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Barrels of Beer on the Riverbank

Barrels of Beer on the Riverbank


Editor's note: One of the central figures in the history of Chassidism was the famed "Seer of Lublin," Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Horowitz (1745-1815), who presided over the spread of Chassidism in Poland and Galicia; many of the great Chassidic masters of the time were his disciples. This story, however, is not about the "Seer" but about his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Kopel of Likova; in fact, it happened many years before the Seer's birth.

Reb Kopel earned a living by purchasing barrels of vodka and beer from the local distillers and selling his wares to the taverns in and around his native village of Likova. It was not an easy life, with the heavy taxes exerted by the government and the hostile environment facing a Jew in 18th-century Europe. Yet his faith and optimism never faltered.

Each year, on the morning before Passover, Reb Kopel would sell his chametz to one of his gentile neighbors. Chametz is "leaven" — a category that must famously includes bread but also all food or drink made with fermented grain. The Torah commands the Jew that absolutely "no leaven shall be found in your possession" for the duration of the Passover festival, in commemoration of the leaven-free Exodus from Egypt. In the weeks before the festival, the Jewish home is emptied and scrubbed clean of chametz; on the night before Passover, a solemn candle-lit search is conducted for every last breadcrumb hiding between the floorboards. By the next morning, all remaining household chametz is eaten, burned or otherwise disposed of.

What about someone like Reb Kopel who deals in leavened foods and has a warehouse full of chametz? For such cases (and for anyone who has chametz they don't want to dispose of) the rabbis instituted the practice of selling one's chametz to a non-Jew. Reb Kopel's neighbors were familiar with the annual ritual. The Jewish liquor dealer would draw up a legally-binding contract with one of them, in which he sells all the contents of his warehouse for a sum equal to their true value. Only a small part of the sum actually changed hands; the balance was written up as an I.O.U. from the purchaser to the seller. After Passover, Reb Kopel would be back, this time to buy back the chametz and return the I.O.U. The purchaser got a tip for his trouble — usually in the form of a generous sampling of the merchandise that had been legally his for eight days and a few hours.

One year, someone in Likova came up with a novel idea: what if they all refused to buy the Jew's vodka? In that case he would have to get rid of it. Why suffice with a bottle or two when they could have it all?

When Reb Kopel knocked on a neighbor's door on the morning of Passover eve, Ivan politely declined to conduct the familiar transaction. Puzzled, he tried another cottage further down the road. It did not take long for him to realize the trap that his gentile neighbors had laid for him. The deadline for getting rid of chametz — an hour before midday — was quickly approaching. There was no time to travel to the next village to find a non-Jewish purchaser.

Reb Kopel did not hesitate for a minute. Quickly he emptied the wooden shack behind his house that served as his warehouse. Loading his barrels of chametz on his wagon, he headed down to the river. As his neighbors watched gleefully from a distance, he set them on the river bank. In a loud voice he announced: "I hereby renounce any claim I have on this property! I proclaim these barrels ownerless, free for the talking for all!" He then rode back home to prepare for the festival.

That night, Reb Kopel sat down to the Seder with a joyous heart. When he recited from his Haggadah, "Why do we eat this unleavened bread? Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before G‑d revealed Himself to them and redeemed them," he savored the taste of each word in his mouth. All his capital had been invested in those barrels of vodka and beer; indeed, much of it had been bought on credit. He was now penniless, and the future held only the prospect of many years of crushing debt. But his heart was as light and bright as a songbird. He had not a drop of chametz in his possession! For once in his life, he had been given the opportunity to truly demonstrate his love and loyalty to G‑d. He had removed all leaven from his possession, as G‑d had commanded him. Of course, he had fulfilled many mitzvot in his lifetime, but never at such a cost — none as precious — as this one!

The eight days of Passover passed for Reb Kopel in a state of ecstatic joy. Then the festival was over, and it was time to return to the real world. With thoughtful steps he headed to his warehouse to look through his papers and try to devise some plan to start his business anew. Clustered in the doorway he found a group of extremely disappointed gentiles.

"Hey, Kopel!" one of them called, "I thought you were supposed to get rid of your vodka. What's the point of announcing that it's 'free for the taking for all' if you put those watchdogs there to guard it!"

They all began speaking at once, so it took a while for Kopel to learn the details. For the entire duration of the festival, night and day round the clock, the barrels and casks on the riverbank were ringed by a pack of ferocious dogs who allowed no one to approach. Reb Kopel rode to the riverbank. There the barrels stood, untouched.

But he made no move to load them on his wagon. "If I take them back," he said to himself, "how will I ever know that I had indeed fully and sincerely relinquished my ownership over them before Passover? How could I ever be sure that I had truly fulfilled the mitzvah of removing chametz from my possession? No! I won't give up my mitzvah, or even allow the slightest shadow of a doubt to fall over it!"

One by one, he rolled the barrels down the riverbank until they stood at the very brink of the water. He pulled out the stops in their spigots and waited until every last drop of vodka and beer had merged with the river. Only then did he head back home.

Told by Rabbi Y.S. Zevin's in Sippurei Chassidim; translation/adaptation by Yanki Tauber.
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Suzy Manhattan April 4, 2017

Barrel of beer story Really? Reply

Ezra Melbourne March 26, 2017

I'll explain...
He said G-d I give you a gift, it is the first time in his life that he didn't rely on a heter (leniency) to "sell" his chametz for a week, but actually fulfilled the mitzvah in the Torah to rid his chametz. He did a mitzvah lishma - for G-d alone as a gift.
Then after yom tov he realises that G-d did a miracle, the barrels were not really hefker (abandoned), they were being protected. He is not thinking about Maras ayin (that his actions are misunderstood) or gan Eden (his heavenly reward) or is G-d testing me... he is thinking if I take these now, then who gave who the gift. Did I give G-d a gift for Pesach or did G-d give me a gift for Pesach.
Can you actually grasp the amount of nachos ruach that G-d received from such a gift?
Have a happy and kosher pesach. Reply

Jon Jon'z Mars March 10, 2017

Not excepting miracles I agree with David.
This reminds me of the story of the man who was drowning, yet he was confident that HaShem was going to save him. So the boat came, and he said: "no,G-d's going to save me!" Then the helicopter came, and still, he said: "no, I trust that HaShem will save me!"
He wouldn't accept that HaShem WAS saving him through the boat and the helicopter. Reply

bo Warsaw March 20, 2015

chametz alcohol and vinegar are not good for pesach no matter how many dogs are watching ;) Reply

Debra New York March 18, 2015

how difficult this is for you. Although you said it's okay, I will reschedule my trip to a more convenient time."
I would instead categorize it as each side, caring about the needs and desires of the other and expressing their love by doing for the other, in spite of their own preference.
Similarly with the above story. G-d performed a miracle for him due to his great faith, while he expressed his love and appreciation by undergoing a significant monetary loss to ensure he completed the fine print of the law of not possessing leaven on Passover. Although he had declared his vodka ownerless, it was being guarded for him by dogs, prevented anyone from taking it. That is not truly ownerless. Furthermore, he wanted to express his pride and make it clear to others that he was keeping G-d's commandments. When other's see us follow G-d's will, we are increasing the respect and honor of G-d in this world.
I hope that was helpful... Reply

Debra New York March 18, 2015

While I hear the point you're making, I would look at the story a little differently. Imagine the scenario of a husband and wife (with a couple of kids)... The wife has decided to go back to college, and has been juggling the difficult schedule, and tough classes along with supper, homework and laundry. The husband has been there for her all along, chipping-in in the house and being as supportive as can be. For whatever reason, he would like to schedule a trip overseas for a week, which coincides exactly with finals, leaving her with the kids at a very hectic time for her. Naturally, she wishes he wouldn't go and can't understand why he can't push it off. He of course, has reasons why he must go at that particular time. Although she is upset about it, she hears how important it is to him and he has been so supportive of her all along... that she gives in and tells him to book a ticket. Would you say he's rejecting her offer if the husband says "you know honey, I see Reply

David Sydney March 17, 2015

Rejecting a miracle This makes no sense to me. G-d made a miracle for him and he rejected it? How could he? Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein c April 21, 2013

Re: Why insult us? "impossible" may not be the right word to describe this story, as nothing supernatural in its own right happened here. You may think it unlikely, and that's fine. There is an old saying that if you believe every miracle story then you are a fool... but if you believe none of them your faith is lacking. While it is not a tenet of Judaism to believe a specific story, belief in the possibility of miracles means belief in G-d's not being constrained by any rules, even those of nature and physics. It is the author of those rules' prerogative to ignore them at will, and when a person goes the extra mile for G-d, he or she might be worthy of seeing G-d's hand more clearly. Reply

wolfgang schaechter santa clara, CA - USA via March 30, 2013

The alternate ending makes more sense From the comments, it may be that the Rebbe did take the barrels back -- which makes more sense to me.
The guard dogs appearance are a very improbably coincidence -- especially since dogs have no affinity for alcohol. Therefore, why not accept with gratitude a sign from G-d that he/she recognized the enormous sacrifice that Koppel had voluntarily made ?
Discarding the alcohol might be a sign of fanaticism to prove one's faith.
It brings to mind a similar but much more serious event - should Abraham have proven his utter obedience to G-d by sacrificing Isaac ? Yes, he was told to spare Isaac but the fanatic would insist on proving his ultimate devotion. Reply

Anonymous Kingston March 20, 2013

Why Insult Us? It's an interesting story, I suppose, but clearly impossible. Does being Jewish depend on fables like this? Reply

Debra April 4, 2012

Why he spilled out the vodka The way I always heard this story was that he spilled it out because it was chometz that wasn't really free for taking on pesach - safeguarded for him i.e. owned by him on pesach. Such chametz cannot be used nor may any one benefit from it. He therefore had to trash it. Reply

Cheryl Crowthorne, South Africa March 17, 2010

Reb Koppel I agree with "G-d Provides". Reb Koppel intended to give away the vodka; he did not know there would be dogs coming to "guard" the barrels. I say it was G-d's way of insuring that Reb Koppel would continue to earn his livelihood. Reply

Y. Homnick April 6, 2009

R' Zevin's story Rabbi S.Y. Zevin writes that the Munkatcher Rebbe used to tell this story on Shushan Purim, the yartzeit of R' Koppel of Likova.

The way R' Zevin tells the story, R' Koppel had many daughters to marry off (one of them was later to be the mother of the famous Chozeh of Lublin) and that he was relying on his ample stock of barrels of spirits to provide him with the dowries he would soon need.

The gentiles knew that R' Koppel needed them in order to be able to sell his chometz and they agreed among themselves that they wouldn't buy his chometz. He would have no choice but to declare it ownerless and they would enjoy it for free.

When nobody bought his chometz, he left all the barrels outside the town at the riverbank and declared them ownerless.

The day after Pesach the gentiles taunted him saying, "What kind of trick is this, saying you're getting rid of all your whiskey but then posting a watchman to guard it?"

R' Koppel took his barrels and stacked them up back in his cellar. Reply

Harry Arcarida, CA April 6, 2009

Reb Koppel When Reb Koppe took his wares to the river bank, but did not dump them in the river, perhaps G-d gave him another test. Perhaps G-d wanted to be certain that Reb Koppel harbored no hopes that his goods be returned to him, and therefore did just that. When Reb Koppel THEN dumped his wares, his heart was pure and clean. Reply

Anonymous Newburgh, NY March 18, 2009

G-d Provides G-d knew Reb Kopel's heart, and I believe that is why the pack of dogs were guarding his wares. If he did take back his merchandise, I do not think that G-d would have minded. For HE already knew the intent of Reb Kopel's heart. Reply

Giuseppe April 11, 2007

barrels on a river bank reb koppel had never really performed the mitzvah to remove all chametz . when for the first time he did, the joy of loving G-d with all his heart , with all his mind and with all his strength was so overwhelming that he did not want to risk in the least going back to the trick used before. so the teaching is: do not be afraid to perform the mitvah in all sincerity, because for sure G-d did no abandon Reb Koppel Reply

Rox (goy) April 9, 2007

"But maybe G-d enjoys such impudence from us, if it is motivated by the desire to fulfill His will."

I am continually amazed and in wonder about how strange the Jewish G-d is. Incomprehensibility at its finest! :) Reply

nat Brooklyn, NY April 7, 2007

Different version I heard this story from various descendants of Reb Kopel (also in print). According to their version Reb Kopel did indeed take the merchandise back. Furthermore, the non-Jews named the river after Reb Kopel! (I forget the name, but I can search for the book if need be.)
Of course his heart was pure and the Seer may have well been a reward anyhow. Reply

Y Homnick April 5, 2007

enjoyed I enjoyed the story though was surprised by the ending since I remembered the story as ending with his discovery that the dogs had guarded it.

I'm enjoying the comments to the story too.

This is the 2nd Chasidic story today (Thursday Chol HaMoed) that I am seeing authenticated by a descendent, in this case, Oelbaum.

The author, R' Reinman of "One People, Two Worlds", says he is descendent (9th generation) of the Baal Shem Tov and in his family they make a Thanksgiving Meal on Acharon shel Pesach. Why? Because that is the day the Besht landed in Constantinople and he made a Seudas Hodaa and said that the next ten generations should do the same. I find it fascinating that this is celebrated till this day. Reply

Daniela April 5, 2007

I thought about it. In my opinion Reb Kopel realized that the dogs (an impure animal by the way) were not there for him, they were there to prevent the goyim to take the vodka they did not deserve; and this was their purpose during the festival. Once the festival was over, and the animals had kept at bay those dishonest people, Reb Kopel came to the riverbank. He had a marvelous mitzva in front of him. Like a beautiful fragile precious object which is shipped, maybe from a developing country, wrapped in newspaper. Who even notices the wrapping paper!! It was necessary, as it was necessary that all this happened to allow Reb Kopel to get such a precious mitzva, it would not have been possible if he had no vodka in the first place, or if the barrels had been somewhat damaged and their content rendered unusable. But who can seriously think that G-d wanted Reb Kopel to take for him the wrapping paper... G-d forbid, not to notice the gift and to go for the crumpled old newspaper pages... Reply