It all started out as friendly banter between Shimmon the Butcher and Mendel the Dyer. They would go back and forth, trying to outdo each other in shelting. But as the barbs became more pointed, they began to hurt each other. What had started in friendly rivalry now became filled with the acrimony of men who injured one another and were determined to extract revenge through the weaponry of words.
All of Vaysechvoos knew of their duel of curses and how they had become bitter. Whatever friendship had been there was now dead, killed by their quarrel. All that remained were the curses and insults they spouted with glee to each other:
Mendel, may you experience the glory of Haman!” spat out Shimmon.
“And may you experience the miracle of Korach, Shimmon!” retorted Mendel.
“May you be like a lamp, Mendel; hang all day and burn all night and be extinguished every morning!”
“Shimmon, may your butcher shop be three times its size, stocked with the finest cuts of meat; and may the Sage of Vaysechvoos declare on that day that hereafter all Jews must eat only vegetables and grains.”
“Mendel, may the dye that stains your hands, so that they never look clean, creep up your arms and neck and over your face. It can only improve your looks.”
And so it went. Week after week. Month after month. Shimmon and Mendel looking for things to make the other even angrier and finding bigger and better and more spiteful sayings.
There was the time the two of them had appointments on the same day to have their teeth checked by the visiting dentist, who came less often than he was needed but more often than could cause his purse much profit. As Shimmon was leaving Reb Samuel’s home where the dentist, a distant cousin, had set up his instruments, Mendel arrived.
“Oh, so you came here to aggravate me by your presence,” Shimmon remarked.
“Aggravate you?” Mendel hollered. “Aggravate you?!”
Mendel continued, “May all but one of your teeth fall out and the only one that remains always ache.” Shimmon, not to be outdone, responded, “May it thunder in your teeth so that you’ll think you’re cracking nuts!”
The invective went on and on. It got so bad that the two would spend their evenings thinking up new curses and insults to hurl at one another. Their wives and children were neglected, but the insults flourished:
“Shimmon, may you eat chopped liver with onions, schmaltz herring, chicken soup with dumplings, baked carp with horseradish, meat and vegetable stew, latkes, tea with lemon, every day and may you choke on every mouthful!” Mendel retorted.
“That is your wife’s cooking you are thinking about,” Shimmon snorted.
And then the insults sunk to a new level one day; the women and children became fair game for their viciousness.
“At least my wife didn’t produce children who are as ugly as yours. And each with a different father.”
Their wives, Leah and Dvorah, were godly daughters of Israel and good friends. They knew the bitter words that spewed forth from their husbands’ lips were from the Evil One, for each husband seemed obsessed and possessed by an anger that was beyond human feeling. Something needed to be done to outsmart and confuse the Evil One. Unbeknownst to their husbands, the women agreed to go and consult the Sage of Vaysechvoos.
“Surely, he will give us the proper advice as to what can be done to stop the dibbuk that owns each of them, said Leah, the butcher’s wife.
They approached the Sage, the wisest man in the shtetl, and Dvorah made their plea:
“O Sage, we implore you to mediate between Shimmon and Mendel. Their anger is tearing our families apart. It is like a disease that has spread and spread until it consumes all of its host. It is having a terrible effect on us and, more importantly, on our children. My little ones don’t sleep well and they won’t eat.”
“My children, as well!” added Leah. “And who knows, this anger from the Evil One can bring the wrath of the Holy One down upon all of Vaysechvoos. Anger is like that, you know.”
The Sage listened patiently to their cry for help. “Come back tomorrow at this time of day and I will have some words of counsel to give you.”
And so the women made their way home and prepared the evening meal for their families, whose only appetite was for peace and calm. Supper prayers were forgotten and pleasant storytelling was displaced by angry words of hate, spoken with studied cruelty, all in rehearsal for future encounters. Hearts were heavy, health was fragile and even the lit candles seemed to dim and sputter.
The next day could not come soon enough for Leah and Dvorah. They lay awake that night with silent prayers for a better tomorrow–after the meeting with the Sage. The next morning they sent their husbands off to work, their children off to cheder and made their way to the home of the Sage.
He was waiting, knowing they would be prompt.
“Ladies, I’ve given this much thought and it seems right to me to propose the following. There’s an old saying, ‘Der kas un der tsorn farkirtsn di yorn.’ (Anger and rage will make you age!) Now here’s what you do….”
The two women were excited over the scheme concocted by the Sage. That very day, true to form, their husbands lashed out at one another with venom.
When they arrived home, they were surprised to find that their wives looked a little different than they did earlier that day. Was there some grey in Leah’s hair? Does Dvorah have a bit of a bend in her back? Day by day, the women went through such a metamorphosis that in a week’s time, they seemed to have aged twenty-five years!
Overcome by this phenomenon, the men pleaded with their wives to explain what was happening. The women suggested that they go see the Sage. And so they did, because as much as they disliked one another, they loved their wives.
The Sage listened to their plight, nodding sympathetically as they went on and on to explain how their young and beautiful wives had grown old before their very eyes in one short week!
The Sage cleared his throat and offered some advice. “Everyone in Vaysechvoos has heard your angry words to one another. No one has heard them as often and as deeply as your wives. When people are as mean-spirited as the two of you have become, angry words don’t penetrate the heart of each other. But they can touch those close to you. Your anger toward one another has made your wives’ stomachs boil and in so doing, has aged them, as the saying goes, ‘Anger and rage will make you age!'”
The two men were horrified. “How could we have done this terrible thing to our wives?” Mendel moaned.
“Are we truly so mean-spirited that our sin has caused them such misery?” cried Shimmon.
They knew they had done a grievous wrong and so they wept and wept. And before they knew it, they were in one another’s arms. No words passed between them, only the touch of one child of Israel consoling another. In their hearts, they found no more insults, no more curses, no anger at all, only remorse that their wives had suffered and aged as a result of their conflict.
It seemed like hours later before each made his way home. The children were asleep and Dvorah was already under the covers in their feather bed, as Mendel lay down next to her. He sensed something was different as her eyes met his. They were young eyes. Even younger than they had been a week earlier. And her back was straight and her hair was its rich black color again and her wrinkles were gone! “How can this be?” he whispered. And Shimmon knew the meaning when the same thing happened to him, which is just as the sage said: “Love for our fellow man makes the hearts of those closest to you merry.”