The Yiddish and Hebrew Writings of Max Gass

by Rabbi Yossi Shemtov

WHEN MAX WROTE DOWN Yiddish and Hebrew sayings he did not create anything new. Many quotations came from the Siddur—the prayer book—as well as the Talmud, the Mishna, and Hassidic philosophy.] He just brings out into the open and enlightens what we may have taken for granted for many years. To some people the prayer book and the prayer become burdensome because we no longer listen to what we say when we pray. We do not understand what we are saying. And we do not see the beauty.

Imagine, we take a certain route every single day of our life, or for ten or twenty years. Is it not true that after twenty years we could still find something there we have never looked at, recognize something was always there, that we never thought about?  The same thing is true with the words of our prayers. Many of us read these books, these sayings, and it’s nothing new. But many, even those of us who have prayed every single day for many years, we suddenly find a new insight…Hey, it is true, this is what it says in this prayer; I see for the first time, this is what it means.

For example, Max Gass writes down this passage from the Siddur, from a psalm that we say every day:

“Let all the earth sing in jubilation to the Lord. Serve the Lord with joy.”

That’s only one verse from the whole chapter, the one verse that Mr. Gass felt was important to write down.

In another place Mr. Gass quotes from the blessing after a meal. Literally, next to the last verse, it says:

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and the Lord will be his security.”

But that comes at the end of a full chapter. Mr. Gass quotes only those words.

We find also in his writings a verse from a prayer that is said everyday by people who pray from a Sephardic prayer book. And what he writes is this, underlining as shown:

“May the Lord our G-d be with us as he was with our fathers. May he not forsake us nor abandon us, that he may turn our hearts to him to go all his ways.

Then he goes back to the paragraph before this paragraph, and quotes:

“Let us walk in the light of the Lord, for all the nations walk each in the name of its G-d, but we will walk in the name of G-d forever and ever.”

Another verse is from Psalm 97, which is said in the prayer on Friday nights. He writes down only one verse:

“You who love the Lord hate evil. He watches over the souls of his pious ones.”

Again he quotes from the prayer that we say every day:

“He humbles the haughty to the ground and raises the holy to supreme heights.”

From the chapter of Psalms that is said on Sabbath he quotes only this verse from Psalm 121: “No evil will befall you, no plague will come near your tent.”

When Max Gass rewrote a verse or combined it with another, in no way did he change it or make of it less that what it is. He did not use a quote to try to support a certain belief of his own, or to defend a particular point of view. He took it as it was. He wrote it down in such a way that not only did he include the whole truth of the quotation, but through the way he expressed it, he enhanced it. And through his wisdom he was able to rewrite it to show us how we could be better people to man and to G-d.

In the way Max Gass stressed certain parts of the prayer we consistently find three themes:

1) what man is supposed to do to be a good servant of G-d

2) what G-d has promised to the righteous man, and

3) praising G-d.

In every case Mr. Gass chooses just a few lines from a much longer chapter or prayer. A reader can get lost in a prayer, words upon words flowing by. But Mr. Gass was able to listen to the words and to find those few passages that captured for him the central truth. To show you what he is doing I will translate several whole passages, underlining the words Mr. Gass actually wrote down: This prayer comes from the psalms that we say only on Saturday, from Psalm 34:

“Forward strides that man who takes refuge in Him. O fear G-d, you who are sanctified to Him, for there is no want to them that fear Him. Young lions have become poor and suffered hunger, but they who seek G-d shall never ant for any good thing. Come, O sons, and hearken to me; I will teach you the fear of G-d. Who is the man who desires life and loves days that he may see good?  Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech. Keep away from evil and do good without hesitation; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of G-d are toward the righteous and His ear is open to their cry.”

A second example:

“G-d is King, G-d was King, G-d will rule as King through all eternity. G-d is King at all times, even nations are lost from His earth. G-d has brought to naught the counsel of the peoples, has denied success to the thoughts of nations. There are many thoughts in the heart of man, but it is the counsel of G-d that endures. The counsel of G-d endures for all the future, the thoughts of His heart are for every generation. For He spoke and it was.”

Another example comes from a part of the Sabbath prayer. It is called a Mishaberach, a blessing which is made for the well being of the supporters of the congregation.

“May he who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless this entire holy congregation together with all the holy congregations–them and their wives, their sons and their daughters and all that belongs to them. Those who establish synagogues for prayer, and those who come there to pray. Those who provide lights for illumination, wine for kiddish and havdalah, food for the wayfarers and charity for the needy, and all those who occupy themselves faithfully with communal affairs—may the Holy One, blessed be He, give them their reward, remove from them all sickness, heal their entire body, pardon all their sins and send blessing and success to all their endeavors together with all Israel, their brethren, and let us say AMEN.”

I would infer that this Mishaberach points out for which different people this blessing is for. But Mr. Gass does away with all this list of people and starts from May the Holy One, blessed be He, give them all their reward. So perhaps, according to Mr. Gass, it was meant that everyone should receive this blessing.

One final example of the way Mr. Gass chooses just a few words from a longer passage:

“A Psalm of thanksgiving. Waken homage to G-d, all the earth; serve G-d with gladness, come before Him with exultation. Know that G-d is G-d; He has made us and we are His; [we are] His people and the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise of His mighty deeds; Give thanks to Him [and] bless His Name. For G-d is good; His love endures forever, and His guiding faith extends to every generation.”

In the next paragraphs, we are going to concentrate on the way Mr. Gass would put together a few words from different paragraphs, never usually put together as a whole, perhaps to show us that we could learn something when they are written together.

What we have just read is from different parts of the daily prayers. In the prayer book there is also a part that is called the Ethics of the Fathers. And from the Ethics of the Fathers we have several quotes from Mr. Gass:

From Chapter 1, the seventeenth Mishna:

“Shimmon his son said, all my days I grew up among the sages and did not find anything better for one’s person than silence. Not study, but practice is the essential thing, and whoever engages in excessive talk brings on sin.”

Then on the same page, and I imagine at the same time, he goes to the fifth chapter, the nineteenth Mishna, and this is what he wrote down:

“He who has these three attributes is among the disciples of Father Avraham, and three other attributes mark the disciples of the lawless Bileam. A good eye, a humble mind, and an undemanding soul are the characteristics of the disciples of our Father Avraham. An evil eye, a haughty mind, and a demanding soul are the characteristics of the disciples of the lawless Bileam. What difference is there between the lot of the disciples of our Father Avraham and that of the disciples of the lawless Bileam?  The disciples of our Father Avraham enjoy this world and inherit the world to come, as it is said, ‘That I may cause those who love Me to inherit substance, and I shall fill their treasuries.’  The disciples of the lawless Bileam, on the other hand, inherit Gehinnim and descend into the pit of destruction; for it is said: ‘You, O G-d, will bring them down into the pit; men of murder and deceit shall not live out [even] half their days, but I will trust in you.’

Here Mr. Gass is quoting two different passages concerning the practices a righteous man should follow. By underlining he sets one idea above all others:  Trust in G-d.

Another series of quotations comes from a different part of the Ethics of the Fathers:

“Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.”

And it says:

“Who is a wise person? That is a person who considers the consequences of his actions.”

Then it says:

“Who is a strong person? That is someone who conquers his evil inclinations.”

Mr. Gass writes down: Who is rich? Who is wise? Who is strong? and puts it all together, although technically these are three separate ideas in the Ethics of the Fathers.

On another page we find that Mr. Gass writes a line we mentioned previously as part of a context of a whole Mishna. Here it’s brought down as a one-liner, as I would call it: Not study, but practice is the essential thing, and the word practice is underlined.

On the same page, but from another Mishna, a later chapter, Reb Chanina ben Dosa, is quoted as saying:

“One whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. But someone whose wisdom is greater than his actions, his wisdom will not endure.”

We see that Mr. Gass wrote down from one chapter, the first chapter, that it’s not the study that’s important, but action, and then he finds later a place where somebody else backs up this idea, that the more action you have, the more your wisdom will endure. So Mr. Gass was able to find in the Ethics of the Fathers a one-liner from a whole Mishna in the first chapter, and to back it up with something that is written in the third or fourth chapter.

Mr. Gass also wrote down in Hebrew many sayings that do not come from the Siddur, but from a variety of different places: from prayers, from the Talmud, the writings of Hassidic sages, and so on. Here are a few in translation:

“Two brothers can be separated only by death.”

“Pain does not come to a person only for his good.”

“There isn’t a person for whom a miracle could not happen.”

“A person should not be friendly with the wicked man, because that brings suspicion.”

“A person should not give his son away to be taught by angry people.”

“A person should not lower himself more than he has to.”

In other words, he shouldn’t be arrogant, sometimes a person has to be humble, but he definitely shouldn’t lower himself so much that he makes of himself an animal.

And finally, here is a long quotation that Mr. Gass wrote down in Hebrew from the Musaf for Rosh Hashanah, one that shows both the wisdom and the beauty he so clearly loved and cherished:

“For as is Your Name so is Your praise. You are slow to anger and easy to pacify, for You do not desire the death of the one deserving death, but that he return from his path and live. And [even] until the day of his death You wait for him; if he will but repent, You will welcome him at once. Truly, You are their Creator and You know their evil inclination, for they are but flesh and blood. Man’s origin is dust and his end is unto dust. He earns his bread at the risk of his life. He is likened to a broken potsherd, to withering grass, to a fading flower, to a passing shadow, to a vanishing cloud, to a blowing wind, to dust that scatters and to a fleeting dream.

“But You are the King, the living and eternal G-d.”

What is the significance of this collection of quotations? Why should we pay attention to these scraps of paper, and to a man patiently copying in Hebrew the words he loved? To answer these questions I would like to tell you a story:

I was once teaching somebody about Judaism and came to the point where I told him that he must purchase his own pair of tefillin, the phylacteries which you put on every single morning when you pray. So the individual said, that’s fine, I should order it and he’ll buy it from me.

The following week he calls me up, he says, “Rabbi I must come over to you, you wouldn’t believe what we bought.”  So he and his wife come over, they knock on the door, I open and they’re all excited, they bought a pair of tefillin. So I said, “Where did you buy it?”  Tefillin are written by a scribe and put together in a certain way, so you have to be careful. And he tells me he bought it in a yard sale.

I said a yard sale? Tefillin you buy from a scribe, you buy in major cities—what kind of yard sale?

He says, “Well we went to an estate sale, where the children were selling everything, and the tefillin was lying there with all the old stuff from the house.”

Years ago when somebody passed on, the children and the grandchildren would fight for the tefillin. They all wanted to have it. Then a generation moves away a little further from Judaism, and they bring it to the synagogue. Maybe the synagogue could find somebody for it. But now to see that it’s being sold on yard sales…I dread to think that maybe in the next generation these tefillin are not even going to make it out to the yard sale. They may be part of the estate which the children don’t even think is worthy of putting out to sell.

In the writings of Max Gass this devaluation of values and beliefs does not exist. Instead we find an emphasis on, even an increase in the values of the past…

I have found many sources for Max Gass’s Hebrew sayings. When Mr. Gass quotes from the Talmud, he writes down the Talmudic source. We have to conclude that he has studied many pages prior to the quote he copied down. So what you see here is an end result of years of research, writing, study and thought.