The Lord is good to all; and his tender mercies are over all his works.
IN THE AUTUMN OF 1854, in the village of Grezhiv, in what was then known as the Congress Kingdom of Poland, Yoineh Bodek, aged six, in his second year of cheder, decided to become a vegetarian. At the time of his decision, Yoineh, the only son of the town’s ritual slaughterer, was listening to his teacher, Reb Chaim, chanting the first chapter of the first book of Moses. After chanting the chapter’s twenty-ninth verse—the one in which God tells man what is to be his food—Reb Chaim noticed that Yoineh was crying. After class, as the boys were gathering up their things to leave, Reb Chaim asked Yoineh to stay behind.
“Yoineh,” he said when they were alone, “I saw you crying earlier. Is something bothering you?”
Yoineh did not look at his teacher, but held his head down and stared at a knothole in one of the floor’s pine planks. Leaning forward, Reb Chaim placed a hand under Yoineh’s chin and gently lifted the boy’s face to his own.
“Yoineh, tell me. What’s bothering you?”
The boy looked at his teacher. Again tears began to flow.
“I…I have eaten animals,” he confessed, turning his head aside.
“Oh, Yoinehle! Is that it?” the teacher asked, leaning back in his chair. “Is that what’s bothering you? Yoineh,” he said, “you have done nothing wrong. What we learned this morning was from a long, long time ago, from the time when our first parents were living in the Garden of Eden. We no longer live there. After the flood, the Holy One, blessed be he, gave us permission to eat animals. He allowed it. We will learn this soon. You will see.”
The teacher looked at his student and knew that what he had said had not made the boy’s heart stop hurting. He leaned forward and whispered: “Yoineh, even though what I have said is true, it would be good for you to speak with your father about this. He is a righteous man, your father, and a learned one. He will know what to tell you so that you understand and feel better. But know this, Yoinehle: You have done nothing wrong. You have not sinned. You needn’t worry.”
The teacher reached into his pocket, pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped the boy’s face. “Now,” he said, smiling, “off with you.”
Yoineh returned to his desk, picked up his things, and said goodbye to his teacher. He walked down the front steps of the school. At the bottom, he stopped. Rather than cut across the fields, his usual way home, Yoineh decided to take the longer path that ran along the river. The air was cool. The trees on the banks were dressed in their autumn colors. At a bend in the river, where the water tumbled over several boulders, Yoineh stopped. He squatted down at the edge, careful not to place his books on the ground. He looked as hard as he could at the surface of the water. Whenever he noticed bubbles that appeared to rise from beneath the water, he would say aloud, “I am sorry. Please forgive me.” He did this for quite some time. At last he stood up and continued his way home.
At home, Yoineh found his mother in the kitchen. He told her what he had learned in school. When he finished, he said, “Mama, I don’t want to eat animals anymore.” His mother looked up from her cooking.
“What? Don’t be silly. Now how would that look—the son of the town’s shochet not eating meat?” When she saw her son’s face, however, she immediately regretted what she had said. “I’m sorry, Yoinehle. Forgive me. I understand. You need to talk with your father about this.”
In the middle of the afternoon, Yoineh’s father took a break from his work and came in to wash his hands and to say the afternoon prayers. When he had finished praying, Yoineh asked if he could speak with him. He told his father what he had learned in school, and that he no longer wanted to eat animals.
His father paused before speaking. “Yoineh,” he said, “you are a good boy. I understand what you have said, but I think it will help if you learn more. This Sabbath, between the afternoon and evening prayers, we can talk about it. In the meantime, I will speak with your mother and tell her not to prepare you any meat dishes, or chicken, or fish.”
That night in bed Yoineh’s father told his wife that he was confident that Yoineh would soon miss eating meat and return to his former ways.
“We should not rush him, though. He needs time to come to his own decision,” he said.
The Sabbath talk with his father did not change Yoineh’s mind. Days passed, turned into weeks, and still Yoineh ate no flesh foods, no meat, no chicken, not even fish from the river flowing by the village, teeming with fat Polish trout and salmon.
After Yoineh’s bar mitzvah, his father arranged for him to study privately with Rav Aaron, the village’s rabbi. The rabbi found Yoineh to be a ready and apt pupil. With Rav Aaron, Yoineh learned the laws of shechita, ritual slaughter, as contained in the Talmud tractate Chullin, and in the Yoreh De’ah section of the Shulchan Aruch. This theoretical study was balanced by practical experience under the guidance of his father from whom he learned the anatomy of animals, how to recognize illness and disease, how to maintain the tools of his trade, especially the sharpening and testing of the knife, and how to make the cut in the right spot, in the right manner.
One morning, not long after Yoineh turned eighteen, he arrived at the rabbi’s home for his lesson as usual. Instead of learning indoors, however, as they customarily did, the rabbi suggested that they go for a walk. Before leaving, he selected a book from his library to take with them. Side by side, teacher and pupil walked to the very place on the river where over ten years earlier Yoineh had told the river’s fish that he was sorry. A large limb, broken off one of the trees and lying on the riverbank, provided a convenient, comfortable place for them to sit and talk.
“Yoineh,” the rabbi began, “I want to share something with you, something from a book you and I have not learned together, the Sefer HaBahir. It is an ancient kabbalistic work. When you are older and are ready to learn Kabbala, you will study this book.” He opened the book he had brought from his library and read aloud: “Rabbi Amorai asked: Where is the Garden of Eden? He replied: It is on earth.”
Rav Aaron closed the book and looked at Yoineh.
“Do you understand what this means?”
Yoineh closed his eyes. He began to breathe deeply, slowly, and rhythmically. He could hear the water singing, the song of a mourning dove in a nearby tree calling to its mate, feel the warmth of the sun on his face. He opened his eyes and looked at his teacher.
“I do understand what it means,” Yoineh replied.
The rabbi nodded and rose. “Good,” he said. “Let’s go talk to your father.”
The three men sat in the front room of the ritual slaughterer’s home.
“There is nothing more for me to teach your son,” Rav Aaron said. “It is time for him to receive his diploma, and time for us to find him a wife.”
Three months later, Yoineh married a young woman from a nearby village. Her name was Shaina. The entire population of both villages turned out for Yoineh and Shaina’s wedding. After their marriage, Yoineh began to work full-time with his father. Two years later, Yoineh’s father died, and Yoineh became the ritual slaughterer of Grezhiv. It was at this time that the Satan first took notice of Yoineh.
Contrary to what many people believe, much of the work of the Satan is purely legal in nature, similar to the work of a prosecuting attorney, for example. He collects information, reviews it, builds a charge sheet, and presents it to a jury. His objective is to measure a man against the standard of God’s law and to determine whether and, if so, where the man falls short. This he did in the case of Yoineh Bodek. Standing before the court convened to hear his charges against Yoineh Bodek, the Satan began.
“Who decides,” he asked, “what is right or wrong, good or bad, permitted or forbidden? Is it a creature formed out of the dust of the earth, who returns to dust and becomes the food of worms? What if two of these creatures disagree? Does the one who is larger, or stronger, or more intelligent, or more sensitive, whatever that means, determine what is right? Would deciding in this manner not lead to moral chaos, to a world in which each man becomes the measure of all things, a world in which there is no true measure, no unchanging standard, no right or wrong? Rather, is it not God, the Holy One, blessed be he, the Omniscient One, who decides—or, I ought to say, should decide—what is permitted and what is forbidden? Yet this man, this Yoineh Bodek, arrogates to himself the decision and determines that what the Holy One has permitted to him should be forbidden. What pride is this, what arrogance, in a creature formed from dust!
“However, this is not enough. Not only does Yoineh Bodek decide that flesh foods should be forbidden to himself. No. Rather he sets as a condition of his marriage this: he would not marry any woman unless she too agreed to abide by his decision. So it is that we find a poor, beautiful young girl, in love with a slaughterer’s son, agreeing to abstain from the eating of flesh foods. Has her husband not placed a stumbling block before his blind, innocent, ignorant wife? Does he not lead her into sin along with himself, and drag her into the same pit?
“Finally, I ask, why should Yoineh Bodek, a man who has chosen to abstain from eating meat, choose to be a ritual slaughterer? It makes no sense. Be a cobbler, be a tailor—not a ritual slaughterer. Surely, judges, this man Yoineh is a base hypocrite. He wears two faces: one when he cuts the throat of an animal; the other when on the street. What is the purpose of this second face, this street face? Is it to assuage his guilt, to allow him to feel better about himself, about who he is and what he does? Others, he thinks, can eat meat, but not me, not Yoineh Bodek. I am different. I am sensitive. I am holy.
“Honored Judges, based on these charges alone, I ask you to issue a decree against Yoineh Bodek and his wife Shaina. Deny them children. Such people have no right to children and would lead them into the same sticky moral morass in which they find themselves.”
The judges retired to consider the Satan’s request. When they returned, their foreman replied to the Satan.
“Again, Satan, you have brought us a strong case. We appreciate your diligence. Nevertheless, we have some reservations. At this point, we feel that we do not have sufficient evidence of wrongdoing by Yoineh Bodek to issue, as a permanent decree, what you have requested. We will issue a provisional decree, pending a final decision on this case. It is on you to bring the necessary evidence.”
The Satan bowed. “Thank you, your honors,” he replied. “I understand. I will bring you all the evidence you need.”
Two small gravestones in the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Grezhiv bore witness to the power of the Satan’s charges and the effect of the court’s provisional decree. They marked the resting places of two girls born to Yoineh and Shaina. Neither girl lived into her second year. It was now five years since the last marker had been put in place. There had been no more children.
The farmer awoke to the sound of birds arguing outside his window. He rose, washed his hands, and said the morning prayers. In the kitchen, he heated water and made tea. He took some kasha from the pot on the stove. After eating, he went out. He crossed the yard to the barn. When he opened the barn door, the smell of hay and animals and the soft sounds of creatures roused from sleep greeted him.
He gave them fresh water and fed them, working his way, in order, to the last stall on the left. Opening its gate, he found his ewe Baila with her lamb. They were lying down, the lamb’s head resting on the belly of her mother. The ewe stood up as if to greet the farmer when he entered.
“Good morning, Baila. How are you this morning?” He handed her some hay. She took it gratefully. Patting her on the head he said, “So, finally you have done your duty by me. I was beginning to worry about you. I know it was wrong of me. I should not have. What a lovely lamb you have brought for Zeff.”
The lamb had risen and was standing next to her mother.
The farmer took down a rope hanging on a nail on the side of the barn. With it, he made a slipknot. He placed the looped end over the lamb’s neck and pulled it tighter, being careful not to draw it too tight.
“Come with me, little one. You and I have a trip to make.”
The farmer led the lamb out of the stall and closed the gate behind him. Baila walked to the gate and, peering through it, pushed her head between two slats and watched the farmer lead her lamb out of the barn.
The morning was beautiful. The sun shone brightly, and a breeze carried the thick scent of wildflowers growing on both sides of the road. The lamb enjoyed the walk. Occasionally she would stop, then leap into the air, land, pause, smell the earth, and nip some grass. “Come, come,” the farmer said, tugging at the rope. “There is a lot to be done today.” Then he thought the better of it. Let her take her time, he thought.
When he got to the shochet’s home, he knocked on the door. Shaina answered.
“Good morning, Shaina. Is Yoineh available?” the farmer asked.
“Good morning, Hersh. I will get him,” she said. “Please, just wait here.”
Shaina walked down the hall to Yoineh’s study. She knocked lightly on the door. “Yes?”
“Yoineh, Hersh is here to see you. He has a young lamb with him.”
“Ah,” he said. He closed the book he had been studying, kissed it, and placed it back in the bookshelf.
“Good morning, Hersh. What can I do for you?”
“I have brought a lamb for you to slaughter and butcher. It is for my Zeff’s wedding.”
Yoineh bent down to inspect the lamb. He looked closely, checking her teeth, gums, and eyes. Then he felt her bones, those in her legs and those in her ribs.
“Well?” Hersh asked.
“She seems fine. I will take care of it. She will be ready this afternoon. Before you leave, though, please ask Shaina to make you some tea. She also has something for you to take to Brina.”
Yoineh led the lamb towards his work shed.
“Finally,” Hersh called after him, “my Baila delivered one that lived.”
In the shed, Yoineh thought about what he had just heard. Baila? Baila, ah yes, she’s the one who had two unsuccessful pregnancies, he remembered. This one was successful. This lamb lived. He tied the lamb to a bench in the shed and went to speak with Hersh. He found him sitting in the kitchen talking with Shaina.
“Well, that did not take long,” Hersh said.
“Hersh, I’m sorry. I can’t do it,” Yoineh replied.
“Can’t do it? Why not? Did you find a problem?”
“No. There is no problem; but I am wondering if you would mind taking her to the ritual slaughterer in Rymanow?”
“Rymanow? To Zindel? Why? That’s a good distance. I have a lot to do, and besides, Zindel is not nearly as good as you. Please, Yoineh.”
Yoineh knew that what Hersh said was true.
“You said she is all right. Please. Can’t you do it?”
Yoineh took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I will take care of it,” he replied.
“Oh. By the way,” Hersh said, “Brina told me to be sure to tell you that she has prepared special food for you and Shaina for the wedding.”
Yoineh found the lamb still standing where he had left her. She seemed not to have moved at all. He walked to his workbench, picked up his knife, and ran the blade along his thumbnail. There were no nicks in it. He set the knife back down on the table.
He removed the rope from the lamb’s neck. He bent over her and spoke to her softly. Then he stood up. He led her to the drain trough beside the table. He stood on her right side and placed his left hand on her back. He rubbed her gently and slowly worked his hand around the left side of her head under her neck. He rubbed her there, feeling his way carefully. He found the spot. The lamb raised her head in response to Yoineh’s stroking. With his right hand Yoineh picked up the knife, covering as much of it as he could with the palm of his hand. He bent over her, whispered in her ear, and in one quick motion drew the blade across the lamb’s exposed neck. Blood came pouring out of her. Her knees buckled. Yoineh supported her as she fell. He placed her so that her open wound was over the trough. Her soul left her.
He worked on her the rest of the morning. Zeff came for the lamb in the afternoon. He carried her back on the same path she had walked with the farmer that very morning.
Yoineh undressed and got into bed. He thought back on his day.
“Father,” he said, “please forgive me. I am not ungrateful to you. You have been good to me and to Shaina. You have allowed me to care for us. I am also thankful that even now, still I have the feelings of a human when you send me one of your creatures whose life I must take.”
He thought of the ewe Baila, sleeping alone now in Hersh’s barn. Did she know what had happened to her little one? Did she suspect it? He turned on his side and listened to the slow, steady breathing of Shaina. She, of course, knew what had happened to her little ones; but neither she nor he knew why.
“Father,” he said in the dark, “I do not understand your ways.”
After the death of their second daughter, Shaina had come to Yoineh with a request. She had heard of a holy man who lived in a remote village in Ruthenia. Could they go to him? He was a healer. Perhaps he could help them. Yoineh did not want to go. He believed that the Holy One had his own reasons for what he did, and that he, Yoineh, would never understand them. However, when he looked at Shaina, he could not say no. The shochet in Rymanow agreed to take care of Yoineh’s business while he was away.
Yoineh and Shaina were gone two months. For several months after they returned, Yoineh would find Shaina bending over a pot on the stove, the house filled with a strange aroma. She told Yoineh that the healer had instructed her on what to do, had given her recipes for healing potions. In time, though, Yoineh noticed that Shaina stopped making the potions. He never asked her why.
He turned on his back, said the Shema, and closed his eyes. Soon asleep, he dreamed of his two dead daughters. In his dream they had grown up and were beautiful young women. They were walking in a field outside the village. Behind them was a toddler, a young boy. It seemed he was learning to walk. He would stumble along a few steps, fall forward on his hands, right himself, and begin again. Yoineh did not recognize the boy.
With Yoineh’s slaughter of Baila’s lamb, the Satan felt that he now had the evidence required by the heavenly court in his case against Yoineh. He asked the court to reconvene and to finalize the decree.
“See,” he argued, “this arrogant man who has no children, who knows what it is like to have no children, still this man could take an only surviving lamb from its mother, cut its throat, and then go to a wedding feast where its body was eaten. Surely,” he concluded, “a man like this deserves no children. There is nothing more that needs to be said.”
Before the court left the room to consider its decision, one of the judges asked, “Is there anyone else who would like to speak?”
A lamb stepped forward.
“May I say something?” she asked.
The Satan smiled.
“Yes, of course,” the head of the court replied.
“Since it is my death,” she began, “that the Satan is using to condemn the slaughterer, please allow me to tell you about it. On the day of my death, I was awakened by the sweet, warm scent of my mother. She was licking my face and neck. ‘The farmer is coming,’ she said. ‘You need to wake up.’ She rose when the farmer entered our stall. When she saw him take a rope from a nail on a wall of the barn, it seemed to me that she grew frightened. She did not say so, however, but only whispered to me, ‘I think you are going for a walk. It is a beautiful morning, little one. Enjoy it as much as you can.’ And I did.
“We arrived at the slaughterer’s home. I was placed in his work shed, tied to a bench there, and left alone. I did not know what to expect. The air in the shed was cool. Dust floated on beams of light shining through chinks in the walls of the shed. The room had a sweet smell about it, too sweet, really. Flies were buzzing all over the place. I wanted only to be outside again, in the sunlight.
“When the slaughterer entered, he removed the rope from my neck. I was glad for that. He began to rub me. He was gentle, like my mother. I wondered what she was doing. I raised my head as the man rubbed under my neck. It was then he bent down and whispered in my ear, ‘Please, forgive me.’ That is the last thing I remember.”
“Clearly,” the Satan said, turning to the judges, “there is nothing here affecting my case.”
The judges looked at the lamb. The foreman asked, “Is there anything else you want to tell us?”
“There is,” she replied. “When I was a little over a week old, my mother told me a strange story, not like her other ones, the ones she would tell me when she wanted me to sleep. It was about a man, a learned man, and a calf. Like me, the calf had been taken to be slaughtered; but, unlike me, it had escaped. It ran to the learned man, hid its head in the skirts of his robe, and began to cry. He did not save the calf. Instead, he told it to go to the slaughterer, that it was for slaughter that it had been created. The man was punished.
“I asked my mother why he was punished. Was he wrong, perhaps, when he said that animals are created for slaughter? She told me she did not know, that in the end, the reason for the man’s punishment lies with God alone. It seemed possible, though, she said, that while the man was not wrong in saying that animals are created for slaughter, he was wrong in not saying that they are also created for good. He had forgotten something important, that good does not belong to man alone, and that good, all good, is rewarded by God. He was punished, she thought, not for what he said, but for what he didn’t say.
“God’s peaceable kingdom is coming. All of you, including you, Satan, know this. The Holy One himself told Isaiah that a time will come when the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The slaughterer Yoineh Bodek believes this. He believes it with all his heart. Is it wrong for him to desire to live even now as though that time had come? Was it wrong for him to want a wife, a helpmate, a companion, who would walk the same path he does? Is the path Yoineh Bodek walks not, after all, the one the Holy One desired in the beginning? I believe the slaughterer chose the path he is walking not out of pride, but out of humility, not out of arrogance, but out of compassion. Humankind, after all, was not commanded to eat animals; it was only permitted to do so.”
The Satan stepped forward.
“Enough of this,” he said, waving his hand in dismissal, “what can a lamb possibly know of the plans of the Holy One, or of the confused musings of a man’s heart?”
“Be patient, Satan,” the foreman said, then, turning to the lamb, “Please, continue.”
“The path Shaina walks with her husband need not be seen as a stumbling block. Indeed, it can be seen as a step, a step on a ladder leading her to a greater love of God’s creatures. I believe that Shaina was not blinded by her love of Yoineh, far from it; she was given a new vision by it, a vision of Eden on earth.
“As for the charge that the man Yoineh is a hypocrite, answer me this: Is there anyone better fit to take the lives of the Holy One’s creatures than someone who truly loves them? Yoineh Bodek was kind to me, gentle with me. He made my passing as easy as such a thing can be made. There is nothing more I could have asked for in my death.”
In time, Yoineh was laid to rest in the village’s cemetery next to his wife Shaina and their two daughters. On that day, a young couple stood beside the grave. The man was thin with a thick black beard. The woman had delicate features. A few months later they were blessed with a son. They named him Yoineh.