For the Sabbath Day

 

For the Sabbath Day

By Mendele Mokher Seforim

Translated from Hebrew by Herbert J. Levine and Reena Spicehandler 

 

On a narrow meandering path that makes its way through the fields, sometimes disappearing among the trees and tangled bushes, a packed and overflowing wagon stumbles along, softly moaning in a still, small, voice. A skinny horse, with a sparse tail and the smooth, shining face of a human being, lifts its hooves, lurching up and down as it thrusts out its tongue and seems to jump in place. With every jump, the ragged, unoiled wheels cry out in reproach, the wagon groaning in response as it shudders and knocks on the ground. This wagon belongs to Sendril, the peddler. In it he transports all sorts of practical items to the villagers as well as to markets in the neighboring towns. As for him, he squeezes himself onto the edge of the wagon, his legs limply dangling down.
It is the rainy season near the end of Tishrei. The nights are long; the days short. The world’s winds blow with abandon, snow and rain wildly mix together. And because of the chaos, the sky changes from minute to minute. At times, it displays an angry face, darkening every soul, and at times, a laughing countenance that comforts all creatures. Sendril often went without food, eating mostly eggs during that week, eating hard boiled eggs, soft boiled eggs – eggs in many forms. The horse and wagon get stuck in a puddle and Sendril works to free them, pushing and pulling, shouting with all his might, becoming filthy and mud-covered. (Even a small nation, coming in God’s service and with God’s aid, would have drowned there!) On Thursday evening, the cold triumphed and froze all the eggs, transforming them into milestones. During the night, snow fell and wrapped the earth in a new white shawl. The next morning, the sky reddened and the sun, which had not been seen for several days, appeared and filled the world with its brightness — splendor and celebration, beauty and grace everywhere.
After a week of wandering and adventure, Sendril is on the way home to his wife and children in Kavtsiel, to rest there on the Sabbath day. Sendril travels several miles on a pleasant path, surrounded by a forest of pines, happy and contented, breathing in the holiness of the coming Sabbath, and enjoying nature’s splendor and God’s surrounding glory. The snow is spread out like a white fleece, glittering, reflecting the sun in multiple hues of precious stones and pearls. A snowy whiteness crowns the pines’ greenness with beauty.  Column upon column of crows, the robber barons of birds, sail across the heavens, loudly shrieking. Sometimes they join together in a single formation, sometimes they travel alone, each one flying its own course. Here is a warbling bird that wanders and begs for bread, coming out of nowhere to alight on a thin branch and sing out its song of praise before immediately flying off. Suddenly, a small trembling animal emerges from the forest, a young rabbit or hare scurrying across the snow, leaping and finding shelter in the forest opposite. Sendril watches in delight, immersed in many visions, imagining the pleasant rest awaiting him at home. It seems as if even the horse feels pleasure, knowing where it is headed and what is in store for tomorrow— for tomorrow is the most honored of days when the horse is always allowed to rest. From the time it was first coerced to walk these paths, this possessor of beard and earlocks does no work on that day, lying comfortably in its stall. With great happiness, the horse urges itself on, beating thigh and knee with its tail and lifting its hooves for the way home.
After about two hours, Sendril has passed through the large plain and its forests. The path deteriorates, the snow melts, the frozen eggs thaw, and the tired horse sticks out the tip of its tongue, sinking and bowing down, jumping and stepping with difficulty. The wagon struggles and Kavtsiel is far. Sendril fears that the darkness will overtake him, forcing him to spend the Sabbath here alone, solitary as a lonely tree in the wilderness.
 
2
 
As the sun descends below the treetops under the dome of the heavens, the shadows of twilight deepen. Kavtsiel is celebrating. Candles are lit in its homes. The reflection from their windows, lit from within, illumines the street. Here comes the anointed bride, the Sabbath Queen! Jews wearing clothes of white silk come to welcome her at the synagogue. Together, all respond with feeling, as they bow: “Come O Bride, Come O Bride.”
At this moment of communal welcome, the streets are empty. The sound of footsteps fades in the marketplace, but it is possible that one of the laborers, late in finishing his work, is running home or that a housewife hastens to return utensils borrowed from her neighbor. The streets are silent, though a cry may be heard at times, calling for a Shabbes  goy to re-light a smoky wick or the loud cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster.
Soon voices are heard, likewise the tread of walking feet. A crowd of Jews is leaving the synagogue, loudly taking leave of one another and scattering, each to his street and his home. From afar, we see one Jew resplendent in his Sabbath clothes, a silk hat on his head and a green wool scarf around his neck. His washed earlocks have lengthened a bit because of the cold, and his face is red. His acquaintances wish him: “Good Sabbath, Mr. Sender.”
This Mr. Sender is our own Sendril, the peddler, but we see him now not as we saw him in his wanderings. This same Sendril, in his wandering, was a lowly and dirty creature, bent over and oppressed. But he has come home and taken a bath, washed and steamed away the dirt, changed his clothes in honor of the Sabbath, and become a new creature with a new soul. Along with an extra soul has come an extra measure of height. His bent back and constrained limbs have straightened, so he now walks with an upright posture.
 
3
 
In one of the alleys of Kavtsiel stands a lowly house, its roof cracked and torn, which, like the houses of all the Jews there, has neither a courtyard nor a garden with anything growing, neither plaster nor whitewash on the outside, neither decoration nor beauty within. A simple building, not built according to architectural plans, a small dwelling for a paterfamilias. Sabbath eve arrives and, over this poor house, holiness flows. The spirit of goodness spreads over it and over everything in it. The heart feels the pleasant inspiration of God’s indwelling spirit, which is not found in great mansions and palaces.
The fat stove, large and wide, looks like a pregnant woman dressed in an ample, white robe. Since early in the day, it has been swelling with hot dishes, to be delivered on the morrow of a porridge full of lovely fat, and a kugel seasoned with schmaltz which puts to shame with its taste all other puffed-up dishes. The floor of the house, after much rubbing with sand, shines like alabaster or marble. The candles before us glimmer in their burnished copper candelabra; the table is covered with a white cloth. A crimson thread goes around two marvelous-tasting challot, covered by egg yolk and sesame seeds, like beauty marks on their countenances. Clear raisin wine sparkles in a bottle polished to a crystalline finish and gives joy to the cup of blessing, through which this night will be sanctified. Rest and holiness, light and peace abide in the home. The smell of gefilte fish wafts. From a vessel covered by a pillow near the mouth of the closed oven, the dessert hints at its flavor. The nose sniffs, the appetite awakens, the delicacies beckon. The mother and the children, washed and adorned, sit and attend to every movement. While they concentrate expectantly, the door opens. A stream of cold air is forced in, the candle flames redden; they see the shape of a rainbow and it seems as if angels are floating about. These are the angels that accompany a Jew from the synagogue to his home – these are the very ones who have brought our Sendril home into the bosom of his family!
“Gut Shabbes, Gut Shabbes,” Sendril says to his household. He lifts his voice in joy and blesses his guests, the holy angels, with peace: “Shalom aleichem, peace unto you, you servant messengers, angels on high, sent from the King of Kings, the Blessed Holy One.” Immediately, they sit to eat. The meal is like that on a special anniversary – full of treats and voices of gratitude lifted in song. Sendril sits at the head of the assembled. The good angel comes representing the angelic cohort there in the house, to tell Sendril his good fortune. This angel praises him, depicting his deeds in a lovely speech: “I have found everything here arranged as is fitting; you worked in accordance with your strength and the power of your hands. May it also be so for the time to come.” And the wicked angel answers, “Amen.” Thus, against his will, he also has to sing Sendril’s praise.

 

Translation copyright © Herbert J. Levine and Reena Spicehandler 2019

“For the Sabbath Day” first appeared in Hebrew as “L’yom Ha-shabbat,” in S. J. Abromovich, The Collected Works of Mendele Mocher Seforim (Krakow-Odessa, 1909-12), v. 3.

Mendele Mokher Seforim (the author) (Mendele the Bookseller in Yiddish ) is the pen name of Shalom Yakov Abramowitz (1835-1917). Although known as the “grandfather of Yiddish Literature”, he is generally acknowledged as the founder of modern fiction in Hebrew as well as Yiddish. In fact, he began his career as a Hebrew writer, later writing in Yiddish as a way to reach a wider audience. In addition to stories that portrayed Jewish shtetl life with honesty and without judgment, Mendele wrote essays and drama in both Hebrew and Yiddish throughout a life spent mostly in Russia.

Herbert Levine and Reena Spicehandler (the translators) have contributed translations of Agnon’s stories to two volumes of the Agnon Library: A City and Its Fullness and An Outcast and Other Stories (Toby Press)They are currently translating secular Israeli poems found in prayer books of congregations in Israel that are working to encourage a new Israeli Judaism to emerge. Reena taught Hebrew literature at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, was an editor of the Kol HaNeshamah prayerbook series and served several congregations as an interim rabbi. Herb is the author of Words for Blessing the World: Poems in Hebrew and English and Sing Unto God a New Song: A Contemporary Reading of the Psalms. Their translation projects have grown out of their chevruta studying Hebrew literature.


 

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