The magid of Chelm - famous for his rambling and pointless parables - was a great tzadik, or righteous man. Every now and then he would dissapear for a few days. When he returned to Chelm he was always missing something...an arm, or a leg, or a few fingers, or a portion of his small and shapely nose. Miraculously, after a few days these missing body parts seemed to grow back, and the next time the magid dissapeared he once again had all his wits - and all his limbs - about him. Rumour and speculation were rife about these unearthly haopenings. Some said he ascended to haven and studied Talmud with the Rabeynu shel Olam, the Lord of the World, and the study was so intense it called forth the supernal fire, which burnt this or the other limb off. Others said the tzadik was probably disguing himsel as a peasant, and was secretly attending to the sick and the poor in the nearest large town, Tinitius, which lay some 100 furlongs to the south of Chelm.
Now amongst his chasidim - his devotees - was a man called shmeel, and
Shmeel had three sons, the youngest of whom was called Daniel. Daniel
was known in the shtetl as being a wild child. He had long curly hair
like a burning bush, and eyes greener than the pools of Solomon in the
ancient city of Jerusalem. In cheder he would play tricks on the old
melamed ( teacher ) who was half blind and suffered from extreme
flatulence, particularly on Sundays, when the beans from the shabbos
tsholent had not fully worked their way out of his system. Daniel would
climb on rooftops and pelt passers by. He would tie the legs of chickens
together so that the birds ended up pecking at each other, so frustated
were they by their joint inability to reach concensud on which way to
move. And no matter how many times Shmeel thrashed Daniel, the high
spirited child never seemed to learn the error of his ways. But there
was one rule, as far as Shmeel knew, that Daniel had not broken. And
that was the rule to never ever venture into the swampy forests that
surrounded Chelm. "There are wolves there" he warned his sons, "and
murderers abd impure spirits that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, has
banished to places where darkness and foulness reign. Better you be
conscripted into the Tsars army then step ino the woods."
One day, as Daniel was trudging unwillingly to chayder, he noticed
the magid shuffling along a litte way ahead of him, on the muddy street
that ran through Chelm. He assumed the magid was going to the talmud
torah, to teach the older boys some words of wisdom, He walked on, but
to his surprise, when the magid got to the talmud torah he did not stop
there but carried on down the muddy street, past the shochet's house and
past the small apple orchard of Mr Puleravitz, the wealthiest man in
Chelm. On impulse Daniel decided to follow the tzaddik, to see who was
sick. His mother loved to be in on the latest shtetl news, and when he
bought her a piece of infomation she sometimes rewarded him with a
little piece of kichel, or some salted herring which was normally
reserved for supper. No doubt the magid was performing the mitzva of
visiting the sick, and would soon turn into one of the small wooden
shacks that lay on the outskirts of the village, sagging structures that
housed the poorest of the Chelmites: the woodcutter and his seven
children, the cripple with two stumps instead of legs, and the
meshugener spinster Gittel, who talked to herself and who,if she
ventured forth from her rickety house,soon attracted a crowd of small
boys (led by Daniel it must be said) who took great delight in taunting
and jeering at her, until some adult of sound mind and body, such as the
shochet or the shamas, chased them away.
But to Daniel's
surprise the magid did not enter any of thse houses, but continued past
them until the muddy road dwindled into a muddy wagon track, and then
dwindled further into a muddy foot track. Daniel stood in a field of
beetroot, and watched the magid getting smaller and smaller in the
distance. Daniel realised the tzadik was heading straight for the
forest, where none of the village children dared enter, and which he too
had sworn, on the holy Torah, that he would not go. Reluctantly Daniel
turned around and started back towards the cheyder. He knew that he was
already late, and that when he stepped into class the old melamed would
pick him up by his ears and give him a good shaking, or otherwise make
him put out his hand to receive several stinging lashes from the thin
birchwood cane that never left the melamed's grip. the thought was not
encouraging, and he stopped, and turned round again. He could still see a
small dot that was the magid crosing the last open field before the
Everyone in Chelm knew about their tzadik's
disappearance, but no one knew where he dissapeard too. Daniel had often
heard this discussed by the adults at the shabbos table, through the
floorboards, while he was hiding in the cellar, together with the jars
of pickled cucumbers and cabbage, in order to escape the wrath of his
father. Even the boys at cheyder talked about it and out did each other
in their fantastical conjectures about how the magid returned a cripple,
and then regained his health and limbs overnight. Now was his chance to
be the first to know where the magid went, and what he did there. He
would follow him for a while, just a little way, and then turn back to
tll everyone that it was not to Tinitius the tzadik went, or to heaven,
but to the woods.
Daniel follwed the magid at a safe distance. the magid was no longer
shuffling, but walking purposefully and energetically, like a young man,
with a long striding gate. So much so that Daniel had to break into a
run so as not to lose sight of him. By the time Daniel reached the first
trees he had lost sight of the tzadik, but there was a thin path,
barely visible, almost hidden by long grass and weeds, that ran between
the trees. The forest was not so thick here, and the trees were young
and slender, and pale sunlight managed to easily pierce the leafy
canopy, flecking the forest floor with parallel bars of light that
iluminated leaf litter and small twigs that the trees had scattered
around their trunks. Daniel broke into a run, following the path,
telling himself if he did not see the magid in the next 500 steps he
would turn around and head home, to face whatever punishment was
awaiting him. But he had only counted to 370 when he caught side of the
magid, still walking quickly, flitting like a black shadow from tree to
tree, a short distance in front of him. By now Daniel was panting, both
from the exertion and from something that had settled upon his chest - a
certain tightness that Daniel would not have liked to call panic -
making it a little more difficult to breathe. He slowed slightly, and
tried to settle his breathing, so that the magid would not hear him. It
was hard to keep the magid in sight, but not get so close that he
revealed himself. He did not think the magid would harm him, but he knew
he was witnessing something that the magid did not wish other eyes to
see. The fanciful stories that he and his friends had told their baby
brothers and sisters in order to frighten them did not seem so fanciful,
here in the forest. The trees were bigger now, with trunks thicker than
Daniel's body, and a light wind had sprung up, so that the leaves
murmured and the tops of the trees moved slightly. The bars of light
were less frequent now, and Daniel had to keep on shifting his gaze from
the magid's back to the forest floor, to make sure he did not trip over
the gnarled roots that now frequently crossed the almost invisible
path. Suddenly Daniel stood on a dry branch, which snapped with a loud
crack, which reverberated in the forest like a musket shot, much louder
than the rustling leaves. Daniel froze, certain the magid would turn and
see him. But the magid made no indication he had heard anything, and
continued through the trees. Daniel hesitated, and then began moving
again. They continud like this for what might have been ten minutes or
an hour - Daniel was not sure, but what he did realise was that he was
slowly getting closer and closer to the tzaddik, until only some thirty
feet seperated them. Whether this was because there was no longer a
path, and Daniel dared not loose sight of the adult, or because the
magid seemed to have slowed a little, he could not say.
practised in the art of creative excuses, or what the old melamed called
'sheker vecozov' - 'lies and deceipt'. He was busy rehearsing an
elaborate tale of how he had got lost in the woods to tell the magid,
because by now his fear of being discovered was much smaller than his
fear of being alone in the forest and not knowing the way bck to the
path. He had got to within fifteen feet of the magid, and was about to
pretend to fall and call out in pain, so that the magid would turn and
discover him, when the magid stopped, near a large oak tree, and stood
silently, head slightly cocked to on side, as if listening. In the
stillness, Daniel became aware that besides the swishing of the
branches, there was a quite gurgling of water. The tzadik walked several
paces to his right, and then crouched down. Daniel heard the sound of
splashing, and then the tzadik stood up and pronounced." baruch ata
Adonai, Eloheinu melech haoylam, asher kidshanu bemitvosav vitzivanu al
netilas yodayim". Blessed are you, our Lord, master of the Universe,
that has commanded us regarding the washing of the hands". Automatically
Danil answered amen, as he had been taught to do ten thousand time, and
the word was out before he could bite his lip, but again the magid made
no movement, and gave not the slightes indication, that he was the only
human bing in that part of the forest.
The magid raised the tails of his long kapota, so that they were above
his waist, and then sat down, with a small sigh, his back leaning
against the large oak. He lifted his hat of his head, and carefully
placed it on the forest floor. Then from the hat he withdrew a smallish
loaf of, what looked to the hungry Daniel like very delicious, bread. He
lifted the bread in the air with both hands. Baruch oto Adonai,
Eloheinu melech haolam, he recited, hamotzi lechem min haaretz. Blessed
are You, our Lord, Master of the Universe, who brings forth bread from
the ground. This time Daniel, who was behind the trunk of a tree less
than ten feet from where the tzadik sat, did not answer amayn, but
watched as the man broke off a piece of bread with his right hand, and
then slowly and thoughtfully chewed upon it. Daniel could not see the
magid's face, but he could see his long beard rising and falling as he
chewed on the bread. After a lot of chewing, the tzadik broke off
another piece, and again began to slowly eat it. When he had eaten a
kazayis, the amount that according to the halachah constitued a meal, he
began to sing, in a very sweet and melodious voice, birkat hamazon,
grace after meals. Adonai oz leamo yiteyn, Adonai yevarech es amo
beshaloym...the Lord will give strength to his people, the Lord will
bless his people with peace." As the concluding words faded away into
the rustling leaves and the faint gurgle of water, the tzadik broke off
two large chunks of bread, got up, walked across to the stream, and
placed them there. then he returned to his tree, raised his kapota, and
sat down again. After a short while he put his hat back on his head. And
then sat. And then sat some more. So still was he it looked like he had
become a back rock with a grey beard that had rolled to the base of a
tree and then stopped there. After another few minutes another sound
rose and joined with the forest noises: a loud rasping snore.
could stand it no longer. he stepped out from behind his tree, and on
tiptoes walked past the rebbe. he held one hand over his eyes, adhering
to the ancient fiction that if he could not see, then he could not be
seen. But he spread his fingers enough to guide him to the stream and
not stand on any dry branches. At the stream he bent, snatched up the
pieces of bread (were they for the birds? or for the magids supper? then
why put them here by the stream where some animal was sure to grab
them...?) and shoved them in his pockets. He was about to tiptoe back to
his hiding place when he decided to steal a quick glance at the magid.
was it his imagination or did he see the magid's eyes snap quickly shut?
inadverently Daniel gasped, but the gasp was smothered by another large
snore which emerged from the tzaddik. Daniel dared to take another
look. The tzaddik's eye were tightly shut, and his head had fallen
slightly forward, so that his hat leaned rakishly, exposing the black
skullcap underneath it. Daniel paused, then crouched down, as the
tzaddik had done, and washed his hands in the stream. he said the
blessing in a whisper, then tiptoed back to his tree. There he sat down,
said the blessing on the bread and ate the two large pieces. Much much
more rapidly, it must be said, then the magid had eaten his. They were
delicious, with a sweet and eggy taste that reminded him of shabbos
challah. Then Daniel said grace after meals as best he could, although
he could not remember all of it. Whenhe had finished he sat listening to
the forest noises, wondering what he should do next. He estmated it
would be dark in about two hours time, and his parents might begin to
worry that he had not returned home. Perhaps he should wake the magid up
and confess that he had followed him. A bird squawked somewhere, and
the grass a few feet from his foot rustled as something small slithered
its ay through it. daniel did not feel very safe. he stood up and moved
to the tzaddiks tree. but he could not quite summon up the courage to
wake the magid, whose head was now almost touching his chest. So he sat
on the other side of the same oak tree that the tzaddik leaned against,
and promised himself that whne the tzaddik awoke, he would call out and
ask for help. The leaves rustled, th stream gurgled, Daniel's stomach
was full, and he was, after all, only an 11 year old child who had
walked and run for several miles. His eyes drooped and he fell asleep.
For ho long hecould not say, but when he awoke he was not sure where he
was. For a few seconds. Then he stood, whimpering, and moved to the
other side of the tree. The magid was gone. He was alone.
Daniels's leg began trembling. Is there anyone there, he ventured, his voice sounding thin and tiny in the forest gloom.
"Rebbe? Please, anchuldik, its me Daniel Tanenbaum. I’m very sorry. please don’t be angry."
He waited for a reply but there was none, only the rustling of leaves
and the slithering of small or big things somewhere just out of sight.
"Rebbe? Rebbeee? Anyone?"
Daniel began to walk, trying to find the path back in the dim light.
"Rabeynoo shel Olam, he whispered, "please take me home. I’ll be a good
boy. I’ll daven in shul and I’ll listen in cheder and I’ll study your
holy Torah. Please Rabeynoo shel Olam, I’ve learnt my lesson".
walked and prayed, no longer sure if he was heading in the right
direction. The thought came to him he would be here when night fell, all
alone, with who knew what monsters that would tear at his flesh. He
began to walk more quickly, the panic rising up from his legs to suffuse
his whole body. His blood pounding in his ears, his heart throbbing,
his mouth dry, trying to get away from the terror that was eating him
alive, he broke into a run.
"Mame, tateh, he shrieked, "helfen mir. mein mame, mameh, tateh tateh, rebbe, please."
He dodged between trees, now convinced something was chasing him.
"Gevald yidden", he screamed, tripped over a root and found himelf
hurtling forwards with just enough time to bring his hands up to his
face to protect it as he hit the earth. He lay there, panting and
trembling. Through the grass he saw something brown, and then he heard a
voice. It was the magid’s voice.
Slowly Daniel raised his head.
He moved forward a little, ‘til, through the dandelions he could see
rough wooden chairs arranged in a circle. In some cases it seemed they
had been there so long that the tree trunk had grown right through them,
the dead wood and the living wood joined together .
has his sleeve rolled up, of his left arm, the one he laid tefillin on
each day. It looked like he had them on now, for there were black bands
running down his arm, but when the rebbe suddenly waved his arm in a
gesture of invitation, the bands lifted, formed a small cloud, and then
settled back on the rebbes arm. Daniel gazed at the rebes arm in horror
and fascination, but his eyes did not linger there long for from the
trees various beings began to emerge. Two thin and mangy looking wolves
slunk out, and, keeping a respectable distance, some grey rabbits
hopped into the clearing. The wolves lay down near the rebee, and rested
their great heads on his feet. More animals emerged red foxes, weavils
and weasels and snakes and toads. They crawled or hopped or walked
into the circle, some draping themselves on the chairs, some sheltering
beneath them. There were animals that Daniel had never seen…they looked
like big rabbits with a deers face and a long tail, and they stood
upright, using their small forepaws to clean their faces . There was ‘a
river horse’, which Daniel had read about in his chumash Rashi. It was
much bigger and much rounder than a horse…it looked like a balloon with
short stumpy legs, and when it yawned it displayed a set of huge teeth.
And amongst all these animals was a vaguely human figure, that stood
upright, but was much larger than any man Daniel had ever seen. It
looked as if someone had fashiond a giant out of mud that was too wet to
completely hold its form. On the giants face were the suggestion of two
eyes, nose, a mouth, but they drooped and dissolved as he stared at
them, so that they were eyes one moment and then just muddy lumps the
"Come, join us Daniel" said the magid, without turning around.
Daniel was frozen, unable to move.
A black bear padded in, and behind her two cubs, who frolicked amongst
the buttercups that grew at the edge of the circle. And a large pair of
jaws and two yellow eyes peered out from the shadows at the cubs. The
bear mother noticed, growled, and moved towards the jaws, whose owner
decided to relocate. Daniel saw a flash of green and a gnarled and
knobbly body, that looked like a piece of driftwood with legs.
magid stood in front of a shtender, with a book open in front of him.
Daniel could see from the way the text as arranged, with a block of text
in the middle of the page and smaller blocks around it, that it must be
a volume of the Talmud. (In fact it was mesechet chayas hakodesh, the
tractate on holy animals, winged apparitions, mythical beasts and train
"I trust" said the magid to the animals "you are all
well and have managed to find a meal or two. Now who can summarise what
we studied last week?"
Daniel heard a sort of low moan and turned to see the mud man raise his arm
"Golem, said the Rebbee, would you like to have a go?"
The golem spoke and it sounded like pebbles grating against each other.
I’m sorry to hear that, said the rebbe, but I do expect you to revise.
Take some juniper leaves, and if you can find some wild honey, mix the
two together and apply it twice a day. That should relieve the itching.
A tortoise stuck its neck out and indicated it was
prepared to answer. Daniel could not tell if it spoke because a Lyre
bird, proceeded to make a series of noises that included a grandfather
clock chiming, tea being poured from a samovar, the flushing of a
toilet, and several bars of the tenor line of Lewandowski’s “Todah
"Good, said the magid, does anyone or anything want to add to that?"
It appeared that no one did.
"Right said the rebbee. "we’re 8 lines down in the Gemarah…please
follow with your claws or paws or feathers or feelers as best you can.
Now “Rabbah” he continued “argues that the leviathan’s skin was very
rough and scaly, like glass paper, and that whoever handles it will lose
their own skin. That is the reason he says the tent under which the
tzadikim will eat in olam haba is not made from leviathan skin, but
rather from the same angora goat hair that was used to make the curtains
in the tabernacle.” But his bar plugta, Ravina, brings down a verse
from Ezekiel which seems to prove exactly the opposite.
indicates that the tzadikim will not have skin, in the sense we know it
today, because “their insides will be like their outsides.” And there
is, I must mention a braysa, a non –canonised source, which mentions
that the angels have 4 wings, and the outer two are tough, to protect
the delicate inner two membranes, and that the ohel will be made from
A couple of dragonflies began to fly around in circles, dive bombing the magid’s face and zooming past Daniel’s ear.
"Of course not", the rebbe explained to them, "no angel will be harmed.
The wings will come from a gemach where spare wings are kept should any
harm befall the angels' original pairs."
The dragonflies settled.
"Come Daniel", said the Magid without missing a beat, and without
turning around. "None of our friends will harm you, come sit and learn a
shtikkel Torah. When we return to Chelm I will explain to your parents I
borrowed you for an important ….…an extremely urgent matter of pikuach
nefesh, life or death. No harm will come to you, I promise" ( bli
Cautiously Daniel rose from his hiding place. A 100 eyes,
some beady , some brown, turned to look at him. He could not walk at
first. He had pins and needles in one leg, and had to wait, holding onto
a tree for support, while the blood returned – agonizingly slowly – to
his calf and foot.
"Come sit here, said the magid, indicating a free
chair next to a pig. Some bats hung upside down from the seatback, and
the tortoise lay underneath another one, nibbling on something green.
"You can stand if you like, or hop onto a branch." The Rebeee pointed
up to where two owls sat, their big eyes swiveling to look at Daniel as
if he were a possibility for supper.
“Take off your shoes. if you'd like.Make yourself comfy”
Daniel noticed the rabbis feet were bare – or rather foot was bare,
the other foot was not fully visible, as it was inside the mouth of a
wolf, who lay contently on the ground in front of the magid, and chewed
on the tzadik’s foot.
Daniel’s voice came back. "Your foot, rebbe", he choaked out, "the wolf’s got your foot."
"My what?" said the rebbe, "come closer, I can’t hear you."
"Your foot", said Daniel weakly, stepping cautiously into the circle,
between a donkey and a beaver, neither of whom looked too dangerous
"Ah my foot, yes", said the magid, "the wolf is hungry. And she needs
milk for her pups. they have not eaten for a few days. No matter….So
what," he continued, "does Rabah do with this verse from Ezekiel. Surely
he knew the verse?"
Daniel ws close enough now to realize that the
tefillin on the rebbes arm were mosquitoes, who had arranged themselves
in a spiral down his arm and onto his hand. The hand appeared almost
black, so many mosquitoes were upon it.
To be continued ....
sheker vecozov they said.
TO BE CONTINUED