In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Perchik the Curious
Children are as full of questions as a dish of shmaltz herring is full of eggs and, in this, Perchik was no different. From his mouth, the questions wouldn’t stop coming! And such questions–they were well beyond the abilities of an ordinary eight-year-old boy of Vaysechvoos to ask–so much so, that more often than not Chaikeh and Meyer found themselves consulting the rabbi for answers to their son’s inquiries.
The rabbi could see that a mind such as Perchik’s was worthy of special consideration, so every day after cheder he gave the boy a private lesson. The rabbi never tired of Perchik’s inquiries. After all, what was important in life but to seek knowledge? Besides, it had been years since he’d had such an opportunity to impart some of the lesser-known Talmudic teachings.
Sometimes the rabbi’s answers would raise even more questions. That was certainly the case the day Perchik asked,
Rabbi, what holds up the earth?”
“According to the sages, the earth is supported by giant pillars,” the rabbi answered.
“Pillars? How many pillars?” the boy asked, his bright eyes stating intently at his teacher.
“Well, this point is debatable, but many of our sages taught that there are twelve pillars: one for each of the tribes of Israel.”
“And upon what do the pillars stand?” Perchik pressed.
“Upon water, my son” replied the rabbi.
“Oh. And upon what does the water stand?”
“And the mountains?”
“The mountains stand upon the wind, which stands upon the storm.”
“I see,” said Perchik, “but the storm?”
“It is suspended upon the arm of the Holy One, blessed be he, as it is said, “Underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27).
“Ah.” Perchik sighed contentedly at the mention of the Almighty.
And the rabbi smiled the smile of a contented teacher.
The next day the boy had yet another question about the earth’s origin:
“Rabbi, why does the story of creation begin with the letter beth? For is it not written, “Bereshis?”
“Ah, that is a scholar’s question,” the rabbi said with a note of approval and several enthusiastic nods of his greying head. “Some of our sages have pointed out that beth is the initial of blessing (bracha) whereas alef is the initial of a curse (arirah). The Holy One, blessed be he, wished to create his universe with a blessing, not a curse. Other sages have taught that just as the letter beth is closed on all sides and only open in front, we are not permitted to inquire into what is before or what was behind but only from the actual time of creation.”
Perchik, who preferred the first teaching, continued to ask questions about creation. He discovered that according to tradition, the Holy One took fire and water and mingled them to form the heavens. Also he took two coils, one of fire and the other snow and wove them into each other and from thence the universe was formed.
Not all of Perchik’s questions were of such cosmic proportions, but oddly, some of the questions about less complicated matters were more difficult to answer. Such was the case with the visitor’s right hand.
Well, it was not so much the visitor’s hand that was in question. It was a perfectly normal hand belonging to a perfectly normal Jew, a distant cousin who was passing through the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos on his way to a neighboring village to seek out a possible shidduch for his oldest son.
Chaikeh and Meyer felt honored to have a Shabbos guest at their table and cautioned Perchik to mind his manners. It wasn’t that Perchik was a rude boy, but his straightforward questions occasionally were the cause of some embarrassment.
So when Meyer pronounced the blessing over the wine and the visitor reached out his right hand to lift his cup, it was curiosity rather than rudeness that caused Perchik to blurt out, “Why do you use the wrong hand to make kiddush?”
“Perchik, your manners!” his mother warned sharply. Meyer added, “I’m certain that it must be considered proper to drink wine with the right hand according to customs in Cousin Mottel’s shtetl, which are no doubt different than our own. Am I not right, Cousin?”
Cousin Mottel answered, “It is true that most people in my village and in every village I’ve passed through lift the cup in the right hand. We do have a tanner whom the villagers call “lefty.” He is very clumsy with his right hand and does most everything with his left, but other than him, I have never heard of anyone using the left hand to make kiddush.”
The mystified Perchik could not wait to ask his friend the rabbi why people from other shtetls held their kiddush cups in the right hand when everyone in Vaysechvoos knew it was proper to use only the left.
The rabbi spent three days searching the Talmud and could not answer Perchik’s question. But he encouraged the boy not to give up his quest for knowledge. And so, at the rabbi’s prompting, Perchik borrowed the rabbi’s finest quill and dug in his treasure box for a single piece of fine, cream-colored paper which he had been saving. He then wrote a letter to the Baal Shem Tov himself, and the rabbi wrote a postscript to verify that the question came from a good Jewish boy who loved the study of Talmud.
It was several months later that a letter came to Vaysechvoos addressed to Perchik. It was from the chief secretary of the Baal Shem Tov! He had written to inform Perchik that an answer would be forthcoming as soon as the under-secretaries completed their research. They had already been able to confirm that, indeed, the Jews of the district around Vaysechvoos drank wine only with the left hand and this distinction was deemed noteworthy enough to merit further investigation.
Perchik continued with his lessons at cheder as well as his private sessions with the rabbi. But the excitement of knowing that the Baal Shem Tov (or at least his secretaries) were working on the answer to his question made it difficult to concentrate. He could hardly wait to hear the explanation of the Baal Shem Tov. You see, for Perchik, learning traditional answers from Jewish sages was an adventure. It was as though each answer opened up a tunnel in time. Walking through that tunnel he was likely to meet and touch minds with the most famous Jews who ever lived!
After many weeks, a thick envelope arrived in Vaysechvoos, once again addressed to Perchik. The stationmaster was so curious that he hand-delivered it. Trembling with excitement, Perchik ripped open the envelope. Sixteen pages penned by the humble servants of the Baal Shem Tov!
Perchik thanked the stationmaster and left him standing at the door as he raced to show the rabbi his letter.
It took the two of them an hour and a half to read through the lengthy missive, each taking turns reading a page aloud to the other. It was a detailed documentation of an investigation giving proper credit to all involved as well as explaining various points of law regarding such inquiries. In the very last two paragraphs on the very last page, the rabbi found the answer to Perchik’s question.
He read to Perchik how, after scouring two generations of diaries and letters, the servants of the Baal Shem Tov discovered an all-but-disintegrated bit of correspondence. It was from a Jew who had once visited Vaysechvoos and recorded the story of how he had been puzzled by the fact that the villagers there drank wine with the left hand only. Since none of the people seemed to know why, they led the traveler to the bedside of the shtetl’s ancient rabbi, Shmuel ben David. He whispered his question into the ear of the holy man whose nefesh was about to depart.
The traveler had to remain bent over the old rabbi to hear his reply. Each breath rustled like a basketful of autumn leaves. Shmuel ben David had been a boy when the tradition of drinking left-handed began It seems that the rabbi who was serving the community sixty years earlier had been paralyzed in his old age and had lost the use of his right arm. He abstained from food in public because of his disability, but naturally, at religious functions it was necessary for him to make the proper blessing. So to honor their beloved rabbi and save him from embarrassment, all the Jews of Vaysechvoos held their wine cups left-handed.
Perchik was awed by the story for he had never even heard of the rabbi (the record of whose name was somehow lost) until the Baal Shem Tov–who knows almost as much as God–sent his reply.
The people of Vaysechvoos heard the story at a town meeting and agreed to continue their tradition even though the rabbi whose infirmity had inspired their ancestors had long since been forgotten. Though the tradition was based on the misfortunes of a paralyzed old sage, it seemed to take on a new meaning because of a little boy who always sought to satisfy his thirst for knowledge from the wells of tradition.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.