The great Yiddish/Hebrew poet writer I.L. Peretz (1852-1915), was best known as a writer of short stories. In the early 1890s he began contributing short stories to the socialist Yiddish newspapers that had been founded in the United States; when the Yiddish daily press exploded at the beginning of the twentieth century, he was one of its most sought-after contributors. He also wrote stories in Hebrew and translation, or supervised the translation of his work from one language to the other.

A Pinch of Snuff tells of Satan who, disturbed by the clean slate of the very righteous rabbi of Helm, sends out one his demons to tempt the rabbi from the true path. The following is the closing piece of that short story.

Every Friday afternoon, having bathed for the Sabbath, the rabbi of Helm used to go for a walk in the woods. He always took the same path, between a wheatfield and a cornfield; and as he walked, he repeated by heart — as pious Jews are wont to do on Friday afternoons — the Song of Songs.

Now, knowing himself to be an absentminded man, and fearing that some Friday afternoon he would wander out too far and fail to return in time to receive the Sabbath (a grievous transgression), he had created, for his own protection, a special device. He had measured the distance against the time it took to repeat the Song of Songs and had found that halfway through the prayer he reached a certain tree. There he would sit down, treat himself to a hearty pinch of snuff from his goat's-horn snuffbox, rest awhile, then get up and return, saying the second half of the prayer. Thus, he would get back exactly in time to welcome the Sabbath.

One fateful Friday, just before the rabbi of Helm set out for his walk, a spindly-legged little fellow, dressed like a German in a derby hat and green-striped trousers, appeared on the scene, uprooted the tree mentioned above, and carried it out farther into the woods; he replanted it and sat himself down on the father side.

The rabbi, meanwhile, arrives on the spot where he has always found the tree. He is halfway through the Song of Songs, and the tree, he perceives, is quite a distance off. He is shocked. Obviously, he has been repeating the prayer mechanically, rapidly, without absorption and contemplation — also a grievous transgression. He will do penance at once. He will refuse himself that pinch of snuff until he has reached the tree. His nose itches for the grateful tickle of the snuff, his heart is faint with longing — but no! Not until he has reached the tree.

His limbs are feeble, and his steps are tottering. It takes him a long time to get there. And all the time there is this aching and longing, so that he can hardly see. And now at last he reaches the tree; he sits down and snatches the snuffbox from his pocket; but his hands are all atremble, and just at that moment a wind begins to blow from the other side of the tree (it's that miserable little German, of course, blowing) and the snuffbox falls out of the rabbi's hands.

He reaches for it. The wind grows stronger and the box rolls away. The rabbi crawls after it on all fours, his body crying out for the strong taste of the snuff. The wretched German grins, and blows harder. Then suddenly he uproots the tree again, and replants it in its proper place. The rabbi looks up, wondering what happened to the tree. He perceives that it is night; the sky is studded with stars! The Sabbath has begun! The sun has set, and he has not even noticed it, so furiously has his heart beenset on the pinch of snuff.

But wait, my friends. The sin of the rabbi in failing to appear for the Welcoming of the Sabbath was the lesser of the two sins into which his lust for snuff led him that evil day. For the demon kept blowing, the snuffbox kept rolling, and the rabbi, crawling after it in anguish, went out beyond the limits of a permissible Sabbath walk.

The brilliant young demon, returning to the nether regions, was at once entrusted with another highly important mission. Addressing the mephitic assembly before his departure, he said: "Gentlemen, nobody stubs his toe against a mountain. It's the little lusts that bring a man down."



From The IL Peretz Reader, edited and with an introduction by Ruth R. Wisse. New York: Schocken Books, 1990. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.



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