Jewish Wisdom Sayings – OpEd


For many people, Hassidic Jews are noticeable because of their Amish-like dress and ultra orthodox Jewish behavior. But it is their unique stress on trusting in God and elevating one’s soul through joyful religious activities that makes them distinctive.

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber asserted more than a half century ago that, “the purpose of all great religions and religious movements is to engender a life of elation and fervor which no (later) experience can dampen and stifle.” In this light I offer a sample of Hasidic wisdom sayings that I believe can be used by Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. 

On the holiday of Simhat Torah the disciples of Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), the founder of Hasidism, were at his home dancing and drinking. After several hours the Baal Shem Tov’s wife said she was worried they would drink up all the wine in the cellar and there would be none left for Shabbat. Rabbi Israel said she was correct. Go tell them to stop. She went to the room where they were dancing and saw a ring of blue light around the dancing men. Then she herself went to the cellar and returned with a jug of wine in each hand. 

Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, also said: “In the future, the bad guys will be sent, not to Hell but to Heaven, where they will hear the sounds of joyous prayer and excited Torah study; and become so annoyed and repelled that they will go to Hell voluntarily.  

One of the most important teachings of Hassidic Rabbis was not to worry about the future, or sacrifice present joy because you fear it will not last very long. After all, most things people worry about never occur. Rabbi Mordecai of Lekhovitz taught, “We must not worry. Only one worry is O.K.  We  should worry about (always) being worried.” 

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught: Strife exists only because each faction claims that (religious) TRUTH is on its side. When “Truth is cast to the ground” (Daniel 8:12) the automatic result is peace. 

Rabbi Menachem Mendel once asked, “Where can you find God? The other sages say that God is everywhere. I say God is wherever a person lets God in.”

He also replied to someone who reported that a man who had recently come to town was a miracle worker, by saying that producing miracles was not that difficult. The real challenge is to produce people who will believe in miracles.

Rabbi Mendel also told his disciples, “It is possible to bring the dead back to life. Even better is to bring the living back to life.”  

Rabbi Mendel told his disciples: Souls descend from the higher world to our own by means of a ladder. Then the ladder is removed. Heaven calls the souls to return home. Some do not budge thinking it is impossible to rise to heaven without a ladder. Others jump up and fall back, jumping again and again until they despair of ever rising to heaven. Some souls however, are aware that falling is inevitable, yet they try again and again until the Holy One seizes them and pulls them home.  

A disciple of a Hasidic sage related, “In the beginning when I first came to hear our Rabbi teach I was not able to understand him. So I just opened my mouth wide and let his holy breath enter me.”

They say that in his youth Rabbi Israel of Koznitz studied 800 volumes of Kabbalah. But the first time he saw Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, face to face, he instantly knew that he knew nothing at all.”

When Rabbi Hirsh returned from his wife’s funeral he was overheard saying to himself, “Up to now I was able to experience God’s presence here on earth through marriage. Now I shall have to experience God’s presence directly.” Two weeks later he died. 

Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol said, “My mother Mirl did not pray from a book because she could not read. All she knew was how to say the various blessings. But wherever she was when she said the morning blessings, that place radiated God’s presence the whole day.”

Before his death Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol said, “In the coming world they will not ask me why I wasn’t a Moses or a Rabbi Akiba? They will ask me why I wasn’t Zusya?”                                                                                                                                                                                          

Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn taught, “We paid no attention to the miracles our teacher worked, and when sometimes a miracle didn’t come to pass, he only gained in our eyes.”

Rabbi Shelomo of Karlin taught, “What is the worst thing Satan can accomplish? To make a person forget that he or she is a child of God.”

Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha taught, “The many sins most people commit are not great crimes. The great crime is that we are all capable of repentance/change/reform every day and we do not do it.”

When Rabbi Simcha Bunam lay dying his wife burst into tears. He said to her, “Please do not cry for me. My whole life was only that I might learn how to die.”

A Hassidic Sage who was near death got up and danced. When they tried to stop him he said, “This is exactly the time to dance.” He then told them a story and concluded, “When they come to you with a very difficult demand, that is exactly the time to dance.”

Rabbi Michal of Zlotchov once said to his children, “My life was always blessed in that I never needed anything until I had it.”

Rabbi Jacob Joseph said that his teacher Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov used to closet himself with the sister of the Matronita (his wife) to indulge in earthly storytelling.

Rabbi Jacob Joseph also said that he heard from his teacher Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov that if a person is obligated to listen to someone he should elevate the words by due attention, for the act of listening is an act of the soul which is part of God.

Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin taught: The Evil Urge sometimes appears as a penitent and saint, teaching piety, repentance and self-denial. This is still against God’s will…the Evil Urge will tell one to practice self-denial. If you think about it you will discover that the main motivation is just to make a show of piety.

Rabbi Dov Baer, who succeeded the Baal Shem Tov as leader of the Hassidim, taught: “The desire to give cannot be fulfilled unless there is someone to accept what is given. Thus, the Zohar (3:7b) states: Israel (the Jewish People) sustains their Father in heaven.”

As the great writer Elie Wiesel states in Souls On Fire: “It is true that 2+2=4. It is also true that God is One. Better still is that limitless numbers of humans and God can be one.”

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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