Karpl the Fiddler was a very pious Jew. He would play only at poor weddings and took no pay. He made a modest living as a dyer. Purim was the happiest day for him. He would take his fiddle in hand and go from house to house regaling his friends. Everywhere he went people treated him to a glass of wine and a piece of cake.
One Purim evening, Karpl drank one l’chayim too many and got lost on his way home, until he found himself in front of the big shul. From there he knew the way blindfolded, for what Jew doesn’t? Just as he was about to return home, he noticed that the windows of the shul were all lit up and that sounds of prayer were coming from inside. He was reminded of the saying: Do not avoid the Lord when you pass His holy abode.” Thereupon, he promptly stepped into the shul forgetting that on the night of Purim Jews never pray Ma’ariv together and certainly not at such a late hour.
In he went to find the shul packed with people and the place as brightly lit as paradise. Everyone was in a festive mood and when they caught sight of his fiddle they led him up onto the bimah with great rejoicing. But Karpl was seized with fear. He couldn’t lift a muscle– whom should he see around him but dozens of friends who had long since passed away! Only now did he realize that he was surrounded by dead souls. He remained paralyzed until several of his former friends approached him and, with friendly smiles, asked him to play the same Purim melody that he used to play at their homes when they were still alive.
“Fear not,” they said. “You should only be as secure among the living as you are now among the dead. Play, and we will reward you far more than the living ever did.”
These words comforted him and he played his Purim melody very well, so well in fact, that he was asked to replay it three times. Then they recited hymns and asked him to play other tunes. Karpl was such a success that he was brought before the rabbi who thanked him heartily, saying: “God shall bring you as much joy as you have brought us on this Purim. Tell me, how shall we repay you? You know who we are. We have no money and we know that you never accept payment.”
“There is something I want,” said Karpl. “Firstly, I want to know who it is I’m speaking with. Secondly, I want to receive a definite sign so that I can prove to the townsfolk that I actually met you, and thirdly, I want you to teach me some of the melodies that are sung in heaven. I promise that I shall perform these melodies only for the sake of heaven at poor weddings and at special celebrations.”
“All three wishes shall be fulfilled,” replied the old man. “You wish to know my name. I am Reb Sholem Altarus and, some seventy years ago, I was rabbi in this city. As for a definite sign that you met me personally, I shall tell you a sermon that I delivered on the last Purim before my death. Reb Hirsch Feld who is now an old man of ninety was present.” And Reb Sholem did indeed relate his sermon to Karpl the Fiddler.
The Reb Hershl the chazzen was brought forward and though he was as hoarse as a rusty saw (having died of a lung disease), his melodies penetrated into Karpl’s very soul. He taught Karpl a half-dozen melodies, among them the Messiah’s triumphal march; the suite which is played when a tzaddik is escorted into heaven; the song that pilgrims used to sing on the way to the temple in Jerusalem. The remaining three were holiday tunes.
By this time it was almost three in the morning. The bright lights began to dim and the figures became indistinct. Karpl felt a weariness overtake him and he fell asleep on the spot. When he awoke it was well into the morning and the congregation had begun reciting the morning prayers. Karpl found himself behind the door of the shul and would have dismissed the whole thing as a dream if not for the sermon and the melodies that he remembered. He repeated the sermon to ninety-year-old Reb Hirsh and played him the wonderful music. Reb Hirsh was in seventh heaven. Soon the whole town knew about it and Karpl was acclaimed a saint. He vowed never to drink on Purim any more. — This is how we know that the dead souls celebrate in shul just as we mortals do.
Adapted from Ayzik-Meyer Dik, Alte yidishe zagen oder sipurim (Old Jewish Tales), Rom, Vilne: 1876