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How A Jester Saved The Jews In A City

Our Sages thought very highly of a jester, a person who dispels gloom and cheers people. They attribute to him a high place in the Future World, in Gan Eden.

The Talmud (Ta’anis 22a) narrates that once Elijah the Prophet was talking to the Sage, Rabbi Beroka Hozah, when two men passed by. Elijah remarked, “These two men have a share in the World to Come.”

Rabbi Beroka approached them and asked, “What is your occupation?”

“We are jesters,” they replied, “When we see men depressed we cheer them and furthermore when we see two people quarrelling, we strive to make peace between them.”

Ask the previous inhabitants of the town of Shklob, formerly situated in Russia, near the border of Lithuania, the meaning of this passage in the Talmud and they will point with reverence to Nachumka, the clown, who through his jesting saved all the Jews of that city.

The story goes back over 150 years ago to the days of Queen Catherine, who ruled all of Russia with a firm but fair hand. In the beginning, the city of Shklob came under the rulership of Lithuania and Poland, but through treaties and intrigue it passed into the hands of Queen Catherine. The town was inhabited by a great many Jews who plied many trades and were very wealthy.

But not everyone is destined to taste of the fruit of this world and to enjoy its vintage. Among the inhabitants of this town lived a poor mendicant, known as Nachumka, the clown. Some say that he became a clown to offset some of the suffering, which his poverty brought upon him. By constantly joking and making fun of life, he at least soothed his mind and made his life somewhat bearable.

Nachumka, the clown, had a wife and six children. He was the son of the prominent Gaon, Rabbi Saul Wohl, and he himself was a Torah scholar and pious person. But his wife called him, “a schlemiel,” for it seemed that good fortune would always evade him. As she was wont to joke, “If he became an undertaker, people would stop dying.”

But Nachumka never lost his good cheer. Wherever he went he would act the buffoon, and the gathering would suddenly become lively when he would appear. Even the babies of the city would begin to smile when he arrived.

Appoints A Bad Governor

When Queen Catherine annexed the city of Shklob, she appointed a general to govern the city. The general was rewarded for the many heroic campaigns he fought on behalf of the queen. But he was a cruel and vicious governor. He hated the Jews and did everything to harass and hurt them. He imposed vicious taxes, and when they couldn’t pay he had them jailed. At the slightest provocation, he would have the leaders flogged in public. He also imposed restrictions upon their businesses and trading practices. At the rate he was going, the Jews of the city would be impoverished before the end of the year.

One day a report was received that the prime minister, the chief emissary of the queen, was to visit the town and report back to the queen on the general’s progress. An announcement was posted inviting everyone to appear and present their requests to the minister, who would try to act upon them.

The general, of course, let it be known that he would not allow any Jews to appear and would see to it that they would not come to the official meeting. Should any Jew dare violate his wish, he would take care of him after the minister departed. He instructed his soldiers to watch for any Jew and make sure they did not enter even if they had to be shot.

The Jewish leaders of the city were worried. They were sure if they were allowed to present their petition to the minister, describing the evils of the general, the minister would report it back to the queen, who was known to be fair and treated everyone with equality. But how to get it to the minister, who would be accompanied every moment of his stay in town by the vicious general?

A meeting was called of the Jews, and they all gathered in the main synagogue to formulate a plan of action. At the height of the discussion, someone suggested using Nachumka, the jester. “If anyone would get through closed doors, it would be he,” he said. The others thought it was a good idea, and they sent for that jester.

When he arrived, the leader of the community said to him, “Listen to us Nachumka, the time is short and our lives are in great danger. Every day it grows worse for us, and at this rate we may expect a pogrom any day. We have prepared a petition to present to the queen’s minister, but we have no way of getting it to him. Therefore, we rely on your cunning and guile to get it to him.”

For once in his life, Nachumka was serious. He thought for a moment and then said, “I am flattered by the great honor that you chose me to act as your emissary. I also realize the grave danger involved. But I will not shirk my responsibility for I am a Jew and I pray that G-d, in His mercy, will guide me and show me the right path to follow. If I fail, G-d forbid, then I request that you take care of my wife and children.”

“That we will do,” they promised him. “We will not ask how you intend to accomplish your mission, for we rely on your cunning to devise a way. May G-d be with you.”

The Minister Arrives

A few days later, the minister, named Potomkin, arrived. A huge parade was arranged for him by the general. At the conclusion of the parade, a banquet was given in honor of the minister. Officials from all parts of the city arrived in their splendid carriages to meet the prime minister and present him with petitions for the queen.

At the conclusion of the festivities, the general, bedecked with many medals, called the assembly to order. He then advised the people that the minister would now be ready to accept petitions. A large line formed and as each person was presented to the minister, he gave him a letter or he said a few words which were marked down and a record kept for Her Royal Highness.

At the end of the line appeared a farmer, dressed in the clothes of his trade. He wore high boots and patched clothes. He, too, presented himself before the minister.

“What is your request?” asked the minister, while the general and other officials crowded around him.

The farmer trembled momentarily, moved back and bowed low to the minister. “I have a letter to give to Your Honor,” he replied.

With that, he gave the minister a sealed envelope. The minister opened the envelope and looked at it with amazement.

“Why, this is only a blank piece of paper!” he exclaimed. “It contains no writing whatsoever.”

The farmer took the paper, looked at it and cried aloud, “Woe is me! This letter wanted privacy, and now the letter flew away. If Your Honor will have patience I will look for the words and put them back onto the sheet.”

With that, he fell on his knees and began to search the floor. Everyone crowded around him watching the spectacle. After a while, he rose and began to cry, “Your Honor,” he wailed, “what can I now tell the people who sent me? All is lost. Apparently the words were too shy when they saw such a crowd and they disappeared.”

The general looked at the man and began to laugh. “Must be some lunatic,” he mused to himself.

Seeks Privacy

But the minister caught the farmer’s eye and he then announced in an authoritarian voice: “Come with me to my private chamber!”

Leaving everyone standing in the main hall, the minister led the farmer to a private room. “I see through your act,” the minister said. “I realize you wanted privacy. Now tell me what it is all about?”

“May you be blessed,” answered the farmer. “You are as brilliant as they say. I am a Jew, and I have been sent by the Jewish community of this town. The general, who is an enemy of the Jews, would not permit us to come see you. Therefore, I had to use this ruse to see you without him knowing about it.” He then gave him another letter, which listed all the evils that the general had done to them.

“I was wondering why no Jews appeared to welcome me at this reception,” said the Minister. “When I questioned the general about this, he told me that the Jews were too busy cheating and stealing money to bother to come here.”

The farmer, who was Nachumka, then told the minister how the Jews were being used by the general to fill his own coffers. How he imposed taxes, which he used for his own orgies and which were never turned over to the queens treasury, and he presented the minister with documented evidence.

The minister took all the letters and evidence and he said, “You are a wise person to see me pri-vately. For the general would have surely killed you if he saw what you are giving me. Be assured that this will receive speedy action.”

The following morning the minister departed. A few days later the General was summoned to the Royal Palace, and he was exiled and placed in charge of a small village in Siberia.

The Jews of that city celebrated the event and blessed G-d for saving them from the evil clutches of another Haman. The name of Nachumka, the Jester was revered by every Jew of Russia and if asked, they would explain to you the meaning of the Talmudical chapter as to why a jester has a high place in Gan Eden.

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