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The Gift of the Mishnah

For the first time in English, a short story by the Yiddish master, in which 19th-century Hasidism meets its radical grandchildren in the 20th

Isaac Bashevis Singer
July 24, 2017
Original photo: Shutterstock
Original photo: Shutterstock
Original photo: Shutterstock
Original photo: Shutterstock

The outer door was constantly opening and closing; young men and women kept coming in or leaving. Naphtali’s orphaned children had turned the house into a den for the wicked. Seated in a shaky armchair before a rickety table near the stove old Reb Israel Walden, wearing an oversized garment with ritual fringes and a skull cap, was drinking unsweetened tea and poring over a tractate of the Mishnah. This was his corner, from which no one could oust him. On a shelf to the left were Reb Israel’s volumes of Holy Books, a legacy from the old days: a set of the Five Books of Moses with the Light of Life commentary, copies of the Mishnah, tomes of the Generations of Jacob Joseph, the Beginning of Wisdom, and several Talmudic tractates. Indeed, how much does one need? One could fulfill the obligation to study Jewish scripture merely by regularly repeating a single sentence of the Bible.

In this non-kosher house, Reb Israel partook only of bread and tea, which he brewed in his own teapot on the small gas-stove. Occasionally, Basheleh, his granddaughter, would buy him herring and an onion or a radish. On the Sabbath and other festival days, the old man attended services at the Sochatchover Study House whose beadle, Reb Wolf, would then invite him to his home as a guest.

Now and then, Reb Israel would raise his bushy eyebrows and stare at the rest of the household, although he was aware that such peering was a sin, for it is forbidden to gaze upon the countenance of the sinners. However, he was afflicted with cataracts, and his vision was blurred. A mist seemed to envelope the sofa, the table, the clothes closet, the bareheaded good-for-nothing boys, the girls smoking with utter shamelessness. They laughed, smoked, recited poetry, played cards—activities intended as a cover, in case of a raid by the police. Their actual interest was in holding political sessions that took care of all the world’s ills. Reb Israel would catch snatches of their discussion: regional committee, central committee, rightists, leftists, Trotskyites, functionaries, comintern. He could not quite make out all these terms, but their intent was all too evident: to overthrow the government, launch here in Poland the same insurrection as had already taken place in Russia, shut down the Study Houses, ban commerce, hold kangaroo courts for merchants and manufacturers, and jail the rabbis. And who were the leaders of these rebels? None other than Reb Israel’s own grandchildren: Basheleh, named after her virtuous grandmother Basya Kaila, and Asher Hayim, named after the Rabbi of Josefov.

Bleary-eyed, Reb Israel looked wonderingly at the cavorting snowflakes outside—the flurries, now descending, now rising, as though on second thought anxious to return to their origin. The roof across the street had turned white. The balconies were adorned with cushions of down. The swirling snow reminded the old man of long-forgotten pilgrimages to the Rabbi of Kotsk: sleighs, inns, impassable snowdrifts, snowbound huts. Although the Hanukkah festival was still far off, Reb Israel’s nostrils were assailed by the odors of oil burning in a lamp, of charred wick. He heard a sacred melody within him. He ran his fingers over his furrowed forehead as he tried to recall when the lighting of the first Hanukah candle was due, and stroked his beard which had once been white but was now turning as yellow as his parchment-like face. “All is well,” Reb Israel mused. “As long as man has free will, God must hide His Face.” And with that he resumed his study of the tractate Yoma:

Then it was the turn of the high priest to read. If he was minded to read in his linen garments he could do so; otherwise he would read in his own white vestment. The cantor of the synagogue would take a Scroll of the Law and place it in the hands of the chief of the synagogue; and the chief of the synagogue handed it to the prefect; and the prefect gave it to the high priest; and the high priest received it standing and read it standing. And he would recite ‘After the death’ and ‘Howbeit on the tenth day’…

Next, Reb Israel glanced into the commentary of Obadiah of Bertinoro, and the supplementary comments of Yom Tov. The script was too minute and he resorted to a magnifying glass. Although he had celebrated his completion of the reading of the Mishnah more than once, each time that he read it again, he seemed to savor it afresh, as the ancient Israelites did upon finding Manna of the desert. He always stumbled upon some abstruse point which he had somehow not noticed before. Now, with total blindness—God forbid—about to befall him, he particularly relished every word, mulling it over. The words of the sages thus became indelibly impressed upon his mind. After all, what else but the Mishnah did he possess now? Once wealthy enough, Reb Israel Walden had lost all his earthly possessions during the World War. He had reared an only son, Naphtali, and typhus had claimed him. His daughter, Baila Tzirel, had immigrated to America and had never been heard from since. His wife Hannah Dvorah had died under the knife of a surgeon. Reb Israel had drained the cup of misery to the dregs. His business had crumbled, his money had turned to paper, his household effects and his clothes had deteriorated, his health had declined rapidly. Everything had turned into nothing—everything save the Torah, charity, and prayer. Since his old age now seemed to be like one long night, he would at least memorize the Mishnah.

Dusk was setting in. The frost-patterned window-panes reflected the twilight. The young men and women moved about like shadows, their lit cigarettes glowing in the dark like fiery signals. Reb Israel was overcome by lassitude. He struggled against sinking to the depths from which there might be no return, came to with a start, and found that the lamp had been lit. He tried to resume his studies, but in the dim illumination, the words of the tractate were blurred. Reb Israel kept an oil lamp handy, but his granddaughter had forgotten to refill its oil and to clean the sooty chimney. This had not been—God forbid—intentional on her part. She was simply absorbed in her dreams of the Revolution. Like bees around honey, the young fellows hovered about his short, stocky granddaughter with her beaming face and cropped hair. This way she could dominate her admirers, and preach to them, exhorting them to rally to the cause. His grandchildren were astute, Reb Israel reflected, there was no denying that fact. It was too bad that, instead of dedicating themselves to the study of Jewish scripture, they wasted their time on such affairs.

The old man grimaced as though in distress, his chin touching the tractate before him. He closed one eye. The white of the other was crisscrossed with red veins, and the pupil distended. Reb Israel delighted in the Mishnah. Talmudic study seemed to revive him as smelling salts would on a fast day, when a famished person becomes queasy and faint.

“What does an ignoramus do in his old age,” he had often asked himself. Now he went on reading, “The High Priest ministers in eight pieces of raiment, and a common priest in four—in tunic, in drawers, in turban, and in sash. To these the high priest adds the breastplate, the apron, the upper garment, and the frontlet. In these he consults the Urim and Thumin”… Will I remember all this when, God forbid, I’ll be deprived of vision altogether? he wondered.

A vision of the Holy Land now flitted across his mind. He envisioned the Temple, the court, the altar, the chambers, the sheep and oxen, the acolytes. He was unsure whether all these were a figment of his imagination or if he had seen them in a dream. He visualized knolls, edifices, narrow streets, flat roofs, pillars of dust, a setting sun. Oxen bellowed, sheep bleated. As a barefooted, long-haired prophet passed by, he was approached by young women wearing shawls, armbands, clasps and buckles. But now everything was desolate. Foxes roamed over the chalk stone earth. The sages, in their white gabardines, had retreated to caves, where they were being tried in the crucible, sustaining themselves on bread and water, or on a measure of carobs, as Reb Hanina ben Dosia had done. He, Reb Israel, had always yearned to go to Palestine and see those caves. His wife, Hannah Dvorah, may she rest in peace, used to promise him that in their old age they would bequeath all their goods to Naphtali, and then spend their last few years in the Holy Land, near the Wailing Wall, the cave of Machpelah, and the tomb of Rachel. However, man proposes, and God disposes: now he had neither the money nor the strength for such a trip. And what was more, all the scoundrels seemed to be flocking to the Holy Land now. Plucking at this white ritual locks, Reb Israel mused that wherever holiness resided, there the Evil One also lurked seeking to gain a foothold attempting to violate the queen in the very palace of the king. The mere fact that alien forces were now heading for the Holy Land indicated that the end was near. The Messiah might well be on the way. In that case, we should be spared the need of dying.

The graybeard smiled. He feared death—he had caught himself in the act. But what was fear? He recalled a proverb of which his wife had been fond: “I’m not a calf—I have no fear of slaughter…”


Reb Israel awakened. Basheleh, flushed with excitement, grinning sarcastically and clutching pencil and paper, had begun to harangue the assembled group. Reb Israel noted her resemblance to Naphtali in her expression, her mannerisms, even her voice. The old man’s curiosity was at last aroused. He was determined, once and for all, to ascertain what they were bickering about day and night, without getting anywhere. If only she wouldn’t utter those enigmatic foreign words!

“Fellow-workers, comrades,” Basheleh said, “things can’t go on this way much longer. Divisions among us only play into the hands of the enemies of the working class. The opposition in our ranks is simply the work of a counter-revolutionary group, pretending to make common cause with some of the would-be revolutionaries—which are all nothing but Social-Fascists. Our enemies are delighted by their actions. As they say: one mangy sheep ruins a whole flock. Unless these opposition groups are disciplined in time, they will corrupt and demoralize us all, they’ll drag the entire party into the Fascist morass.”

“Comrade Walden, speak concretely, what are you aiming at?” a voice challenged. “Comrade Kleinmintz, no interruptions, if you please.”

“What is she saying?” the baffled Reb Israel asked himself. “Where did she acquire all this knowledge?” As to Asher Hayim, he bore little resemblance to his sister. He had a swarthy complexion, curly hair, thick lips, a flat nose, and small roving calculating eyes. He was clowning, mimicking now one comrade, now another, and kept away from his grandfather. Reb Israel recognized in him certain idiosyncrasies that could be traced to his daughter-in-law’s Hasidic family, to Reb Gershon Henich’s down-to-earth tribe from Radzin. Heredity played an important part, Reb Israel reflected. And he regretted having steered Naphtali into this marriage. Reb Gershon had been too astute.

The Hasidic dynasty of Radzin accepted only weeds, only noxious plants from the dynasty of Kotsk. Asher Hayim was their fruit: unripe, sour. The young fellow was chatting with a girl, pulling her hair mischievously from time to time. Disgusted by the sight, Reb Israel wanted to cry out “Villain! Reprobate!” But the words stuck in his throat somehow. On second thought, he was not likely to be able to change their ways.

As Reb Israel tried to resume his studies, something strange happened: he became dizzy, total darkness descended upon him, and he felt an excruciating pain in his forehead and at the tip of his nose. He struggled to hold on to his seat. “Is this the end? Am I about to die without even reciting the final prayer?” he thought in alarm. He still hoped that his spell would subside, as had been the case some years ago. But the darkness persisted. He felt a pressure in his eye, and an intense pain at his temples. Reb Israel was panic- stricken, then resigned. This looked like the ‘final summons.’ Job’s phrase, “For the thing which I did fear has come upon me,” flitted through his bewildered mind. He was tempted to scream for help, to call for a doctor. But what could a doctor do now? He recalled that Professor Pinnes had admonished him some years back that he was living on borrowed time.

Reb Israel tried to pierce the total eclipse, and he seemed to glimpse a kaleidoscope of winding lengths of cloth, swirling in variegated fiery colors; a dance macabre of sparks, flowers, stars, swooping down like locusts. Basheleh was still haranguing the group, but he could hardly hear her. A wall seemed to loom between him and the others. He touched his cold glass of tea with the tips of his fingers. Surprisingly, he felt ashamed of his misfortune before the youthful gathering. He was averse to being surrounded with questions and sardonic compassion. He recalled the Talmudic precept: “It is incumbent on a man to pronounce a benediction over the evil things that befall him, even as he gives blessing over the good.” But what sort of a benediction did one pronounce on becoming blind?

Five minutes had hardly elapsed, yet Reb Israel was already becoming reconciled to his inescapable predicament. He was only annoyed at not being able to pore over any Talmudic tractates now. He would have to draw upon his memory. “He who exerts himself before the Sabbath will have food to eat on the Sabbath.” Perhaps, he thought, he might regain his vision to some extent, but that was unlikely. This misfortune had hung over him for quite some time, and now he had exhausted the last glimmer of light. Now he was stone-blind.

With a mounting internal discomfort and a profusion of saliva in his mouth, as if on the verge of fainting, he had to make his way towards the kitchen to lie down for a while. He stood up, careful not to turn over the stool, the oil lamp or the teapot. He kissed the Talmudic tome, closed it as one does the doors of the Holy Ark, and in his blind state, took leave of the Mishnah. He groped his way through the cool corridor, smelling of kerosene and dirty clothes. Upon reaching the kitchen with its smell of chicory and mold, he was about to stretch out on his iron cot, when his ears were assailed by giggling. He felt someone jump up from the cot and brush against him with lascivious laughter. One of the couples had evidently been making love on his bed.

This added insult to injury. He was about to scream, but his vocal chords seemed paralyzed. Had things come to such a pass? Naphtali’s home converted into a brothel—and his own bed defiled! He was trembling like an aspen leaf and his knees buckled. “Father in heaven, why do I deserve this? My sin is greater than I can bear,” he mumbled.

He slumped helplessly on his cot. “Well, defilement is defilement,” he reflected, after a few moment’s rest. “I no longer have any free will or choice.”

He lay on the straw pallet, deep in misery, aching all over, gradually yielding to despair: “Let the end come! Let everything be over with!”

As he dozed off, his pain abated, a warmth suffused his being and he had a strange dream—a place which seemed to be devoid of words and action. All he felt was a yearning not to awaken. He had become oblivious to everything, yet that forgetfulness held a peculiar meaning and bliss. He was reposing in a garden burgeoning with flowers and echoing with the symphony of twittering birds—a sort of blending of Kotsk and the Holy Land. The sage Reb Mendeleh seemed to be alive. The Study House resembled a hut made of boughs, thatched with reeds and adorned with grapes and lanterns. Candles were burning. The rabbi did not merely expound the Torah, but interpreted it so that words which heretofore had been abstruse were now rendered intelligible and inspiring. It must have been the realm of Eden—or the hereafter. The expounding of the Torah was like food and drink. Was that the yain ha’meshumar—the wine preserved in its grapes for the righteous in the world to come? And where was the Leviathan? All the enigmas had been solved. All the dead resurrected. He was once again in the company of Hannah Dvorah, Naphtali, his parents and grandparents.

“And simpleton that I am, I was haunted by fear through a lifetime,” he berated himself. He was offered on a tray something akin to the gift which is handed to the priest when a firstborn is redeemed. But at this point someone nudged his elbow, as an angel nudges the child just as it is about to emerge from its mother’s belly. Reb Israel came to with a start, lying bemused, gratified by his recent heavenly food. He caught the fragrance of cloves and marchpane. Staring into the darkness, he wondered if it was summer or winter. When had he gone to bed? One moment he thought he had slept seventy years, like Honi the Circle-maker, and the next that he was already in his grave. Then it dawned on him that he had gone stone-blind, that he could not distinguish any light whatsoever.

“So that’s it, this seems to be it, the last temptation,” he said to himself. He regretted the interruption of his dream, but comforted himself with the thought that there was something he had to attend to. It was the Mishnah, of course, he was curious to test his memory. He at once began murmuring the opening sentence of the Talmud, from what time may one recite the Shema in the evening, and onward, paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter. He had already, of course, read through the tractate Berachoth and had gone over the difficult passages of the tractate dealing with the corner of the field which must be left untouched for gleaning by the poor. Now his retentive memory opened up all these treasures again. The Mishnah seemed well preserved, hermetically sealed in his mind. He proceeded smoothly, without faltering, and reflected that the characterization of “a limed pot which loses not a drop,” once made concerning Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, might be applied to himself as well.

Judging by the prevailing quiet, the young people must have left. It occurred to Reb Israel then that he had not recited the evening prayer yet. He groped his way to the sink and made his ablutions, the cold water refreshing him somewhat. He became aware of a new faculty, a subconscious perception for which no eyes were required. Swaying back and forth, he articulated the words solemnly:

“O though that dwellest in the covert of the Most High, and abidest in the shadow of the Almighty, I will say of the Lord, Who is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust…”

Praised be the Lord. Reb Israel prepared himself for the test. He recited the Shema of Rabbi Isaac Surin, confessed his transgressions and beat his breast. Now, deprived of sight, he found himself face to face with the Lord of the Universe. From now on there would be no distractions. The Mishnah was the treasury of delights in this world, yet remained without diminution for the world-to-come—a vineyard of the Holy Land which no Titus could ever devastate, nor any apostate violate. He was seized by pity for his grandchildren. Alas, what did they know or understand? They had been orphaned at an early age and he, their grandfather, had not paid them enough attention. His intentions had been good. He had tried to help the needy. But one cannot force one’s way into Heaven. Having caused suffering and grief, one must become reconciled to it. Affliction itself gave forth compassion.

Reb Israel undressed impatiently, anxious to lie down and return to the Mishnah, his sole possession and reward.


Translated from the Yiddish by Moshe Spiegel and prepared for publication by David Stromberg. Copyright © 2017 by The 2015 Zamir Revocable Trust. All rights reserved. (Contact the Susan Schulman Literary Agency LLC New York for information on the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer.) Read Stromberg’s companion essay on I.B. Singer’s religiosity in today’s Tablet magazine.

Isaac Bashevis Singer (circa 1903-1991) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.