Rabbi, a Man and a Goat
It was a crisp fall day when Rabbi Yaakov
Mendel Zirkind went to the Morris County Correctional Facility in
Morristown, NJ for his bi-weekly visit to the Jewish inmates. Right
when he started, Rabbi Zirkind was already confident he could reach
the Jewish souls despite the iron bars between them. Now, the social
worker on duty knows him by name and the warden waves him through
the prison gates without a search. "There aren't many Jews here,"
he says,, "but those who are here really appreciate the visits."
His job as a county chaplain is a volunteer one; Rabbi Zirkind earns
his livelihood as a scribe, writing Torah scrolls, tefillin
and mezuzahs. During his visits, he tries to acquaint the Jewish
inmates with Jewish tradition and often spends time telling them stories
from the Torah or Chassidic tales of old. He makes sure each Jewish
prisoner has at his access a Hebrew/English siddur to pray
from, a chumash to read, and kosher meals to eat. At each visit
he encourages them to don tefillin and at holiday time he directs
them in the pertinent mitzvah of the day. On Rosh Hashana he
blows Shofar for them, on Sukkos he brings his lulav and esrog
for them to shake, on Chanukah he brings them menorahs to light, on
Purim he reads the megillah and on Passover he makes Seder
foods available to be eaten.
Rabbi Zirkind is a stocky man in his 30's who wears a long, black
coat which reveals a talis koton, a religious garment with
strings hanging on four corners reminding the wearers of all G-d's
commandments. He wears a black hat, and a warm smile nestled comfortably
behind a long brown beard. His eyes sparkle as the warden unlocks
the doors with heavy iron keys. He moves swiftly through the iron
door to a special meeting room.
Probably no one appreciated his visits more than Jonathan. A 35 year-old
man whose last job involved working for a private company doing rubbish
removal, Jonathan and his girlfriend were incarcerated for shoplifting.
He was given a 90-day sentence, with 15 days off for good behavior.
Jonathan arrived on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. As
he waited in the police car, several yeshiva students from
the nearby Rabbinical College of America just happened to be standing
on the sidewalk nearby blowing the Shofar outside the prison
walls for the Jewish inmates inside to hear. And with the accompanying
sound of the Shofar, Jonathan was escorted to the jail and
walked through the doors to a whole new world.
Prison, with its black iron bars, plain gray walls, hard metal beds,
and bare light bulb was not new to Jonathan. He had been there before
on other charges of petty crimes. What was new to Jonathan, however,
was a Jewish presence in prison. Rabbi Zirkind visited Jonathan every
week and transformed his drab four-walled jail cell into a house of
Before they even met, Rabbi Zirkind had already arranged for Jonathan
to receive kosher meals, a prayer book and a Chumash.
"When I first met Jonathan he had already been in the prison
for two weeks. I don't know who was more afraid of whom; he looked
like a typical big, rough-and-tough trucker type. But as I walked
into his cell for the first time his face turned white. He seemed
scared when he met this rabbi dressed in Chassidic garb."
Rabbi Zirkind knew he only had 30 minutes per visit and worked quickly
to ease the tension. In the first 5 minutes he convinced him to make
a blessing and shake the lulav and esrog. Jonathan's
color returned to his pale face and his eyes softened as he said the
blessing and performed the mitzvah for the first time in his
The next time the Rabbi came to visit, he asked Jonathan to put on
tefillin. Despite the fact that Jonathan had never put on tefillin
before, and didn't know what they were for, he eagerly extended his
left forearm to do what Rabbi Zirkind called "a mitzvah".
Jonathan said he remembered his uncle wrapping leather straps around
his arm in just the same way. "It feels tight, like a blood pressure
test," Jonathan said as Rabbi Zirkind explained that tefillin
is a mitzvah, a divine command from G-d and is only one of
many ways for a Jewish man to connect directly to Him. Jonathan's
eyes liked deeply into Rabbi Zirkind's eyes, seemingly searching for
more information, more meaning, more connection. Ironically the straps
that bound him seemed to free him from his worries.
After a visit from the rabbi, Jonathan returned to his cell and sat
there alone and worried about what would become of him. He was concerned
about his girlfriend. He was fighting a dependency on drugs and he
wasn't sure what the future would hold.
"The more I came to visit the more open Jonathan became, and
the more he looked forward to our time together," Rabbi Zirkind
said as his voice broke up with emotion. "Whenever I would visit,
I always asked him to put on tefillin, told a little bit about
the Torah portion of the week and related a short Chassidic story.
Jonathan seemed to have a special affinity for tefillin and
he especially loved Chassidic stories."
Jonathan had a Jewish cellmate who loved reading science fiction.
"Jonathan used to tell him: "Don't bother with those crazy
stories, come with me to the rabbi and hear the real stuff."
It wasn't long before his friend also came to see the rabbi twice
a week. Unlike Jonathan however, this Jew could read Hebrew and could
fluently recite our quintessential prayer, the Shema. After
seeing this, Jonathan wanted to learn how to read Hebrew too. And
so the rabbi began to tutor this big burly guy in Aleph-Beit.
Jonathan was a good student and advanced quickly. But he still always
wanted to hear more miracle stories, from which he seemed to draw
new life and strength.
Cellmates came and went, but Jonathan remained. Rabbi Zirkind recalls
how the stories of miracles and Divine Providence in our times, and
stories of tzadikim of old, seemed to lift Jonathan's spirits
and make him forget all about his physical confinement. Jonathan liked
forward to his visits with the rabbi and did everything he could to
extend their allotted time together.
As weeks passed, Jonathan's thoughts turned to the future. He wondered
if he could still date his non-Jewish girlfriend and expressed a strong
desire to spend a Shabbat with Rabbi Zirkind in his home after his
release from jail.
Finally, Jonathan was released from jail and went home on a weekend.
On Monday morning, Rabbi Zirkind was putting some finishing touches
on a pair of tefillin when he got a call from the social worker
at the Morris County jail. "l'm sure you know why I am calling
you," she said. After a long pause, Rabbi Zirkind replied that
he wasn't sure.
"Didn't you read the paper this morning?" The social worker
uttered into the phone. "Jonathan died of an overdose last night.
They found him in his car. His mother is trying to get in touch with
you. They want you to take care of Jonathan's funeral."
Rabbi Zirkind quickly got in touch with Jonathan's family. Jonathan's
father said, "Because Jonathan was so fond of you, we would like
you to officiate at his funeral, but we don't want a big thing."
But for Rabbi Zirkind, this funeral was a big thing. Not only was
it his first time officiating at a funeral, but also Jonathan held
a special place in his heart.
Rabbi Zirkind met Jonathan's family for the first time at the New
Jersey cemetery. He suggested certain religious practices, such as
the need for a minyan, a quorum of religious men, and the custom
of lowering the body totally into the ground. Although they are Jewish,
Jonathan's family members were totally unfamiliar with religious custom;
nevertheless they agreed to the rabbi's requests and in this way,
gave Jonathan a proper Jewish burial. Then the rabbi eulogized Jonathan
"Every person's life is like a book. "I don't know about
the first 35 years of Jonathan's life. I only know about the last
chapter of his life. As we all know a good writer usually saves the
best chapter for last. Jonathan's last chapter began with him hearing
the blowing of the Shofar, blessing and shaking the lulav
and esrog, donning tefillin, eating kosher food and
learning and loving Torah.
"We should all learn from Jonathan's love of Torah and mitzvos
and strive to add in our own observance and spirituality. In this
way we will perpetuate Jonathan's memory and his soul in Heaven. Jonathan's
spiritual life began with the blowing of the Shofar and G-d
willing, our acts of increased spirituality will lead us to the time
of the sounding of the great Shofar with the coming of Moshiach."
Rabbi Zirkind had brought along some shaimus to bury. Shaimus
are written works of Torah that include G-d's holy name and that according
to Jewish law are not allowed to be destroyed only buried, As Rabbi
Zirkind reached for the bag, he wiped his teary eyes. He had selected
several items from his bag to bury with Jonathan that Jonathan specifically
related to. These included Chassidic works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
parchment from a pair of tefillin, and written works on lulav
and esrog. "These things were so much a part of Jonathan
that they will also go up to heaven with him," Rabbi Zirkind
said as he threw in the bag followed by the first handful of solid
earth. Then family and friends followed his cue and filled the grave
with dirt. They brushed off their hand and walked away, as if the
final chapter had been written and the book had ended.
But the Jewish neshama, the soul, knows not the boundaries
of time and space. For Jonathan, the journey of his soul may have
just begun. Rabbi Zirkind surmises that Jonathan's story did not end
with the death of his physical body and his burial at the cemetery
that cold autumn day. For Rabbi Zirkind there was a powerful epilogue
to Jonathan's story.
Rabbi Zirkind arranged for someone to say kaddish for Jonathan,
and for shiva to take place with a minyan. The week
of shiva passed. Rabbi Zirkind continued to make his rounds
at the county jail and continued his work as a scribe.
"Right after shiva I got a call from a local slaughter
house," Rabbi Zirkind recalled. As a sofer who uses the
hides of calves and goats upon which to write Torah scrolls, tefillin
and mezuzahs, he often had dealings with slaughterhouses. "I
dealt with this one slaughterhouse in Greenvillage, New Jersey, many
times over the years. I buy my hides from them or I shecht
my animals there," he explained.
"Carl, one of the people at the slaughter house, called on Friday
afternoon to say: 'I have a gift for you.' When he says this usually
it means he has some animal I could use and shecht. Friday
afternoon was not a good time for me to go to the slaughterhouse.
Shabbos came early this week and I needed time to prepare, so I politely
refused. But Carl persisted: 'It's a kid goat and he was born just
last night! If you don't take it, it's going to be killed; we are
not set up for animals to be born and taken care of here," Carl
pleaded, adding. 'C'mon rabbi, you're a man of G-d.'
"When he said that, I felt that it would be a chilul Hashem,
a disgrace to G-d, if I didn't take the animal. So I said yes."
Rabbi Zirkind keeps a few goats on a farm near his house to give
milk for his family to drink. Recently one of his goats had twins,
so he just happened to have special baby goat food on hand for this
newborn goat. "I brought the kid home at 1PM and prepared some
straw on the floor in my baby's room." With only moments to spare,
Rabbi Zirkind made sure the goat was comfortable, prepared himself
for Shabbos and left for shul.
When he came home from shul he made sure, as Jewish law dictates,
to feed his animals before himself. So before reciting kiddush,
he went upstairs and fed the baby goat. It struck him that the kid
seemed happy to see him. He then made kiddush for his family,
discussed some Torah insights, told some stories and sang Shabbos
songs, all within earshot of their unusual Shabbos guest.
By nightfall, the baby, who was in the same room as the goat, could
not fall asleep. "My 2 year-old-baby loves animals and usually
sleeps through anything, but on this night he was screaming hysterically.
My wife stayed up with the goat and the baby telling stories ad singing
Jewish songs," Rabbi Zirkind related, adding, "both the
baby and the kid seemed to enjoy this."
Then, finally, after a few hours, the baby and the goat fell asleep.
At the second Shabbos meal, Rabbi Zirkind again fed the baby goat.
At each feeding, the animal would cuddle up to the rabbi. On Shabbos
morning the rabbi recited some preliminary prayers as well as tehilim
at its side. That night, after Shabbat ended, Rabbi Zirkind returned
home. He went up to feed the goat, but to his astonishment, the goat
lay dead on the floor.
"These are the facts," says Rabbi Zirkind. "Now I
am going to tell you what I think all of this means. I think this
goat was a gilgul, a reincarnation, of Jonathan's soul. For
Jonathan wanted so much to experience Shabbos and had eagerly accepted
an invitation to spend Shabbos with my family upon his release from
jail. During shiva there is no din, judgment, on the
soul of a person. However, after shiva he may be judged. I
imagine Jonathan's soul up in Heaven defending the course of his life.
He probably said something like: 'I know I spent time in jail for
some not so good things, but by the end of my days I spent a lot of
time with this rabbi who showed me how to live as a Jew. I heard the
Shofar, put on tefillin, shook a lulav, and ate
kosher food." I imagine the heavenly court looked kindly upon
Jonathan's soul and considered him to be a ba'al teshuva, a
sincere returnee to Judaism, and wiped his record clean.
"But then along comes an accusing angel and says 'But you never
had Shabbos, your life ended before you had Shabbos!' The heavenly
court consults and determines that this soul deserves a second chance.
'But how do we enable it to experience a Shabbos, now that it is no
longer in a body? Is it fair to have the soul go down to earth and
be born into another body, to loving parents, only to die upon experiencing
a Shabbos?' asks a heavenly angel. No, they agree, too much grief
to put parents through, so they decided to send the soul down in the
body of a newborn animal. This animal, this baby goat, must have housed
Jonathan's soul," Rabbi Zirkind declared in a firm voice, "all
the details fit too perfectly."
"First of all, how often do animals give birth in slaughter
houses?" he questioned. "This was the first time Carl had
ever called me, with such a request; why did it happen just one week
after Jonathan had passed away? The kid was born on Thursday night
but Carl called me on Friday afternoon. I think that is because this
goat needed to be in my house for Shabbos and Shabbos officially begins
on Friday afternoon. Also it could only have happened after shiva,
when, according to mystical interpretations, judgment would be allowed.
This particular Shabbos, was the week after shiva, the first
opportunity for this soul to experience Shabbos!"
He added with confidence: "I know it sound like one of the Ba'al
Shem Tov stories I tell my children. Truly it's the kind of story
Jonathan loved. But this is a sorry that happened in our days."
"Furthermore, when Carl said, 'I have a gift for you,' I declined.
What convinced me to take it was when he said 'You are a man of
G-d.' Of course, it wouldn't look nice if a 'man of G-d' would refuse
such a request, but I think there was something deeper meant by the
phrase. For if I were truly a 'man of G-d' I should be able to understand
spiritual matters, and thus understand that this goat was a gilgul,
a reincarnation, of Jonathan's soul."
"Also, the three feedings took place precisely around the three
traditional meals of Shabbos. And while the goat was in my house he
heard tehilim, prayer, stories, and songs. These were all things
that were important to Jonathan at the end of his life.
"In addition, why did my baby cry so uncontrollably, when usually
he is so passive around animals and is such a sound sleeper? I think
that it is because so much G-dliness was revealed in his room that
he was unable to sleep. This is similar to a Sukkah, for although
we are required to dwell in a Sukkah for 7 days, including
sleeping, G dliness is so revealed that some Jews have the custom
of not sleeping there, in the face of a G-dly presence."
"And finally, the goat was no longer here after Shabbos. That's
because he didn't need to be. The soul had completed its mission:
it had experienced Shabbos!"
Rabbi Zirkind skinned the remains of the baby goat and made tefillin
from its hide. In this way, the tefillin would act as an elevation
for Jonathan's neshamah in heaven, he explained.
Rabbi Zirkind returned to his work as a scribe and volunteer chaplain.
While in his car on his way to the county jail to visit new Jewish
inmates he heard a news reporter comment that a recent study found
that goats are quite spiritual animals. Rabbi Zirkind smiled. He felt
this was Jonathan's way of saving thanks.
[Adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from the Morristown Kesher,
as told by Rabbi Zirkind to Pessy-Leah Lester.]
P.S. We have been informed that after Yom Kippur this year, when
Rabbi Zirkind checked his answering machine, there was a message from
the slaughter-house. A baby kid had been born the night before (on
Yom Kippur); would he please come to pick it up!