Thursday, June 14, 2007

Theft Or Tax Evasion? - Getting To Bottom Of A Chassidic Story

(Picture by Keith Levit)

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.


At June 14, 2007 at 8:42:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

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.
I think that all of the above are or could be correct. Reb Shlomo often memorized stories that he read or heard ONCE [!], and over the years, details could have been mixed up, forgotten, and/or changed. He was also known to have embellished some of the stories he heard. If you listen to the "Olam Haba" story about the Baal Shem Tov on the Sweetest Friends recording, there are some "quotes" that are defiinitely "embellishing": "Aren't you Faigale, aren't you the cutest little Faigeleh?," etc.
Finally, Chassidic stories in general have been found with different people in them - I've seen [in print!] the same story about the BST & the Maggid, for example; this happens with other Tzaddikim as well.

At June 14, 2007 at 8:49:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

PS - There's a very interesting "duplication" in the famous "Yosseleh, Kamtzan Kadosh - the Holy Miser of Krakow" story that Reb Shlomo tells. There's a Chabad Rav who claims that HE was the one at the interfaith conference, in Reb Shlomo's sequel to the story. I once tried investigating this, but never got to the bottom of it.
Ascent of Safed – Story #264 - 1 Kislev 5763 When Rabbi David Schochet of Toronto picked up the envelope from Buffalo and read the letter inside..."

At June 14, 2007 at 9:15:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Rabbi Tal Zwecker said...

Good Detective Work your theory sounds good, I have read that story from Carlebach and I discussed it recently with Rav Aryeh Wohl, he said that he didn't believe the Baal Shem nor the Degel would bless outright thieves The Skverer version seems to be the original.

At June 14, 2007 at 11:29:00 AM EDT, Blogger Akiva said...

Your title struck me as odd, like a question of big theft or little theft. After all, is not tax evasion little theft from the government?

We sometimes miss the context of these stories and that time in our history, where taxes were not evenly distributed, nor at a level that is 'fair', and were often piled on the Jews.

Evading this unfair system was often a matter of survival, starvation versus providing for ones family.

Similarly, when 98% of the wealth is accumulated by 2% of the populace, then thievery becomes a survival mechanism, which was the case at such a time.

At June 14, 2007 at 11:35:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Akiva: I was not trying to suggest either was even the slightest bit ok. They are both 100% aveiros.

I previously addressed the mistaken idea that it was acceptible to cheat on one's taxes here

At June 14, 2007 at 1:43:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

"Az di velt is mir m'kaneh
fahr mein klein shtikeleh broidt
Un ich vill fun gornisht vissen
az di kisheness zenen zurissen
un ganvenen is mehr bitter vi di toit.
- an old Yiddish leid [song].
"Everyone is jealous of me
for my little piece of bread
but I don't want to know a thing
that my pockets are torn
and stealing is more bitter than death."

At June 14, 2007 at 3:20:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

Has anyone independently verified another of R. Shlomo's stories, the one about the "Schwartze Wolf" ?

At June 15, 2007 at 5:12:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Bob et al,
If you recall at the end of the Schvartze Wolf story, Reb Shlomo describes an old Belzer Chassid telling the story, who was named Schvartze Wolf after the man in the story. And that later, when he told that story, someone came up to R. Shlomo & told him that HE was descended & named after that Belzer Chassid. I believe this has been verified by Belzer Chassidim.

At June 15, 2007 at 7:38:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

"I believe this has been verified by Belzer Chassidim."

That's my question; do we really know independently that any Belzers (or anyone else) verified this?

At June 18, 2007 at 1:32:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Yaacov Dovid Shulman said...

I forget the name of the Chabad rabbi, but I believe he lives in Toronto. The story appeared in a publication in Baltimore a few years ago called Miriam's Well.

I emailed his daughter and she replied with great certain that the Miser of Cracow story with the conference at which a person asked for that story repeatedly happened to her father.

At June 18, 2007 at 1:34:00 AM EDT, Anonymous yaacov dovid shulman said...

Uh, the story didn't repeatedly happen to her father, but the man asked for the story repeatedly...

At February 14, 2009 at 7:51:00 PM EST, Anonymous bh said...

I know a bochur from Antwerp called zevi...and he once tolled me that he was named after his grandfather,and if I remember correctly the grandfather's mother had a dream when she was pregnant and she was tolled to call her son wolf or zeev because she was a heinikel of the baby that was born thanks to the " heilige" shvarze wolf's brocha.
Regarding to Reb shlomo's stories there is on youtube a video of zalmen schachter talking about Reb shlomo and he says there that while he would read or hear a story together with shlomo when he would hear him telling it, it sounded like shlomo had "watched the movie" in between.


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