In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Mendel the Shtimmer
There wasn’t much pride among the people of Vaysechvoos. If they were proud of anything, it was that every man could read Hebrew, every woman could at least read Yiddish and each child could recite the alef bais (alphabet) by the age of five. Most villagers chanted their prayers by heart, and when it came to a knowledge of the Scriptures, well, let’s just say they were not beginners.
However, the rabbi taught that there was not only the Torah–written by Moshe Rabeynu–but there was also another Law. This other Law explained the Law of Moses. It was given to the best and most righteous Jews, who then became the rabbinical corps.” These special disciples handed down this unwritten Scripture from generation to generation, until finally it was written out so it shouldn’t be lost. Therefore, it was reckoned that even if something wasn’t exactly in the Bible, if the rabbi said it, it must be true. However, in case of disputes, one would have to show where that particular thing was recorded.
“Vee es iss geshriben?” (Where is it written?) was the challenge. And as long as a person could respond by pointing to a holy book, even the siddur, it was taken as being Torah.
Many proverbs were attributed to the patriarchs or prophets to give greater weight. For example, the malady of insomnia was answered with this proverb from the patriarch Jacob: ‘A wise man has difficulty sleeping and the weak minded fall asleep easily.”
Now no one could exactly point to where Jacob said it, but everybody knew that he did. The fact that the proverb didn’t seem to be very true was of no consequence. Most of the people of Vaysechvoos who toiled hard all day long found sleep as soon as they got into the proper position.
On the other hand, there was one who had great difficulty sleeping–“Mendel the Shtimmer.” Now the word shtimmer means “one who has impaired speech.” On the surface, Mendel did not seem to be very wise. He could barely say his prayers. It seemed as if he could hardly remember them. But everyone knew that when it came to insomnia, Mendel struggled valiantly. The proverb must be true, so they reasoned that his wisdom went beyond appearances. They deduced that his apparent lack of intelligence was due to his speech defect. He also had difficulty in counting, sometimes saying seven where there were only four. Some deduced his eyes were weak and thought to call him “Mendel de Blinder,” but he was already known as “Mendel the Shtimmer” to distinguish him from the four other Mendels in Vaysechvoos, and so it remained.
Now you might ask, why do there happen to be five Mendels in Vaysechvoos? After all, it’s a small village, and there are enough names for everyone to have his own. There’s a Chaya and a Channa, an Avram and an Aron. Yet there are five Mendels.
There is also Mendel the Shoemaker, Mendel the Town Dyer, and there is Mendel the Infant (who has no other attributes). And finally there is Mendel whose given name is Mendel ben Chayim ben Yeshayah ben Mendel, but mostly he is called the Sage.
The Sage’s great-grandfather, for whom he was named, had been an important Jew, and legends grew about his wisdom and sagacity so that his became one of the more honorable names. Of course it was assumed that the Sage suffered from insomnia as did his great-grandfather. For it is written in the holy writings of the patriarch Jacob that this is a sign of great wisdom. Isn’t it?
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.