There are people who have never been taught anything, and know
everything, have never been anywhere, and understand everything, have
never given a moment's thought to anything, and comprehend everything.
Blessed hands is the name bestowed on these fortunate beings. The
world envies, honours and respects them.
There was such a man in our town, Kassrillevka. They called him
Moshe-for-once, because, whatever he heard or saw or made, he
It is such-and-such a thing for once.
A new cantor in the synagoguehe is a cantor for once.
Some one is carrying a turkey for the Passoverit is a turkey for
There will be a fine frost tomorrow.
A fine frost for once.
There were blows exchanged at the meeting.
Good blows for once.
Oh, Jews, I am a poor man.
A poor man for once.
And so of everything.
Moshe was aI cannot tell you what Moshe was. He was a Jew, but
what he lived by it would be hard to say. He lived as many thousands of
Jews live in Kassrillevkatens of thousands. He hovered around the
overlord. That is, not the overlord himself, but the gentlefolks that
were with the overlord. And not around the gentlefolks themselves, but
around the Jews that hovered around the gentlefolks who were with the
overlord. And if he made a livingthat was another story.
Moshe-for-once was a man who hated to boast of his good fortune, or to
bemoan his ill-fortune. He was always jolly. His cheeks were always
red. One end of his moustache was longer than the other. His hat was
always on one side of his head; and his eyes were always smiling and
kindly. He never had any time, but was always ready to walk ten miles
to do any one a favour.
That's the sort of a man Moshe-for-once was.
* * *
There wasn't a thing in the world Moshe-for-once could not makea
house, or a clock, or a machine, a lamp, a spinning-top, a tap, a
mirror, a cage, and what not.
True, no one could point to the houses, the clocks, or the machines
that came from his hands; but every one was satisfied Moshe could make
them. Every one said that if need be, Moshe could turn the world upside
down. The misfortune was that he had no tools. I mean the contrary.
That was his good fortune. Through this, the world was not turned
upside down. That is, the world remained a world.
That Moshe was not torn to pieces was a miracle. When a lock went
wrong they came to Moshe. When the clock stopped, or the tap of the
Samovar went out of order, or there appeared in a house
blackbeetles, or bugs, or other filthy creatures, it was always Moshe
who was consulted. Or when a fox came and choked the fowls, whose
advice was asked? It was always and ever Moshe-for-once.
True, the broken lock was thrown away, the clock had to be sent to a
watchmaker, and the Samovar to the copper-smith. The
blackbeetles, and bugs and other filthy things were not at all
frightened of Moshe. And the fox went on doing what a fox ought to do.
But Moshe-for-once still remained the same Moshe-for-once he had been.
After all, he had blessed hands; and no doubt he had something in him.
A world cannot be mad. In proof of thiswhy do the people not come to
you or me with their broken locks, or broken clocks, or for advice how
to get rid of foxes, or blackbeetles and bugs and other filthy things?
All the people in the world are not the same. And it appears that
talent is rare.
* * *
We became very near neighbours with this Moshe-for-once. We lived in
the same house with him, under the one roof. I say became, because,
before that, we lived in our own house. The wheels of fortune suddenly
turned round for us. Times grew bad. We did not wish to be a burden to
any one. We sold our house, paid our debts, and moved into Hershke
Mamtzes' house. It was an old ruin, without a garden, without a yard,
without a paling, without a body, and without life.
Well, it's a hut, said my mother, pretending to be merry. But I
saw tears in her eyes.
Do not sin, said my father, who was black as the earth. Thank God
Why for this, I do not know. Perhaps because we were not living on
the street? I would rather have lived on the street than in this house,
with strange boys and girls whom I did not know, nor wish to know, with
their yellow hair, and their running noses, with their thin legs and
fat bellies. When they walked they waddled like ducks. They did nothing
but eat, and when any one else was eating, they stared right into his
I was very angry with the Lord for having taken our house from us. I
was not sorry for the house as for the Tabernacle we had there. It
stood from year to year. It had a roof that could be raised and
lowered, and a beautiful carved ceiling of green and yellow boards,
made into squares with a Shield of David in the middle. True, kind
friends told us to hope on, for we should one day buy the house back,
or the Lord would help us to build another, and a better, and a bigger
and a handsomer house than the one we had had to sell. But all this was
cold comfort to us. I heard the same sort of words when I broke my tin
watch, accidentally, of course, into fragments. My mother smacked me,
and my father wiped my eyes, and promised to buy me a better, and
bigger and handsomer watch than the one I broke. But the more my father
praised the watch he was going to buy for me, the more I cried for the
other, the old watch. When my father was not looking, my mother wept
silently for the old house. And my father sighed and groaned. A black
cloud settled on his face, and his big white forehead was covered with
I thought it was very wrong of the Father of the Universe to have
taken our house from us.
* * *
I ask youmay your health increase!what are we going to do with
the Tabernacle? asked my mother of my father some time before the
Feast of Tabernacles.
You probably mean to ask what are we going to do without a
Tabernacle? replied my father, attempting to jest. I saw that he was
distressed. He turned away to one side, so that we might not see his
face, which was covered with a thick black cloud. My mother blew her
nose to swallow her tears. And I, looking at them.... Suddenly my
father turned to us with a lively expression on his face.
Hush! We have here a neighbour called Moshe.
Moshe-for-once? asked my mother. And I do not know whether she was
making fun or was in earnest. It seemed she was in earnest, for, half
an hour later, the three were going about the house, father, Moshe, and
Hershke Mamtzes, our landlord, looking for a spot on which to erect a
* * *
Hershke Mamtzes' house was all right. It had only one fault. It
stood on the street, and had not a scrap of yard. It looked as if it
had been lost in the middle of the road. Somebody was walking along and
lost a house, without a yard, without a roof, the door on the other
side of the street, like a coat with the waist in front and the buttons
underneath. If you talk to Hershke, he will bore you to death about his
house. He will tell you how he came by it, how they wanted to take it
from him, and how he fought for it, until it remained with him.
Where do you intend to erect the Tabernacle, 'Reb' Moshe?
asked father of Moshe-for-once. And Moshe-for-once, his hat on the back
of his head, was lost in thought, as if he were a great architect
formulating a big plan. He pointed with his hand from here to there,
and from there to here. He tried to make us understand that if the
house were not standing in the middle of the street, and if it had had
a yard, we would have had two walls ready made, and he could have built
us a Tabernacle in a day. Why do I say in a day? In an hour. But since
the house had no yard, and we needed four walls, the Tabernacle would
take a little longer to build. But for that again, we would have a
Tabernacle for once. The main thing was to get the material.
There will be materials. Have you the tools? asked Hershke.
The tools will be found. Have you the timber? asked Moshe.
There is timber. Have you the nails? asked Hershke.
Nails can be got. Have you the fir-boughs? asked Moshe.
Somehow, you are a little too so-so today, said Hershke.
A little too what? asked Moshe. They looked each other straight in
the eyes, and both burst out laughing.
* * *
When Hershke Mamtzes brought the first few boards and beams, Moshe
said that, please God, it would be a Tabernacle for once. I wondered
how he was going to make a Tabernacle out of the few boards and beams.
I begged of my mother to let me stand by whilst Moshe was working. And
Moshe not only let me stand by him, but even let me be his assistant. I
was to hand him what he wanted, and hold things for him.
Of course this put me into the seventh heaven of delight. Was it a
trifle to help build the Tabernacle? I was of great assistance to
Moshe. I moved my lips when he hammered; went for meals when he went;
shouted at the other children not to hinder us; handed Moshe the hammer
when he wanted the chisel, and the pincers when he wanted a nail. Any
other man would have thrown the hammer or pincers at my head for such
help, but Moshe-for-once had no temper. No one had ever had the
privilege of seeing him angry.
Anger is a sinful thing. It does as little good as any sin.
And because I was greatly absorbed in the work, I did not notice how
and by what miracle the Tabernacle came into being.
Come and see the Tabernacle we have built, I said to father, and
dragged him out of the house by the tails of his coat. My father was
delighted with our work. He looked at Moshe with a smile, and said,
pointing to me:
Had you at any rate a little help from him?
It was a help, for once, replied Moshe, looking up at the roof of
the Tabernacle with anxious eyes.
If only our Hershke brings us the fir-boughs, it will be a
Tabernacle for once.
Hershke Mamtzes worried us about the fir-boughs. He put off going
for them from day to day. The day before the Festival he went off and
brought back a cart-load of thin sticks, a sort of weeds, such as grow
on the banks of the river. And we began to cover the Tabernacle. That
is to say, Moshe did the work, and I helped him by driving off the
goats which had gathered around the fir-boughs, as if they were
something worth while. I do not know what taste they found in the
bitter green stalks.
Because the house stood alone, in the middle of the street, there
was no getting rid of the goats. If you drove one off another came up.
The second was only just got rid of, when the first sprang up again. I
drove them off with sticks.
Get out of this. Are you here again, foolish goats? Get off.
The devil knows how they found out we had green fir-boughs. It seems
they told one another, because there gathered around us all the goats
of the town. And I, all alone, had to do battle with them.
The Lord helped us, and we had all the fir-boughs on the roof. The
goats remained standing around us like fools. They looked up with
foolish eyes, and stupidly chewed the cud. I had my revenge of them,
and I said to them:
Why don't you take the fir-boughs now, foolish goats?
They must have understood me, for they began to go off, one by one,
in search of something to eat. And we began to decorate the Tabernacle
from the inside. First of all, we strewed the floor with sand; then we
hung on the walls all the wadded quilts belonging to the neighbours.
Where there was no wadded quilt, there hung a shawl, and where there
was no shawl, there was a sheet or a table-cloth. Then we brought out
all the chairs and tables, the candle-sticks and candles, the plates
and knives and forks and spoons. And each of the three women of the
house made the blessing over her own candles for the Feast of
* * *
My motherpeace be unto her!was a woman who loved to weep. The
Days of Mourning were her Days of Rejoicing. And since we had lost our
own house, her eyes were not dry for a single minute. My father, though
he was also fretted, did not like this. He told her to fear the Lord,
and not sin. There were worse circumstances than ours, thank God. But
now, in the Tabernacle, when she was blessing the Festival candles, she
could cover her face with her hands and weep in silence without any one
knowing it. But I was not to be fooled. I could see her shoulders
heaving, and the tears trickling through her thin white fingers. And I
even knew what she was weeping for.... It was well for her that father
was getting ready to go to synagogue, putting on his Sabbath coat that
was tattered, but was still made of silk, and his plaited silk girdle.
He thrust his hands into his girdle, and said to me, sighing deeply:
Come, let us go. It is time we went to synagogue to pray.
I took the prayer-books, and we went off. Mother remained at home to
pray. I knew what she would doweep. She might weep as much as she
liked, for she would be alone. And it was so. When we came back, and
entered the Tabernacle, and father started to make the blessing over
the wine, I looked into her eyes, and they were red, and had swollen
lids. Her nose was shining. Nevertheless, she was to me beautiful as
Rachel or Abigail, or the Queen of Sheba, or Queen Esther. Looking at
her, I was reminded of all our beautiful Jewish women with whom I had
just become acquainted at Cheder. And looking at my mother,
with her lovely face that looked lovelier above the lovely silk shawl
she wore, with her large, beautiful, careworn eyes, my heart was filled
with pain that such lovely eyes should be tear-stained alwaysthat
such lovely white hands should have to bake and cook. And I was angry
with the Lord because He did not give us a lot of money. And I prayed
to the Lord to destine me to find a treasure of gold and diamonds and
brilliants. Or let the Messiah come, and we would go back to the Land
of Israel, where we should all be happy.
This was what I thought. And my imagination carried me far, far
away, to my golden dreams that I would not exchange for all the money
in the world. And the beautiful Festival prayers, sung by my father in
his softest and most melodious voice, rang in my ears.
Thou hast chosen us above all peoples, Us hast Thou chosen Of all
Is it a trifle to be God's chosen people? To be God's only child? My
heart was glad for the happy chosen people. And I imagined I was a
prince. Yes, a prince. And the Tabernacle was a palace. The Divine
Holiness rested on it. My mother was the beautiful daughter of
Jerusalem, the Queen of Sheba. And on the morrow we would make the
blessing over the most beautiful fruit in the worldthe citron. Ah,
who could compare with me? Who could compare with me?
* * *
After father, Moshe-for-once pronounced the blessing over the wine.
It was not the same blessing as my father'sbut, really not. After
him, the landlord, Hershke Mamtzes pronounced the blessing over the
wine. He was a commonplace man, and it was a commonplace blessing. We
went to wash our hands, and we pronounced the blessing over the bread.
And each of the three women brought out the food for her familyfine,
fresh, seasoned, pleasant, fragrant fish. And each family sat around
its own table. There were many dishes; a lot of people had soup; a lot
of mouths were eating. A little wind blew into the Tabernacle, through
the frail thin walls, and the thin roof of fir-boughs. The candles
spluttered. Every one was eating heartily the delicious Festival
supper. And I imagined it was not a Tabernacle but a palacea great,
big, brilliantly lit-up palace. And we Jews, the chosen people, the
princes, were sitting in the palace and enjoying the pleasures of life.
It is well for you, little Jews, thought I. No one is so well-off as
you. No one else is privileged to sit in such a beautiful palace,
covered with green fir-boughs, strewn with yellow sand, decorated with
the most beautiful tapestries in the world, on the tables the finest
suppers, and real Festival fish which is the daintiest of all dainties.
And who speaks of Suddenly, crash! The whole roof and the
fir-boughs are on our heads. One wall after the other is falling in. A
goat fell from on high, right on top of us. It suddenly grew pitch
dark. All the candles were extinguished. All the tables were
over-turned. And we all, with the suppers and the crockery and the
goat, were stretched out on the sand. The moon shone, and the stars
peeped out, and the goat jumped up, frightened, and stood on its thin
legs, stock-still, while it stared at us with foolish eyes. It soon
marched off, like an insolent creature, over the tables and chairs, and
over our heads, bleating Meh-eh-eh-eh! The candles were extinguished;
the crockery smashed; the supper in the sand; and we were all
frightened to death. The women were shrieking, the children crying. It
was a destruction of everythinga real destruction.
* * *
You built a fine Tabernacle, said Hershke Mamtzes to us in such a
voice, as if we had had from him for building the Tabernacle goodness
knows how much money. It was a fine Tabernacle, when one goat could
It was a Tabernacle for once, replied Moshe-for-once. He stood
like one beaten, looking upwards, to see whence the destruction had
come. It was a Tabernacle for once.
Yes, a Tabernacle for once, repeated Hershke Mamtzes, in a voice
full of deadly venom. And every one echoed his words, all in one voice:
A Tabernacle for once.