It was an unusual, if not somewhat unsettling sight: a man dangling upside down, his legs precariously gripping the top of the archway outside the home of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Chabad. The Chassidim, gathered below, demanded he come down at once.

The man hanging upside down was no mere prankster looking for attention. He was one of the most respected, learned, and holy Chassidim of the Alter Rebbe. His name was Reb Shmuel Munkes.

Reb Shmuel came down and explained his antics. “When you walk in the street and pass a tailor, you see a pair of scissors hanging in front. When you see a shoe in front of a shop, you know there is a cobbler inside. In front of the Rebbe’s house, should you not see a Chassid? Isn’t that what the Rebbe makes?”1

Such actions were typical of Reb (lit. Rabbi) Shmuel Munkes. He was well-known for his amusing and witty personality, as recorded in many humorous stories throughout his lifetime. Behind his jokes and lighthearted actions, however, lay deep lessons in Jewish mysticism.

Who Was Reb Shmuel Munkes?

Shmuel Munkes was born in the city of Kalisk in Eastern Russia, sometime during the mid to late 18th century. According to Chabad tradition, he was named Shmuel after his father who had died prior to his birth.2 Some say that the name “Munkes” came from his mother Munya, who raised him.

As a young man, Reb Shmuel heard about the greatness of the Alter Rebbe. Inspired, he headed out to Liozna to meet him. Arriving in the middle of a brutally cold night with nowhere to lodge, Reb Shmuel looked for the Alter Rebbe’s house, assuming it would be one with a candle still burning.

Eventually, he found the house and boldly knocked on the door. When the Alter Rebbe opened the door, Reb Shmuel asked to be allowed in. The Alter Rebbe told him to find somewhere else to stay, attempting to discern if Reb Shmuel was really committed to the arduous journey of becoming a true Chassid. However, Reb Shmuel persisted, and the Alter Rebbe brought him inside, impressed with the young man’s determination to grow and learn.3

This was the beginning of Reb Shmuel’s transformation into a Chassid. Under the Alter Rebbe’s guidance, Reb Shmuel grew immensely, eventually becoming one of the greatest and most notable Chassidim of his era.

Below are some of the many stories that illustrate the depth of Reb Shmuel’s wit and humor.

The Mystical Dumpling

A self-proclaimed Kabbalist once traveled to the Alter Rebbe to challenge him on various mystical subjects. On the way, he met Reb Shmuel, with whom he shared the reason for his visit.

Reb Shmuel mentioned to him that there was an elusive Kabbalistic text he’d been struggling to understand, wondering if this Kabbalist could perhaps ask the Alter Rebbe for its explanation during his time in Liozna.

“What does this text say?” the man asked.

“It begins scattered, but then it becomes connected as one,” began Reb Shmuel. “Then it comes to the level of the circle. The levels of the three lines are applied to it, and it becomes centered on the inner point at its essence. Through the combination of the foundation of water with the foundation of fire, it is completed, and it is good.”

The Kabbalist was baffled by this mysterious text as well, so he agreed to bring it up with the Alter Rebbe.

The Alter Rebbe, upon hearing the text, replied with a smile.

“Simple. It’s a dumpling!

The flour is scattered in the beginning, but it is kneaded with water and becomes connected as one. The dough is then rolled into a circle, and folded into a triangle, with chicken or meat in the middle. It’s boiled in water on a hot stove, and then it’s good to eat!”

The “Kabbalist” left humbled, realizing he still had much to learn.4

A Healthy Birth

A distressed woman once came to Liozna for a blessing. The Alter Rebbe was, at the time, absent from the study hall. Seeing Reb Shmuel studying in a corner, and thinking that he was the great Rebbe everyone spoke of, she tearfully asked him for a blessing that her child be born safely.

“Say Yizkor (the memorial prayer for the dead, said on specific Jewish holidays) seven times and the birth will be successful,” was his response.

She arrived a few weeks later with tears of joy, bearing gifts for the Alter Rebbe whom she thought had given her this miraculous advice. The Alter Rebbe, upon hearing what sort of guidance she claimed to have been given, knew Reb Shmuel was the culprit. He asked Reb Shmuel why he’d told her to say Yizkor seven times.

Reb Shmuel answered, “When Yizkor is said in the synagogue, all the children run out. I was sure that if she’d say Yizkor seven times, the child would definitely come out, safe and healthy!”5

Mourning Properly

One Tisha B’Av, while everyone sat around, saying kinot (elegies), Reb Shmuel busied himself with throwing burrs, known in Yiddish as “berelach,” at his fellow Chassidim. His reason perhaps being that although one must be sad about the destruction of the Holy Temple, there is still a commandment to “serve G‑d with joy,” and not to constantly wallow in melancholy. As his fellow Chassidim sobbed over the destruction of the Holy Temple, they were startled when a prickly burr would hit them. But upon seeing Reb Shmuel’s mischievous smile, they couldn't help but smile, too.

One of these burrs lodged itself onto the figure of a visiting Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin. In outrage, he shouted at Reb Shmuel, “Because of people like you, the Holy Temple was destroyed!”

Reb Shmuel replied, “And do you think that the approach of holy people such as yourself will rebuild it?”

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin reported this whole incident to the Alter Rebbe, expecting him to be angry about what had happened. He was surprised when the Alter Rebbe calmly dismissed the incident.

After Mincha, the Alter Rebbe took Rabbi Shlomo on a walk into the forest. As they journeyed deeper and deeper into the trees, they came upon a man sitting on a large rock in the distance. Hundreds of ants crawled all over his body, biting him viciously, as tears streamed down his cheeks, mourning the destruction of the Holy Temple.

After a few moments of silently watching, Rabbi Shlomo remarked, “Because of holy people like this, the Holy Temple will be rebuilt!”

The Alter Rebbe turned to Rabbi Shlomo and told him to take a closer look. He was shocked to find that it was Reb Shmuel, the very person who threw burrs at him earlier that day! Seeing him mourn the destruction as only a tzaddik can, Rabbi Shlomo forgave him with a full heart.3

A Chassid and his Rebbe

Reb Shmuel was one of the special few Chassidim hand-picked by the Alter Rebbe to be a shadar, a traveling charity collector for the Rebbe’s causes. He was also extremely modest, attempting at all times to conceal his greatness from others. However, it never took long for fellow Jews and even local gentiles to recognize his true nature as a holy man.

His relationship with the Alter Rebbe was remarkable. When the Russian government attempted to arrest the Alter Rebbe on falsified charges, Reb Shmuel told him (speaking in the third-person out of respect), “If he is a Rebbe, he has nothing to fear by being arrested. And if he is not a Rebbe, what right did he have to deprive thousands of Chassidim from enjoying all worldly pleasures?”6

A Pure End

Reb Shmuel lived a very long life. We do not know exactly when he passed away, but it is possible he lived to be over 100. He lived through the leadership of three Chabad rebbes and was always close to them and their families. He was born, as mentioned earlier, in the city of Kalisk, but throughout his life he lived in Liozna, Beshenkovitch, and Polotsk as well.

On the day of his passing, Reb Shmuel met a Chassid and asked him if he’d be interested in seeing how an old goat passes away. Unsure exactly what he meant, the Chassid went along with him. They walked around town until Reb Shmuel found a house that was under construction. He asked the workers if anything impure had ever entered the building, to which they replied in the negative. Hearing this, Reb Shmuel entered and spread some straw over the floor. Lying down, he said the Shema and Vidui prayers and allowed his soul to depart in purity.7

In his 19th-century biographical work “Beit Rebbi,” Rabbi Chaim Heilman writes regarding Reb Shmuel Munkes: “The famous Rabbi and Chassid Reb Shmuel of Kalisk (known colloquially as Shmuel Munkes) was a great man, a great Chassid full of reverence, and was very important to the [Alter] Rebbe. His actions and conduct are known throughout the world, and according to eyewitnesses - he behaved like a madman, but even within this they saw his wonderful wisdom in the utmost way.”8