2252 Shlomo's Story of the Snuff Box (print)


Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was one of the great Jewish teachers of this century. His music can be heard in synagogues and at Shabbat tables all over the world. These melodies are so much a part of Jewish tradition today, they have already become classics. He performed for hundreds of thousands of fans all over the world and was adored by Jews and non-Jews alike. Indeed, he was a phenomenon that changed the face of modern Judaism. 

When Reb Shlomo died, in 1994, thousands of mourners attended his burial in Jerusalem. His followers were incredibly diverse, from the most Orthodox, all in black with fur lined striemels (top hats), to the most flamboyant who wore tie-dyed t-shirts and psychedelic, Rastafarian berets. Shlomo had touched each and every one of them with his music and his enormous heart.

Reb Shlomo always arrived late. He lived in his own time zone. This zone would expand or contract depending upon what was happening in the moment. Whenever he was on his way to a teaching or a concert, he could be distracted by anyone who seemed to be in need. He was like a motorist who could never pass a car pulled off to the side of the road without offering assistance. Thus a normal fifteen minute trip could take hours. He would stop for every beggar: "Holy sister, times are hard!" or "Holy brother, what can I do to help you?" 

Moreover, he would not simply give money, like the rest of us, and then pass by. No, Reb Shlomo would stop for a short conversation because each neshama (soul) called to him. Each person was treated as if he or she were a saint. As a mystic, Reb Shlomo believed that the world was balanced on our ability to help each other. Should someone fail to assist another person, the world could be destroyed. He really believed this.

When Shlomo entered a room, no matter how crowded, he would try to physically touch every person in the room. Sometimes a handshake but usually a hug would accompany his wide-eyed look of pleasure in every greeting. Whenever he saw me, it did not matter if it had been a day or a year since we had last been together, each time we met he seemed overjoyed to reconnect. Usually his greeting was a characteristic Shlomoism that mixed Hebrew, Yiddish, and hip English. It was usually something like, "Mamash! Heligeh bra-the!" (Wow! Holy brother!)

 I often did not understand what he was saying, but who cared? The smile and hug could melt diamonds.

On one occasion I remember in the late 1980's, Reb Shlomo arrived at a Jerusalem Old City apartment at 10:00 PM, even though it had been rumored that he would be there two hours earlier. The living room of the apartment was filled to capacity. Word had been spreading since three in the afternoon that he would be teaching this night. This is the way he usually arrived in Jerusalem: no flyers, no posters, no formal announcements. The grapevine was extraordinary when Reb Shlomo was in town. On only a few hours notice, he would invariably teach to a packed audience.

This night he told the group a story that has become one of my favorites:


"Everybody knows that holy beggars hold the world together. Never, never pass a holy beggar. Walk across the street, go out of your way. Many times it is Eliahu haNavi [Elijah, the prophet], and oh, if you only knew, if you only knew...

"Our holy teachers tell us--did you know this?--that we must give to a beggar according to his or her previous station. A person who was rich should be given more than someone who was poor. The secrets of the universe are hidden in that teaching. Think about it as I tell you the story of the snuff box.

"One day a beggar came to see the Baal Shem Tov. You should have heard him. He yelled, he moaned, he complained loudly to the Baal Shem, saying, 'What kind of a God is it anyway? I used to be rich, I helped many people, I never turned anyone away, and now, look at me. I am in rags. I have nothing. This is my reward?"

"The holy Besht [Baal Shem Tov] looked at this man closely. Everybody knows that the Besht could see into the future and into the past. He said to the beggar: 'Moshe (you see, he knew his name just by looking at him), Moshe, why do you rail at the Holy One? All you need do is look carefully at your life, and you will understand.'

"The Besht continued, 'Do you remember Yom Kippur two years ago?' He stopped and looked at Moshe now that he had his attention. How could the Baal Shem Tov know what Moshe did two years earlier? Do you believe this? But he knew, he knew. He said to Moshe, 'Two years ago, when you were the wealthiest man in town, you went to shul on Yom Kippur with your snuff box.'

"Many of you know," Shlomo said, "that although we must fast on Yom Kippur, we can nourish the soul by bringing a fragrance into the body. So, in the old country, they used to carry snuff into the shul, and every so often they would pass the snuff box around so that people could be revived, especially in the afternoon when the fast gets the hardest."

Shlomo did not mention that these days some people at the Western Wall on Friday night pass snuff around just after the evening service. Some of these snuffs have pungent, fruity fragrances. One in particular is noted for its ripe banana odor, another smells like passion fruit, yet another like mango. On many occasions, I carried a pinch home for Shoshana and our guests to smell.

Shlomo continued with the story. "So the holy Baal Shem Tov, said to Moshe, 'You went around the shul that day giving snuff to everyone. Do you remember? And there was a shlepper [someone heavily burdened] in the back of the shul [synagogue], lying on a bench. You said to yourself, "Why should I walk back there for him when he could come to me for his snuff?" So he did not get any. Do you remember?'

"Moshe nodded his head. He did remember! The Besht continued, 'That shlepper had been fasting for three days. If you only knew how much he needed some snuff! He was so deep, so deep in his prayers that the heavens were wide open for him. When the heavenly angels saw that you did not walk over and give him a pinch of your snuff, they closed the judgment book on you. Do you know what they wrote into that book? They wrote that you should lose all of your money and that the shlepper should become wealthy in your stead.'

"Moshe jumped up, outraged, saying, 'You mean to tell me that that shlepper has all of my money! What chutzpah [audacity]! How do I get it back?'

"The Baal Shem Tov said to him, 'If you can find a time, any time at all, when you ask him and he refuses to give you a pinch of snuff, all of your wealth will be returned.'

"Can you imagine what went through Moshe's mind? He searched out the richest man in town and when he saw him he knew it was the shlepper. He began to follow him around. Moshe learned everything about the man, when he left in the morning and when he returned at night; when he went to the shul and where he bought flowers for his wife. Moshe sought to discover the times when the man would be most rushed, most harried and most irritable.

"He planned for the perfect time. It was just before Shabbos and the wealthy man was loaded with packages, hurrying home because his wife was anxious to finish her cooking. Moshe waited in the bushes and as the wealthy man came past, Moshe jumped in front of him, and asked, 'Could you spare a pinch of snuff?'

"The wealthy man stopped abruptly, hesitated a few seconds, and began to put down his packages one by one. It took a minute. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out his snuff box. Moshe, terribly disappointed, took a pinch and walked off, not even helping to load the man up again with his packages.

"Moshe tried again a few times in the next couple of months. Once he caught the wealthy man in a downpour of rain, when everyone around was running for cover, but the wealthy man had stopped and, although his snuff was ruined by the rain, he still offered it. 

"Moshe caught the wealthy man on the way to an important business meeting, loaded with papers, but he offered his snuff nonetheless. Moshe caught him in shul, in the middle of prayers; he caught him in the bank, making a deposit; he caught him in a public building on his way to the bathroom and, of course, the snuff was always offered without delay.

"Finally Moshe thought of a foolproof idea. He waited one Friday morning in the mikveh,

 the community pool of living water--connected with a natural source--where men traditionally immerse themselves to prepare for Shabbat. After the wealthy man had removed all of his clothes and was dripping from the shower, as he was about to enter the mikveh for his submersion in the pool of water, Moshe approached him and asked for a pinch of snuff. Believe it or not, the most amazing thing happened. The wealthy man stopped what he was doing, towelled himself off, and went back to the dressing room to get his snuff box.

"Disheartened, Moshe almost gave up. But he had one more opportunity. In two weeks the wealthy man's daughter was going to be married and Moshe figured that he could trap him at his daughter's wedding.

"On the special day, Moshe walked to the wedding. You know, my friends," Shlomo added, "it is always important to bring poor people into a wedding. In those days, people would go out looking for a stranger they could invite. They knew it would bring the married couple good luck. We do not think about things like this these days, but maybe we should. Anyway, Moshe stood there in his dirty clothes waiting for an opportunity. When the music started, he saw the wealthy man begin to dance with his daughter, the new bride, and Moshe knew this was the perfect time to interrupt. So he walked onto the dance floor, tapped the wealthy man's shoulder, and asked him for a pinch of snuff.

"Yes, this was the perfect time. But it did not matter. The wealthy man stopped dancing with his beloved daughter, reached into his pocket, and offered Moshe a pinch of snuff. Moshe was overwhelmed. Awed by this man's incredible spirit of generosity, he got dizzier and dizzier; then he fainted right there on the dance floor.

"When he was revived, Moshe told the wealthy man the whole story. He told about the Baal Shem Tov, and how he had learned about his own failure to offer snuff on Yom Kippur. The man said to him, 'You know, Moshe, I never doubted for a minute that everything that happened to me, especially during the last few years, was a message from the Master of the Universe. But now I see that you have suffered so much, I must tell you I will equally share with you all of the wealth I have.' 

"It came to pass that this town became famous for its two wealthiest men who gave more and more tzeddakah (charity) throughout the years. The spirit of generosity grew to unknown heights in those days. And by the way, there was more snuff given away in that city than ever before or ever after. (Hear this story mp3 1226)"