#126 (s5760-26/1Adar II)
His wife suggested going for advice and blessing to the Baal Shem Tov
A Jew who had leased the rights to a certain enterprise on the estates of Graff [Duke] Putatski found himself in deep trouble. Business had been very slow, and now he was two years in arrears on the lease-money to an impatient and cruel landlord. So when the duke threatened him that if he didn't pay the whole debt by the end of the month when the third year would begin he would toss him and his wife and children into a dungeon and leave them there to rot, there wasn't a question in the poor Jew's mind that the Duke was prepared to fulfill his word.
But where was he to get the money? Business was still terrible, and he didn't know anyone from whom he could borrow such a large sum. The days passed. He felt tormented, and his wife and children were terrified and in tears, but he couldn't come up with a workable idea. True, his wife had suggested going for advice and blessing to the so-called wonder-making Rabbi who lived not far across the border, but that was patently ridiculous. Perhaps it was permitted for the naive and the uneducated to believe the stories told about the Baal Shem Tov, but he was a G-d-fearing Torah scholar; it was not proper for him to go near such a person.
But as the final week drew near, he was no closer to a solution. His wife kept insisting he go to the Baal Shem Tov. Finally, in desperation, and to find some relief from her tearful entreaties, he agreed to make the journey. So what if he talked to the man; it didn't mean he had to follow his advice.
Upon being ushered into the Baal Shem Tov's room, he recounted his whole sad story. The Rebbe's response took him by surprise.
"Sunday morning, go to town, to the market area. When a gentile peasant approaches you and offers to sell you something he has, accept immediately. Pay no attention to what it is, how it looks, or whether it is worth the price he asks. Just buy it. Then come here again and I'll tell you what to do with it."
He returned home and reported to his wife what the Baal Shem Tov had said, and announced scornfully that he had no intention whatsoever of wasting his time and doing it. His wife, however, who believed in wonders and miracles, made sure that on that Sunday morning he set out for town.
Feeling ridiculous, he strolled around the deserted square. Suddenly, a farmer appeared and asked him if he would like to buy something nice, and showed him the sheepskin that he was holding. He asked how much it would cost him and was told, one gold coin. It was exactly what he had in his pocket! - the last of his money. Totally astonished by the series of seeming coincidences that exactly matched what the Baal Shem Tov had told him, he handed over the gold piece to the farmer without thinking further about it and took possession of the wooly skin.
"Wait a minute!" he kicked himself. "What did I do? The last of my money - for a sheepskin? Am I crazy? I can't believe I did this," and he ran quickly through the streets to find the gentile who had "fleeced" him, but he couldn't find him. The peasant had disappeared as eerily as he had come. He felt depressed and aggravated.
When he arrived home, he exploded at his wife: "It's all your fault. You made me do this. What good can this silly fleece possibly do? And now we have no money at all."
She remained calm. She simply commented that the entire episode constituted a confirmation that the wondrous rabbi knew exactly what he was talking about. Had not every word he said come true? "Stop being so stubborn," she told him. "You know that many important rabbis also go to consult the Baal Shem Tov. Just go back to him and see what he said to do with the sheepskin.
What choice did he have? Once more he traveled to the Baal Shem Tov. He told him in a bitter tone what had happened that Sunday. The Rebbe gave him a wide smile. "You did very well, my friend," he said. "Now listen to what you should do next.
"The birthday of your graff will occur in a few days. He'll throw a huge party for all his aristocratic friends. Each of them will of course bring him a birthday gift appropriate to their stature. You too should show up that day and bring him a present - the sheepskin!"
The man could not believe his ears. Was the Baal Shem Tov teasing him, making fun of his situation? He hurried home and shouted at his wife that her precious rabbi had advised him to commit suicide.
"Don't be ridiculous," she responded.
"It's true," he retorted. After quoting to her the Baal Shem Tov's words, he added morosely, "Picture what would happen if I were to follow his absurd plan. The lords of the land will come, bringing with them the most precious items available in honor of the Duke: fine wines, rare fruits, valuable jewels; you name it. Then I stroll in and offer him a ragged sheepskin. Is there any doubt that he will promptly have me executed for the insult? Of course he will. Not only that, we have to be afraid about repercussions of his wrath on the rest of the Jewish community too."
His wife dismissed his fears. "Don't try to understand what is not possible to fathom. All you have to do is carry out the Rabbi's instructions exactly. Be courageous, and strengthen your faith in G-d Al-mighty and His righteous ones."
The day came. It was the Duke's birthday, and only a few days till his final deadline. He woke with a sinking feeling in his stomach. Sure enough, that afternoon his wife insisted that he go to the duke and present him the sheepskin. Unable to think of any alternative, either good or bad, he realized he would have to go. He set out, walking slowly, his heart beating wildly.
As he approached the property, his apprehension grew even more. By the time he was in sight of the manor, he was terrified. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead. He had to force himself to take each succeeding step. As he came closer, he could see numerous fancy carriages of the guest nobility.
He stood at the door, but could not bring himself to knock. "Should I really do it?" he debated with himself, "Or should I just go home?" He finally decided that only evil could befall him there, and turned to start home.
At that moment the door swung upon, and one of the duke's guards emerged. Spotting the tenant, he shouted, "Jew! What do you want here?"
He couldn't respond. He opened his mouth, but just couldn't force himself to say the words that he had brought a present for the Duke. Nevertheless, somehow the man guessed his intention, and said, "Perhaps you brought a present for the Master. What's that in your hand?"
Still speechless, he extended his arm so that the guard could see the sheepskin. The latter whooped in derision. He took the fleece in one hand and grabbed the Jew's arm with the other, and marched him into the oversized dining hall where the Duke was entertaining his noble guests. "Your highness, look how your wretched Jew insults you. This is his disgusting "gift" for you on your special day."
Taking in the sheepskin in a quick glance, the Duke's first reaction was shock, which quickly gave way to fury. "Take him off to the dungeon until I have time to deal with this," he commanded his servants. "Why should I let him ruin a good party."
He went to rejoin his guests in their drinking and carousing, but somehow it wasn't the same. He couldn't get the incident of the sheepskin out of his mind. "Sure, Jews are greedy and sly and disloyal," he mused to himself; "everybody knows that. But stupid? No. Not at all. So why did the Jew endanger his life with that worthless piece of fleece? There must be more to this than is apparent."
He decided to take a few minutes to think the matter over in private. Excusing himself to his guests, he retired to his den, hauling the strange gift with him. Maybe there was something special about it and he hadn't looked closely enough. Indeed, he now noticed that a bit of the wool on one side was curled in the shape of a letter. And next to it was another letter. And another, and another! It was unbelievable! The fleece lay in such a way that it spelled his name, his father's name, his family name, and the year, month, and date of his birth!
Duke Putatsky stared and stared at the wonder in his hand. He couldn't get over it. Could some craftsman actually have done this? Could it possibly be natural?
Snapping out of his joyous reverie, he ran back to the main room and went from table to table, excitedly showing his prize to his guests, and asking them what they thought. They too were thoroughly amazed by the phenomenon. His question, however, presented no difficulty. There could not possibly exist in the world a craftsman who could accomplish such a wonder; it must be natural, a miracle from heaven. "But perhaps we are being hasty," a few of them remarked. "Why don't you ask your Jew where he acquired it?"
"Of course," exclaimed the duke, clapping his hands. "That's what I should have done right off." He quickly sent someone to fetch his tenant from the dungeon.
"Where did you get this skin?" the duke demanded.
The poor man was convinced his end had come. He threw himself on the floor at the feet of the duke and begged for mercy. "It's not my fault," he cried. "A weird rabbi told me to do it. My wife made me do it." Sobbing uncontrollably, he told them the whole story.
"Relax, my good fellow," said the duke kindly. "Don't be afraid. Your rabbi is indeed a holy man. It is a blessing for me and you that he sent you here. What seemed to be a worthless skin is to me now the most precious, valuable item in the world."
The Jew couldn't believe his ears. The duke showed him the extraordinary wonder of the names and dates embedded in the fleece. "I'm so pleased with you," he said to his astonished tenant, "that I relinquish all of your debt. And in return for your unique present to me, I have several nice gifts for you."
Smiling, the duke handed to the Jew some extremely expensive objects of gold and silver. Many of the wealthy guests also bestowed upon him money and valuable presents. He left there no longer a poor man, and from that day on all his business efforts prospered, and he became quite wealthy.
Only one question remained. What to do with the miraculous sheepskin? The nobles discussed it for a while, and decided that the duke should make of it a wool hat, and every year on his birthday he should wear it and display it. Together with that, he should also be sure to give a suitably expensive gift to the Jew, in gratitude for his having given him the best birthday present ever, beyond anyone's imagining.
Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder
and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and
the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published
stories to his credit.