by Avraham Stern
translated from the Yiddish by Yaacov David Shulman
One time, there was a very wealthy Jew who was involved in large business deals and even had ships on the sea—but he had no children. This man came to the Baal Shem Tov and asked the Baal Shem Tov to pray for him to have children. The Baal Shem Tov told him, “I have advice for you, but it will constitute a great test. If you are interested, come back with your wife. If you both agree to what I say, you will have children, God willing.”
The wealthy man went home. Then, harnessing his best carriage and horses and taking his coachman, he returned to the Baal Shem Tov with his wife. The Baal Shem Tov told them, “If you want children, you will have to agree to become poor, so poor that you will literally have nothing more than a loaf of bread. You will have to ask people for charity and even go begging from door to door.” Once the wealthy man’s wife agreed, the man himself agreed.
On the way home, they stopped in a shtetl near their town, and stayed in an expensive hotel. There the wealthy man learned that his ships had sunk. He also heard from the hotel guests that all his possessions had burned to the ground.
He could no longer travel home, because he was a debtor. So he dismissed his coachman, and sold his horse and carriage to make some money. He moved into a small shtetl, rented a poor apartment and stayed there until his wife told him the good news: she was pregnant. He gave whatever small amount of money that remained to his wife, and he went out into the world, traveling with the riffraff, begging from door to door. Meanwhile, his wife gave birth to a boy. Jews, who are “merciful and children of the merciful,” supported them from their charity boxes.
The once-wealthy man traveled with the riffraff deep into Germany. He was happy with his lot, for he was sure that at home his wife was already bringing up their child.
However, one wintry Saturday night, as he was warming himself at the oven-fireplace in a beis medrash, he gave a deep sigh. The shamash asked him why he was sighing. He answered that he wanted a fresh glass of tea from a samovar. He recalled how, when he had once been wealthy, many Jews had drunk tea at his own house—and he compared that to his situation now. The shamash was moved. He immediately brought him to the richest man in town. He took him into the kitchen and asked the servant woman to give him a glass of tea from the samovar.
There was a half-open door between the kitchen and the salon. And from the salon the once-wealthy man heard weeping. He asked the servant woman what the weeping was about. She told him that the master of the house is very rich and even has his own ships at sea. However, he has great troubles. In recent years he lost his wife and two adult children, from whom no more was left than a son from one and a daughter from the other. He arranged for the marriage of these two to each other, and he gave them control of his business affairs. Unfortunately, they do not have any children. The entire week, they are involved in the business. But every Saturday night, they come to their grandfather, give him the business figures, and afterwards, she hears weeping.
The guest told the servant woman to tell the master of the house that he can help. She did so, and the master of the house immediately called him in. He told the guest that a tragedy had overtaken his granddaughter: she was unable to become ritually pure [and thus have relations with her husband]. As soon as she would come out of the mikveh, she would again become ritually impure. And so his grandson and granddaughter come to him every Saturday night, crying and asking him to allow them to get divorced. Although he had brought in many doctors, there was no improvement.
The guest assured the master of the house that the Baal Shem Tov from Poland could certainly help him. The Baal Shem Tov might want to come in person, and that would involve great expenses. (At that time, the Baal Shem Tov used to travel on his own to the needy in order to sanctify the name of heaven and to show the Jews that God has compassion on them and listens to the prayers of their tzaddikim). The master of the house immediately hired a coachman to travel with the guest directly to the Baal Shem Tov in Mezhibozh. He also sent a letter along with the guest, and promised that if the Baal Shem Tov were willing to come himself, he would pay whatever the Baal Shem Tov requested.
In those days, the trip from Germany to Mezhibozh, by horse and carriage, took several weeks. When they arrived in Mezhibozh, the Baal Shem Tov told the coachman to go home, while he kept the guest [the formerly wealthy man] with him over Shabbos. Immediately after Havdalah on Saturday night, the Baal Shem Tov had his gentile servant, Alexia, harness his horse and wagon and bring along the guest. When they left town, he told Alexia to tie the reins to the wagon, turn his back to the horses, and let them go on their own. The guest saw towns and villages flit by just as if the horses and wagon were flying through the air.
The horses came to a halt in a small forest near an inn. They heard the cry of an infant coming from the top of a tree. The Baal Shem Tov told Alexia to wait there, and he and the guest walked over to the inn.
There they found over ten Jews reciting Psalms, and the innkeeper and his family in great distress. Obeying the request of the Baal Shem Tov, the guest asked the people, “What is going on?” He was told that the wife of the innkeeper had a number of times given birth to boys. Each time, on the vach nacht (the night of watching, before the circumcision), it seemed as if some changeling had been exchanged for her son—then this apparent changeling suffered for a few hours, and died. And so this time the innkeeper had brought a quorum of Jews from the town to remain awake with the mother the entire night, learning Torah and reciting Psalms in order to guard the new-born child. However, a few minutes ago the mother had noticed that another child had apparently been exchanged for her own.
The Baal Shem Tov told the woman to take down the bed sheet that hung around her bed. (It was the custom in Poland to hang a bed sheet around the bed of a new mother—thirty days in the case of pious Jews and at least until after the circumcision for regular Jews.) He showed everyone the child. Everyone agreed that this child did not have a human appearance. The Baal Shem Tov handed the child to the guest and told him, “I am giving you my stick for protection. Go to the wagon where you heard a baby crying from the top of a tree. Raise the stick up to the tree, and with your other hand, beat the child. When you hear a commotion coming from the tree, say, ‘Give me back my child alive, and I will give you back yours. I am telling you this as a messenger of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.’ And you will be given back the true child. Then get on the wagon and come back here with the child, and with Alexia.”
A few minutes later, the guest came back to the inn carrying a child in his arms. The Baal Shem Tov told him to give the child to the mother. She recognized it as her own, and there was great joy in the inn.
How happy were the innkeeper, his family, and the entire quorum of Jews when they learned that the Baal Shem Tov, about whose good name they had only heard from a distance, was here in their midst—and, in addition, had saved the child with such a wondrously great miracle. They begged him to remain with them until the next morning for the circumcision. But the Baal Shem Tov answered, “Tonight I have an important matter to take care of, in order to sanctify the name of heaven. However, wait for me to come to the circumcision tomorrow. I promise that I will, God willing, come on time.”
The Baal Shem Tov and the guest again sat in Alexia’s wagon, and the horses again flew as before, until they came to a stop deep in Germany at the house of the rich grandfather. Coming into the house, they met the two grandchildren weeping in the presence of their grandfather, as they did every Saturday night. The grandfather and grandchildren were filled with great joy when they saw the guest with the Baal Shem Tov, whom they did not recognize. The grandfather asked after the coachman whom he had sent to get the Baal Shem Tov. The guest replied, “The coachman is traveling in the natural way, so he will first come in the normal period of time. But we came here miraculously. We only left Mezhibozh at the beginning of the evening, and our trip was interrupted with a miraculous event” (the story with the saved child).
The Baal Shem Tov sent someone to call the town shamash (who, as shamash of the Chevra Kadisha and the Chevra Nosim, was involved with burying the dead, and so was not a fearful man). He commanded him to light his lantern and enter the bath. He should carry the Baal Shem Tov’s stick into the mikveh room he should carry the Baal Shem Tov’s stick, and say loudly: “The Baal Shem Tov is here in town, and he decrees that you leave this mikveh.” The shamash obeyed. As soon as he said these words, there was a great commotion in the mikveh room, and a voice answered him, “Is it not that Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov has chased us out of Poland? Now, does he also want to chase us out of Germany?” And there was a great wind that blew out the lantern. The shamash grew frightened and barely escaped with his life, and back to the Baal Shem Tov.
Then the Baal Shem Tov himself went, taking along the shamash and the guest. He stood with the lantern in the mikveh room and told the shamash and the guest to go down to the mikveh. The shamash should strike the water with the Baal Shem Tov’s stick, using all his force. When the shamash did so, they could hear a deep groan from the mikveh, as though someone had been killed. The Baal Shem Tov lit the mikveh with the lantern, and they saw that the water turned had red, the color of blood. Then the Baal Shem Tov sent for the rabbi of the town. He told him to drain the mikveh and kasher it with milk [?], in accordance with the law. He added that from now on, the granddaughter would be able to purify herself according to the law of Moshe and Israel and that she would have children.
The rich man asked: “How much should I pay you for your trouble?” The Baal Shem Tov replied, “I want nothing for myself. I traveled here for the sake of heaven, to increase the glory of heaven. But you must reward the guest.”
“How much should I give him?” asked the grandfather. The Baal Shem Tov replied, “You must give him what is his. You deal in salvaging sunken ships. Some time ago, you salvaged two ships filled with merchandise, and made a great profit. That merchandise belongs to the guest. Deduct your expenses and give him the remainder.”
The grandfather replied, “Rabbi, I will be more generous than that. I will forgive the expenses and give him all the profits that I earned with his money.”
The grandfather immediately the grandfather ordered his grandchildren to bring the accounts from the books, and on the spot he paid the guest with ready cash.
The Baal Shem Tov, the guest, the rabbi, the shamash, the grandfather and the grandchildren ate a joyful melave malka together. The Baal Shem Tov took his leave and arrived came at the inn in time for the circumcision.
The innkeeper, the grandfather and his grandchildren, and the guest were all helped through the prayers of the Baal Shem Tov. May his merit protect us and all Israel.
Yaacov David Shulman