Chassidic Story #251

(s5762-47) 29 Menachem Av 5762
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch of Chortkov had saved five hundred gold ducats as a dowry for his daughter.

This story is presented in memory of Rabbi Levi Bistritsky, Chief Rabbi of Safed,
who passed away last week at the young age of 53. He is sorely missed.


Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh of Chortkov had as an attendant a young man named Mayer Amschel. In due course he married a young woman from Siniatin, to where he moved and set up in business, prospering somewhat.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch had saved up five hundred gold ducats as a dowry for his daughter. Throughout the year he hardly ever opened the desk drawer where it was kept-except for the eve of the fourteenth of Nissan, when in the course of the search for chametz he opened it up. When this occasion came around for the first time after Mayer Amschel had left the household and married and the Rabbi duly opened the drawer, he was horrified to find that the wallet containing his entire savings had disappeared. The members of his household hastily decided that the thief could be no other than Mayer Amschel. They cited reports that he had opened a shop and was prospering-indisputable evidence that he had thieved his start-up capital, no doubt about it!

The Rabbi repeatedly silenced their arguments, and reprimanded them for succumbing to the sin of suspecting the innocent. Had they themselves not been witnesses to his honest and G-d fearing ways during the period of his employment with them? But they gave him no rest, until eventually he was compelled to make a reluctant journey to Sinitian.

On opening his door and beholding his former employer whom he so much admired and esteemed, the young man rejoiced exceedingly, and showed the Rav every mark of respect. With heavy heart and floundering spirit, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch recounted his misfortune to his trusted former attendant, and through the discreetest of hints intimated to him that there were such as suspected him.

"They are right," Mayer Amschel was quick to confess; "I took the money. At the moment, though, I have at hand only about two hundred ducats, which I will return to you at once. The rest I will return within a short time."

The rav returned home with double measure of relief-firstly, because the members of his family had not transgressed by suspecting an innocent party, and secondly, because the missing amount was now being returned to him. And in fact it all reached him in due course, in periodic installments.

In fact, however, the young man had stolen nothing. What had really transpired was, as Pesach approached, a gentile maid from one of the nearby villages had been hired to whitewash the house of the Rabbi. The locked drawer in his study fascinated her intensely. She contrived to secure a key, and in due course presented the bulging wallet to her admiring spouse.

For a long time he kept it well hidden, but when he was satisfied that the whole matter had no doubt been forgotten-and besides, it was high time to begin to enjoy his windfall-he took one ducat with him on his next visit to the local tavern, and ordered vodka in plenty for himself and all his cronies. When it was time to pay, he slapped the gold ducat expansively on the counter and said to the innkeeper; "Look what I found! Here, take it to town and have it exchanged; keep what I owe you for the drinks and give me the change."

This he did. The next week again the humble hostelry rang loudly in the wake of this peasant's generosity, and when the local yokels all caroused a third time he again paid with a gold ducat…that he had found.

The innkeeper was no fool. He went off quietly to the Polish lord and passed on his suspicions. "Next time he comes around," advised the lord, "surround him on all sides with his favorite drinking companions, and fill him up till he's dead drunk. Then we'll hear the truth! As they say, 'In flow the spirits, out flow the secrets.'"

The next time came soon enough, and by now the rustic's quickly-growing circle of friends were intensely inquisitive: where had he found all those ducats? And so it was confided the whole story of his wife's little escapade to a couple of dozen eager and red-nosed listeners, mentioning for good measure exactly where the treasure now lay buried.

The innkeeper took along a group of witnesses to the lord, and on hearing their testimony he sent off his henchmen to dig in the peasant's back yard. There they duly found just a few ducats less than five hundred. They bound and shackled him and hauled him off unceremoniously to the lord's castle, where he confessed.

The lord now sent for the Rabbi.

Quaking, the unfortunate scholar prepared himself for the worst; for who could know what new libel had been trumped up against himself and his hapless flock? Suprisingly, though, the lord asked him instead, how many children he had, how much he earned weekly, and so on. After hearing the responses he then asked: "And how do you plan to marry off your daughter?"

The Rabbi thereupon told him about the five hundred ducats that he had saved up, and that had been stolen; and on being asked further questions, he described the wallet in which the money had been kept. Fully convinced, the lord promptly handed it over to him as its rightful owner, and told him of the episodes in the local tavern.

The Rabbi returned home with mixed feelings-joyful at his discovery that his former employee was indeed an upright man, and grieved that he had suspected him. He immediately set out for Siniatin and asked the young man what on earth had prompted him to admit to an offense which he had not committed, and return a sum which he had not stolen. Mayer Amschel's explanation was simple enough. He had seen at their previous meeting that his former master was deeply distressed, and had gathered that if he were to return to his family with empty hands both he and they would be in even deeper anguish. He had therefore decided to on the spot to say that he had stolen the money; he had given away his entire fortune at the time in order to give the Rabbi some peace of mind, and had sold and mortgaged whatever he owned, in order to make up the rest of the required amount.

Amazed, the Rabbi begged his forgiveness for having once suspected him. He returned him his money, and gave him blessing-that heaven should grant abounding riches to him and to his seed after him, for many generations. Mayer Amschel grew to be prodigiously wealthy and the founder of a dynasty of magnates and bankers: the royally opulent House of Rothschild.

[Adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from the rendition in
A Treasury of Chassidic Tales (Artscroll), as translated by the incomparable Uri Kaploun.]

Biographical note:
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh of Chortkov was the father of the well-known Chassidic Rebbe, Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg. The source of this story is Rabbi David Moshe, the Chortkover Rebbe, son of the Rhyziner Rebbe.

Mayer Amshel Rothschild (1744-1812), who became a wealthy merchant and banker in Frankfort, was the founder of the Rothschild family fortunes.


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