The Tale of the Hakham and the Tam
(with commentary by Adin Steinsaltz and Arthur Green)

In the following excerpt from Nahman's tale of the Hakham and the Tam (The Clever Man and the Simple Man), two messengers have been dispatched by the king to deliver letters summoning the Hakham and the Tam to him.

The Tam, immediately upon the arrival of the letter, said to the messenger who brought it: "But I do not know what is written in it. Read it for me."

He answered him: "I shall tell you by heart what is written there. The king wants you to come to him."

He asked immediately "Without joking?"

He answered him: "Surely, it's true, without joking."

delivering the letterAnd immediately the Tam was filled with joy and ran and told his wife: "My wife! The king has sent for me." And she asked him: "What is this? Why has he sent for you?" And he had no time to answer her, but immediately he hurried with joy, and set out immediately with the messenger.

[The Tam is richly rewarded by the king: he is made governor, and then chief minister to the king.]

The Hakham, when the letter from the king reached him, answered the [messenger] who had brought it: "Wait and spend the night here, and we shall talk it over and decide." In the evening he prepared a great banquet for him; while eating, the Hakham tried to show off his wisdom and philosophy. He stated: "Why should such a king send for an insignificant person like me? And who am I that the king should send for me? What is the meaning? He is a king who has such power and grandeur, and I am so insignificant in comparison with such a great king! Is it plausible that such a king should send for me? If I say for my wisdom, who am I in comparison with the king? Doesn't the king have wise men? And the king himself is probably a great wise man, too. And so, why should the king send for me?"

And he wondered about it very much. After being so amazed, he himself said to the messenger: "Do you know what I think? It is conclusive that there is no king in the world at all. And the whole world is misled by this nonsense when they think that there is a king. Can you understand how it is plausible that the whole world would give itself up and rely on one man who is the king? Surely, there is no king in the world at all!"

The messenger answered: "But I brought you a letter from the king."

The Hakham asked him: "Did you yourself receive this letter from the king's own hand?"

He answered him: "No, but another man gave me the letter in the name of the king."

He stated: "You can now see with your own eyes that my words are true, that there is no king at all." And he asked him again: "Tell me — since you are from the capital city and have been raised there all your life — have you ever seen the king?"

He answered him: "No."

receiving the letterThe Hakham stated: "Now see for yourself that I am right, that surely there is no king at all. Because even you have never seen the king."

The Hakham said again: "Wait till morning, and I will prove to you that there is no king at all in the world." In the morning the Hakham arose early, and woke the messenger. And he said to him: "Come outside with me and I will prove to you how the whole world is misled and that there surely is no king at all."

Then they went to the market, and saw a soldier. And they took hold of him and asked him: "Whom do you serve?"

He answered: "The king."

"Have you ever seen the king?"


The Hakham stated: "Look, is there such nonsense?"


The figure of the king in Nahman's stories almost always symbolizes God. He is never the hero of the story. Instead, the king stands in a peripheral relation to the plot. This manner of portraying the king reflects the Kabbalistic concept of "divine withdrawal," or hester panim, that pervades Nahman's reality. According to this concept, God is revealed not within, but outside of creation. Mankind exists in exile from God, in a fallen and flawed world.[1]

The Tam acts out of faith, going to the king without trying to understand. This spiritual and intellectual simplicity embodies the ideal zaddik.[2] He becomes a successful governor, and then chief minister to the king. The character of the Hakham aims a barb at the skepticism of medieval rationalist philosophers. In dramatic contrast to the Tam, the Hakham 's devotion to rational thinking causes him to doubt everything, and by the end of the tale, ultimately to lose his wealth.[3]

Biographically, this story may be viewed in the context of Nahman's profound and lifelong struggle with faith and doubt. He constantly confronted a sense of distance between himself in God, despite fervent and repeated prayer from early childhood.[4] This conflict became an important element in Bratslav Hasidism.[5]

[1] Steinsaltz, Adin. The Tales of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1979. P. xxxv. [back]
[2] Steinsaltz, p. 208 [back]
[3] Steinsaltz p. 210 [back]
[4] Green, Arthur. Tormented Master. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1982. p. 291. [back]
[5] Green, p. 28 [back]
Barnes and Noble linkTranslation of "The Hakham and the Tam." From: Band, Arnold J. and Dan Joseph, eds. Nahman of Bratslav: The Tales. Copyright © 1978 by Arnold J. Band (New York: Paulist Press). pp. 154-156. 


The Parable of the Heart and the Spring from Nahman's Tale The Seven Beggars  |  Back to Introductory Biography



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