A Sabbath in the Forest
- Written by:
- Jacob Fichman
- Translated by:
- Miriam Udel
- 2014 / 5774
- Part of issue number:
- Translation 2014
A native of Bessarabia, Jacob Fichman (1881–1958) was primarily known as a Hebrew poet, critic, and editor. Settling permanently in Palestine in the mid-1920s, he produced prose, poetry, and educational materials in Yiddish and Hebrew for readers of all ages. Fichman is variously described as an Impressionist and a Romantic because of his treatment of natural themes: he describes nature lyrically, with an eye to colors, light, and darkness.
Once upon a time, there lived a Jewish tailor in a small shtetl. He was known as Lipe the Tailor. He was a simple Jew who hardly knew all the prayers, and he was very poor—it shouldn’t happen to anyone. But he managed to earn a crust of bread for himself, his wife Nechama, and their children, and he never—God forbid!—had to accept charity. From Sunday until Friday, the whole week long, he traveled well beyond the shtetl, going from village to village and doing jobs for the Christian villagers. Sewing, patching, turning coats—Lipe wasn’t choosy. Just imagine what he suffered during the week! That’s why, come Friday (thank God!) you could offer him the most profitable job, but Lipe the Tailor headed home no matter what. It could be thundering and lightning outside, but he had to make back to his tidy little home to spend Shabbos, the Holy Sabbath, with his wife Nechama and their children—to recite the kiddush blessing over the wine and sing songs at the table, as God had commanded. You see, the most important commandment for Lipe the Tailor was to properly keep the Holy Sabbath. He believed that it was thanks to his keeping Shabbos that the Eternal One provided his bread for the week. Lipe really made a point of observing the Sabbath, for truth be told, how better could such a simple Jew, a village tailor who hardly knew the prayers, serve God?
It had become Lipe the Tailor’s habit over many years to rise at dawn on Fridays and finish up all of his work in the morning so that he could leave in plenty of time to be home for Shabbos. From the very moment he set out for home, he could feel all the cares of the week leave him, and his heart would fill with the joy of the holy day. This was especially true in the beautiful summer weather, when the fields were so green and fragrant they seemed to sing, and God himself took pleasure in the little world He had created. Nobody was happier then than Lipe! He didn’t even notice the hardships of traveling or the burdens he carried but only thought about how quickly he could make it home and get ready for Shabbos. Even in fall and winter, when the roads were muddy and heavy clouds hung in the sky, the fields lay bare and gloomy, the whole world waited silently like a mourner—even then Lipe didn’t fall into sorrow. He had only to remind himself of home, where his wife Nechama had probably already put up the tsholent, the Sabbath stew, and bathed the children, where every corner sang with cleanliness and warmth, and his heart quickly turned joyful and his footsteps lightened. He already felt the pleasure of Shabbos and the joy of fulfilling God’s commandment.
That’s how Lipe did things year after year, and God’s blessing rested on his humble home. He lived through the entire week, whatever it brought, just so that on Shabbos, the Good Angel would look on him and well up with joy. Nothing disturbed the holiness of the Sabbath day in the home of Lipe the Tailor.
Once upon a time in deepest winter, when the cold is strongest, Lipe rose as usual at dawn on a Friday and worked hard through the morning, his fingers flying. He wanted to be early because the winter days were short and the road difficult. He hardly noticed the great sheets of snow that had fallen all through the night. The cold was so bitter you wouldn’t let a dog outside in this weather. Lipe was happy to have finished his work early, and he began to prepare for the journey home.
Meanwhile, a dangerous blizzard was stirring itself up outside, so windy and dark that you couldn’t see a living thing. It tore the straw roofs off of stables and blew such snowdrifts among the houses that it was impossible to open a door.
When one of the villagers came in from outside and saw Lipe standing with his pack on his back, ready to set out, he crossed himself fearfully and muttered, “How can anyone think of going out, when all the roads are blocked and ghosts are dragging about in the fields?” But did Lipe listen to a word of this? No, all he could think of was getting home for Shabbos! “Ghosts don’t scare me,” he said. “It’s not my first time, and I have a great God who will bring me home safely.” And in his heart, he trusted that his concern to always keep the Sabbath would stand him in good stead now, and this particular Shabbos wouldn’t be disturbed.
The villager saw that he could get nowhere with Lipe, so he let him go on his way; and he thought to himself that the stubborn Jew would meet his end, because the wind and the frost were picking up force with every passing moment. And even though he was a gentile, he took great pity on Lipe. “How awful!” he told his wife. “Although he’s a Jew, our tailor is a God-fearing man. May the Lord have mercy on him!”
Meanwhile, Lipe made his way all alone through the desolate fields. He had his pack on his back, and he groped along the road with a long stick so that he wouldn’t fall into a snow-covered hole. But where was the road in fact? Snow covered bush and tree, mountain and valley, and the whole area was unrecognizable. Heaven and earth were one, and wherever Lipe’s eye fell, he saw only white. If only there were some sign of a rock, a pole, a glimpse of forest or hill! And still there blew icy snow right in his face, sticking him like needles so that he had to shut his eyes and couldn’t see a single step ahead of himself. But Lipe the Tailor didn’t fall down, and he went on his way with great faith. Once he got stuck in a deep hole, and very nearly broke his back and hip, but instead he stood up unharmed and went on. He knew God was with him and would bring him safely home.
The farther he went, the harder the going became. His feet sank deeper and deeper into the snow heaps that blocked his path, and the wind lashed his face harder and harder. But Lipe mustered all his strength to go on until he reached a forest. There he sat for awhile, his heart pounding. Just on the other side of the forest, Lipe imagined, must lie his shtetl. But what if he’d figured it wrong and was lost? He would be doomed. Perhaps the dense forest stretched on for miles, full of wild animals and thieves—which are worse than animals. Others had fallen into their hands, and nobody knew what had become of their remains.
So Lipe entered the forest with great fear. He looked around constantly, searching for any sign of a roadway or footpath. He thought that surely he must be about to reach the far side of the forest. He trudged on and on, but still the forest stretched before him. The wind was calming down a bit, but the sky was growing steadily lower. Night was coming on. Lipe thought he might fall down, dead-tired, in the snow and meet his end, but he wouldn’t let himself and instead wandered even farther into the snow, even deeper into the woods.
Meanwhile the forest was growing darker and more frightening. The frozen branches were all motionless, the tree trunks buried to their waists in snow. A sadness fell over everything. Lipe could hardly wander on his feet any longer. With the sun setting, he could see that it was time to welcome the Sabbath. Soon it would no longer be permissible to carry, so he threw off the pack from his back and settled under a tree to recite the afternoon prayer. With a broken heart and streaming tears, he begged, “Dear, faithful God! Please do something so that my Sabbath won’t be spoiled! I, Lipe the Tailor, surely don’t need to tell You how!”
And suddenly he felt his heart lighten, as if he weren’t in a dangerous place at all. Warmth flowed through all his limbs, and he truly believed that God, blessed be He, had heard his plea. He waited to see what would happen…
After reciting the afternoon prayer, Lipe looked up and made out a little fire burning among the trees. It struck him as very strange: How could a fire suddenly appear when, as he well knew, no one lived in the forest? He grasped that it was not a simple matter, so he left his pack under a tree and approached the glowing embers. After just a few steps, he saw the fire right before him, and there grew up before his eyes a wondrous palace made entirely of marble, and every window was aglow with Sabbath candles. He turned and turned, but none was there; No living creature, not hide nor hair!
Thinking it a dream, Lipe rubbed his eyes. But he saw that it was a real palace, the like of which he had never before seen. It occurred to him that perhaps thieves or evil spirits lived here… but he saw how warmly the candles shone, as if to beckoning to him, “Come in, Lipe the Tailor! We were kindled for your sake, so that your Shabbos wouldn’t be spoiled…” Lipe gathered his courage, quietly opened the door of the palace, and went inside.
And there Lipe the Tailor saw something with his own eyes that he had never before even dreamt of. His eyes twinkled with the light burning in expensive crystal candelabra, and he smelled the aroma of delicacies that lay on long tables covered with pure-white cloths, and saw rare wines in sparkling bottles. But… He turned and turned, but none was there; No living creature, not hide nor hair!
He came to a door and passed into a second chamber, where he saw tables of gleaming silver. Silver chairs surrounded them, and the pure-white tablecloths had the same rare delicacies and wines in sparkling bottles. But… He turned and turned, but none was there; No living creature, not hide nor hair!
He passed into a third chamber. There the tables were of pure gold and golden chairs surrounded them, and the food smelled fragrant and the wine sparkled. But… He turned and turned, but none was there; No living creature, not hide nor hair!
So he went from room to room, and the farther he went, the more rich and beautiful it all was—until he reached the sixth chamber, which was inlaid with diamonds and other precious stones such as captivate the eye. But here too. . . He turned and turned, but none was there; No living creature, not hide nor hair!
Lipe stood there, dazzled by all his eyes had seen. “Master of the Universe!” he said to himself. “I am just Lipe the Tailor; how am I worthy of such a miracle?”
Suddenly he could hear a soft song arising from somewhere, floating from afar and coming closer. And what a song—a tenor so pure it would break your heart, then a moment of silence, falling like soft dewdrops and pouring out like a lively stream amid the grassy steppe. The song arose from the depths and spread itself, like the wings of a mighty bird, over all the chambers of the palace, reaching higher and higher. Lipe didn’t move a muscle, but let the sweet song pour into every part of him. It lifted him up and carried him around like a light feather. He was amazed that the melody seemed so familiar. Couldn’t he have sworn he’d heard it once in his own little synagogue? But never had he sensed its sweetness as he did now. He listened intently, and it flowed, like a pure golden sound, flooded with divine joy. The words were the first phrases of the Friday night psalms: “Come, let us sing to God…”
And as he stood frozen there, the door opened, and in came a gray-haired old man, garbed in white. He handed Lipe a prayer book, and winking, invited Lipe to follow him. Lipe followed the gray old man into a seventh chamber, where he saw a whole congregation of Elders, all dressed in white, their faces alight like burning suns, and they were all standing and singing a song of praise to the Sabbath Queen. Then Lipe realized that he was in the paradise of the lower realm and that the men before him were the purely devout and scholars of great renown; he stood as if stuck in place, too shy to meet their gaze. “Master of the Universe,” he thought, “how did I, Lipe the Tailor, come to be here?” He stood there like that until after the kiddush blessing that closed the prayer service. The Elders got up from their places, approached Lipe, and greeting their visitor with warm delight, wished him, “Good Shabbos, guest!”
Addressing him this way, the Elders invited Lipe to the table, where all sat down to eat. You can imagine what a feast it was, what Sabbath songs were sung at the table! They sat Lipe at their head, but he didn’t forget who he was, and he was abashed to eat with such holy ones. The Elders encouraged him with their conversation, and everyone said to him, “Eat, Lipe, and all should be well with you! We haven’t had such an honored guest in a long time!”
So he ate, and to his amazement, the food tasted familiar. He could have sworn that they were the same delicacies that his wife Nechama always prepared for Shabbos.
From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, Lipe the tailor enjoyed the kind of Shabbos we should all wish on each other! He only regretted that it had been without his wife Nechama and his children, whose Sabbath had surely been marred by his absence. But just as soon as the sun set on Saturday and the conclusion of the Sabbath was marked with the havdalah ceremony, the entire palace disappeared, and Lipe saw that he was standing once again under the tree where he’d been the day before. His pack lay in its place, and his walking stick was stuck in the snow. He took a few steps, and oh! Where was the forest? What forest? He was standing at the edge of his shtetl, not far from his own little synagogue.
Once home, Lipe kept quiet and didn’t tell anyone where he had spent Shabbos. But after that time, whenever his wife Nechama would bring to the table her fragrant fish and tell him, as usual, “Time for fish, Lipe—it has the taste of paradise!” Lipe the Tailor would smile to himself and reply, “Yes, yes, my Nechama! I’ve known for a long time that your Shabbos cooking has the true taste of paradise…”
And nobody else in their household knew quite what he meant by those words.