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Barrels on a Riverbank

Barrels on a 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 though 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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Discussion (18)
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.
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
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.
wolfgang schaechter
santa clara, CA - USA
March 20, 2013
Why Insult Us?
It's an interesting story, I suppose, but clearly impossible. Does being Jewish depend on fables like this?
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.
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.
Crowthorne, South Africa
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.
Y. Homnick
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.
Arcarida, CA
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.
Newburgh, NY
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
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! :)
Rox (goy)
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