I need not tell you that Shabbes is special? Of course, some Shabbesim are more special than others. One such Shabbes was when our heilige Yid, the Baal Shem Tov, sat anxiously among the Chasidim at the tish. No one said anything.
The Besht stood to say Kiddish. “Boruch atah,” he began, and then stopped. Merriment coloured his face, he laughed, a laughter that brought tears to his eyes, and none among the Chasidim understood. They were used to such things, of course, and so they began to look for clues. None appeared: the table, the candles, gevaltik! The oneg Shabbes was strong. The Besht was always besimcha on Shabbes, but this laybadik punim, this merry face, was not as usual.
Finally, finally he stopped. His anxiety gone, he completed Kiddish, drank the wine, and sat down to his besimcha tish. The Chasidim also sat, each to say his own brocho or not, according to his custom, and the Besht began to cut the fish. Merriment again coloured his face, he laughed, a laughter that brought tears to his eyes, and none among the Chasidim understood. His eyes looked far away, this was not unusual, but Shabbes was not the time for shylas and chuvas, no questions were asked, no answers were given. The Chasidim merely ate and wondered.
The Besht laughed again when the soup was served, the same yet different, like the laughter of a happy child. The Chasidim spoke among themselves during and after the tish. No one could fathom the Besht’s depths.
Havdolo came, and with it the question of a curious Chasid, elected by the other Chasidim to ask our Heilige Yid why he had laughed so much and with so much mirth.
“Reb Tzvi-Hersch,” the Besht greed the Chasid, “a gute voch, a good week. What questions have I to answer?”
“Everyone has just the one question, Rebbe,” Tzvi-Hersch replied. “What ruach, spirit, impelled you to laugh as you did at the Shabbes tish?”
“Take a ride with me,” the Besht answered. “I think you’ll get an answer to your question.” Reb Tzvi-Hersch gathered the Chasidim, the Chasidim gathered the horses, and in short order the Besht’s wagon was set up for a journey. It was, boruch hashem, a pleasant evening.
Alexi, as usual, drove the Besht’s wagon. The Besht and the Chasidim began to chant nigns as Alexi drove through the night. Sunday morning found them in a village no one was familiar with.
The Besht directed Alexi to the tiny shteibl, he stopped there, and the Besht called out for the shammes. Soon all the mentschn knew that the Baal Shem Tov was among them. Barren women sought one brocho, mothers of many children sought another, and our heilige Yid looked about.
“Who is missing?” he asked.
“No one, Rebbe,” the parness answered.
“Then where was Shavtzi, the bookbinder?” he asked.
“Old,” the parness answered, “and slow. The shammes will get him.” A moment later the shammes brought Shavtzi and also his wife. Old and bent he was, but his eyes had the depth of all blue eyes, only moreso.
“Reb Shavtzi,” the Besht asked, “tell me, tell us, what did you do on erev Shabbes?”
“Ach und vey, Rebbe,” Shavtzi replied, “it was a tish I’m not proud of.” This is the story Shavtzi told our heilige Yid.
I have lived here my entire life. I was industrious, I did a good business, we lived well and in the moment, but we did not live for the future. Earning paid for yearning. There was always something nice, some special, for Shabbes. I closed early erev Shabbes and spent my time in the shul, learning and davening. I then came home to delight and warmth.
Yearning continued, yearning continues, but earning isn’t what it was, there is no one to succeed me and advance my craft. The world knows me less and less every day, every day I became better acquainted with poverty. We have fasted the great fast more than once. All my life I gave and never asked. I have nothing to give today and no way to ask.
This Dinersthik, this last Thursday, I had nothing with which to purchase for Shabbes, and on erev Shabbes I had no work. “We can let no one know,” I told my wife. “We cannot refuse the tsedaka when they offer us tomchay Shabbes, so let no one know.”
I stayed later than usual in shul. I could not bear to let anyone else know of our poverty.
With nothing to do at home, my wife found something to do: she swept, she dusted, she polished, and she found our old clothes, our fine, rich and youthful clothes. Among these was a coat with seven gold buttons. She removed these, she took them to the goldsmith, he exchanged them for money, and the money she exchanged for Shabbes, which I’m sure she prepared with a joy she had never before felt.
I knew none of this. I walked slowly toward my house after lingering in shul after the others left. I could not, I would not, meet anyone on the way, for what if someone were to ask “Reb Shavtzi, why is there no Shabbes licht, no holy candlelight from your house tonight?” As I came near, though, I saw the Shabbes licht I wanted no one to ask about. I saw the table set, fresh and warm challas, soup, and kiddish.
“Mein aishis chyil, my precious wife,” I said, “how did this nes min hashomyim, this miracle from Heaven, transpire?” I knew in my heart that she must have spoken to our friends and neighbours and could not bring myself to rebuke her.
“Der goldene kniplekh, ”she replied, “the golden buttons. Do you remember, from your coat?” I remembered my coat, I remembered also my youth, and I remembered my love for my aishis chyil when she said “We have more than enough for this Shabbes and for others also.”
Ach, Rebbe, such joy I’ve never known before. I cried, I laughed, I said boruch hashem for having a Shabbes given by Hashem Yisborekh and not from tsedaka. We danced, we sang, we ate, we drank, once, twice, three times.
Only later did I think that maybe this was no way to have a Shabbes.
Our heilige Yid looked to the Chasidim. “Heaven celebrated with Reb Shavtzi,” the Besht said, “and so did I!”