Hershel didn’t just tell jokes. He breathed them. Certainly it seemed to the people in his native village of Mosayov in the Marmarosh province that he had never drawn a single serious breath in his life. Nothing was too sacred or out of bounds to be the butt of Hershel’s hilarity. “Fear of G‑d”? The very notion was laughable to Hershel.

As might be expected, Hershel soon became the most popular guy in Mosayov among the idle, the crude, the silly and the drinkers. Whenever there was a crowd of people on the street or in the village tavern laughing hilariously, one was sure to find Hershel at its epicenter, perfecting his craft.

Hershel himself made a nice living as a seller of livestock. As his business took him to all the neighboring towns and villages, his reputation as a joker spread throughout the Marmarosh region.

Each year, he would travel to the great annual livestock fair in Czernowitz. Another person who consistently attended the fair was the rabbi of that city, the well known tzaddik and scholarly author, Rabbi Chaim of Czernowitz. Rabbi Chaim would circulate among the merchants, and accord them the opportunity to contribute to the many worthy causes in which he was involved, for helping needy people and supporting educational institutions.

And so it came to pass that Rabbi Chaim was making his rounds of the stalls at the Czernowitz fair when he suddenly came upon a large group of fairgoers laughing raucously, slapping their thighs and winking at each other. No doubt about it—Hershel Mosayover must be in the midst of them. And in top form, too.

Rabbi Chaim thought to slip around them inconspicuously. He knew that from these crude, empty-headed types he could not expect much “business” anyway. But Hershel was quicker than he. “Hey! Holy Rebbe! Shalom aleichem!” he called out, still grinning from the last joke he had successfully cracked.

Aleichem shalom, my fellow Jews,” responded the rabbi warmly. The die was cast. Now he could no longer turn away. “Perhaps you gentlemen would care to take a share in the great mitzvah of charity?”

“And what, exactly, is this charity for?” asked Hershel, still smirking.

“For pidyon shvuyim (redeeming captives), called the greatest mitzvah of all,” the rabbi responded promptly. “There is a poor, unfortunate Jew who has a large debt of fifteen hundred zlotys to his local poritz (noble landowner). Now he is languishing in the nobleman’s dungeon until the debt is paid.”

Hershel’s companions were all grinning in anticipation. They waited eagerly for their friend’s witty riposte in the rabbi-jester dialogue.

Hershel put his hand in his pocket and took out 1,500 zlotys—all the money he had brought with him to replenish his stock. “Here you are, Rabbi,” he said quietly, with a strange look on his face. “Here is the entire sum you need to ransom the unfortunate Jew.”

All the onlookers were startled for a moment, but then they realized this must be one of Hershel’s clever jests. The rabbi would put out his hand for the money, and Hershel would pretend to start to give it to him and then at the last moment he would snatch it back, making a fool of the naive Torah scholar.

But the tzaddik was not so naive after all. He held back, and simply gazed at Hershel thoughtfully.

“No, no,” exclaimed Hershel, as his face took on a fully serious expression. “I really mean it. No joke. Please. Take the money.” As he spoke the words, pressed the bulging purse he had drawn out of his pocket into Rabbi Chaim’s hand.

The astonished rabbi felt himself overwhelmed with emotion—excitement and relief at being able to secure the release of the poor imprisoned Jew, amazement that such a supposedly lowly soul could ascend to the highest of peaks in the briefest of moments. His cheeks were flushed; warm tears pooled at the corners of his eyes.

Hershel himself was stunned. He couldn’t understand what he had just done. It had been a spontaneous impulse that had overcome him, but why had it been so irresistible?

The tzaddik wished to bless his donor appropriately, but wasn’t sure how. For Rabbi Chaim, life turned on one hinge: Shabbat. He had even written a unique book, Sidduro Shel Shabbat, explaining the exaltedness and holiness of the Seventh Day according to the mystical principles of the Kabbalah. But how was that relevant to the loutish man who stood before him? Nevertheless, he thought to himself, such a deed deserves the greatest blessing of all. Still brimming with enthusiasm, he exclaimed:

“I bless you that, in the merit of this great mitzvah that you have done, you will experience the true taste of Shabbat.”

Hershel was still numb. He nodded his head as if he understood what the tzaddik was talking about, and answered, “Amen.”

That very day Hershel returned to Mosayov. Since he had no money, there was no reason to remain in Czernowitz. Still, he remained his cheerful, joking self.

As the week progressed, however, he began to feel a strange feeling welling up inside him: a spirit of holiness, something he had never felt before in his life. When Friday dawned and the feeling was even more intense, he realized that it must be connected to the oncoming Shabbat, and that this Shabbat would definitely be like no other he had ever experienced.

He went shopping to purchase Shabbat’s special foods, and he could barely control his trembling. As the hours went by, his inner upheaval grew stronger and stronger.

All those who encountered Hershel that Shabbat could hardly recognize him. Was that really him singing, dancing, studying, praying with ecstasy? Hershel could barely recognize himself! His entire being was bursting with the sacred pleasure of Shabbat.

It was the talk of the town. The idea that Hershel the clown could be caught up in a tzaddik-type intense love of Shabbat cracked up everyone who heard about it, even more than Hershel’s intentional jests. They even entertained the possibility that he had gone insane.

But then the news spread of what had happened at the livestock fair in Czernowitz—the incongruous charitable deed that Hershel had done and the extraordinary blessing of the tzaddik of Czernowitz. People began to consider the issue more seriously.

After that Shabbat, Hershel returned to his customary lighthearted, joking manner. But by the following Shabbat he was again overwhelmed by the same spirit of holiness. It was as if there were two Hershels: the weekday persona and the Shabbat one.

Weeks went by, and months, without change in his situation. Hershel felt himself cracking under the strain of his dual personality. He decided to travel back to Czernowitz to discuss his situation with the tzaddik who had blessed him.

Rabbi Chaim told him that in order to absorb the taste of Shabbat without spiritual and psychological damage, he would have to refine his weekday behavior. Hershel decided to stay on in Czernowitz in order to learn more from his new mentor. Soon his daily lifestyle was slowly but steadily shifting to become harmonious with his weekly Shabbat elevation.

In the early 1800s Rabbi Chaim of Czernowitz moved to the Land of Israel, and his faithful disciple Hershel accompanied him. They lived in the holy city of Tzfat. Today, nearly two centuries later, their burial sites are well known.

Biographical note: Rabbi Chaim Thirer of Czernowitz (1760–1817) was a leading disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch and of Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov. He authored a number of important books, but is best known by the name of his esoteric commentary on the Torah, Be’er Mayim Chaim. Towards the end of his life he moved to Safed, where he is buried.

Adapted and translated from Sichat Hashavua # 461