Erudite Kabbalist

What’s separate and spread out, then joins together into a big circle, becomes lines, forms a triangle with a point in the middle, and through the interinclusion of the element of water with the element of fire, is completed and is good?


About 250 years ago, there lived a man who studied the mystical teachings known as Kabbalah, and viewed himself as an erudite Kabbalist. His self-evaluation was that he was quite the learned scholar.

One day, while immersed in study, he had some questions about an abstruse Kabbalistic text. He decided to travel to meet Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the first Chabad Rebbe), to determine if, indeed, the rabbi was as great a scholar as he had heard. He would travel to Liozna to test him.

On the way, he met Rabbi Shmuel Munkes, a close disciple — unbeknownst to the self-evaluated, erudite Kabbalist — of Rabbi Schneur Zalman.

Rabbi Shmuel inquired about who the man was, and where he was traveling.

“To Liozna. I have some profound questions for Rabbi Schneur Zalman.”

“Amazing! I’m also traveling to visit the great rabbi! How wonderful that we’ve met on the way; let’s make the rest of the journey together. Tell me, would you mind sharing your questions with me?”

The man shared his questions.

Now, it must be noted that Rabbi Shmuel was known not only for being a scholar of great repute, but also for having an impressively mischievous streak.

Perceptive person that he was, Rabbi Shmuel noted the man’s smug demeanor and responded, “I also have a profound Kabbalistic question that I was planning on addressing to Rabbi Schneur Zalman.”

Then, maintaining a straight face, he declared: “It is written in one of the works of Kabbalah, that, ‘In the beginning, everything was separate and spread out; then, it became joined together into a big circle. Then it became lines, and formed a triangle with a point in the middle. Through the interinclusion of the element of water with the element of fire, it was complete, and it was good.’

“This is the language in the text, and I am baffled by it! Look, you are clearly a much greater scholar than I am; when we arrive in Liozna, will you please also address my question to Rabbi Schneur Zalman?”

The man agreed.

When Rabbi Schneur Zalman heard this profound question, he said, “It’s a knish!

“In the beginning, it was flour, which became stuck together after kneading. Then, the dough was rolled into a ball, cut into lines, and filled with meat which made a point in the middle. The knish has three sides. The raw dough and meat was then put in a pot of water which was set to boil upon a fire; it was completed, and it tastes good!”

The man was embarrassed.

Afterwards, Rabbi Shmuel entered for a private audience with Rabbi Schneur Zalman. Familiar with Rabbi Shmuel‘s antics, Rabbi Schneur Zalman didn’t hesitate and said, “Is this really your work?”

* * *
Some people are incapable of learning by simply being told; rather, in order to change, they must experience something.

The ego can sometimes obstruct one’s learning process. Rabbi Shmuel wasn’t trying to shame this arrogant scholar-in-his-own-eyes; rather, he was trying to bypass his ego, in order to teach him an important lesson.

L’chaim & Shabbat Shalom!