up and down and around the room as little boys do.
Once, when the rebbe's door was left ajar, some chasidim peeked through the chink and saw that as the child was running around and dragging his potatoes along the floor, one of the strings was caught around the leg of the table. The rebbe bent down and disentangled it, and the boy played on as before.
On a certain occasion Reb Shneur Zalman delivered a chasidic discourse on the statement in the Ethics of the Fathers that "the world stands on three things." It was so abstruse that the chasidim did not fully grasp it, and asked the rebbe to repeat it. He promised to do so three days later after morning prayers, on condition that no more than thirty people would be present.
One of the fortunate ones was the distinguished chasid, Rabbi Yitzchak Aizik of Homil, who later recounted: "When the rebbe began to repeat the discourse, I saw that his young grandson was also present in the room, in the thick of the chasidim who were assembled there, energetically involved with his toy tefilin. I imagined that at any moment the strings that were attached to it would be caught up somewhere, and I was afraid that he might distract us during the repetition of the discourse. I was about to say something to him, and to ask him not to disturb me, but before I managed to open my mouth I was amazed to hear the rebbe saying to me: 'Let him be. He wants to listen; he is listening; you will know that he is listening.'"
These words spread quickly among all the chasidim, though no one could understand their import, and in the course of time were forgotten.
Decades elapsed. In 1813 the tzadik passed away, and Rabbi Dov Ber, the son who succeeded him, passed away in 1827. After a great deal of persuasion by their chasidim, the leadership movement was assumed by the son-in-law of Rabbi Dov Ber, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who was this same grandson of Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the son of his daughter, Devorah Leah.
And the very first discourse which he delivered as rebbe was a repetition of the discourse which had been delivered over thirty years earlier by his grandfather, and which was based on the words: "On three things the world stands."
One of those present on this occasion was the Rabbi Yitzchak Aizik of Homil, now one of the elders of the Chasidim. As soon as the newly-inducted rebbe began to speak, the elder chasid recalled that occasion on which Rabbi Shneur Zalman had repeated this very discourse. He recalled too a little boy racing his way through the assembled Chasidim But most clearly of all he recalled the words which in retrospect rang out clearly like a prophecy: "Let him be You will know that he is listening."
Rabbi Yitzchak Aizik's soul lit up. "Now that's the kind of trick that only a rebbe can do!" he thought to himself.
This thought was cut short. The rebbe interrupted his lecture, turned for a moment to Rabbi Yitzchak Aizik, and said: "Do not suspect me of having what I have not. How can I help it if my grandfather orders me to repeat this discourse?"
When he had completed his presentation, the chasidim present were so overjoyed at the fact that they now had this personage as their rebbe that a happy song burst spontaneously from their lips, and they accompanied him joyfully to his home.
Only one riddle remained -- the two cryptic sentences which the newly-appointed rebbe had directed in the middle of his maamar to Rabbi Yitzchak Aizik. So when the chasidim returned to their Beit Midrash they crowded around him inquisitively, and pressed him to let them into his secret. And it was then that the old man shared with them his treasured memory of the little boy -- a mere child -- who was listening to an abstruse philosophical dissertation while playing with his potatoes and his strings.
Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of
Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He
has hundreds of published stories to his credit.