Classic Hassidic Tales
By Meyer Levin
Dorset Press (1985), 258 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 12, 2010
People who enjoy reading short stories that have an aura of myth, fairy tale, supernatural, and the other-world, and which have thought-provoking ideas that titillate the mind, will delight in reading the forty tales that Meyer Levin translates in this volume. There are 27 fables of the legendary, mysterious, wonder-worker Rabbi Israel, known as the Baal Shem Tov, "the Master of the Good Name," the founder of the Hassidic movement (1700-1760) and 13 of his great-grandson Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlaw (1772-1810). The word "Hassid" implies intense piety, ardor, fervor, ecstasy.
The Hassid's piety does not lie in the scholarly study of the Bible or the Talmud, Baal Shem Tov taught, but in the simple joys of daily life, even in drinking a glass of vodka, if done with the right spirit. This is seen in the book's shortest tale:
Once Rabbi Israel passed through a house of prayer. An old Jew sat there huddled over a book, reading in a hasty mumble, reading faster and faster, hour after hour.
Rabbi Israel said, "He is so absorbed in his learning that he has forgotten there is a God over the world."
Baal Shem Tov's disciples told stories of how he had the power to do miraculous deeds. He could fly from one end of the earth to another. He could foretell the future and heal the sick. His legends were written – one can say, invented – by many people over many years, during and after his death.
The narratives of his great-grandson, in contrast, were composed by the man himself. While those of the first are obviously fables, those of the second are highly entertaining, but yet intensely meaningful parables.
Both were composed for the masses, yet the tales have been enjoyed by people of every level of society. The stories are not rational. They are filled with magic, with demons, with speaking animals, with conceptions of the universe that are clearly untrue, with wishful but unrealistic thinking of the coming of the messiah, of ways to conquer The Evil One, of elevating The Soul, of divine intervention to aid those in need, of unrealistic comforts. Yet, despite the falsehoods and lack of sophistication, there are underlying truths.