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Journeys in Yiddish Literature
The Yiddish writings, Nachman of Bratslav's "Tales of the Lost Princess," Tsene Rene: The Creation Jacob Ben Isaac Ashkenazi, and Ma'aseh Book, all present a journey of faith and trust. Although some of the stories are actual journeys to distant places, they too represent a journey of the soul, a journey into the unknown armed only with faith and perseverance. These writings are teaching tools of faith and represent a way of communicating the lessons derived from the Holy. These are tales of honor, courage, obedience, respect, piety, observance, loyalty, morality, modesty, and forthrightness. Each life is a journey into the unknown, and just like the viceroy, is constantly faced with crossroads and challenged with choices. Each human enters and departs this world armed only with faith and trust.
The parables in the Ma'aseh Book teach faith, observance and conduct. In "Why the Sabbath Meal Tastes So Good," the moral lesson is that "only he who observes the Sabbath can taste the root," thus even an Emperor cannot demand to taste it (Ma'aseh 9). In "Observance of the Sabbath Rewarded," the moral is that "To him who lends to the Sabbath, the Sabbath repays many times" (Ma'aseh 11). Joseph Mokir Shabbat never failed to honor the Sabbath by buying the best his money could buy at market, "no big fish was too dear for him to purchase if it was available" (Ma'aseh 9). His rich neighbor mocked him and thought Joseph was a fool for wasting his money, however when the astrologers told him that his whole property "will one day come into the hands of Joseph," the rich man traded his property for pearls that he tied in his headgear (Ma'aseh 10). The rich man then set out to sea on a journey to a new land, yet a huge storm blew his headgear into the sea where it was eaten by a huge fish, which in turn was caught and taken to market, where upon Joseph purchased it for the Sabbath, for nothing was too dear for the Sabbath (Ma'aseh 11). The irony is of course that the rich man who thought Joseph a fool was now a fool himself, for he had tried to outwit fate.
"King David and the Angel of Death" is another story about a man who tried to outwit fate. King David asked the Lord how long he would live, to which the Lord replied that he had "taken an oath never to reveal it to any man" (Ma'aseh 30). Then Kind David asked the Lord to at least tell him what day he was going to die, to which the Lord replied, "It will be on a Sabbath" (Ma'aseh 30). Thus, King David busied himself with study every Sabbath, and when the day came that the Angel of Death came for him, King David was so engaged in study that the "angel of death could do nothing to him" (Ma'aseh 30). So the angel of death went into King David's beautiful garden and shoot the trees, and when King David came out to see who was there he went up a ladder that broke under him and he stopped studying, "whereupon the angel of death took his life, and he earned a seat in paradise" (Ma'aseh 31). Although King David could not outwit fate, his devoted studies earned him a place in paradise.
"R. Joshua B. Hananiah and the Emperor's Daughter" is a story about how one should not judge a book by its cover, or rather, how one cannot judge the quality of wine by its vessel. When the Emperor's daughter insulted Rabbi Joshua by implying that he was too ugly to be such a vessel of wisdom, the Rabbi suggested that the girl's family was far too rich to keep their wine in common earthen jars, and should instead keep their wine in "vessels of silver only" (Ma'aseh 38). Upon hearing this, the Emperor poured all the wine into silver jars, only to discover that the wine had turned into vinegar, to which he demanded an explanation (Ma'aseh 39). Rabbi Joshua replied, "that as the Torah does not stay with a man of handsome appearance, so wine does not keep in a silver vessel" (Ma'aseh 39). The Rabbi went on to explain that a handsome man cannot be a man of modesty, and "therefore forgets the Torah which he has learned" (Ma'aseh 39). This could be a debatable issue, for it would seem that God is responsible for the a man's attractiveness, and moreover, a man truly devoted to study would not allow his looks to interfere with his devotion. This is one story that seems on the surface to simply be a snide retort toward the daughter. For one cannot judge another's soul simply by his or her appearance.
"Washing the Hands Before the Meal" is a parable of conduct and religious observance. Because a man sat a table without washing his hands, the innkeeper assumed he was not Jewish, and so served him pork rather than beef, thus the moral is "one should always wash one's hands before and after meals" (Ma'aseh 144). "Emperor Atoninus Becomes a Proselyte" is the story of an Emperor who wish to eat of the paschal lamb but was told by the Rabbi Judah that the Bible states that "no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof" (Ma'aseh 145). The Emperor submitted to circumcision and told the Rabbi, "Now I am a Jew," to which Rabbi Hezekiah and Rabbi Abahu said, "When the proselytes will get together in the other world, the proselyte king Antoninus will occupy the highest place among them" (Ma'aseh 145). Both stories represent codes of conduct that must be observed, for they are outward signs of faith which state to the world that one is Jewish.
"The Pious Man Who Was Protected by a Bear Because He Observed the Sabbath" is perhaps the most powerful story of faith in the Ma'aseh Book. A pious man and two others were journeying when the Sabbath was approaching, and rather than keep the Sabbath and remain where they were, two of the men journeyed on for they feared being robbed or eaten by wild beast, but the pious man remained, for he believed that the Lord would protect him from evil (Ma'aseh 252). When the pious man prepared his meal, a bear came to share the food, and even slept with him that night and walked with him "when the Sabbath was out" (Ma'aseh 253). The bear killed the pious man's companions, and when robbers asked him who he was, he declared "I am a Jew" (Ma'aseh 254). The robbers believed the bear had been sent by the king to protect this man and so they gave him all their money to keep him from betraying them. The moral of course is that "every man should observe the Sabbath and God will stand guard over him" (Ma'aseh 254). Again, this is a story of conduct and observance of faith. Not only did the pious man adhere to the observance of the Sabbath but he openly declared himself a Jew without hesitation as well.
Nachman of Bratslav's "Tales of the Lost Princess" is the story of the only daughter of a king who inadvertently cursed her one day saying, "May the Not Good take you away" (Nachman 55). When it was discovered the next morning that she had vanished, a viceroy declared that he would find her no matter how long it might take. After years of traveling he finally came to a castle where he found the princess, who declared that this place was "The Not Good" (Nachman 56). She gave the viceroy instructions to follow so that she would be able to leave in one year, however on the last day he disobeyed her instructions and thus it was too late to save her. This scenario went on many times for many years, her giving instructions and the viceroy somehow ending up disobeying, until one day she left the castle for "golden mountain and a pearl castle" (Nachman 58). Again, the viceroy searched for years and years, until one day he met a giant who was in charge of the winds, one that told him that the golden mountain and pearl castle did exist. The giant gave the viceroy a purse that would always contain money each time the viceroy put his hand into it, and the wind carried him to the golden mountain and pearl castle. When the viceroy arrived, he secured food and lodging for he knew he would have to spend some time there "because he had to employ intelligence and wisdom to free her" (Nachman 61). The end of the story states only that he succeeded in freeing her but does not tell how he accomplished this. This is obviously a journey of perseverance and faith. Although the viceroy had several opportunities to free the princess, each time he failed due to his inability to…[continue]
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