Weekly Chasidic Story #789 (s5773-18 / 24 Tevet 5773)
The Magnificent Sundial
The non-Jewish professor scoffed at the solution the teenaged Jew had given.
Connection: Seasonal–200th (!) yahrzeit of the Baal Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Chabad.
A short time after the wedding of Rabbi Shneur Zalman to the daughter of a wealthy leader of the Jewish community in Vitebsk, Reb Yehuda Segal, his brilliance became known even to non-Jews.
The Governor of Vitebsk had a magnificent sundial in his garden in which he took great pride. All of a sudden, to his dismay, it stopped working every day for a few hours in the afternoon.
He immediately sent for the area’s leading professors and wise men to solve the dilemma, but none were able to figure out why the sundial would stop every day at the same time and then resume a few hours later with the correct time as if there had been no problem. This became the talk of the town.
Hoping to change the attitude the nobility had toward the Jews, Segal asked his new son-in-law to come to the Governor’s estate to try to solve the mystery.
After examining the sundial a few times during the hours it worked and during a few hours it stopped, Shneur Zalman stated his conclusion: “There is a hill about 10-15 kilometers west of here. On that hill is a cluster of trees that evidently have grown very tall over the years and are now blocking the direct rays of the sun. This is what is creating the problem.”
A non-Jewish professor standing next to the Governor scoffed at the solution the fifteen-year-old Jew had given. The Governor didn’t know if he should investigate Shneur Zalman’s claims. If it was not correct, as the learned professor claimed, the Governor would become the laughing stock of the town.
A few days later, the sundial suddenly began functioning as if nothing happened, and the professor once again expressed his ridicule for the Jews. “You see,” he snickered, “it is working properly without us searching for some phantom hill and trees.”
The following day, however, a few workers came to the Governor and told him that since they believed the young genius, they searched for the trees on their own, and yesterday morning cut them down. With that, everyone’s eyes turned towards the embarrassed professor.
Word quickly spread about the genius and clear-headedness of Reb Yehuda Segal’s son-in-law. A short time later, the Governor of Vitebsk was honored with a visit from the leading mathematician in the area. Greeting him warmly, he respectfully asked the elderly man why he troubled himself to make this arduous trip. “If you needed something,” he said, “I would have been honored to send it to you.”
The mathematician replied, “I heard Segal’s son-in-law is a genius and for years I have had a few troubling math problems that no one has ever been able to solve. I want to discuss them with him.”
The same professor from the sundial story happened to be there on this occasion also. Unable to contain himself, he said mockingly, “According to the Jews, everything is in their Talmud. Do you think the answers to your mathematical questions are also in the Talmud? And why do you have to go to him? Order him to come to you!”
The elderly mathematician curtly replied, “One who wishes to acquire wisdom, goes to it.”
After presenting the problems to Reb Shneur Zalman, the young genius asked him to return in three days.
On the third day, to the mathematician’s utter delight, all the problems were solved. When word of this got around, Reb Shneur Zalman’s reputation (and the area’s respect for the Jews) was enhanced considerably.
Source: Supplemented by Yerachmiel Tilles from “The Alter Rebbe” by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon.
Connection: 24 Tevet (this year: Sat. night Jan5-Sunday Jas.6) is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shneur Zalman.
Rabbi Shnuer Zalman [18 Elul 1745 – 24 Tevet 1812], one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, is the founder of the Chabad-Chasidic movement. He is the author of Shulchan Aruch HaRav and Tanya as well as many other major works in both Jewish law and the mystical teachings.
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.