Chazal thought very highly of a jester, a person who makes people laugh. They say that a special high place is waiting for him in Gan Eden.
The Talmud (Ta’anis 22a) relates that Eliyahu HaNavi was once speaking with Rabi Beroka Hozah, when two men passed by. Eliyahu remarked, “These two men have a share in the World to Come.”
Rabi Beroka approached them and asked, “What is your occupation?”
“We are jesters,” they replied, “When we see men depressed we cheer them up and when we see two people quarrelling, we strive to make peace between them.”
Ask the previous inhabitants of the town of Shklob, formerly situated in Russia, near the border of Lithuania, the meaning of this passage in the Talmud and they will point with reverence to Nachumka the clown, who through his jesting saved all the Jews of that city.
The story goes back over 150 years to the days of Catherine the Great, who ruled all of Russia with a firm but fair hand. In the beginning, the city of Shklob was part of Lithuania and Poland, but through treaties and intrigue it passed into Russian hands. A great many Jews who plied many trades and were very wealthy inhabited the town.
But not everyone is destined to taste of the fruit of this world and to enjoy its vintage. Among the inhabitants of this town lived a poor man, Nachumka.
Nachumka had a wife and six children. He was the son of the prominent gaon, Rabi Shaul Wohl, and was himself a Torah scholar and pious person. But his wife called him a schlemiel, for it seemed that good fortune would always evade him. As she was wont to joke, “If he became an undertaker, people would stop dying.”
But Nachumka never lost his good cheer. Wherever he went he would act the buffoon, and the gathering would suddenly become lively. Even the babies of the city began to smile when he arrived.
When Catherine annexed the city of Shklob, she appointed a general to govern as a reward for the many heroic campaigns he fought on her behalf. But he was a cruel and vicious governor. He hated the Jews and did everything to harass and hurt them. He imposed vicious taxes, and when they couldn’t pay he had them jailed. At the slightest provocation, he would have the leaders flogged in public. He also imposed restrictions upon their businesses and trading practices.
One day the city was notified that the prime minister was to visit the town to view the general’s progress. An announcement was posted inviting everyone to present their requests to the minister, who would try to act upon them. However, the general let it be known that he would not allow any Jews to appear before the minister.
The Jewish leaders of the city were worried. They were sure if they were allowed to present a petition to the minister, describing the evils of the general, he would report it back to the queen, who was known to be fair and treated everyone well. But how to accomplish it was the question.
They all gathered in the main synagogue to formulate a plan of action. At the height of the discussion, someone suggested using Nachumka. “If anyone could get through closed doors, it would be he,” he said. The others thought it was a good idea, and they sent for the jester.
“Nachumka,” they told him when he arrived, “time is short and our lives are in great danger. Every day it grows worse for us, and at this rate we may expect a pogrom. We have prepared a petition to present to the queen’s minister, but we have no way of getting it to him. Therefore, we rely on your cunning and guile to do so.”
For once in his life Nachumka was serious. He thought for a moment and then said, “I am flattered that you chose me to act as your emissary. I also realize the grave danger involved. But I will not shirk my responsibility. I pray that G-d, in His mercy, will guide me and show me the right path to follow. If I fail, G-d forbid, then I request that you take care of my wife and children.”