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The Boy Who Did Not Know How to Pray

The Boy Who Did Not Know How to Pray

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The tzaddik [righteous person] known as the “Bnei Yissachar” once told the following story about the Baal Shem Tov:

One year, when the Baal Shem Tov came to synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur, he appeared to be sad and upset about something. After Kol Nidrei, he waited a while, and then the people saw that a new spirit had entered him. With renewed joy and song, he prayed the Yom Kippur evening services.

After Yom Kippur, his closest disciples asked him the reason for his feelings the previous evening. He shared with them the following story:

In a certain village, there lived a Jewish tenant and his wife. The landowner liked this family very much. Shortly after the wife had given birth to a son, both parents passed away, leaving the young boy orphaned. The landowner took pity on the child and took him into his home. He raised him and enjoyed spending time with the bright child, and catered to all his needs. The boy knew little about his origin, except what the landowner told him: that his parents were Jewish and that they had passed away, and that he had brought the boy to his house and adopted him. The landlord promised the boy that all his wealth would one day belong to him. He told him that his parents had left a few objects that did not have much value, including a Chumash (the Five Books of Moses) and a siddur (prayerbook), which his late mother would pray from. The landowner gave the boy the items as keepsakes.

One day in the fall, the boy saw that the Jewish villagers were traveling on the road that led to the city. The boy asked them where they were going, and they told him that the High Holidays were coming soon, and that on Rosh Hashana all mankind is inscribed in the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur they are sealed for a Good Year. They explained that they were traveling to the big city to pray with a large congregation of Jews, because it is more proper to pray with a minyan (quorum).

From that moment on, the boy felt different, knowing that he came from Jewish lineage. That night, he saw his parents in a dream. They encouraged him to return to his religion. The dreams continued nightly during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The child told the nobleman about his dreams, and the elderly man dismissed them as foolishness. Dreams are nonsense, and he need not pay attention, he said. But the dreams did not stop. One night, his parents spoke very strongly, telling him that he must return to his Jewish roots.

By now it was the day before Yom Kippur. The boy saw that, once again, wagons full of Jews were traveling to the city. In response to his inquiries, the Jews told him that they were preparing themselves for the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Forgiveness.

The child felt really bad. He ran home and grabbed his mother’s siddur, and then ran to the city. When he came to the synagogue, they were just beginning Kol Nidrei. The boy saw that all the people were dressed in white, holding their prayer books in their hands, and praying with tears in their eyes. He too began to cry bitterly, but he did not know what to say.

As the boy stood there with a broken heart, a great commotion ensued in the heavens. Sensing this, the Baal Shem Tov was sad, feeling empathy for the child who wished so deeply to pray as a Jew but lacked the knowledge. He tried hard to make sure that the penitence of the child be accepted, that he not choose, G‑d forbid, to return to his former lifestyle.

Suddenly the boy said: “Dear G‑d, I do not know what to pray or how to pray. Here, G‑d, I give to you the whole siddur!”

The boy opened his mother’s siddur and placed it on the lectern, resting his head on the worn pages and crying bitter tears.

His heartfelt prayers made a strong impression above and were accepted. It was at that moment that the Baal Shem Tov became happy, and when he began the “Barchu” prayer at the beginning of the evening service, he was filled with great joy.

(From Sippurei Chassidim on the Festivals, by Rabbi Zevin, #78.)

Blumah Wineberg, together with her husband Rabbi Sholom Wineberg, is a longtime Chabad emissary in Kansas City.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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