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Jewish Tales of Holy Women

May 9, 2009 | by

Precious tales that give us a peek in to a world of devotional beauty that focuses on kindness.

Yitzhak Buxbaum has collected profound traditional tales about Jewish holy women of the last few centuries, precious tales that inspire deep thought, that elicit joy and pride. The tales give us a peek into a world of devotional beauty that focuses on kindness, enhancing our appreciation of the female angels on earth.

The Hot Water Heater

The following tale is told by Sara Rigler of Jerusalem about her encounters with a contemporary hidden tzaddeket -- a holy woman who has gone virtually unrecognized -- whom she calls Rebbetzin "Devorah Cohen." All the names and places in the stories were changed, as a condition set by the holy woman for allowing Sara to write about her.

For some two decades, Rebbetzin Devorah Cohen took care of brain-damaged, multiple handicapped children and young adults, sometimes numbering as many as seven at one time. All this in her three-room shack, which initially lacked electricity, telephone, and running hot water.

When the children started coming, she and her husband Rabbi Emanuel Cohen decided that kerosene lamps were a fire hazard, so they installed electricity. They also decided that, in case one of the children had an emergency, a telephone was a necessity. As for luxuries like paint on the walls or flooring on the concrete floor, they never indulged themselves. This is the story of the running hot water.

Rabbi Emanuel would rouse himself at two o'clock every morning to pray and learn Torah. When he did, he would find Rebbetzin Devorah making the rounds of the children. In those years, long before disposable diapers, the incontinent children (including those in their early twenties) would wear cloth diapers, easily soaked by urine and feces. At night not only the diapers got wet and dirty, but also the pajamas and the sheets. Rebbetzin Devorah would check each child regularly during the night, and change diapers, pajamas, and sheets when necessary. When someone suggested that she give herself an occasional full night's sleep, she replied that she was afraid that if she let these helpless human beings lie in their filth, there would be an accusation against her in heaven.

Of course, washing the children required heating water on the stove, which added many minutes to the nighttime changes. Finally Rebbetzin Devorah decided that she would buy a boiler to provide running hot water. She and her husband were farmers; the potato fields that year had yielded a good crop. While her husband was away on an extended trip in England, Rebbetzin Devorah decided to use the money from the sale of the potato harvest to buy a water heater.

The potatoes were duly harvested and sold. Rebbetzin Devorah put the money safely away in her closet. The next morning she would take a bus into town and buy a hot water heater.

That night her husband telephoned from England. He told her that a family somewhere in Israel desperately needed money. He asked her to take all the money from the sale of the potato harvest and send it to that family, whose name and address he gave her.

Rebbetzin Devorah did as he asked. The next morning, she went to the post office and sent a postal money order for the full amount of the cash she had to the name and address her husband had given her. The hot water heater would have to wait.

"How did you feel when you sent the money to the other family?" I asked Rebbetzin Devorah three decades later. Having heard the story from someone else, I had gone to her to verify the details. Knowing that I, in a million years, would never have given up the water heater, I wondered how she had felt making this incredible sacrifice for the sake of total strangers.

"What do you mean, how did I feel?" she asked with a quizzical expression. While I take my emotional pulse every fifteen minutes, Rebbetzin Devorah goes for years without worrying about how she feels.

"You must have been disappointed," I prompted.

The law of gravity on my planet pulls everything toward me. The law of gravity on her planet pulls everything upward.

"No, I wasn't disappointed," she replied, surprised at the very idea. "Why should I have been disappointed?"

I felt like Rebbetzin Devorah and I come from different planets. The law of gravity on my planet pulls everything toward me. The law of gravity on her planet pulls everything upward.

"You wanted the hot water heater," I reminded her.

"Yes, I wanted the hot water heater," she remembered, her eyes with a faraway look, remembering those years, which she considered the best years of her life.

"So you must have been disappointed when your husband told you to send the money to other people, people you didn't even know."

Rebbetzin Devorah sat there puzzling over what this thick-headed American woman was having such a hard time understanding. Suddenly, she broke into a smile.

"You don't understand," she explained, as to a child. "The money wasn't wasted. They used it for something they needed."

"But you didn't have it for what you needed," I countered.

She looked at me uncomprehendingly. What was the difference?

The essential truth of spiritual reality is oneness. On the physical level, we are separate individuals; my body ends here, while your body begins there. On the spiritual level, however, all Jews share one group soul. That is why in 1967, when Israel was threatened by three attacking Arab armies, so many thousands of young Jew -- including totally unaffiliated Jews -- showed up at Israeli consulates all over America to volunteer to go to Israel to help. They intuited that when Jews are attacked anywhere, they themselves suffer. Rebbetzin Devorah lived this spiritual truth so thoroughly that she experienced no difference between her acquiring a hot water heater, which would have saved her so much time and effort, and total strangers acquiring something that they desperately needed. What was the difference?


Hadassah Linder was an Israeli tzaddeket who lived in Jerusalem and passed away not long ago in 1999.

The Rabbis say, "Let the poor be members of your household." Hadassah fulfilled this teaching literally. She had an open house and was continually feeding countless guests, putting others up, and so on. Some of those she took in were broken, homeless, mentally unbalanced people. She constantly helped and benefited a poor, embittered, and emotionally disturbed woman named Massouda. Hadassah always invited Massouda to family celebrations, as if she were one of the family. Whenever one of Hadassah's children or grandchildren got married, the bride went in a taxi that would take her to the hall, and Massouda went in the same taxi.

On the occasion of one family wedding, some of the other regular guests who frequented Hadassah's home asked to ride in the taxi together with the bride. Hadassah happily complied. One after another, they entered the taxi while Hadassah herself walked on foot to the wedding hall (although she was fasting, as was her custom on the wedding day of her children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren). "Let these broken people enjoy themselves," she said. "It makes no difference to me how I get to the wedding."

A Single Bagel

One Thursday, while Hadassah was baking cookies for Shabbat, Massouda stood nearby, viewing, inspecting, and choosing which cookie would be hers. Every tray that came out of the oven first passed her inspection until she found what she wanted. But here special care was necessary. If anyone commented on her behavior, she would angrily throw all the cookies to the floor and yell, "I don't need them! I don't need your favors!"

One Thursday, a special tray of bagels was baked in honor of Massouda because she had asked for them. The bagels came out just as she desired, and she was very happy about it. She carefully put them all, one by one, into a bag, and Hadassah was glad to see Massouda so satisfied.

"Massouda," said Hadassah, "would you like to give me a bagel?"

Massouda thought it over for a second and replied, "No! You don't deserve it. But I'll give one to your husband." And she took out a bagel for him.

Hadassah learned an important lesson from this. That evening, when her children returned from school, she said, "I have a valuable story to tell you today." She told them of what had happened with Massouda and added, "This is exactly how we act with the Holy One, blessed be He. He gives to us more and more, without limits and without considering whether we are worthy of it, and then at a moment of inspiration, we agree to give Him back a little of what is His -- a little tzedaka, some good deed, one bagel from the tray, one crumb from what we received from Him."

Hadassah repeated this story and its lesson many times.

The Best for Others

Hadassah regularly distributed tremendous amounts of food to countless needy people.

A few times a week, Hadassah went to the Machane Yehuda market with a cart that was specially built for her by a carpenter. She went with her grandchildren at her side and bought produce that the vegetable men offered her cheaply. They kept for her fruits and vegetables that were partially bad and gave them to her for half price, knowing that she distributed them to needy people.

Every once in a while, in the midst of the purchases, her granddaughters would return home with the cart, unload it, take everything in it up to the many stairs to her home, and then run back to their grandmother in the market to refill the cart.

At home, Hadassah would go through the produce: the better fruits and vegetables she gave to needy people; the rest she kept for herself and her family.

Hadassah also bought chickens at a very reduced price and distributed them to needy people after she and her granddaughters cleaned and koshered them -- a huge job. She then sent her granddaughters to give the innards that were not eaten to the stray cats so that they too would benefit, because, as the psalm says, "His merits are over his works." [The Rabbis interpret this psalm verse to mean that God is merciful to animals too.] Afterwards, she kept the wings, necks, and feet for her family, along with a few nicer pieces for guests, and then distributed the best pieces to needy people.

Milk and Noodles

Dinah was also a regular visitor in Hadassah's home. She had been a pampered only daughter and had never learned to care for herself. When she married, her mother ran her home, and when her mother died, her own children did everything. After her children were married and her husband had passed away, she was left alone with no one to care for her. She ended up wandering the streets, collecting rags and junk and filling up her apartment until there was no room for anything else.

"One rainy winter's day," tells Hadassah's granddaughter, "I visited Grandma and found her falling asleep on a chair, her head dropping down again and again. ‘Grandma,' I said, ‘you're tired. Why not go to sleep?'

"'I will,' she said. ‘I would have gone to sleep already, but I haven't finished preparing the fruit and vegetable packages for the needy people. In a little while, they'll come to pick them up.'

"'I'll take care of it, Grandma. You go to sleep.'

"She agreed and, after telling me a number of things to do, went to sleep."

"Outside, it was raining with thunder and lightning, and the sounds of the storm could be heard inside. I was totally engrossed in preparing the packages when I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and found Dinah standing there; she had come to converse with Grandma. I told her that Grandma was sleeping, and she asked if she could come in to warm up. ‘Of course,' I said. ‘Please come in.' She sat down on a chair and watched what I was doing.

"'You know,' she said, ‘when my mother was still alive, she used to make for me, on stormy days like this, a glass of hot milk and noodles. I would feel as if the warmth was going through all my limbs. But those days are gone now,' she concluded with a sigh.

"No sooner had she finished speaking than I saw Grandma Hadassah going from her bedroom into the kitchen. I thought she wanted to get something. But no, she was taking out the heating plate, lighting it (a difficult task), and putting on it a pot of milk and noodles! In a little while, Dinah was having milk and noodles, to her pleasure and delight."

The minute Hadassah had heard Dinah's "request," her tiredness disappeared; she got up and prepared for this lonely woman this favorite treat.

In a famous teaching, the Rabbis say to do God's will as if it is one's own will. In a less famous but related teaching, for the pious and holy, the Rabbis say to do other people's will as if it is one's own will. Just as God acts to please every living creature, so do holy people like Hadassah Linder act to please every living being on earth. That is their deepest pleasure -- to please God and everyone they meet.

These tales are excerpted with the permission of Yitzhak Buxbaum. Jewish Tales of Holy Women and Yitzhak's other new book, Jewish Tales of Mystic Joy are available in Barnes and Noble, Borders, many Jewish bookstores, and through To order, click here.

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