Weekly Chasidic Story #1047 (s5778-16/ 14 Tevet 5778)

Changing Professions

Returning home, the rabbi found his wife in tears, for she had heard about his visit to the stables.

Connection: Weekly Torah Reading -- "The Egyptians enslaved the Jews with harsh labor to break them" (Ex. 1:13-14). Midrash: "They made the males do female labors and the women do male labors" -- i.e. strange, demeaning, inappropriate work.

Changing Professions


Reb Yosef of Beshenkovitch in Belarus (White Russia) was an outstanding Torah sage who knew the entire Talmud and the "Mishna Torah" of the Rambam by heart, and was greatly honored by all the other Torah scholars in his region. In the year 5564 (1804), his Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman (the founder of the Chabad dynasty, who was then living in Liadi), advised him, "For the benefit of your divine soul, it is better for you to be a wagon driver than a rabbi." Reb Yosef was then age 60!

Rabbi Shneur Zalman passed away in 5572 (1812) and was succeeded by his son, Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch. Two years later, Reb Yosef was offered the position of chief rabbi of Lieple. Recalling the Rebbe's words of ten years earlier, he refused the offer. He realized that now was the time to fulfill the Rebbe's advice. For a month he wavered, undecided and confused; should he really adopt this difficult and demeaning position or not.

Eventually, he mustered up the courage and went to the local wagon station. When the wagon drivers saw the elderly scholar standing before them, they asked him to where he wished to travel. "I have not come to travel but, rather, to learn to become a wagon driver," he answered in a low voice.

The wagon drivers looked at each other in surprise, and began to joke at his expanse. One driver finally accepted that Reb Yosef was sincere in his quest, and even though he couldn't understand why, he agreed to teach him the trade. In the stall, he was shown how to hitch the horses, attach the saddle and the reigns, and oil the wheels. One of the horses whipped his tail and almost knocked out the 70-year-old bewildered trainee's eye.

That night, Reb Yosef arrived home dirty and bruised. He changed his clothing and went to shul to pray and to teach Torah to his nightly class. After, upon returning home, he found his wife in tears, for she has heard of her husband's visit to the stables.

When Reb Yosef shared the Rebbe's instruction of a decade earlier with her, however, she told him, "In my opinion, if the Rebbe told you this, you mustn't delay even a day. Tomorrow I will sell my jewelry and you will be able to buy a wagon and horses."

Encouraged by her innocent words and sincere faith, Reb Yosef decided to travel to Velizh, where he could learn the trade from a wagon-driver who was also a Torah scholar and a chasid.

Time passed. Reb Yosef became used to his new lifestyle. One evening, he stopped over at a Jewish-owned inn, utilizing much of the time to sit down and learn Torah. The innkeeper introduced him as a wagon-driver to a guest who needed to travel the following day. This man, 'Solomon Gamitzki,' was a Jew who had abandoned his family and the ways of mitzvah observance. His name originally was Shlomo Leib. Conducting himself like a non-Jew, he had become a friend and employee of the Count of Batchaikov.

"What time will we leave?" asked the guest. "After davvening (praying,)" was Reb Yosef's reply.

"At what time?" he retorted. "To me, it makes no difference whether you pray or not; I need to know when we will travel, to know when to wake up, wash and eat…"

"And davven..." added Reb Yosef.

"That I leave for you," concluded the guest. Then, realizing that Reb Yosef wouldn't be ready to leave until 10:00 am, he ordered a different coach for 5:00 am.

Solomon went to sleep soon after that, but awoke shortly after midnight, bewildered. Someone was crying. He opened his door and saw Reb Yosef sitting on the floor of his room, reciting by the light of a solitary candle the midnight prayer of lamentations over the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, and weeping profusely.

Reb Yosef's crying penetrated deeply into Solomon's heart. Memories of his youth, his father, his teacher, the wife and children he had left, all passed before his eyes. When the night came to an end, he watched Reb Yosef stand up, wash his hands and immediately begin the Morning Prayers, pronouncing the words with intense passion and sincerity.

Solomon's eyes filled with tears. At 5:00, when the innkeeper came to notify him that his coach was ready, he notified him that he had reconsidered and decided to travel with Reb Yosef instead, at the later time.

Hours passed, yet Reb Yosef was still fervently praying. Overcome with anguish, Solomon went to the innkeeper, borrowed his tallit and tefillin, and prayed Jewishly for the first time in many years. So intense were his feelings of regret and repentance, however, that he became extremely ill. For several days, he hovered between life and death.

The Count sent his personal doctor to examine him, but the doctor was unable to help him or even diagnose his illness, and soon gave up hope, shrugging his shoulders in despair. Reb Yosef determinedly remained at the sick man's bedside, fasting and saying Psalms, and counseling him how to implement his decision to return to his family and Judaism. Eventually Shlomo Leib regained his strength and was able to leave the inn.

Reb Yosef traveled home. When he arrived, he saw many Chassidim preparing to travel to the Rebbe, Rabbi DovBer, in Lubavitch and longed to join them. However, he was not able to at that time.

When next he arrived in Lubavitch, he was greatly surprised to encounter Shlomo Leib there. He had resigned from his job with the Count, and had come to Lubavitch to study in a Torah environment and to be near the Rebbe.

When Reb Yosef was able to enter the Rebbe's room for a private audience, the Rebbe informed him, "My father appeared to me last night and told me, 'Yosef of Beshenkovitch has fulfilled his mission.'

"My father turned an accomplished scholar into a wagon driver for the sake of a single Jew, and now for the benefit of many Jews, he has commanded me to appoint you as mashpia (spiritual advisor) to the chasidim in Beshenkovitch."

Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the translation in "Merkaz Anash" #225 of this famous episode in Chabad annals, which was first published in the Introduction to Pokei'ach Ivrim, one of the many books authored by the Rebbe R. DovBer.

Biographical notes:
Rabbi Shneur Zalman [of blessed memory: 18 Elul 5505 - 24 Tevet 5573 (1745 - Dec. 1812 C.E.)], one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, successor to the Baal Shem Tov. He is the founder of the Chabad-Chassidic movement and the author of Shulchan Aruch HaRav and Tanya as well as many other major works in both Jewish law and the mystical teachings.

Rabbi DovBer Shneuri [9 Kislev 1773 - 9 Kislev 1827] was the eldest son and successor to Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of the Chabad movement. The author of numerous deep, mystical texts, he is known in Lubavitch circles as "the Mittler (Middle) Rebbe."

Connection: Weekly Torah Reading -- "The Egyptians enslaved the Jews with harsh labor to break them" (Ex. 1:13-14). Midrash: "They made the males do female labors and the women do male labors" -- i.e. strange, demeaning, inappropriate work.


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.

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