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A Boy and a Calf

And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; you shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak them when you sit at home, when you travel… (6:6-7)

Do not stand by the blood of your fellow

- Leviticus 19:16

The priority of man over beast is nought, for all is vanity… but for the pure soul…

- from the morning prayers

At the age of eleven, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch began to keep a journal in which he wrote faithfully for his entire lifetime, often for several hours a day. He recorded his personal experiences as well as the wealth of chassidic wisdom and lore which he absorbed while growing up in Lubavitch in the home of his father, the Rebbe, and surrounded by the great chassidim of the time. The following excerpt was written when he was twelve years old and recounts an event which took place one year earlier:

Following the guidance and instructions of my father, I used my entire fortune - which at the time amounted to some thirty rubles, received in reward for reviewing mishnayosby heart - to establish a free loan fund. I provide interest-free loans in small sums of three to five rubles to market people and to peddlers who made their rounds in the villages with bundles of flax, pelts, chickens, eggs, onions and the like.

On the advice of my teacher Rabbi Nissan I keep accounts. The days before and after the market day are my business days, in which I distribute and collect the loans.

Among the 'regulars' who frequently make use of my fund is Reb Dovid the butcher, nicknamed 'the one with the teeth.' Reb Dovid is a man of fifty, heading a family of eight souls, a frightful pauper who earns a living from the toil of his hands. No work in the world is too difficult for him - be it in the scorching heat of summer, in a winter snowstorm, or in the rainy season - as long as he earns a few kopecks for his toil. Never does he complain about his miserable state and poverty.

A simple man is he, this Reb Dovid: if he studied at chederduring his childhood, he has already forgotten his learning. Aside from the prayers - including those of the festivals and the High Holy Days - the Psalms, the Passover haggadahand the Ethics of the Fathers, he doesn't know much. But he is a wholesome and honest man, and every day - save those that he works in the next village - he is among the first ten men to make up the Psalm reciting society and the vatikin minyan.1

I loved to catch those moments on an afternoon preceding Shabbos or a festival when Reb Dovid would head home from the bathhouse, his face aflame and the edge of his white shirt peeking out, his four sons surrounding and running after him. Another hour would find him humming a tune as walked with his four sons to the large synagogue where he prays.

My parents were away for a time. I was staying at the home of my grandmother, the Rebbetzin Rivkah. My chederstudies were held in the home of Reb Yeshayahu Kamtier on Shileveh Street.

At the time, the Lubavitch police force consisted of a pristov, an uradnik, and three diesatniks,2 with another five diesatniksadded on market days to help keep the peace.

And this is what happened:

It is two o'clock in the afternoon of a day in Av (August-September) of 1891, a market day. I was walking home from chederfor lunch together with my friend Shimon, the son of Reb Shmuel the writer. The market square is jammed; also Shileveh Street on which we walk is filled with carts, horses and peasants.

We met Reb Dovid the butcher carrying a calf on his shoulders, a small lamb in his arms, and a basket of chickens hanging in front of him. Noticing me, his face - black as an African's - lit up, and white teeth peeking out, he said: "I hope to G-d that I'll earn well - Ich hof tzu Go-t as ich vell gut fardinen…"

Before he finished speaking, the police uradniksuddenly sprang up beside him and struck him a blow across the face. Blood ran down his nose. Seeing this, I yelled at the uradnik, "Drunk! Despicable one!," and I shoved him hard.

The uradnikfell upon me the libel that I had ripped off the brass badge sewn on his chest and interfered with the carrying out of his duty, and instructed one of the diesatniksto take me to the police station. Before I had a chance to utter a sound, a half-drunk peasant grabbed me with a coarse and powerful hand by my clothing and neck.

The commotion in the market was at its peak, and with great difficulty we proceeded, pressed together, through the crowd of people, carts, horses and other livestock. Because of the heaven-spliting sounds of the market, no one paid attention to me and my escort.

We passed the market square, passed Chachlukeh St., and arrived at the station courtyard. The guard opened the gate and my escort handed me over to the officer on duty with notification that I have been arrested for the aforementioned crimes.

The officer on duty received me with a wrathful face, glared at me with contempt, awarded me a slap across the face, grabbed me by the lobe of my ear, and led me to one of the cells. He opened the doors of a dark room, pushed me in, and locked it behind me.

And I, a terrible fear descended upon me. I also felt very hungry. But after a moment the thought flashed through my mind: why, I, too - just like my holy grandfathers - am sitting in prison! So I must occupy myself with words of Torah. As I was already fluent in two volumes of Mishnayos, Zero'imand Mo'ed, I began to review them by heart.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of a drawn out grunt; my imagination frightened me and I trembled in terror. I strained to focus my thoughts on the words which I was reciting by rote and moved away from the corner from which were the grunt and sounds of flailing came. I concentrated on reviewing of mishnayos.

To this day I remember the thoughts which ran through my mind at the time concerning the afternoon prayer of mincha.

Since I was sitting in the dark and did not know the hour, I hurried to pray mincha. I said the k'toresand ashrei; upon reaching the amidahI hesitated as to which version of the prayer I should recite. Should I include aneinu, sinse I was in a state of distress, and say the confession of al chait(most of which I knew by heart) in repentance, or not? But before I could finish I decided that no, I should not say aneinu, nor al chait; in fact, I should not even say tachnun;3 on the contrary, the day on which the Almighty granted me the privilege to be imprisoned for defending the honor of a Jew should be a festival for me. With a feeling of joy I prayed the amidahwith proper concentration, to the best of my knowledge and understanding.

After the minchaprayer, as I was reviewing the mishnayosof the order of Zero'im, I heard the sound of grunting and flailing limbs, accompanied by a lengthy struggle. My knees were knocking together in fright, but I remembered that my friend Shimon had been showing me the box of matches he had bought for his brother Leib, and that in the great confusion of what happened it had remained with me. I lit a match and saw a bound calf with a muzzle on his mouth lying in a corner and my fear was calmed.

I finished reviewing the order of Zero'im, and proceeded with the order of Mo'ed. Before I could finish Mo'ed, I heard the sound of steps approaching the room of my imprisonment. Soon the door opened and I saw the officer on duty.

"Please forgive me," said the officer, "I did not know that are the nephew of Razoh." (All the townspeople, also the non-Jews, called my uncle 'Razoh', short for Rabbi Zalman Aharon.) "Now his honor the pristovhas arrived and has commanded to release you… Please, have mercy on me and do not tell them that I hit you and pulled you by the ear, I didn't do it in malice - only out of habit - why, no blood ran from your nose, and none of your teeth fell out, so what's so terrible…?"

When we entered the pristov's room, Reb Dovid the butcher - bruised and beaten - already stood there there together with the policeman who hit him, and the witnesses Reb Yoel the tin man and Shaul the wagon driver.

The police officer argued that the calf which Reb Dovid had been carrying was the calf which Reb Meir the butcher had purchased from his, the officer's, brother, and was stolen from Reb Meir by Reb Dovid. This was why his hands had struck the face of the thief. "And this youth," he said, indicating me "insulted me and ripped my badge."

The witnesses testified that Reb Dovid the Butcher had purshased the calf he was carrying.

While they were still speaking, Mr. Mordechai Silverbeard - the servant of my uncle Razoh - entered and handed a note to the pristov. Upon reading it, the police cheif said to Silverbeard: "You can take him, he is free of any punishment."

All my friends were waiting for me outside the station house. We walked together - I didn't want to ride in the coach which was sent from our home - and I told them all that happened to me.

When Mr. Silverbeard heard my story about the calf in the prison cell, he rushed to find Meir the butcher. Meir rushed to the station, where he found the pristovstill presiding over the case of the police officer versusReb Dovid, and said to the pristov: "I was told that a bound and muzzled calf is lying in the jail of the police station."

The pristov, who was in a bad temper - he had been forced to leave his company and his card game - stood up in a rage and went to investigate, followed by the station manager and the court clerk. Also Meir, Dovid and the witnesses trailed after them, to see if it is true about the calf in the jail cell. How amazed they all were to discover that it is indeed as Meir says, and that here indeed lies the calf which Meir had bought from the brother of the beating policeman.

Upon investigation, it was discovered that the policeman and his brother had conspired to first sell the calf to Meir and then steal it from him.

For a week the policeman sat in jail, after which he was brought to trial. Another wrongdoing of his was discovered and he was dismissed from his post.

My friends later told me that five hours had gone by until the pristovwas found in the company, Mr. Azmidov and Dr. Yermakov, engaged in their card game at the doctor's home.

When my father returned from his trip my uncle Razoh recounted to him the entire incident of 'Black Dovid with the Teeth' and praised my strength of mind. Thanks to me, he told him, Dovid's innocence and the policeman's guilt had been established, and the calf had been returned to Meir.

My father said to me: "You did well to protect the dignity of an honest Jew. And if for that you suffered for a few hours, so what?"

"Now it has also been demonstrated to you," father continued, "how good it is that you are fluent in mishnayosby heart. Were it not for this knowledge, in what way were you any better than - l'havdil4 - the calf of Meir the butcher, who also sat in prison? But because you knew the mishnayosand you reviewed them there, the hours of imprisonment passed with words of Torah and prayer, in which lie the advantage of man over beast."

Father's words remain engraved on my mind and heart: Love and esteem every honest Jew, be he rich or poor in Torah. Protect the dignity of every Jew even if danger is involved. And always prepare 'provisions for the way' - by learning by heart - in case of any mishap, so that no time will be wasted without study of Torah.

My father gave me ten rubles to add to my fund that I may increase my loan-granting activities.

FOOTNOTES

1. A group that prays at the earliest permissible moment, timing their prayers to begin the amidah prayer to coincide with sunrise.
2. Various ranks of police officers in Czarist Russia
3. Aneinu ('Answer Us') is a special prayer that is said on fast days, consisting of a plea that G-d deliver us from danger and calamity. Al Cheit ('For The Sin…') is the lengthy confession for sins which is said on Yom Kippur and on other occasions which require a heightened degree of repentance. Tachnun ('Supplications') is the regular confession that is recited daily but is omitted on Shabbos, the festivals, and on other festive occasions.
4. 'To differentiate'.

 

 


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