There was a holy rabbi who lived in the city of Damascus. He was a righteous man, perfect in his faith, and so well versed in all the seven wisdoms that there was no one to compare with him in that generation except a certain Ishmaelite sheikh who had a complete knowledge of the six wisdoms. The Ishmaelite surpassed the wise rabbi in one way: Anyone who had a sick person in his family used to go to the sheikh and beg him to pray for the sick. The sheikh would pray alone for about half an hour and would then say: “This one will live and that one die.” When the holy rabbi heard this, he was astonished and asked: “Can this Ishmaelite sheikh really be more holy and pure than I am, for the Books of Life and Death to be revealed to him? Do I not serve the L-rd and engage in His Holy Word and commandments all day long? Why could not I be like this Ishmaelite?”
So the rabbi called the beadle of the community and charged him: “Go to the sheikh and tell him: The rabbi has heard of your good name and wishes to visit and greet you, if you will permit him.” Now this Ishmaelite was greater than all the princes, and all the great princes used to send him gifts so that they would merit seeing him; they would come and prostrate themselves before him to obtain his blessing, while he never emerged from his palace and never showed himself to the ordinary people at all.
The beadle of the community went to the sheikh and repeated all that the rabbi had said to him, and the sheikh replied: “I have also heard what a wise man your holy rabbi is and wish to see him. Go and tell him that he may certainly come without delay.”
The beadle went back to the holy rabbi and told him the words of the sheikh; and he left to see the sheikh.
As soon as the sheikh saw him, he saw a new friend. The sheikh welcomed the rabbi with much honor and courtesy, gave him a seat and asked about his health. As they spoke, the sheikh asked the rabbi: “I have heard that you are a wise man, do you know anything about mystical wisdom?” The rabbi answered: “The Holy One, blessed be He has granted me a little of that knowledge.” The sheikh and the rabbi shared much wisdom and grew close to one another. They would meet once every week.
When the rabbi visited the sheikh they would speak of matters of wisdom until the sheikh realized that the rabbi was fully versed in all the seven branches of wisdom. Then he requested the rabbi to teach him that branch which he did not know. The rabbi answered: “I shall teach you if you teach me another branch of wisdom.” And the sheikh asked: “Which one is that?”
The rabbi answered: “I refer to your ability to pray for the sick so that the Books of Life and Death are open to you. That is a branch of knowledge I do not possess. If you instruct me concerning this, then I shall teach you the branch of knowledge that is hidden from you.”
The sheikh sadly replied, “You ask something very difficult and I cannot possibly reveal this to any creature in the world.” “Nor is it possible that I can reveal the wisdom and knowledge that is hidden to you” responded the rabbi. “Be it as you say, but it will be too difficult for you, and I fear that you will not be able to perform it” added the sheikh. The rabbi thought for a moment and assured the sheikh, “I am prepared to undertake even the most difficult task, and I shall do whatever you tell me.”
“Very well go home, and prepare yourself for a fast of two consecutive days. While you are fasting, immerse yourself every morning and evening and be very cautious in your deeds and in the meal that follows take care not to eat meat or drink wine. After you have eaten, go and immerse yourself again and put on white linen” instructed the sheikh.
When the rabbi heard the words of the sheikh, he eagerly replied: “I shall do what you say.” “Then go in peace, and come back on the third day and I shall tell you this great secret.” The rabbi went home and did all the sheikh had told him. He immersed himself and put on white garments; he did this during the two days of his fasting. He continued to fast on the third night, too. After he finished praying next morning, he went to the sheikh, who hurried to meet him and said: “Enter, blessed of the L-rd, for from your face it is clear that you have done all I told you.” “I am still fasting,” said the rabbi. “You are doing well,” said the sheikh, “and now come with me and I shall show you this secret.”
So the rabbi followed the sheikh to a certain chamber, the key of which he never entrusted to anybody. The sheikh opened the door and both entered together, closing the door behind them so that no other person might approach. In the room there was another doorway by which they entered into a most beautiful orchard. In the middle was a cistern full of fresh water which came from the rivers Abana and Pharpar (see II Kings 5:12). Beside this pool was a bench on which were prepared two robes, one for the rabbi and the other for the sheikh. The sheikh said to the rabbi: “Let us take off our clothes and immerse ourselves before we approach the hallowed place.” So they took off their clothes and both immersed themselves within the pool. Then they changed their clothes and went together to the far end of the orchard, the rabbi wondering all the while what would happen. When he raised his eyes, he saw a most beautifully constructed building with pure silver doors on which all kinds of fine drawings, the like of which is not to be found in royal palaces. When the sheikh went to open the doors of this building, he told the rabbi: “Take care to enter this house in fear and trembling, and whatever you see me do, do the same.” Then he opened the door, and the rabbi saw a magnificent hall and facing it a small and most beautiful shrine, in front of which was a curtain embroidered with wondrous jewels and pearls. The sheikh entered the hall trembling and prostrated himself seven times towards the shrine. The rabbi trembled exceedingly and wondered whether there could be some idol or other pagan object of worship there. He closed his eyes, and said the words of the Psalm (16:8): “I have set the Lord always before me, because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.”
Then he too prostrated himself as the sheikh had done, and a great awe descended on him.
And the sheikh said to him in a low voice and a broken heart: “Approach this shrine and open it, and there you will find what you seek.” The rabbi at once approached and opened the doors of the shrine, which were made of purest gold and encrusted with precious stones. Within the shrine he saw a most perfect and most beautiful tablet on which was engraved the shape of the Menorah in a very beautiful fashion. Above it was written in Hebrew: “I have set the Lord always before me!” And the letters of the Name of the L-rd were very large indeed. When the rabbi saw this, he rejoiced very much because he had not prostrated himself for no purpose. He stepped backwards and prostrated himself, and they both went out together.
Then the rabbi said to the sheikh: “You told me that I would find what I am seeking there, yet nothing more was revealed to me than what I saw.” The sheikh answered: “Brother, you should know that those large letters which you saw are Name of that One who spoke and the world came about. When somebody comes to entreat me to pray for a sick person in his home, I immerse myself and in fear and trembling I enter this building you have seen. There I pray before the shrine, and after the prayer is over I open its door. If I see that the letters of the Holy Name are bright and shining, I know that the person will live. But if I see cloud and mist around the Name, I know that he must die. Now consider my affection for you, my brother, if I have revealed to you what I have never revealed to any other man.”
When the rabbi returned home he wept bitterly, saying: “Woe unto us for every day we pray, yet Ishmaelite knows that the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He. This sheikh has achieved all this great honor, yet he fears and dreads the hour when he enters into the presence of the Holy Name. Alas, as for us, what shall we answer and say, since we ought to do far more than this and indeed be filled with trembling when we utter the Name of the L-rd.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, O L-rd, my Rock, and my Redeemer. (Psalms 19:14)
May all your tales end with Shalom (peace)