During one of his travels, Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin stayed in a town called Sanek. The entire town came out to greet him, for the reputation of the chassidic master preceded him wherever he went. Among them were two Jews who were not adherents of the chassidic path. These mitnagdim ("opponents" — as they were called) decided to challenge Rabbi Israel.

"Tell us," they argued, "it is very difficult for us to understand. Our custom is to arise well before the break of dawn, so that we could pray the morning prayer at sunrise according to the custom of the ancestral pious ones. After we finish praying, we remain for some time in the shul. Still wrapped in tallit and tefillin, we study Chumash and Mishnah. Even as we put away the tallit and tefillin, we recite more chapters of Torah from memory. Throughout the rest of the day, we maintain fixed times when we gather for additional study in the shul.

"You Chassidim, on the other hand, your way is to pray the morning prayer quite late in the morning. And after prayer, you bring out cake and brandy, and sit together around the table eating and drinking and singing and wishing each other 'lechayim!' Yet everyone calls you people chassidim ('pious ones') while we're labeled mitnagdim? It should be the other way around!"

Reb Leib, the attendant of the Ruzhiner, could not restrain himself. "Why, it makes perfect sense," he imputed. "Your entire service of G‑d is performed with so little heart, in such a calculated, chilly and lifeless manner, it is no wonder that you study Mishnah afterwards — in keeping with the custom to study Mishnah in memory of the dead. Not so the service of the Chassidim. We are alive — whatever we do, no matter how much or how little, we do with devotion, warmth and vitality. Doesn't a living man need a sip of brandy once in a while?"

He drew a breath to go on, but Ruzhiner interrupted him. "I am sure you realize that he is just joking," said the chassidic master. "I will tell you the real reason for our way of praying and the secret of l'chayim.

"It is well know that since the destruction of the Holy Temple, our prayers take the place of the sacrifices which were offered there, as it is written, '[The prayer of] our lips shall replace the oxen [of the sacrifices].'1 Our three daily prayers correspond to the daily burnt offerings. And just as a sacrifice was rendered invalid by inappropriate thoughts, so, too, is our prayer.

"When a person stands in prayer before his Creator, the Evil Inclination wants nothing more than to confuse him and introduce all manner of strange thoughts into his head. How is it possible to stand in prayer in face of that? In the end, it is unlikely that we succeeded in replacing the oxen of the sacrifices with our prayers. What did the chassidim discover to remedy the problem, and to battle against the ploys of this Evil Inclination, the Yetzer Hara?

"After prayer, the chassidim sit together, raise their glasses in l'chayim, and pour out their hearts in blessing. 'Yankele, you should find a proper match for your daughter,' exclaims one man to his friend. 'Beryl, your business should have as many customers as the eyes on a potato,' exclaims another.

"The Yetzer Hara, already regaling in his victory of having confounded the prayer of an entire congregation of Jews, and seeing them eating and drinking, concludes that they have finished praying, and joyfully retires for the morning.

"Now, it is a clear law in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), that prayer can be said in any language that one understands.2 So when Jews gather together to say l'chayim and they begin to bless one another from the depths of their hearts, it is the real prayer. Their intentions are pure, as their Yetzer Hara has left them to their own devices; and their prayers go straight to the heart of the Master of the World."

Biographical note: Rabbi Israel Friedmann of Rhuzhin [1797-1850] was a great-grandson of Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch. At a young age was already a charismatic leader with a large following of chassidim. Greatly respected by the other rebbes and Jewish leaders of his generation, he was — and still is -­ referred to as "The Holy Rhuzhiner." Six of his sons established Chassidic dynasties, several of which — such as Sadigora and Chortkov --­ are thriving to this day.