The Thief Who Chickened Out
The ‘Bubbe Maase’ that Saved the Day
Aside from their astuteness in Torah, some of our gedolei Yisrael are quite famous for their wit, especially as displayed in their earlier years. Not many of these stories have survived the years, so we must make sure to preserve the stories that we do have.
The following story involves Rabbi Zalman Ashkenazi, the rav in Kuzmir [Kazimierz Dolny, Poland], then in Nashelsk [Nasielsk, Poland,] and lastly, in the famous city of Lublin.
He was born on 17 Iyar, 1772, to Rabbi Zalman Ashkenazi, whose name he bore. His father, who was the rav of Pomarin [Pomoryany, Ukraine,] didn’t survive to see his son. The young R’ Zalman studied in the yeshiva of the Ketzos HaChoshen, and eventually married Genendel, the daughter of R’ Yosef Mendelsburg of Kuzmir.
The Ashkenazic community in Amsterdam offered him a rabbinical post in their community, since he was a descendant of the Chacham Zvi, who had been the Rav of Amsterdam. R’ Zalman refused their offer, exclaiming, “I prefer the Lublin cemetery, as it has many more gedolei Yisrael in it!” R’ Zalman passed away on Rosh Chodesh Nissan 1843.
The following story was told by R’ David Zvi Halberstadt from Biała Podlaska.
A Robbery in Dantzig
Dantzig [Gdańsk, Poland], circa 1790
“Good morning, R’ Zalman!”
“Ahh, good morning to you!”
“R’ Zalman, what do you say to the hotel?”
“It’s nice, quite big, actually.”
“Say, R’ Zalman, have you heard what happened to Berel?”
“Berel? No! What happened to him?”
“Poor Berel, it is so pitiful. He became a pauper overnight!”
“Why are you telling me stories in code? Get to the point, tell me the story.”
“Somebody took Berel’s money! His whole fortune was stolen. He is not even left with enough money to return home. It’s really pitiful!”
“Do they know who the thief is? What have they found out so far?”
“This is the interesting part. Last night when we came into the hotel, we locked the door behind us. That means that no-one else came in after us. This morning, Berel woke up at dawn, before the hotel doors were opened. That was when he discovered that his money was stolen!!!”
“So, somebody must have broken into the hotel!”
“Not really. You see there were no marks or any signs anywhere which would show a break-in. It’s a real mystery.”
R’ Zalman’s mind started working. “How can I help my dear friend, Berel the merchant?”
He thought hard.
An Old Segula
“Listen to me, everyone. I know of an old segula from my great-great-grandmother which I would like to try out.”
“A segula? From your great-great-grandmother? And this will help us figure out who the thief is?”
“Let’s try it out, it doesn’t cost anything. As we have established; the thief is one of us—one of the other merchants of the group.”
“Nah… you think so?!”
“Listen, do you want to help Berel, or do you want to watch him cry?”
“Okay, let’s hear. What is your segula?”
“I can’t make it known. It has to stay a secret. If it doesn’t work out then my great-great-grandmother will be put to shame. I can’t allow that.”
“So, what exactly do you want me to do?”
“Go to the reception hall, and ask for permission to use the conference hall of the hotel.”
“I’m going right now!”
In the meantime, R’ Zalman went out of the hotel. A short while later he returned. What was that they heard? “Cock-a-doodle-doo!!!”
“A chicken?! Did you bring a black hen into the hotel? What is R’ Zalman going to do with a black hen?”
“R’ Zalman, what are you doing with the hen?”
“Don’t ask me questions now. Where is the conference hall? I need to go and whisper something to the hen.”
“Zushe, have you ever heard of a segula with a hen?”
“No, Moshe. I am getting more curious by the minute! What could R’ Zalman be planning?”
When R’ Zalman came out of the hall several minutes later, he turned to all the fellow merchants, who by now were desperate to know what he was up to. What sort of segula was this? Everyone was curious.
“Gentlemen, is everyone here?”
“Yes, yes go ahead.”
“Fine.” R’ Zalman cleared his throat, “Last night there was a terrible robbery. Somebody went and stole all of Berel’s money. The thief took Berel’s entire fortune away and Berel became a pauper overnight. When we lay out the facts, it seems that the thief is one of us. Someone among us, sadly, fell prey to his evil inclination. I am sure he wants to repent; he just needs the push to do it.
“In the conference hall is a black hen. I have a certain segula from my great-great-grandmother, I hope it will work. So, I am asking everyone, without exception, to participate. Watch out how you go in because it is very dark in there!”
“Should R’ Berel also go in?”
“Yes, R’ Berel also, and myself included. This is what you have to do. Everyone, and I mean every single one of us, needs to go into the room and touch the hen.”
“And how will that tell us who the thief is?”
“Ahh, if the segula works, then when the thief touches the hen, the hen will call out loudly, ‘You are the thief!’
“Ha, ha, ha! Do you seriously think that is going to happen?”
“Does it hurt to try?”
“Okay, let’s do it!”
All the merchants stood in line. One by one they went in, touched the hen and came back out. All the people were waiting, they were on edge to hear the hen call out the words, “You are the thief!” but the hen stayed quiet. Maybe it had chickened out?
One by one, they all passed by the hen, and each time, the hen remained silent. Finally, R’ Berel himself went by and still nothing happened.
You Are the Thief!
“R’ Zalman, you really thought that your silly segula would work? I would have thought better of you.”
“Actually, I think the segula worked brilliantly!”
“Worked? Did anyone hear the hen cry out?”
“You didn’t hear it?”
“Okay then gentlemen, listen to me carefully. Please form a circle around me.”
Everyone moved into a circle around R’ Zalman.
“Please stretch your hands out, palms side up.”
R’ Zalman walked within the circle, studying everyone’s hands. Suddenly he gave a cry! “Thief! How dare you do something like that? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Go on—admit it!”
“Me? A thief? Excuse me, but I think you are accusing me falsely!”
“Accusing you falsely? Look around at everyone’s hands. They are covered in soot. Everyone’s hands are dirty—except yours!”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I covered the black hen in soot. Everyone who touched the hen has dirty hands now as a result of touching the hen. Only your hands are clean. Look around!”
“And?? What are you saying?”
“Those, whose hands are dirty, show that their souls are clean. But your hands are clean because you did not touch the chicken. You were afraid that it was going to call out, ‘You are the thief!’ It is as if you made an admission!
Give back the money immediately!”
The thief tried to get out of it, but to no avail. The other merchants grabbed him and held him down. They searched his possessions. Indeed, they found the money and returned it to its rightful owner.
The merchants praised the ingenuity of R’ Zalman, for devising such a clever way to catch the thief.
Printed in Kankan issue 17