With its roots in Eastern Europe, where ethnic and cultural borders were constantly moving, Chabad culture found inspiration in the daily lives of its neighbors. Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian peasants were a source for beloved songs, which were infused with new chassidic meaning, but kept in their native languages.

Another sample of local peasant culture can be found in certain phrases, often punchlines of poignant tales told by the Rebbes and chassidim, which have accompanied Chabad chassidim around the world and become part of everyday parlance.

This concept is tied into the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching of finding the Hand of G‑d—and a lesson for our personal lives—in everything we see or hear. Surely the words and thoughts of our neighbors could be mined for meaning and elevated through application.

Inspired by an email exchange with fellow Chabad.org editor Mordechai Lightstone, we culled the trove of Chabad chassidic tradition for some of those phrases, along with the stories that spice them up and give them context.

Ya Sam Sapozhnik - Я Сам Сапожник - I Myself Am a Cobbler

This is used to describe someone who is completely out of his depth, but so clueless that he does not realize anything is amiss and even purports to be the real expert.

It has its roots in a parable told by Rabbi Shmuel Betzalel Sheftel (Rashbatz) to describe “self-made” chassidim who did not avail themselves of the guidance and teachings of seasoned, elder Chassidim:

A Russian peasant finds tefillin and promptly decides to sell them. He takes hold of their straps and drags the expertly-crafted tefillin on the ground as he looks around for a customer. The first Jew he meets asks him, horrified, “How on earth did you come by those?”

The peasant, unaware of how incongruous it would be for him to have made the sacred items, declares, “Ya sam sapozhnik! – I myself am a cobbler!”1

Bittul Idyot - Битул Идёт - Nullification Goes

Bittul is Hebrew for “nullification,” implying a state where one is so aware of G‑d’s infinite presence that his or her own existence is entirely negated. Idyot is Russian for “goes.”

The genesis of this unusual expression is a story told by the sixth rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and repeated by the Rebbe on numerous occasions.2

A group of Chassidim were walking home from a late-night farbrengen (chassidic gathering) many hours after the curfew imposed on their war-torn region of Russia. Noticing them, a police officer shouted, “Kto idyot?” (“Who goes?”). The chassidim, immersed in the deep lingering inspiration from the farbrengen, replied: “Bittul idyot!” They had so completely internalized the chassidic doctrine of bittul (self-abnegation) that this was their instinctive reaction.

“In the same way,” explained the Previous Rebbe (quoting his father), “if a person focuses his mind on words of Tanya while walking through the marketplace, at that time he is Tanya. Its words have made an impact.”

Zhid Davai Groshi - Жид Давай Гроши - Jew, Gimme Cash

The Rebbe quoted this aphorism at the end of an impassioned (and somewhat humorous) call for people to give tzedakah, charity, saying that it had been said among Chassidim at farbrengens.3

The expression uses the term Zhid, a pejorative Slavic term for Jews. Presumably, it would have been the words of a non-Jewish bandit demanding cash from an unfortunate Jew.

Mozhish Da Nye Khotchish - Можешь Да Не Хочешь - You Can, But You Don’t Want To

The storyline is familiar, although it is sometimes told regarding a student of either the Baal Shem Tov, R’ Zusha of Anipoli, or the Grandfather of Shpoli. Regardless, here is how the Rebbe told it regarding the Baal Shem Tov:

The Baal Shem Tov and his students were engaged in holy pursuits in the study hall when they were disturbed by a peasant (sometimes depicted as a non-Jew, and at other times as a Jew) struggling to extract his cart from the mud.

“Please, oh, please help me set my cart upright so I can continue on my way,” he pleaded with the students.

“We are sorry,” demurred one of the scholars, “but we are not accustomed to such physical labor and cannot help you.”

The peasant’s reply: “Mozhish, da nye khotchish - You can, you just don’t want to!”

Upon hearing about this exchange, the Baal Shem Tov concluded: When we do not want to do the right thing, our evil inclination convinces us that we are unable to do so. If only we would wish to do what we know we should, we would find ourselves capable.4

Listen to the Rebbe Tell the Story

Taparu Da Plakhu - Топору Дa Плаху - From the Axe to the Chopping Block

One can have an axe, and one can have wood. But as long as no one actually lifts the axe and brings it down upon the wood, nothing happens. This expression is used to convey that the main thing is to actually get the job done. As the Previous Rebbe would quote his father, the Rebbe Rashab: Even studying a little bit is better than making grand plans and learning nothing at all.5

Chassid Utchyok - Хосид Уцёк - The Chassid Has Left

The famed chassid, R’ Yekusiel Liepler, was wont to pray the entire day, meditating, singing, and dancing his way through the liturgy. That was when he was inspired. He would refer to those times as “chassid prishol - the chassid has arrived.”

And then there were the times of chassid utchyok, when he was uninspired and disengaged. During those periods he would pray deliberately, word for word from the prayer book, eagerly awaiting the return of his inner chassid.6

On one occasion, the Rebbe used this expression to refer to those who seemed to be fully invested in learning and prayer, but when they were asked to volunteer to share the joy of Judaism with others, chassid utchyok, there was no one to speak with.7