The Blind Angel: New Old Chas­sidic Tales

  • From the Publisher
May 20, 2015

For more than twen­ty-five years, Jonathan Halberstam’s father shared Chas­sidic sto­ries week­ly over Yid­dish radio. After find­ing a box con­tain­ing 250 of these sto­ries, Jonathan Hal­ber­stam has cho­sen thir­ty-sev­en to thought­ful­ly trans­late into English.

Although the broad­casts were made in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry in New York City, Rab­bi Tovia Halberstam’s tales reflect strug­gles of Jew­ish life in eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry East­ern Europe. Here, tav­ern keep­ers are often at the mer­cy of anti-Semit­ic provin­cial noble­men; impov­er­ished fathers des­per­ate­ly seek mon­ey to secure their daugh­ters’ mar­riages; aban­doned wives despair of receiv­ing a divorce; and Chas­sidim face chal­lenges posed by gen­tiles and sec­u­lar Jews. Shar­ing leg­ends of the rebbes’ mys­ti­cal insights into solv­ing dai­ly prob­lems was con­sid­ered holy, a way to trans­mit val­ues and moral lessons to fol­low­ers with­in this move­ment of reli­gious revival. Over twen­ty-two mas­ter rab­bis are fea­tured. The Ba’al Shem Tov, Reb Mikhel of Zlotchov, Reb Dov Ber of Mezer­itch, and Reb Yoshe Ber seem to see beyond what is appar­ent to empha­size the impor­tance of bal­anc­ing Torah study with cel­e­bra­tion; of help­ing when help is asked for; and of set­ting things right in this world and the next. Through their sto­ries, the rab­bis show how Chanukkah can be seen as a time of renew­al, why it is impor­tant to peti­tion God, and how larg­er truths hide beneath small questions.

The tales them­selves are com­plex; an open­ing dilem­ma often leads into anoth­er sto­ry, some­times seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed, which then aston­ish­ing­ly con­nects to make a point. As the tit­u­lar sto­ry begins, the moth­er of a daugh­ter who is death­ly ill reach­es out to the Tzad­dik of Sassov. The wise man mys­te­ri­ous­ly instructs the moth­er to bring her sil­ver meno­rah to his Chanukah cel­e­bra­tion that night and tells an arti­san there to take it. Only then does the tzad­dik reveal the rea­son for his request. Long ago, the woman’s father, with flawed moti­va­tion for per­form­ing a mitz­vah, had tak­en pos­ses­sion of that very meno­rah made by the artisan’s grand­fa­ther, who part­ed with it only reluc­tant­ly. This caused a blind angel to wan­der with the father’s soul after his death, end­less­ly search­ing for the gate to Par­adise. Now, the tzad­dik tells them, light has been restored for them all — father, daugh­ter, moth­er, and arti­san son.

Jonathan Hal­ber­stam writes that trans­lat­ing these sto­ries involved retelling them in order to cap­ture their rhythm and soul for mod­ern read­ers. He divides the col­lec­tion into five sec­tions: Heav­en­ly Mat­ters, Life Lessons, The Rebbe’s Insight, The Rebbe’s Fore­sight, and Char­ac­ter and Com­pas­sion. Most of the sto­ries will be new for read­ers of gen­er­al Jew­ish folk­lore. Though some of the teach­ings, roles, and rules may feel strict, they reflect the real­i­ties of the time in which they take place and the val­ues of a reli­gious group that con­tin­ues to flour­ish. The retellings them­selves are fresh and live­ly. Hal­ber­stam the trans­la­tor has cap­tured the humor, wis­dom, and sur­prise with which the rab­bis piv­ot to make con­nec­tions. Rab­bi Hal­ber­stam the teller would enjoy hear­ing these tales rekin­dled by his son. Fore­word, notes.

Discussion Questions