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The Life Of A Jester

Life was difficult for Jews in 18th-century Eastern Europe. Condemned to live in a ghetto and prohibited from engaging in the majority of trades, the religious Jew turned to Torah for solace. But there were many who were not blessed with the intelligence or the patience to study Torah. These people would have found life intolerable were it not for the jester who appeared in nearly every town and hamlet, and by his antics and comments, made life a bit easier to bear.

Our sages commented on this (Shabbos 30b) that the Divine Spirit only dwells in a place where there is joy. Rabbi Yona said, "G-d chose Jonah to represent Him because he was the happiest man when the Jews visited Jerusalem on Sukkos to celebrate the Simchas Beis Hashoeva, the ceremony of the water-drawing in the Holy Temple. This teaches us that the Divine Spirit rests on a person who is happy" (Yalkut Yonah 550).

Hershele Ostropolier

One of the best-known jesters of the past two centuries was Hershele Ostropolier. None could compare to him in wit and intelligence. Hershele was endowed with an unusual capacity for irony, a rueful comicality in facing disaster, and a philosophy of disenchantment unmarred by defeatism. Wherever he went, he brought laughter and mirth, and people forgot their troubles when they were with him or listening to his stories.

Hershele was born in Balta, in the Ukraine, during the second half of the 18th century. He was condemned by poverty-stricken parents and by the lack of financial opportunity, to a life without a trade or calling. Whatever he attempted usually failed, but because he was a dynamic person, blessed with intelligence and indestructible optimism, he and his family managed to thrive by his wits.

HIershele was a talmid chacham, a great scholar and pious person. Some say he was sent by Heaven to lighten the burden of Rabbi Boruch who reigned as the hereditary Chassidic Tzaddik of Medzhibov, the dynastic successor of his grandfather, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement.

The Young Wit

Even in his young years, Hershele showed his genius and wit.

Once, a traveler was invited to his home and noticing the handsome little boy of five years, decided to have some fun with him.

"What is your name, little boy?" asked the stranger.

"I am named after my grandfather, may his soul rest in peace," replied the child.

"And what was your grandfather's name?" asked the visitor.

"The same as my name," replied the child.

Seeing he couldn't get a straight answer from the wily child, he tried another tactic to find out his name.

"Tell me, child, when they call you to dinner, what name do they use to call you?" asked the man.

"They never have to call me to dinner," replied the child. "I am usually at the table before dinner begins."

Borrowing On The Future

Once Hershele rushed into the office of the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society, and with tears in his eyes notified them that his wife had passed away and that he needed money to purchase a coffin and shrouds. They sympathized with him and gave him the necessary money to take care of his poor spouse.

A few hours later, a committee of the burial association visited his house to help the poor man take care of his deceased wife. Imagine their amazement when they found the "corpse" very much alive and engaged in peeling potatoes!

"Hershele," they shouted, "why did you make a fool of us and cheat the society out of money? Your wife appears to be pretty much alive!"

"You have nothing to worry about," replied Hershele. "Sooner or later she will be yours. What difference does it make if she stays with me for a while longer?"

Why He Prays So Fast

Once, after hurrying through his prayers, Hershele was asked by the rabbi, "Why do you pray so fast? It's a disgrace! Why is it that it takes me nearly twice as long as you to pray?"

"What a comparison Rabbi," replied Hershele.

"You, have a fine house, a beautiful carriage and horse, and money in the bank. It takes a lot of time to itemize them all and to beseech Him to preserve them for you. On the other hand, what do I have? "A wife and eight children, who always need a fountain of money, and a flea-bitten goat. In my prayers to G-d all I have to say is, 'Wife, children, goat! Help, help!' and I am finished praying."

Paying Him Back In Kind

Hershele Ostropolier needed money desperately, which was nothing new . So he decided to arrange a match for the only daughter of the town’s richest man. If he completed the deal, there would be a pretty penny in it for him.

But the rich man was an ignoramus and a boor, and the daughter had nothing to recommend her, except her father's wealth. Whatever match was proposed, the father would turn it down, stating that only the best was good enough for his daughter.

Entering the rich man's home, Hershele had the following proposition: "The young man I have in mind for your daughter is a wonder boy," he said. "He's handsome, learned in the Torah, and he has a wonderful character."

"Who is he?" asked the rich man, evincing interest.

"Reuben, the butcher's son," Hershele replied.

"You bum! How dare you propose a match for my daughter with such apoor man!?" He took Hershele by the seat of his pants and threw him out of the house.

The following morning Hershele was back again.

"You're back again?" shouted the rich man. "I told you I didn't want to see you again!"

"Calm down," said Hershele in a soothing tone. "This time I have the real jewel for your daughter."

Interested, the rich man asked, "Who is it?"

"He is the catch of the town," said Hershele. "He is none other than the rabbi’s son."

The rich man jumped with joy. "Wonderful," he shouted.

"This is really something I never expected. How did you arrange it? Did you talk to the rabbi about my daughter?"

"What a question," replied Hershele. "Indeed, I saw the rabbi and I talked to him about your daughter."

"And what did he say?" asked the rich man eagerly.

"What did he say? He said the same thing you said the other day,"You bum! How dare you propose such a match for my son! Out of my house this minute!'

And he, too, took me by my pants and threw me out!" We continue with the many stories and legends told about our Gaonim and sages pertaining to the holiday of Pesach.


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