313 (s5764-04/ 19 Tishrei)

The Humble Dance

"The singing could be permitted on Simchat Torah, but that the people must not clap in the usual way."

The Humble Dance

It was in a forest just outside of Dobromysl that Yitzchak Saul found his young friend, Baruch. Baruch had gone there to think about the differences between the two schools of thought he had encountered, the path of the Chasidim to which he was attracted, and the path of those who opposed Chasidism, from which he came.

Yitzchak Saul, who was Baruch's mentor in the ways of Chasidism, sensed that his friend's thoughts were tinged with sadness. "Baruch," he began, "we followers of the Baal Shem Tov do not believe in being associated with sadness. We believe rather in gladness. We avoid any sadness as we would something forbidden. People here in Dobromysl are not joyful as were the people in Harki from where I come."

"For instance, the people of Dobromysl," continued Yitzchak Saul, "don't know how to rejoice on the holidays. I was here for Sukot, the 'Time of Our Rejoicing,' yet I felt like a fish out of water. On Shemini Atzeret I almost got myself into trouble. I thought I would bring some life into the celebration and so, gathering a couple of young people to join me, I began to sing and dance. Some of the scholars present were deeply shocked and suggested that my behavior was disrespectful to the honor of the Torah. There was quite a lot of discussion before they decided that for ordinary working people, such a way of celebrating was permissible. Then it came to hakafot [encircling the Torah-Reading platform while holding the Torah scrolls], and I volunteered to sing some songs that had not been heard in Dobromysl before.

A discussion arose as to whether or not it was fitting, especially as it was accompanied by dancing and clapping. The Rabbi of the town and the Dayan [judge-head of the rabbinical court] had a long talk before they decided that the singing could be permitted, but that the people must not clap in the usual way."

Baruch was now exceedingly interested and listened eagerly as Yitzchak Saul continued: "When I first began to sing, people looked on with no special enthusiasm, but when it came to the second and third hakafa, more and more joined in the singing. Later, ever so many congregants were singing with me, for as you know, song has the ability to stir people and arouse them to the heights of enthusiasm. In no time the men were all holding hands and dancing and singing as they went around in an ever-growing circle.

"All of a sudden the Rabbi interrupted in a rush of fright, saying they must all stop immediately. Their behavior might be disrespectful to the Torah. The celebrants stopped uncertainly, but then the Dayan stepped forward and said he was sure it was all right. After all, the dancers and singers were not Torah-scholars, but simple workers and no disrespect was implied.

"The scholars shook their heads in disapproval at the thought of such unseemly behavior taking place in their Study Hall, which had never before witnessed such a scene! They themselves were completely unaffected and unmoved by the singing and the dancing. The working people, however, were thrilled and stirred. One could see they were positively uplifted by it all!"

Now, Yitzchak Saul had a friend in the congregation, a musician named Chaim Shimon. In his opinion, the scholars' sole wish was to show their superiority to the "ignorant" workers. He decided to pay them back. When the shammesh (attendant) of the synagogue was about to call out the name of those to participate in the seventh hakafa, Chaim Shimon whispered in his ear, "This time don't call out any particular name; just call out, 'This is the hakafa for the scholars who are modest.'" The shammesh looked up in surprise, and seeing that the person addressing him was no one important, refused his strange request.

Chaim Shimon asked the Gabbai (shul manager) to make the request of the shammesh. Whether he thought such a joke was permissible on Simchat Torah, or whether he simply didn't understand the real intention, he did as he had been asked. When the scholars heard this unprecedented announcement they showed no surprise. The first to step forward was the Rabbi, followed by the Dayan. Next came Rabbi Shimon "the Sightless" and Rabbi Nachum "the Ascetic."

Chaim Shimon whispered to Yitzchak Saul, "You see how 'modest' they are, and there is more yet to come!"

With a completely innocent expression on his face, Chaim Shimon went up to Nachum the Ascetic and said, "Now I see that you are the fourth modest person amongst the scholars, since you were the fourth to step up."

"What do you mean?" he protested. "If the names of the modest people in this congregation were called out in order of their modesty, I should be the first to be called, since when it comes to modesty, I have no equal here."

Rabbi Shimon "the Sightless" looked on disapprovingly. Later he told Chaim Shimon, "When the announcement was made, I was the first to step out, but just then someone blocked my path."

Yitzchak Saul finished telling his story. Baruch felt on the border of two divergent approaches to Torah; he was looking into both but belonged as yet to neither. Ultimately, Baruch became a follower of the Baal Shem Tov. Years later, his son, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founded Chabad Chasidism.


[Based on section 77 of "Lubavitcher Rebbe Memoirs" (published by Kehos in three volumes), as cleverly excerpted and adapted in L'Chaim #490. It probably took place in the late 1730's.]



Yrachmiel 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.

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