The Yom Kippur Cantor—Someone to Envy

By Sholem Aleichem, translated by Curt Leviant

In all of Kasrilevke’s history, there was no finer funeral than Reb Melekh the Cantor’s. Reb Melekh was a pauper, the poorest of the poor, just like the rest of the people in the shtetl of Kasrilevke.  He was given that splendid funeral only because he died during Ne’ilah, the closing service of Yom Kippur. Only the saintly die in this manner.

The sun was about to set. It was bidding goodbye to Kasrilevke, shining straight through the old synagogue and lighting up the men’s worn, dead tired faces, their yellow prayer shawls, and their white prayer robes that made them look like living corpses.

These living corpses had long ceased to feel hunger. They just felt their life strength ebbing.  They sat over their prayer books, swaying, refreshing themselves with spirits of ammonia and snuff, and singing along with the cantor.

Reb Melekh the Cantor, a handsome, long-bearded man with a thick neck, had been standing on his feet since early that morning. With outstretched arms he stood before the Creator and prayed devotedly, crying and pleading for mercy for the people who had chosen him to beg for forgiveness for their great sins and request that they be inscribed for a year of health and peace.

The people in the old synagogue could well depend on Reb Melekh as intercessor. First of all—his voice. The old townspeople said that in his youth Reb Melekh had a voice as clear and sharp as the roar of a lion. When he opened his mouth, the walls trembled and the windows shook. But as of late, he had become a weeper. He cried as he sang, like a weeping willow and, looking at him, the entire congregation would burst into tears too.

As he grew older his voice became rusty and only the weeping remained—but it was the sort of weeping that could move a wall, or wake the dead.

Reb Melekh lifted his hands, arguing with God in the age-old, plaintive melody of Ne’ilah, the final Yom Kippur prayer.

“Oy, Father in Heaven! Oy and vey!”

 Hearing this, each person regretted his sins and prayed to God to erase, blot out, forget and forgive all their transgressions and grant them and their naked, barefoot, and hungry children a good year.

Having reminded themselves of their poor, innocent children, their hearts melted like wax, and they were ready to fast three more days and nights so long as the Eternal One would grant them a year of health.

Meanwhile, Reb Melekh rested and caught his breath. Now he cleared his throat and sang for a while in his old tremolo, and then resumed his plaintive cry:

“Oy, Father in Heaven! Oy and vey!”

Suddenly, there was silence—and the sound of a thump and a fall was heard.

Everyone crowded around, whispering:

“Come...oh...shames....sexton....oh my!”

Chaim the Shames ran over, then lifted the cantor. But Reb Melekh’s head hung down, his eyes half open, his face white as chalk, his lips ashen. A bitter smile played on his lips.

The whole congregation pressed forward. They put spirits of ammonia under his nose. They sprinkled water on his face. They pressed his temples. But it was to no avail. Reb Melekh the Cantor was dead.

When a wolf attacks the flock and devours a lamb, the rest of the lambs panic for a moment.  Then they huddle together and tremble all over.

That’s what happened in the synagogue when Reb Melekh expired. First a tumult broke out. An eerie scream was heard from the women’s section. Tsviya, the cantor’s wife, had fainted. Looking at her, other women fainted too.

 Reb Yozifl, the rabbi of Kasrilevke, signaled to the trustees and they banged on the prayer stands for silence. Chaim the Shames, who had led the morning service, went up to the pulpit and continued the Ne’ilah service. The entire congregation prayed until Reb Nissel blew the shofar which officially brought Yom Kippur to a close. Then they immediately began the weekday evening service. After that they went out into the courtyard to recite the Benediction for the New Moon. And then they went home to break the fast.  Some did so by eating a quarter of a chicken, a remnant of the previous day’s sacrificial fowl. Some did so by having only bread, herring and water.

 An hour after supper, the entire synagogue courtyard was packed with people.  There was no room to breathe. Men and women, boys and girls, even babies, had gathered for the funeral.

The townspeople themselves took care of the details, not allowing the sextons the privilege. It was no small matter—the cantor was an important person.

The night was bright and warm. The moon shone down on Kasrilevke, delighted with the poor people who had come to pay their last respects to Reb Melekh the Cantor before he took his long last journey. When the funeral procession stopped in front of the synagogue, Rabbi Yozifl began his funeral oration. And all the people wept.

Rabbi Yozifl quoted the Bible and the Midrash and showed that Reb Melekh the Cantor’s death was not that of an ordinary mortal. Only saintly, very saintly, men died that way. Such saints went straight to Paradise. Everyone ought to envy a man as saintly as he, for not all were worthy of dying at the pulpit during Ne’ilah, the closing prayer of Yom Kippur, when God has forgiven man’s sins. When a man as saintly as he is laid to rest, the entire shtetl must accompany him. When a man as saintly as Reb Melekh dies, the entire shtetl must weep and mourn.

“Cry, then, fellow Jews, mourn this saintly man whom we have lost. Beg him to intercede for us before the Seat of Glory. Perhaps he will pray that we all have a year of peace and health. For it is high time that God had mercy on Kasrilevke and its Jews.”

Everyone wept. Tears streamed from their eyes and they felt they had sent a fine emissary to God on their behalf.

At that moment, each person wished he were in Reb Melekh’s shoes.

It seemed that Rabbi Yozifl forgot that he was addressing a corpse, for he finished his eulogy with these words:

“Well, then, go in peace, stay healthy and may you have lots of mazl."

For a long time thereafter, the folks in Kasrilevke talked about Reb Melekh the Cantor’s death and about the fine funeral he had had. Mentioning it, they sighed:

“Ah, yes! There was someone to envy.”

 

Translator’s comments

            Although there are usually four Silent Devotions (or Shmoneh Esreys) during a Sabbath or holiday, on Yom Kippur there are five. The fifth is the Ne’ilah service recited during the final hour of Yom Kippur. For this the Holy Ark, or Aron Kodesh, is open for the entire prayer, and since the Ark is open everyone stands for this solemn, redemptive and melodic final prayer. After the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, which marks the end of the holiday, the congregation immediately recites the weekday Evening Service, and only then do people return home to break the fast. The Benediction for the New Moon is traditionally recited outside at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

            Note that people in Kasrilevke break the fast in several ways. Those that can afford it have chicken; the poorer folk just have herring, bread and water.

            Frankly, the description of a funeral at night is an anomaly. I have never heard of a night-time funeral anywhere in the world except in Jerusalem. Sholem Aleichem may have added this for dramatic effect, for it is at odds with Jewish burial tradition. But the author correctly reflects the folk tradition that dying on Yom Kippur is a special sign of grace—though members of the family would likely say they would gladly have declined such an honor.

 Curt Leviant’s most recent books are his ninth and tenth novels, the widely praised King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son.