Sayings of the Rabbinic Sages

Rabbi Hillel’s Questions for the Aspiring Mentsch:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?

In His Father’s Footsteps

When Rabbi Noah succeeded his father, Rabbi Mordecai, his disciples noted that in several matters he acted not as his father had done, and asked him about it. “I act,” he replied, “exactly as my father did. He never imitated others, and neither do I.”

The Supreme Question

Shortly before his death, Rabbi Zusya said: “If they ask me why I was not like Moses, I will be able to give an answer; but if they ask me why I was that like Zusya, I will have nothing to say in reply.”

A Person Should Not Be Judged by the Standards of Others

Rabbi Mendel was once told that a certain man, Mr. X was greater then another man, a certain Mr. Y. Rabbi Mendel responded: “If I am I simply because I am I, and you are you simply because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and if you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.”

That Which Cannot Be Imitated
Rabbi of Kotzk said: “Everything in the world may be imitated except truth, because truth that is imitated is no longer the truth.”

Piece of the World and Peace of Mind

Rabbi Bunem said: “The Sages say, ‘Seek peace in your own place.’” Do not seek peace just anywhere, but each person must seek peace within the self. It is written: “There is no peace in my bones* on account of my misdeeds.” Once a person establishes peace within the self, that person is capable of establishing it throughout the world.”

*The Hebrew word etzem maybe translated as both “bone” and “self.”

The Sheepskin

The Rabbi of Kotzk once said of famous tzaddik (holy person), “He is a tzaddik in a sheepskin.” His disciples asked him what he meant by that, and he replied: “One person buys a sheepskin to keep warm in winter, and another buys wood to light a fire. What is the difference between the two? The first wants to keep warm, but the second wants to warm others, too.”

The Seeker

Rabbi Hanoch relates the following story: There was once a man who on the counter this great foolishness was called “the golem (the monster).” When he awoke in the morning he found it so hard to get his clothes together that he feared to undress himself and go to sleep in the evening. One night an idea occurred to him: while undressing he took paper and pencil and noted where he laid every garment. In the morning he took the piece of paper and read, “The hat – here it is,” and placed it on his head; “The trousers – here they are,” and put them on. He did the same with the whole list until he put all his garments on. At the end he said to himself, “And where am I?” He searched and he searched everywhere all around, but was unable to find himself.   All too often we are just like that man,” the rabbi concluded.

What Are You Are Doing?

One time the Tzaddik (holy person) of Berditchev saw a certain man in the marketplace so deeply engrossed in his business that he did not notice what was taking place around him. The Tzaddik stopped him and asked him, “What are you doing?”

“I have no time at the moment to speak to your honor,” man replied impatiently.

The Tzaddik did not give up and repeated his question: “What are you doing?”

The man was exasperated. “Don’t bother me, Rabbi, my affairs press upon me!”

The Tzaddik would not let him go. “That’s all very well,” he said, “but what are you doing for yourself? The things that you are so concerned about and over which you focus your efforts on are in the hands of the Holy One. They are substantially beyond your direct control. There is only one thing that is left entirely to you, and that is your relationship to God.”

The man lifted his eyes and for the first time the world around him and was amazed by it, and sensed for the first time what the awe of God really is.

The Most Essential Thing

After the death of Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin, one of his disciples happened to visit Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk. The Tzaddik (holy person) asked him, “What did your rabbi consider the most essential thing?”

The disciple mused for a moment and relied: “Whatever he happened to be engaged in at that particular moment he considered the most essential thing.”


Selected, edited, and translated by Rabbi Kerry Baker