It was Friday afternoon, and Zev the wagon driver looked toward the west and
winced at the sun. He turned to his horse: “Come on, my dear horse,” he urged,
“Don’t you realize that Shabbat is fast approaching?” But even Zev knew that he
could not really have any complaints against his old, weak horse.
a simple Jew, a poor wagon driver who barely managed to eke out a living. He
knew precious little of the holy books, but his fidelity to Jewish tradition
could never be questioned, as he fastidiously kept the commandments.
now Shabbat was upon him, and for the first time in his life he was faced with
the possibility of not keeping it.
For a moment he considered stopping
right where he was and spending the holy Shabbat in the middle of the forest
amid the trees. He immediately banished this idea: What would Shabbat be without
kiddush, without family, without community? Would this really be Shabbat? More
importantly, the wild animals and bandits of the forest hardly made appropriate
Shabbat company, and staying there alone was truly life-threatening.
continued along the road as the sun dipped below the horizon.
reached the village, everyone was already in the synagogue. Surreptitiously he
led his wagon to the back of his house, and as he walked inside, he broke out in
bitter tears. With a broken voice he told his wife what had happened: “I
violated Shabbat! How could I do such a thing?!” His wife empathized with him
and tried valiantly to comfort him: “A Jew should not be sad on Shabbat, so wipe
away your tears. Anyway, you didn’t break Shabbat intentionally; you were in an
untenable situation and had no choice. I have no doubt that you can you can
rectify the situation. Straight after Shabbat, you should go to the local rabbi,
tell him what happened and he will surely suggest an appropriate
Zev heeded his wife’s counsel, washed his face and changed his
work clothes for his Shabbat attire and hurried to the synagogue to catch the
end of the service.
Straight after Shabbat, the wagon driver appeared at
the rabbi’s home. As tears welled in his eyes, he told his tale. The rabbi
listened to the story and responded in a soft, calm voice: “My dear friend,
indeed Shabbat violation is a serious crime. But the Almighty is forgiving, and
since your act was inadvertent, repentance is easy. To atone for your Shabbat
infraction, you must enhance the Shabbat in some way. I suggest that you
purchase two nice candles and light them in the synagogue on the eve of the next
Zev eagerly accepted the penance, and on Friday afternoon he
appeared in the synagogue bearing two lovely candles. Everyone was busy
preparing for Shabbat, so the synagogue was deserted except for one of the
disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, or Besht (ca. 1700-1760). The hassid watched the
wagon driver come in and joyfully put the candles in their place. As Zev turned
to leave, the hassid looked at him quizzically, and Zev told him the
The Besht’s disciple was shocked: “What, you broke Shabbat and you
think you can atone for that with a couple of candles?!” In disgust, the hassid
turned away from the wagon driver, and Zev was left standing there with the
disciple’s words ringing in his ears.
Suddenly a strong gust of wind blew
the windows open and extinguished the candles, as if to ratify the stinging
Zev was bewildered and wandered back to the rabbi’s home. The
encouragement and comfort of the rabbi were of no use, as the words of the
Besht’s hassid kept ringing in Zev’s ears. The rabbi finally suggested that Zev
travel to the Besht to seek his counsel.
After Shabbat, he set out for
When he told his story, the Besht confirmed the rabbi’s
instruction: “Your rabbi’s suggestion was an appropriate penance. I can only
reinforce what he said. Fear not, the candles will burn brightly and will be
accepted by the Almighty.”
As Zev turned to leave, the Besht asked him to
deliver a letter to the same disciple who sat in the back of the
Zev returned home and delivered the letter.
disciple opened it with trembling hands...
An invitation to spend Shabbat
with the Besht! The hassid was overjoyed. What an honor, to be invited by the
Besht! The next Thursday, he set out for Medzhybizh, a journey of only a few
hours. It was a blustery day; the wind whipped the trees as a storm began to
brew. As the hassid battled the wind, he made a wrong turn. Night fell, and the
hassid was forced to spend the night in the forest. When morning finally
arrived, the wrath of the storm increased, and the disciple had trouble making
headway through the muddied ground. As the day wore on, he began to wonder to
himself: “Shabbat in the forest…?” The houses of Medzhybizh could be seen in the
distance. The hassid urged his horse to battle on through the driving rain and
against the raging wind, racing against the setting sun.
He reached the
village moments before Shabbat.
With no time to prepare for Shabbat, he
went straight to the synagogue. With a heavy heart he thought to himself: “This
is how I come to the Besht? No time to organize my thoughts, no time to change
my clothes, no time to go to the mikve...” He dared not approach the Besht in
his disheveled state.
After Shabbat, the Besht sent for the
“You almost violated Shabbat. The Heavenly court wanted you to
feel the pain of the simple wagon driver.”
The shocked hassid now
Hassidic lore does not record the name of that disciple who
learned how to talk to someone seeking penance with a broken heart.
writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in