Howard Schwartz is a Professor of English at the University of Missouri- St. Louis, his book Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism won the National Jewish Book Award in 2005. In his most recent book, Leaves From The Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales, Schwartz has gathered fairy tales, folktales, supernatural tales and mystical tales- representing the full range of Jewish folklore, from the Talmud to the present. In the excerpted story below, chosen by Schwartz to help us celebrate Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, we learn how our actions can affect others.
One of the earliest disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov was Rabbi Wolf Kitzes, who was famous for his ability to blow the shofar. So resonant were the sounds he drew forth that the Ba’al Shem Tov called upon him to blow the shofar during the Days of Awe, so that its voice would ascend on high all the way to the Throne of Glory.
Now it was the dream of Wolf Kitzes to travel to the Holy Land, and at last he was about to set out on his journey. Just before he left, he went to see the Ba’al Shem Tov, who embraced him and said: “God willing, you will blow the shofar in Jerusalem this year. But remember this: when anyone asks you a question, take care to consider your reply.”
So Wolf Kitzes set out for the Holy Land, and when he reached the Black Sea he took a ship to Istanbul. Now for the first few weeks everything went well, but one day, during a terrible storm, the ship was struck by lightening and it split apart. All the passengers lost their lives except for Wolf Kitzes, who somehow managed to grab a long plank that floated nearby. He clung to that plank for three days and nights, until at last the current carried him to an island.
There the exhausted man crawled onto the shore and collapsed. Later, when he regained a little strength, he got up to explore the island, for he was famished from the three days he had spent at sea. Now the island seemed to be deserted, and he didn’t find any fruit or anything else to eat, although he did find a freshwater brook that satisfied his thirst. Following it to its source, he discovered a spring, and there beside it was a magnificent mansion, a palace far greater than that of any king.
Wolf made his way to the door of that mansion and used the last of his strength to knock on the door. To his surprise, the door opened by itself. At first he stood in the doorway and called out, but no one replied, so he decided to see if anyone lived there. He walked through the halls, opening every door. Every room was magnificent, but still no one was to be seen. At last he opened the door to a large dining room, and there he saw the longest table he had ever seen in his life. It was so long that he could not see the other end, which seemed enclosed in some kind of fog. At another time he might have wondered at this, but at that moment all he noticed was that there was one place setting at the table, although there was no food to be seen.
When he came closer to the table, Wolf saw that two precious objects had been placed there. One was teh largest and most beautiful shofar he had ever seen, and the other was a golden horn whose value he could not begin to guess. He stood before those precious objects and wondered which he should examine first. Just then a single grape rolled out of the golden horn, and that decided the matter for him. He picked up the horn, and as he did, an immense amount of the finest food fell out of it, rolling across the table.
Wolf was overwhelmed at this unexpected abundance and quickly sat down so that he might partake of that delicious food. He pronounced the blessings before eating, and just as he was about to take his first mouthful, he heard a deep voice that seemed to come from the far side of the table: “So, how are my children faring?” Now all Wolf could think of was that delicious food, and he quickly replied: “So, how should they be faring?” and he took the first bite. Then the voice replied: “So be it.” At that instant the fog lifted. Wolf was able to see the other end of the table, but no one was there. That is when he noticed that the shofar was missing, although the golden horn still remained. He decided to look for the shofar once he had finished eating, and he turned back to his plate. But each time he lifted his head, it seemed that the table had grown smaller. When he had eaten his fill, he looked down and saw that the table was no bigger than a plank. At that moment a deep exhaustion came over him, his head sank down, and he fell asleep.
All at once Wolf was awakened by cold water washing over him, and when he opened his eyes, he found himself back in the sea, still clinging to the plank. And he could not decide if his visit to that mysterious mansion had been a dream or if it had really taken place. But when he realized he was no longer famished, he knew that some sort of miracle had occurred.
Not long afterward, a fishing boat found him floating in the sea and brought him back to shore. Then he knew that he must not attempt to continue his journey to the Holy Land but must return to the Ba’al Shem Tov, to tell him all that had taken place.
When Wolf Kitzes reached the small hut of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Ba’al Shem Tov greeted him sadly and said: “What a shame, Wolf, that you did not pick up your shofar and blow on it, as you and only you can do so well. For if you did, the footsteps of the Messiah would have been heard everywhere. For that is the shofar made from the horn of the ram that Abraham offered on Mount Moriah in place of Isaac. It is said that Elijah will blow that Shofar at the End of Days. And it was within your grasp to do so, so that all our waiting would come to an end.
“Or at least if you had held on to that golden horn, hunger would have been banished from the world. For that is the Horn of Plenty, and if you had brought it back, no one would know hunger again.
“Or if you had replied otherwise to the question that was asked of you and told the Holy One, blessed be He, about our suffering in this world, surely everything would be different.
“But at least you were wise enough to say the blessings before you ate. For if you had not, you would have been lost at sea, as were all of the others who set out in that unfortunate ship.”
-Eastern Europe: Eighteenth Century.