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The Man Who Crossed the River with a Kerchief

The Man Who Crossed the River with a Kerchief

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In the years before he went public with his teachings and founded the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov would often wander about the countryside where the Jews of Eastern Europe lived in isolated hamlets or managed lonely wayside inns. Rabbi Israel would mingle with these Jews, drawing inspiration from their simple faith and dispensing words of encouragement in turn.

One day, the Baal Shem Tov arrived at a small crossroads inn, many miles distant from the nearest Jewish community. He was warmly invited in, and served a refreshment by the innkeeper's family. "Where is your father?" he asked the children. "He's praying," they replied, and Rabbi Israel settled down to wait for his host.

An hour passed, then two. It was late afternoon by the time the innkeeper emerged from his room. After greeting his guest, he apologized for his long absence. "I am an ignorant Jew," he explained shamefacedly. "I can barely pronounce the words from the prayerbook, and deciphering its instructions, written in vowel-less Hebrew, is beyond me. So I have no choice but to recite the entire prayerbook, from cover to cover, every day."

"Perhaps I can be of assistance to you," said Rabbi Israel. For the next hour, he sat with the innkeeper, patiently instructing him on the proper use of the prayerbook. On small slips of paper, Rabbi Israel wrote out, in simple Yiddish, "morning prayers," "special addition for Mondays and Thursdays," "grace after meals," "afternoon prayers," "evening prayers," "for Shabbat," "for Rosh Chodesh," "for Rosh Hashanah," and so on, and inserted them to mark the proper place in the innkeeper's prayerbook. "Thank you so much," said the innkeeper, when Rabbi Israel took leave to resume his journey. "Now I can begin to pray like a proper Jew."

But the innkeeper's joy was short-lived. Later that day, the prayerbook inexplicably fell from its shelf, and every last slip of paper inserted by the Baal Shem Tov fluttered from its pages. "Woe is me!" cried the innkeeper. "Who knows how many months will pass until a learned Jew will again come this way?" Determined not to let this opportunity to begin praying properly escape him, he grabbed the prayerbook and the notes and ran off in the direction that his guest had gone.

After several miles of brisk walking, he finally sighted the Baal Shem Tov far ahead. From the distance he saw Rabbi Israel reach a river. "How will he cross?" wondered the innkeeper,"This time of year, the water is too deep and swift to ford." He was about to shout a warning, when he saw Rabbi Israel spread his handkerchief on the water, step onto it as if it were the sturdiest of rafts, glide smoothly across, and disappear into the woods on the opposite bank.

In a flash, the innkeeper was at the water's edge. Spreading his handkerchief on the water, he stepped onto it and glided across, and ran down the path Rabbi Israel had taken. "Wait, Rabbi!" he called. "Wait! You cannot go until you mark my prayerbook again! All your notes have fallen out!"

Hearing the man calling out to him, Rabbi Israel stopped and turned, to see his recent host running toward him, clutching his prayerbook in one hand and the slips of paper in the other. "How did you get here?" asked Rabbi Israel in amazement. "How did you cross the river?"

"With my handkerchief, same as you," replied the simple Jew. "By the way, that's some trick you've got there. I never would've thought it could be done that way."

"I think," said the Baal Shem Tov slowly, "that G‑d is extremely satisfied with your prayers as they are. Perhaps you should continue to pray just the way you have up until now."

Yanki Tauber served as editor of Chabad.org
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Rosa Malden October 9, 2015

The Baal Shem Tov I love this story on so many levels. What it speaks to me personally is that when I get hung up on trying to pray correctly and as eloquently as my teachers, I should just pray from the heart and know that G-d will hear and respond just as clearly. Reply

Ira ZINMAN February 2, 2013

Three Hermits Interesting story. there is one told by Leo Tolstoy called THE THREE HERMITS in which the theme is very similar and some of the plot lines also similar. I wonder whether Tolstory knew the Story of the Crossing with the Kerchief when he wrote the THREE HERMITS Reply

Anonymous lynchburg, va/usa August 4, 2010

For huh... The man was not left ignorant, the Baal Shem Tov reaffirmed that the 'Kavannah" (intention) the man had towards his prayers was pleasing enough for G-d. Once the man becomes too learned in the language, his prayers might lose that and the reasons for praying are lost. I too am an ignorant Jew who is trying to teach himself the language and the how to pray.But I know when I stand before G-d during the Amidah (standing prayer), I concentrate on every letter that comes out of my mouth and always have G-d on my mind and in my heart. Good luck and have peace in everything you do. Reply

Dean Allen Levit June 6, 2010

slips of paper As always, an inspirational and heart-warming tale. Thank you. Reply

Feivel Hollywood, Ca May 18, 2010

Huh Why? Why on slips of paper? Why not in the siddur? Why not teach the man to pray properly? Why a handkerchief? Why not fly across? Why leave the man ignorant? Woudn't it be a greater miracle if he learned to pray the right way? Reply

reed lv, tx/usa'' October 10, 2008

faith is the substance of things hoped for...........and the evidence of things not seen. Reply

Eric S. Kingston North Hollywood, CA August 20, 2008

Remember. it is not important how we appear to others, but how we "appear" to G-d that matters most! Reply

Anonymous September 3, 2006

The Prayer Book How comforting to know that HaShem accepts our prayers unique to us. My heartfelt prayers sometimes become my very own prayers unique unto me alone. But my heart is full of love and awe of Him. Thank you for this article. How wonderful He is!!!! Reply

Anonymous August 14, 2004

This is wonderful story; thank you so much for writing it.

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Learn about the life and teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century mystic who permanently changed the Jewish landscape.
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