Hershel didn’t just tell jokes; he breathed them. Certainly it seemed to the people in his village of Mosayov in the Marmorash area that he had never drawn a serious breath in his life. He lived for laughs. Nothing was too sacred or out of bounds to be the target of his rough humor. Fear of G‑d? The very notion was laughable to him. The grin never left Hershel’s face.

Whenever there was a crowd of people...laughing hilariously, one was sure to find Hershel at the epicenter...

As might be expected, Hershel soon became the most popular guy in Mosayov among the idle, the crude, the silly and the drinkers. Whenever there was a crowd of people on the street or in the village tavern laughing hilariously, one was sure to find Hershel at the epicenter, perfecting his craft.

Hershel himself was not among the unemployed. He made a nice living as a seller of livestock. As his business took him to all the neighboring towns and villages, his reputation as a comedian spread throughout the Marmorash region.

Each year Hershel would travel to the annual great livestock fair in Czernowitz. Another person who consistently attended the fair was the rabbi of the city, the well known tzadik and scholarly author, Rabbi Chaim of Czernowitz. Rabbi Chaim would circulate among the merchants and accord them the opportunity to contribute to the many worthy causes that he was involved in for helping needy people and educational institutions.

One day during the week of the fair, as Rabbi Chaim was making his rounds of the stalls, he came across a large group of fairgoers laughing raucously, slapping their thighs and winking at each other. No doubt about it — Hershel the Mosayover must be in the midst of them. And in top form too.

Rabbi Chaim thought to slip around them inconspicuously. He knew that from these crude, empty-headed types he could not expect much 'business' anyway. But Hershel was quicker than he. "Hey! Holy Rebbe! Shalom aleichem" he called out, still grinning from the last joke he had successfully cracked.

"Aleichem shalom, my fellow Jews," responded the rabbi warmly. The die was cast. He could no longer turn away. "Perhaps you gentlemen would care to take a share in the great mitzvah of charity?"

"And what exactly is this charity for?" asked Hershel, still smirking.

"And what exactly is this charity for?" asked Hershel, still smirking.

"For pidyon shavuyim (redeeming captive Jews), called the greatest mitzvah of all," the rabbi responded promptly. "There is a poor, unfortunate Jew who has a large debt of 1500 zlotys (Polish gold currency) to his local poritz (noble landowner). Now he is languishing in the nobleman’s dungeon until the debt is paid."

Hershel’s companions were all grinning in anticipation. They waited eagerly for their friend’s witty riposte in the rabbi-jester dialog.

Hershel put his hand in his pocket and took out 1500 zalatys, all the money he had brought with him to replenish his livestock. "Here you are, Rabbi," he said quietly, with a strange look on his face. "Here is the entire sum you need to ransom that unfortunate Jew."

All the onlookers were startled for a moment, but then they realized this must be one of Hershel’s clever jests. The naïve rabbi would put out his hand for the money, and Hershel would pretend to start to give it to him and then at the last moment he would snatch it back, making a fool of the gullible Torah scholar.

...the tzadik was not so naive after all.

But the tzadik was not so naive after all. He held back, and simply gazed at the well-known clown thoughtfully.

"No, No," exclaimed Hershel, as his face took on a fully serious expression. "I really mean it. No joke. Please. Take the money." As he spoke the words, he approached the and pressed the bulging wallet he had drawn out of his pocket into Rabbi Chaim’s hand.

The astonished rabbi felt himself overwhelmed with emotion — excitement and relief at being able to secure the release of the poor imprisoned Jew, and amazement that such a lowly soul could ascend to the highest of peaks in the briefest of moments. His cheeks were flushed; warm tears pooled at the corner of his eyes.

Hershel himself was stunned. He couldn’t understand what he had just done. It had been a spontaneous impulse that had overcome him, but why had it been so irresistible?

The tzadik wished to bless his donor appropriately, but wasn't sure how. For Rabbi Chaim, life turned on one hinge: Shabbat. He had even written a unique book, Siduro Shel Shabbat, explaining the exaltedness and holiness of the Seventh Day according to mystical principles of Kabblah. But how was that relevant to the loutish man that stood before him? Nevertheless, he thought to himself, such a deed deserves the greatest blessing of all. Still brimming with enthusiasm, he exclaimed:

"I bless you that, in the merit of this great mitzvah that you have done, you will experience the true taste of Shabbat."

Hershel was still numb. He nodded his head as if he understood what the tzadik was talking about, and answered, "Amen."

That very day Hershel returned to Mosayov. Since he had no money, there was no reason to remain in Czernowitz. Still, he remained his cheerful, joking self.

As the week progressed, however, he began to feel a strange feeling welling up inside him, a spirit of holiness, something he had never felt before in his life. When Friday dawned and the feeling was even more intense, he realized that it must be connected to the oncoming Shabbat, and that this Shabbat would definitely be like no other he had ever experienced.

He went shopping to purchase the special foods for Shabbat, and he could barely control his trembling. As the hours went by, his inner upheaval grew stronger and stronger. He couldn’t imagine what would be when Shabbat actually arrived.

Was that really him singing, dancing, studying, praying with ecstasy?

All those who encountered Hershel that Shabbat could hardly recognize him. Was that really him singing, dancing, studying, praying with ecstasy? Hershel could barely recognize himself! His entire being was bursting with the sacred pleasure of Shabbat.

It was the talk of the town. The idea that Hershel the clown could be caught up in a tzadik-type of intense love of Shabbat cracked up everyone who heard it even more than Hershel’s intentional jests. They even entertained the possibility that he had gone insane.

But then the news spread about what had happened at the livestock fair in Czernowitz —the incongruous charitable deed that Hershel had done and the extraordinary blessing of the tzadik of Czernowitz. People began to consider the issue more seriously.

After that Shabbat, Hershel returned to his customary light-hearted joking manner. But by the following Shabbat he was again overwhelmed by the same spirit of holiness. It was as if there were two Hershels: the weekday persona and the special Shabbat one.

Weeks went by, and months, without change in his situation. Hershel felt himself cracking under the strain of his dual personality. He decided to travel back to Czernowitz to discuss his situation with the tzadik who had blessed him.

Rabbi Chaim told him that in order to absorb the taste of Shabbat without spiritual and psychological damage, he would have to refine his weekday behavior. Hershel decided to stay on in Czernowitz in order to learn more from his new mentor. Soon his daily lifestyle slowly but steadily evolved to be harmonious with his weekly Shabbat elevation. Frivolous Hershel had become a completely different person!

In the early 1800’s Rabbi Chaim of Czernovitz moved to the Land of Israel and his faithful disciple Hershel accompanied him. They lived in the holy city of Tsfat. Today, nearly two centuries later, their burial sites are well known and frequently visited.

[Translated and freely adapted from Sichat HaShavua #461. Copyrighted © 2002]