This is my favorite Rosh HaShanah story. The author, Isaac Lieb Peretz (1852 – 1915), was a Yiddish playwright and author who is said to have prepared the way for Shalom Aleichem. It helps in understanding the story if you know that Rosh HaShanah is a time for deeds of kindness as well as repentance. Though I am not acquainted with the term Litvak, I assume it means someone who performs the duties of religion perfunctorily but without heart or love.
Early every Friday morning, at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the rabbi of Nemerov would vanish.
He was nowhere to be seen–neither in the synagogue nor in the two houses of study nor at a minyan. And he was certainly not at home. His door stood open; whoever wished would go in and out; no one would steal from the rabbi. But not a living creature was within.
Where could the rabbi be? Where should he be? In heaven, no doubt. A rabbi has plenty of business to take care of just before the Days of Awe. Jews, God bless them, need livelihood, peace, health, and good matches. They want to be pious and good, but our sins are so great, and Satan of the thousand eyes watches the whole earth from one end to the other. What he sees he reports; he denounces, informs. Who can help us if not the rabbi!
That’s what the people thought.
But once a Litvak came, and he laughed. You know the Litvaks. They think little of the Holy Books but stuff themselves with Talmud and law. So this Litvak points to a passage in Gemara–it sticks in your eyes–where it is written that even Moses, our teacher, did not ascend to heaven during his lifetime but remained suspended two and a half feet below. Go argue with a Litvak!
So where can the rabbi be?
“That’s not my business,” said the Litvak, shrugging. Yet all the while–what a Litvak can do–he is scheming to find out.
That same night after the evening prayers, the Litvak steals into the rabbi’s room, slides under the rabbi’s bed, and waits. He’ll watch all night and discover where the rabbi vanishes and what he does during the Penitential Prayers.
Someone else might have got drowsy or fallen asleep, but a Litvak is never at a loss; he recites a whole tractate of the Talmud by heart.
At dawn he hears the call to prayers.
The rabbi has already been awake a long time. The Litvak has heard him groaning for a whole hour.
Whoever has heard the rabbi of Nemerov groan knows how much sorrow for all Israel, how much suffering, lies in each groan. A man’s heart might break, hearing it. But a Litvak is made of iron; he listens and remains where he is. The rabbi, long life to him, lies on the bed, and the Litvak is under the bed.
Then the Litvak hears the beds in the house begin to creak; he hears people jumping out of their beds, mumbling a few Jewish words, pouring water on their fingernails, banging doors. Everyone has left. It is again quiet and dark; a bit of light from the moon shines on the shutters.
(Afterward the Litvak admitted that when he found himself alone with the rabbi a great fear took hold of him. Goose pimples spread across his skin, and the roots of his earlocks pricked him like needles. A trifle, to be alone with the rabbi at the time of the Penitential Prayers! But a Litvak is stubborn. So he quivered like a fish in water and remained where he was.)
Finally the rabbi, long life to him, arises. First he does what befits a Jew. Then he goes to the clothes closet and takes out a bundle of peasant clothes: linen trousers, high boots, a coat, a big felt hat, and a long wide leather belt studded with brass nails. The rabbi gets dressed. From his coat pocket dangles the end of a heavy peasant rope.
The rabbi goes out. The Litvak follows him.
On the way the rabbi stops in the kitchen, bends down, takes an axe from under the bed, puts it in his belt, and leaves the house. The Litvak trembles but continues to follow.
The hushed dread of the Days of Awe hangs over the dark streets. Every once in a whole a cry arises from some minyan reciting the Penitential Prayers or from a sickbed. The rabbi hugs the side of the streets, keeping to the shade of the houses. He glides from house to house, and the Litvak after him. The Litvak hears the sound of his heartbeat mingled with the sound of the rabbi’s heavy steps. But he keeps on going and follows the rabbi to the outskirts of town.
A small wood stands behind the town.
The rabbi, long life to him, enters the wood. He takes thirty or forty steps and stops by a small tree. The Litvak, overcome with amazement, watches the rabbi take the ax out of his belt and strike the tree. He hears the tree creak and fall. The rabbi chops the tree into logs and the logs into sticks. Then he makes a bundle of the wood and ties it with the rope in his pocket. He puts the bundle of wood on his back, shoves the ax back into his belt, and returns to the town.
He stops at a back street beside a small broken-down shack and knocks at the window.
“Who is there?” asks a frightened voice. The Litvak recognizes the voice of a sick Jewish woman.
“I,” answers the rabbi in the accent of a peasant.
“Who is I?”
Again the rabbi answers in Russian, “Vassil.”
“Who is Vassil and what do you want?”
“I have wood to sell, very cheap.” And not waiting for the woman’s reply, he goes into the house.
The Litvak steals in after him. In the gray light of early morning he sees a poor room with broken miserable furnishings. A sick woman, wrapped in rags, lies on the bed. She complains bitterly, “Buy? How can I buy? Where will a poor widow get money?”
“I’ll lend it to you,” answers the supposed Vassil. “It’s only six cents.”
“And how will I ever pay you back?” says the poor woman, groaning.
“Foolish one,” says the rabbi reproachfully. “See, you are a poor sick Jew, and I am ready to trust you with a little wood. I am sure you’ll pay. While you, you have such a great and mighty God and you don’t trust him for six cents?”
“And who will kindle the fire?” says the widow. “Have I the strength to get up? My son is at work.”
“I’ll kindle the fire,” answers the rabbi.
As the rabbi puts the wood into the oven he recites, in a groan, the first portion of the Penitential Prayers.
As he kindles the fire and the wood burns brightly, he recites, a bit more joyously, the second portion of the Penitential Prayers. When the fire is set he recites the third portion, and then he shuts the stove.
The Litvak who saw all this became a disciple of the rabbi.
And ever after, when another disciple tells how the Rabbi of Nemerov ascends to heaven at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the Litvak does not laugh. He only adds quietly, “If not higher.”