It is a beloved Chasidic tradition to tell these three stories prior to the Pesach holiday. Some Chasidic rebbes retold them almost a month before Pesach, some waited for Shabbat Mevarchim of Nissan, but in any case, retelling these three stories at the Shabbat table are considered a segulah for an abundant Pesach. The version of these stories translated here can be found in the Enclyclopedia “Otzar Yisrael.” They are accompanied by short comments by Rabbi Ginsburgh.
Vodka and Water
A certain Jew prepared a barrel full of vodka before Pesach, which he planned to sell and with the profit buy all that he needed for Pesach. He crossed the border to a neighboring country where the vodka was scarce, hoping to quickly sell its contacts. The soldiers at the border confiscated the barrel of vodka, for in that country, it was prohibited to sell vodka without special authorization.
Our hero immediately journeyed to Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, may his merit protect us, and cried profusely over the confiscated barrel of vodka. Rebbe Elimelech told him to return to the border crossing and tell the guards they had made a mistake. There was nothing in the barrel but water. Ask them to taste the contents of the barrel. “They will taste simple water,” Rebbe Elimelech told him, “And will return the barrel to you.”
The Jew did as Rebbe Elimelech told him. Everything happened as Rebbe Elimelech had foreseen and his barrel was released. But then he realized, “This barrel of vodka was the source of my income with which I planned to purchase all our Pesach needs. Now it is nothing but a barrel full of water!” He returned once again to Rebbe Elimelech in tears.
“Go back and taste the liquid in the barrel,” Rebbe Elimelech instructed him. To his amazement, the water had transformed back into vodka, which the Jew quickly sold and returned home with the profit. And the Jew had all his needs for Pesach met with great abundance.
This story reminds us of the story with Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa who said, “He who told the oil to ignite will tell the vinegar to ignite.” With his strong faith in God, the tzaddik experienced the renewal of creation described as, “something from nothing” (יֵשׁ מֵאַיִן). He merited this because he himself was also nothingness. This is the state we are meant to experience by eating matzah on Pesach—a state of self-nullification. When we achieve a state of nothingness, everything can change. Vinegar can burn like oil and vodka can taste like water.
The Ba’al Shem Tov’s path of Chasidut is especially connected to this idea. The sages say that “Israel are not guided by the mazal [the astrological constellations]” (אֵין מַזָּל לְיִשְׂרָאֵל), meaning that like Abraham whom God took above the stars, the Jewish people are not governed by the laws of nature perceived by others. The Ba’al Shem Tov explained that this statement should be read as, “Nothingness is the mazal of Israel” (אַיִן מַזָּל לְיִשְׂרָאֵל), meaning that when Jews reach a state of self-nullification, the effluence they receive flows from their connection to the attribute of nothingness. In a state of true self-nullification, the letters from which everything is created can be permuted and “trouble” (צָרָה) can become an “opportunity” (צֹהַר, literally, an opening). The trouble itself transforms into the salvation, as in the verse, “It is a time of trouble for Jacob and from it, he will be saved.” Naturally then vinegar can turn into oil and vodka can become water and vice versa.
The Dayenu Story
Once there was a king who lost his ring. The king said he would give all those who would search for his ring a substantial sum of money that would allow them to search worry-free. There was a poor Jew there who did not have money to buy what he needed for Pesach. “The king is giving money to all those who are willing to search for his ring,” his wife said. “Go and tell the king that you will also search for his ring and the king will give you money, which we will use to buy our Pesach supplies.” The man took his wife’s advice, went to the king, and offered to help search for his ring. The king gave him money and he bought an abundance of supplies for Pesach. When the Seder night arrived, the Jew brought many guests to his home and fed them with plentitude.
One of the king’s advisors was a priest who hated Jews. He could not tolerate the fact that this Jew had bought his Pesach supplies with the money given to him by the king. On the Seder night, the priest hid under the Jew’s window and saw how he, his family and all his guests were eating and drinking with plenty and were not searching for the king’s ring at all. “I am going to show the king what this Jew did with his money,” said the priest and he promptly returned with the king. They stood under the window and saw how the Jew was sitting like a king at the head of his table. But the king had his doubts and tried to make out what was being said around the festive table.
Just as this was happening, the house’s inhabitants reached the Dayenu. This Jew’s custom was that when they would sing the Dayenu at the Seder, he stood up, recite a verse, and all present would repeat the chorus: “Dayenu, dayenu.” But these Jews were from an area of Europe where “Dayenu” was pronounced “Dayayni.” Incredibly, the priest’s name sounded just like “Dayayni.” What the king heard was some unintelligible sentence and then the priest’s name—again and again. What the king imagined was happening was that the Jew was investigating who stole the ring. He addressed all his merry helpers and asked them questions about what they had found. Each question was answered with Dayayni’s name. Listening to this “investigation,” the king understood that they had found proof that it was the priest who had stolen the ring. He had the priest arrested and beaten until he admitted that he had stolen the ring and returned it. And the Jew had all his needs for Pesach met with great abundance.
Was this Jew irresponsible for buying his Pesach goods and celebrating the holiday before searching for the ring? No. He recognized a golden opportunity to fund his purchases for the holiday and was sure that God would help him find the ring. God did indeed enjoy his simple sincerity and the Jew received both the funds to search for the ring and a financial reward for providing information that apprehended the thief. The real reward, however, took place when the Jew announced “Dayenu,” meaning “it is enough for us.” In the Dayenu song we thank God for the steps along the way to the final redemption. We are grateful for every measure that God gives us. When we feel gratitude for everything, large or small, God gives us everything we can dream of and more.
Generally, the king in Chasidic stories alludes to God. We stand before God and request sustenance so that we can afford to buy supplies for Pesach. We promise that we will try to fulfill all of God’s commandments properly. Is this promise genuine? Are we sure that we will be able to fulfill everything that we have promised? If we are sincere, we are allowed to make the promise, with confidence that God Himself will help us keep our promise. Ultimately, we will find great treasures and redeem them from captivity. Every king’s ring is his seal. God’s seal is the seal of truth and there is no truth other than the Torah. From the Exodus from Egypt, we progress to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and it is there that we merit the King of the Universe’s seal of truth.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
A certain Jew ran the local township pub. Once the nobleman who owned the township and leased the pub to the Jew said to him: “If I would not lease this pub to you and give you sustenance, you would die of starvation.”
The Jew, who was a sincere God-fearing man, replied: “Do you think you give me sustenance? There is a God in heaven. He sustains all His creations, including me. If you will not be his channel for my sustenance, He will provide a different channel for me.”
“If that is the case, get out of this pub right now! Nobody in my township will be allowed to give you any work. Let’s see how your God will provide for you now,” fumed the nobleman. Pesach was approaching, and the Jew had no money with which to buy supplies for Pesach.
The nobleman had a treasure room with a large chest of gold coins. He was very much in love with his wealth and frequently went into the treasure room to count his gold. He would spit on each coin and clean it with a cloth, ensuring that all his wealth was intact.
This nobleman had a pet monkey that watched with curiosity every time he went to count his gold. The monkey saw the nobleman cleaning the coins with his spit and thought he was eating them. The afternoon after the nobleman kicked the Jew out, the monkey found his way into the treasure room alone and began eating the coins until he filled his stomach and died. When the nobleman saw that the monkey was dead, he was somewhat saddened but decided the carcass could still be of use. He commanded his servants to take the dead monkey and throw it into the Jew’s home. “Let him see that if I don’t give him sustenance, he will starve!” he laughed with disdain.
That evening, the Jew and his family were frightened to hear a window breaking. When they came to see what had happened, they saw the dead monkey on the floor of their home. When it hit the window and the floor, the monkey’s stomach opened, and all the gold coins poured out. The Jew had plenty of money with which to buy all his Pesach supplies in abundance.
On Pesach night, the nobleman wanted to laugh at the Jew’s expense. He sent his servant to see what the Jew and his family were doing, expecting the servant to report that they were sitting in the dark with nothing to eat. How surprised he was when the servant returned and told him that he had seen the Jew and his family with a house full of guests all seated around a table fit for a king enjoying a festive meal.
“Where did you get money to buy all the food?” the nobleman called for the Jew to come before him. “Someone threw a dead monkey into my house and golden coins fell out of it,” the Jew explained. The nobleman recognized how God had orchestrated it all and said, “Now I admit that it is God who sustains everyone.” And the Jew had all his needs for Pesach met with great abundance.
Our hero has great faith and confidence in God (like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s “A Story of Faith”). He truly knew how to relate to his source of sustenance. His lease was terminated—so what? Sustenance comes from God. Our work is simply the vessel through which we receive God’s kindness. The Jew recognizes that it is God who sustains the entire world and does not enslave himself to the conduit.
The nobleman, on the other hand, worships gold coins. The Jew sees the gold as a means and every coin that he receives from God is immediately used for a good purpose. The nobleman, on the other hand, seemingly “swallows” the gold coins, which is what the monkey saw him do.
In the Exodus from Egypt, the great wealth amassed by the Egyptians, who did not recognize the true source of their wealth ultimately fell into the hands of the Children of Israel. “The riches he swallows he vomits; God empties it out of his stomach.”
. Taanit 25a
. Shabbat 156a.
. Jeremiah 30:7.
. Job 20:15.