The Last Of Them


They had been Rabbonim for generations in the Misnagdic community of

Mouravanke, old, poverty-stricken Mouravanke, crowned with hoary honor,

hidden away in the thick woods. Generation on generation of them had

been renowned far and near, wherever a Jewish word was spoken, wherever

the voice of the Torah rang out in the warm old houses-of-study.

People talked of them everywhere, as they talk of miracles when miracles
are no more, and of consolation when all hope is long since dead--talked

of them as great-grandchildren talk of the riches of their

great-grandfather, the like of which are now unknown, and of the great

seven-branched, old-fashioned lamp, which he left them as an inheritance

of times gone by.

For as the lustre of an old, seven-branched lamp shining in the

darkness, such was the lustre of the family of the Rabbonim of


That was long ago, ever so long ago, when Mouravanke lay buried in the

dark Lithuanian forests. The old, low, moss-grown houses were still set

in wide, green gardens, wherein grew beet-root and onions, while the hop

twined itself and clustered thickly along the wooden fencing. Well-to-do

Jews still went about in linen pelisses, and smoked pipes filled with

dry herbs. People got a living out of the woods, where they burnt pitch

the whole week through, and Jewish families ate rye-bread and


A new baby brought no anxiety along with it. People praised God, carried

the pitcher to the well, filled it, and poured a quart of water into the

pottage. The newcomer was one of God's creatures, and was assured of his

portion along with the others.

And if a Jew had a marriageable daughter, and could not afford a dowry,

he took a stick in his hand, donned a white shirt with a broad mangled

collar, repeated the "Prayer of the Highway," and set off on foot to

Volhynia, that thrice-blessed wonderland, where people talk with a

"Chirik," and eat Challeh with saffron even in the middle of the

week--with saffron, if not with honey.

There, in Volhynia, on Friday evenings, the rich Jewish householder of

the district walks to and fro leisurely in his brightly lit room. In all

likelihood, he is a short, plump, hairy man, with a broad, fair beard, a

gathered silk sash round his substantial figure, a cheery singsong

"Sholom-Alechem" on his mincing, "chiriky" tongue, and a merry crack of

the thumb. The Lithuanian guest, teacher or preacher, the shrunk and

shrivelled stranger with the piercing black eyes, sits in a corner,

merely moving his lips and gazing at the floor--perhaps because he feels

ill at ease in the bright, nicely-furnished room; perhaps because he is

thinking of his distant home, of his wife and children and his

marriageable daughter; and perhaps because it has suddenly all become

oddly dear to him, his poor, forsaken native place, with its moiling,

poverty-struck Jews, whose week is spent pitch-burning in the forest;

with its old, warm houses-of-study; with its celebrated giants of the

Torah, bending with a candle in their hand over the great hoary


And here, at table, between the tasty stuffed fish and the soup, with

the rich Volhynian "stuffed monkeys," the brusque, tongue-tied guest is

suddenly unable to contain himself, and overflows with talk about his

corner in Lithuania.

"Whether we have our Rabbis at home?! N-nu!!"

And thereupon he holds forth grandiloquently, with an ardor and

incisiveness born of the love and the longing at his heart. The piercing

black eyes shoot sparks, as the guest tells of the great men of

Mouravanke, with their fiery intellects, their iron perseverance, who

sit over their books by day and by night. From time to time they take an

hour and a half's doze, falling with their head onto their fists, their

beards sweeping the Gemoreh, the big candle keeping watch overhead and

waking them once more to the study of the Torah.

At dawn, when the people begin to come in for the Morning Prayer, they

walk round them on tiptoe, giving them their four-ells' distance, and

avoid meeting their look, which is apt to be sharp and burning.

"That is the way we study in Lithuania!"

The stout, hairy householder, good-natured and credulous, listens

attentively to the wonderful tales, loosens the sash over his pelisse in

leisurely fashion, unbuttons his waistcoat across his generous waist,

blows out his cheeks, and sways his head from side to side, because--one

may believe anything of the Lithuanians!

Then, if once in a long, long while the rich Volhynian householder

stumbled, by some miracle or other, into Lithuania, sheer curiosity

would drive him to take a look at the Lithuanian celebrity. But he would

stand before him in trembling and astonishment, as one stands before a

high granite rock, the summit of which can barely be discerned. Is he

terrified by the dark and bushy brows, the keen, penetrating looks, the

deep, stern wrinkles in the forehead that might have been carved in

stone, they are so stiffly fixed? Who can say? Or is he put out of

countenance by the cold, hard assertiveness of their speech, which bores

into the conscience like a gimlet, and knows of no mercy?--for from

between those wrinkles, from beneath those dark brows, shines out the

everlasting glory of the Shechinah.

Such were the celebrated Rabbonim of Mouravanke.

They were an old family, a long chain of great men, generation on

generation of tall, well-built, large-boned Jews, all far on in years,

with thick, curly beards. It was very seldom one of these beards showed

a silver hair. They were stern, silent men, who heard and saw

everything, but who expressed themselves mostly by means of their

wrinkles and their eyebrows rather than in words, so that when a

Mouravanke Rav went so far as to say "N-nu," that was enough.

The dignity of Rav was hereditary among them, descending from father to

son, and, together with the Rabbinical position and the eighteen gulden

a week salary, the son inherited from his father a tall, old

reading-desk, smoked and scorched by the candles, in the old

house-of-study in the corner by the ark, and a thick, heavy-knotted

stick, and an old holiday pelisse of lustrine, the which, if worn on a

bright Sabbath-day in summer-time, shines in the sun, and fairly shouts

to be looked at.

They arrived in Mouravanke generations ago, when the town was still in

the power of wild highwaymen, called there "Hydemakyes," with huge,

terrifying whiskers and large, savage dogs. One day, on Hoshanah Rabbah,

early in the morning, there entered the house-of-study a tall youth,

evidently village-born and from a long way off, barefoot, with turned-up

trousers, his boots slung on a big, knotted stick across his shoulders,

and a great bundle of big Hoshanos. The youth stood in the centre of the

house-of-study with his mouth open, bewildered, and the boys quickly

snatched his willow branches from him. He was surrounded, stared at,

questioned as to who he was, whence he came, what he wanted. Had he

parents? Was he married? For some time the youth stood silent, with

downcast eyes, then he bethought himself, and answered in three words:

"I want to study!"

And from that moment he remained in the old building, and people began

to tell wonderful tales of his power of perseverance--of how a tall,

barefoot youth, who came walking from a far distance, had by dint of

determination come to be reckoned among the great men in Israel; of how,

on a winter midnight, he would open the stove doors, and study by the

light of the glowing coals; of how he once forgot food and drink for

three days and three nights running, while he stood over a difficult

legal problem with wrinkled brows, his eyes piercing the page, his

fingers stiffening round the handle of his stick, and he motionless; and

when suddenly he found the solution, he gave a shout "Nu!" and came down

so hard on the desk with his stick that the whole house-of-study shook.

It happened just when the people were standing quite quiet, repeating

the Eighteen Benedictions.

Then it was told how this same lad became Rav in Mouravanke, how his

genius descended to his children and children's children, till late in

the generations, gathering in might with each generation in turn. They

rose, these giants, one after the other, persistent investigators of the

Law, with high, wrinkled foreheads, dark, bushy brows, a hard, cutting

glance, sharp as steel.

In those days Mouravanke was illuminated as with seven suns. The

houses-of-study were filled with students; voices, young and old, rang

out over the Gemorehs, sang, wept, and implored. Worried and

tired-looking fathers and uncles would come into the Shools with

blackened faces after the day's pitch-burning, between Afternoon and

Evening Prayer, range themselves in leisurely mood by the doors and the

stove, cock their ears, and listen, Jewish drivers, who convey people

from one town to another, snatched a minute the first thing in the

morning, and dropped in with their whips under their arms, to hear a

passage in the Gemoreh expounded. And the women, who washed the linen at

the pump in summer-time, beat the wet clothes to the melody of the Torah

that came floating into the street through the open windows, sweet as a

long-expected piece of good news.

Thus Mouravanke came to be of great renown, because the wondrous power

of the Mouravanke Rabbonim, the power of concentration of thought, grew

from generation to generation. And in those days the old people went

about with a secret whispering, that if there should arise a tenth

generation of the mighty ones, a new thing, please God, would come to

pass among Jews.

But there was no tenth generation; the ninth of the Mouravanke Rabbonim

was the last of them.

He had two sons, but there was no luck in the house in his day: the sons

philosophized too much, asked too many questions, took strange paths

that led them far away.

Once a rumor spread in Mouravanke that the Rav's eldest son had become

celebrated in the great world because of a book he had written, and had

acquired the title of "professor." When the old Rav was told of it, he

at first remained silent, with downcast eyes. Then he lifted them and



And not a word more. It was only remarked that he grew paler, that his

look was even more piercing, more searching than before. This is all

that was ever said in the town about the Rav's children, for no one

cared to discuss a thing on which the old Rav himself was silent.

Once, however, on the Great Sabbath, something happened in the spacious

old house-of-study. The Rav was standing by the ark, wrapped in his

Tallis, and expounding to a crowded congregation. He had a clear,

resonant, deep voice, and when he sent it thundering over the heads of

his people, the air seemed to catch fire, and they listened dumbfounded

and spellbound.

Suddenly the old man stopped in the midst of his exposition, and was

silent. The congregation thrilled with speechless expectation. For a

minute or two the Rav stood with his piercing gaze fixed on the people,

then he deliberately pulled aside the curtain before the ark, opened the

ark doors, and turned to the congregation:

"Listen, Jews! I know that many of you are thinking of something that

has just occurred to me, too. You wonder how it is that I should set

myself up to expound the Torah to a townful of Jews, when my own

children have cast the Torah behind them. Therefore I now open the ark

and declare to you, Jews, before the holy scrolls of the Law, I have no

children any more. I am the last Rav of our family!"

Hereupon a piteous wail came from out of the women's Shool, but the

Rav's sonorous voice soon reduced them to silence, and once more the

Torah was being expounded in thunder over the heads of the open-mouthed


Years, a whole decade of them, passed, and still the old Rav walked

erect, and not one silver hair showed in his curly beard, and the town

was still used to see him before daylight, a tall, solitary figure

carrying a stick and a lantern, on his way to the large old Bes

ha-Midrash, to study there in solitude--until Mouravanke began to ring

with the fame of her Charif, her great new scholar.

He was the son of a poor tailor, a pale, thin youth, with a pointed nose

and two sharp, black eyes, who had gone away at thirteen or so to study

in celebrated, distant academies, whence his name had spread round and

about. People said of him, that he was growing up to be a Light of the

Exile, that with his scholastic achievements he would outwit the acutest

intellects of all past ages; they said that he possessed a brain power

that ground "mountains" of Talmud to powder. News came that a quantity

of prominent Jewish communities had sent messengers, to ask him to come

and be their Rav.

Mouravanke was stirred to its depths. The householders went about

greatly perturbed, because their Rav was an old man, his days were

numbered, and he had no children to take his place.

So they came to the old Rav in his house, to ask his advice, whether it

was possible to invite the Mouravanke Charif, the tailor's son, to come

to them, so that he might take the place of the Rav on his death, in a

hundred and twenty years--seeing that the said young Charif was a

scholar distinguished by the acuteness of his intellect the only man

worthy of sitting in the seat of the Mouravanke Rabbonim.

The old Rav listened to the householders with lowering brows, and never

raised his eyes, and he answered them one word:


So Mouravanke sent a messenger to the young Charif, offering him the

Rabbinate. The messenger was swift, and soon the news spread through the

town that the Charif was approaching.

When it was time for the householders to go forth out of the town, to

meet the young Charif, the old Rav offered to go with them, and they

took a chair for him to sit in while he waited at the meeting-place.

This was by the wood outside the town, where all through the week the

Jewish townsfolk earned their bread by burning pitch. Begrimed and

toil-worn Jews were continually dropping their work and peeping out

shamefacedly between the tree-stems.

It was Friday, a clear day in the autumn. She appeared out of a great

cloud of dust--she, the travelling-wagon in which sat the celebrated

young Charif. Sholom-Alechems flew to meet him from every side, and his

old father, the tailor, leant back against a tree, and wept aloud for


Now the old Rav declared that he would not allow the Charif to enter the

town till he had heard him, the Charif, expound a portion of the Torah.

The young man accepted the condition. Men, women, and little children

stood expectant, all eyes were fastened on the tailor's son, all hearts

beat rapidly.

The Charif expounded the Torah standing in the wagon. At first he looked

fairly scared, and his sharp black eyes darted fearfully hither and

thither over the heads of the silent crowd. Then came a bright idea, and

lit up his face. He began to speak, but his was not the familiar

teaching, such as everyone learns and understands. His words were like

fiery flashes appearing and disappearing one after the other, lightnings

that traverse and illumine half the sky in one second of time, a play of

swords in which there are no words, only the clink and ring of

finely-tempered steel.

The old Rav sat in his chair leaning on his old, knobbly, knotted stick,

and listened. He heard, but evil thoughts beset him, and deep, hard

wrinkles cut themselves into his forehead. He saw before him the Charif,

the dried-up youth with the sharp eyes and the sharp, pointed nose, and

the evil thought came to him, "Those are needles, a tailor's needles,"

while the long, thin forefinger with which the Charif pointed rapidly in

the air seemed a third needle wielded by a tailor in a hurry.

"You prick more sharply even than your father," is what the old Rav

wanted to say when the Charif ended his sermon, but he did not say it.

The whole assembly was gazing with caught breath at his half-closed

eyelids. The lids never moved, and some thought wonderingly that he had

fallen into a doze from sheer old age.

Suddenly a strange, dry snap broke the stillness, the old Rav started in

his chair, and when they rushed forward to assist him, they found that

his knotted, knobbly stick had broken in two.

Pale and bent for the first time, but a tall figure still, the old Rav

stood up among his startled flock. He made a leisurely motion with his

hand in the direction of the town, and remarked quietly to the young


"Nu, now you can go into the town!"

That Friday night the old Rav came into the house-of-study without his

satin cloak, like a mourner. The congregation saw him lead the young Rav

into the corner near the ark, where he sat him down by the high old

desk, saying:

"You will sit here."

He himself went and sat down behind the pulpit among the strangers, the

Sabbath guests.

For the first minute people were lost in astonishment; the next minute

the house-of-study was filled with wailing. Old and young lifted their

voices in lamentation. The young Rav looked like a child sitting behind

the tall desk, and he shivered and shook as though with fever.

Then the old Rav stood up to his full height and commanded:

"People are not to weep!"

All this happened about the Solemn Days. Mouravanke remembers that time

now, and speaks of it at dusk, when the sky is red as though streaming

with fire, and the men stand about pensive and forlorn, and the women

fold their babies closer in their aprons.

At the close of the Day of Atonement there was a report that the old Rav

had breathed his last in robe and prayer-scarf.

The young Charif did not survive him long. He died at his father's the

tailor, and his funeral was on a wet Great Hosannah day. Aged folk said

he had been summoned to face the old Rav in a lawsuit in the Heavenly