Annotated & Explained
By Rabbi Rami Shapiro
SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2005, 193 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 17, 2010
Rabbi Shapiro translates, annotates, and explains over 80 legendary tales that focus on the founder of the modern Chassidic movement, Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name, and the Chasidic rabbis who followed him. The stories are sometimes mystical, magical, unnatural, impossible, and paradoxical. But this does not diminish them in any way. The sticking parabolic nature of the legends helps turn the reader's mind from their facts to their message, and the interesting, unnatural legends are seen as true.
Shapiro gives his readers a twenty-five page introduction, which includes detailed information about the each of the rabbis mentioned in the tales. He presents the legends on the right hand pages and a brief description of the rabbi mentioned in the story, an explanation of terms, and a synopsis of the story's message on the adjacent left side.
Here are some synopses of his stories that admittedly fail to capture the beauty of the fully told tale. A woman gets lost in a forest. She meets a man and asks for directions, but he admits that he is also lost. She says, "You got lost by going one way while I got lost going another way. Let's share what we know about the wrong paths, and then we may find one together that succeeds." This teaches that we are all lost in one way or another, but if we share knowledge we can reach our goal.
A student returned from visiting his rabbi over the holiday. A scoffer asked him what he learnt. He said that he learnt the command "Thou shalt not steal." The scoffer laughed, "We learnt this without needing to take a long tedious trip." The student replied, "You learnt not to steal from others. I learnt not to steal from myself."
A Chassidic rabbi was unable to recognize a person who visited him frequently. He explained why. "The essence of a person is reflected in his thoughts. You are what you focus on. When I listen to you, I hear that your mind wanders from one thought to another. I can't tell who you are, whether you were a man who happens to have a mouth, or a mouth masquerading as a man." What does this paradoxical tale mean? Shapiro explains it and the other legends in his fine book.