Theft Or Tax Evasion? - Getting To Bottom Of A Chassidic Story
A Talmid recently sent me a link to an audio recording of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach telling the story "Moishele the Ganev II", contained on the CD Greatest Stories Volume 1. This story mentions the Degel Machaneh Ephraim starting at the 7:00 minute mark and contains two statements that immediately aroused my curiosity. The first was a reference to the Degel as "the Rebbe of all the thieves of the world" and the second was the claim that "the heiligeh Ephraim appointed him [Moishele the Ganev] to be his successor".
I had never before come across such claims as made in this story in all my research on the life of the Degel. Recalling that the story sounded familiar, I looked in Yitzhak Buxbaum's book "The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov" and noted that there was a story entitled "Yankele the Thief" on page 350. This story was an identical to "Moishele the Ganev", with the exception that Moishele's name was changed to Yankele, and the Degel was replaced with the Baal Shem Tov's son "Reb Tzvi". Interestingly, in the footnotes, Buxbaum noted that the source of this story was from "Shlomo's Stories" and could also be found in the biographical section appended to the 1995 Jerusalem printing of Degel Machaneh Ephraim. He also noted that he made a correction to the story because he believed that it must have been about Reb Tzvi and not the Degel.
Upon reading this, I immediately took a copy of Degel Machaneh Ephraim off the shelf and found this story in the biographical appendix which indicated that it was originally told by Rebbe Yitzchok of Skver:
"In the holy Baal Shem Tov's village there was a very simple Jew, boorish and not knowledgeable, who rented and managed saloons from the village master. This Jew requested that the Baal Shem Tov ask Hashem to allow him to find favor in the village master's eyes and also exempt him from paying taxes for all the saloons that he was involved in. In order to bring him closer to Hashem, the holy Baal Shem Tov did just as this Jew asked and arranged that the master exempt him from the taxes.
When the Baal Shem Tov passed away, the master immediately imposed taxes on this Jew. The Jew then traveled to Toldos Yaakov Yosef, told him his story, and request that the Toldos arrange for a tax exemption for him. The Toldos replied that now since the time that the Baal Shem Tov has passed away, whenever anyone is involved in a dangerous situation, the best advice is to take a sefer Tehillim and recite it with kavana and Hashem will help him. The Jew left the Toldos in anger, slammed the door, and said, “We should certainly be upset about the passing of the Baal Shem Tov. Were we required to recite Tehillim when he was alive??" When the Toldos heard this Jew's words, he immediately recognized his great faith in the Baal Shem Tov; a simple faith in tzaddikim. The Toldos immediately called him back and promised that the master would release him from the taxes, and so it was.
When the Toldos passed away, the village master once again imposed the taxes. This Jew came to see the Degel who was then living in Mezhibuz. The Degel saw standing before him a haughty ignorant man and rebuked him for having made such a request from his grandfather and from the Toldos. The Jew left in great agitation and immediately ran to the kever of the Baal Shem Tov where he wept profusely and cried out, "Rebbe, Rebbe, why did you leave us?” Exhausted from all his crying, he fell asleep on that spot. The Baal Shem Tov appeared to him in a dream, and said to him, “Go to my grandson and arrange by him that you not pay taxes as before!”
The Jew awoke from the dream and immediately went running at full speed to carry out the Baal Shem Tov's command. The Degel allowed himself a little sleep on very rare occasions. During these occasions, people would watch outside his house to ensure that there not be even the slightest noise since the Degel would not be able to sleep if he heard the sound of even one person walking outside. The people, however, did not see the Jew run by them because of his great alacrity. The Jew went right into the Degel's room, and upon arising from his sleep, the Degel said to the Jew, “Go home, for you have accomplished that you shall never pay taxes for the rest of your life.”
While sharing a common message of emunas tzaddikim and other similarities with the story of Moishele the Ganev, I am inclined to believe that the story that was preserved and told over by Rebbe Yitzchok of Skver is indeed more accurate and authentic. I wonder whether the Carlebach version was a product of the telephone game phenomenon, whether Carlebach had taken certain literary liberties with his version, or whether it was just another example of a Degel story with two versions.