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Two Groschen

Two Groschen

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The disciples of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev noticed that something was amiss.

Yom Kippur, the most awesome day of the year, was approaching, and it was only natural that every G‑d-fearing Jew's steps should grow more measured, his mind more focused, his manner graver. But this was something else. A heavy foreboding clouded their master's features; his eyes had grown red from weeping, and an uncharacteristic sigh would often escape his lips. The Rebbe must know something we do not, they whispered. Perhaps he sees a terrible calamity decreed for the coming year, G‑d forbid.

Several days before Yom Kippur, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak summoned his gabbai (secretary). Much to the gabbai's amazement, the Rebbe had business on his mind.

"Lately, the number of people coming to request that I pray for them on the Holy Day has been steadily increasing," said the Rebbe. "It's time we set a fixed price for the kvitlach. I think we should ask for two groschen for each name written in a kvitel."

When a chassid gives his rebbe the piece of paper (kvitel) on which his name and the names of his loved ones are inscribed for the rebbe to mention in his prayers, he always includes a sum of money, known as the pidyon nefesh (redemption of the soul), as a gift to the rebbe. As a rule, the sum is left to the petitioner's discretion, which was why Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's gabbai was quite surprised by what the Rebbe was proposing.

So notices were put up in the synagogue and the market place, and soon the entire town had heard of the new rules: the Rebbe was demanding two groschen for each name.

Immediately after the morning prayers on the day preceding Yom Kippur, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak began receiving the kvitlach-bearers. A sense of urgency was felt throughout the town---the Rebbe's strange stipulation, coupled with his ominous behavior of the last few weeks, fed the feeling that it was of utmost importance to be included in the Rebbe's list. Two groschen was not such a great sum, but for an impoverished peddler or tailor with a dozen children to register, it was no small expense. Still, not a soul stayed behind. This year, no one was taking any chances.

All day the Rebbe sat, his faithful gabbai at his door, and received kvitlach. Soon his desk was covered with folded pieces of paper and copper coins. There were those who tried to bargain with the gabbai, but the Rebbe's instructions had been clear: no exceptions.

Around mid-day, a woman approached the gabbai and begged for an exemption. "I am a poor widow with an only child, without a single groschen in my purse. How can I pay four groschen so that my child and I may be inscribed in the book of life? Please, have mercy on me and my fatherless child, and allow me to add our names to the Rebbe's list. I promise to pay the entire sum as soon as I have the money."

"What can I do?" said the gabbai. "The Rebbe has told me that there are to be no exceptions."

"Let me ask the Rebbe," said the widow. "Certainly he will not turn me down."

The gabbai relented, but the Rebbe was unyielding. "I'm sorry," he said to the woman, "but these are the rules. Two groschen per name."

The widow left, heartbroken, but resolved to attain a year of life for herself and her child. One way or another, she would get the money.

Hours passed. The last of the petitioners had already left, and the hour of Kol Nidrei, the solemn prayer which opens the Yom Kippur service, was fast approaching. The gabbai had cleared the table, counting the coins and locking them away, and packing the kvitlach in the special parcels which the Rebbe would keep with him during his prayers. Everyone was already in the synagogue, garbed in their snow-white kittelen and wrapped in their talitot, awaiting the Rebbe. Still Rabbi Levi Yitzchak lingered, his eyes casting expectant glances at the window.

Then, a small, shawled figure was seen hurrying along the deserted street. It was the widow, a folded piece of paper and a few coins in her hand. "Thank G‑d the Rebbe is still home," she cried. "Here is my kvitel, Rebbe. Please pray for me and for my only child that we may be inscribed in the book of life."

"But you only have two groschen here," protested Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, peering at the coppers she had placed on the table. "So you can only write one name in your kvitel."

"Holy Rebbe," cried the woman, "I have been running about all day, borrowing from everyone that I know. This is all I was able to come up with. Please pray for us both! I promise to pay the rest within a week."

"I'm sorry," insisted the Rebbe, "the price is two groschen per name. Which name do you want in your kvitel?"

With trembling fingers the woman took her kvitel and crossed out her own name. "Pray for my Shloimehleh, Rebbe," she said, her eyes brimming with tears, "that he should have a year of life, health and happiness."

Upon hearing these words, the Rebbe's eyes came alive with a fiery light. Grasping the widow's two groschen in one fist, and her kvitel in the other, he raised them triumphantly to heaven and cried: "Father in Heaven! Look! Look what a mortal mother is prepared to do for her child! And You---shall it be said, G‑d forbid, that You are less a parent to Your children?! Can You look this woman in the eye and refuse to grant Your own children a year of life, health and happiness?!"

"Come," said Rabbi Levi Yitzchak to his gabbai and to the widow, "let us go to Kol Nidrei."

Yanki Tauber served as editor of Chabad.org
Image: Detail from a work by chassidic artist Shoshannah Brombacher. To view or purchase Ms Brombacher's art, click here
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Anonymous toronto September 29, 2014

The Love of a Motherc As a mother I also would do the same thing. There is no love like that of one' s mother - my father always told me this. And a child ( of any age )should never be denied or deprived of their own mother ' s love and devotion. Reply

Bill Johnson Tye, Tx February 15, 2014

Response to Ms. Morrow... G-d made Adam and Eve in His image. His fullness is represented by both sexes, together. He cannot be limited by the narrow archetype of either. He is our Father, but He is also El-Shaddai. Many sages argue that Shad-dai literally mean "breast of sufficiency." He is truly both our Father and our Mother. He is our All. Reply

Elizabeth V Morrow Yorba Linda, CA via chabaduci.org February 13, 2014

two groschen This proves that G-d must be a woman or One who Loves His Children as only a Mother can do. Reply

Anonymous UCF September 13, 2013

Thank you for this story. Not all of us are strong enough to see such things for ourself. Reply

Harold Braunstein Brooklyn, NY via projectneshama.com September 27, 2009

The point of many objections to my comments is that anyone who knows this particular Rabbi of Berditchev knows that he would only have good motives at heart. I've also heard good things about this rabbi however, when telling a story with a moral and ethical message, the story teller should never assume that the reader personally or by hearsay knows any of the characters in the story. The entire Torah is teaching us moral lessons with G-d in the lead role. We all know of His kindliness and compassion, etc., and notwithstanding, we hear of His virtues over and over again; the Torah never asks us to take G-d's attributes for granted.

So this story should not require the reader to take Rabbi Berdichev's virtues for granted. If the good rabbi has a reason for his actions, those reasons should be make clear to the reader. There is no reason the reader should leave the story remembering how that woman left "heartbroken" and put herself in debt adding that indebtedness to her impoverishment. Reply

Anonymous Davis September 27, 2009

The Moral Is To clarify: Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's charging of two groschen for each constituent was a ploy, to get this widow to put her son before herself. He knew that there were people as impoverished as her, and certainly a situation like this would arise. The point of the ploy was to ensure a good sweet year for the Jewish People by challenging G-d to be as compassionate on His People as this woman was for her child. What he later did with the money was the same as what he always did with this kind of money. Knowing a little about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's love for every Jew, it is reasonable to assume he used it to help the poor. This story was not meant to help the widow in particular, or to present her personally with a challenge. I suggest that reader's familiarize themselves with more stories of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak to understand his modus operandi. Reply

Theodora Dorf Raleigh, NC September 25, 2009

Two Groschen I couldn't help but think, as I was reading the story, about another lesson in it. Where were the wealthier citizens, who are called upon to "take the place of G-d Almighty" by helping those in need who come to them? Surely the widow went to many others, asking for help, before this holiest of days. Yet, the most charitable, the one who "took the place" of G-d Almighty, was, on that day, the poorest of them all, who was willing to sacrifice much more than mere money for another. What a lesson there! Reply

Harold Braunstein Brooklyn, NY via projectneshama.com April 7, 2009

Two Groschen I'm sorry but I'll stick to my original point. As far as saying "the Rebbe must know something we do not know," I would answer that any story to teach morals, proper behavior, "derech eretz" should first be taken at its face value (what is it saying that is obvious) and here what it is saying is outrageous (see my earlier point).

And as for reading into the story (what the Rebbe might know or should know or can know) doesn't add to the lesson of the story. And keep in mind that we can do that "reading into a story" with any story, or for that matter, any event in history. Some of the worst villains in history, so bad I'm reluctant to mention names, might have known something we do now know, hardly justifying their actions. Reply

David Springfiled Gardens , NY April 7, 2009

copper coins. a real version of the poor widow with two copper coins- Where your heart is your treasure will be Reply

Harold Braunstein Brooklyn, NY - USA via projectneshama.com October 12, 2008

Two Groschen Thank you, Daniel. What this world needs are more peace makers like you. You have the qualities of an excellent representative of our United Nations. Our next president will be looking for a good Secretary of State; for that position you would have my vote. If you say the Rebbe knows what he is doing, and that "all his doing is Torah," I'll take your word for it. Reply

Daniel October 9, 2008

Its not a Rabbi,a Rebbe -> response to Two Grosche As we know Rebbe Levi Yitzchak from Berditchev was the one in the generation with the greatest power to pray. For sure he knew what Tikkun he could do for the woman and the whole generation. The woman unknowingly served a holy purpose for the whole generation and showed her true compassionate Jewish heart and absolute self sacrifice. The Rebbe from Berditchev would in any case have prayed for the whole community and each and everyone, the two roschen were just part of the obstacle to be worthy to deserve the tikkun. As we know that he was extremely charitable, guess where all the groschen went? The woman and her son were for sure invited to the yom tov meal and sustained by the Rebbe and his Gabbai in the following years. There was a strong bond of unity in these times in the communities and especially in Berditchev. So please calm down, everything was right, what was done. In any case the Rebbe from Berditchev knew more than 100% what he was doing and all his doing is Torah. Reply

Dovid Grossman Chicago, IL October 8, 2008

Two Groschen As with many Chassidic stories, we take for granted that you are already familiar with the main characters and their "modi operandi". Knowing Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and his unquestioning support of every individual Jew, it goes without saying that every single penny raised will go to the poor and needy. Regarding the widow, although her torment of the day was personally challenging, rest assured that by the end of the journey, she too is aware of the goal achieved by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and is proud to have been a partner in uplifting the blessings of us all that year.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev is also known for always looking at others with a good eye and finding their redeemable values. A fine character trait we can all learn to emulate. Reply

Eli Epstein Tampa, Fla, USA October 8, 2008

Of all the Jews in all the years, Who loved the Jew more then Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev? Reply

Amanda Personhattan, NY October 8, 2008

The Comments on this Story are Pathetic I suugest to the editors that they post a "Dummy Alert" on stories like these. "If you subscribe to The Nation//voted for Hillary/object to the gender-biased place name "Manhattan"/fill in the blank, you are too stupid to read this article" Reply

Harold Braunstein Brooklyn, NY via projectneshama.com October 8, 2008

Two Groshen To Anonymous in Norwell, MA ... and what is Shloimehleh going to do next year without his mother after she sacrifices her life? The Rebbe is a party to this sacrifice, Will he, if necessary, stay home next year, cook, clean, change diapers, and take care of her only child? Nobody in this world should be a party to another person's life sacrifice; nor second guess that someone needs soul rectification; that is God's domain. Reply

Harold Braunstein Brooklyn, NY via projectneshama.com October 8, 2008

Two Groshen To Ari Edison ... we don't know what the Rabbi understands about heaven. What we DO know is that the two groshen would help provide for her dinner table, and all the more so since she is now in debt and now might also have to put off tomorrow's dinner. No, there is too much in the story about grabbing money from an impoverished widow (my two cents worth in Brighton Beach). By the way, a healthy and happy new year to Rabbi Zusha Winner and his family. Reply

Harold Braunstein Brooklyn, NY via projectneshama.com October 8, 2008

Two Groshen To Gmar Chasima Tovah ... you are right; we don't know all the details. So we can only comment on what we DO know. We know she is poor, that supply and demand (that's clearly implied in the story) makes the Rabbi increase the price of each kvitel, and that the Rebbe's says "no exceptions." And you mention that the story shows how she is willing to sacrifice for her son. True, but many mothers do that; even just by having children. Many forfeit entering the business world and working with adults, all for giving time to baby talk and diapers (that's also a sacrifice or giving one's life for children – and absolutely it is noble). And we know that the Rebbe *might* give some of the poor woman's money to charity (at best, taking money from one impoverished woman and giving it to another). We can only judge the actions in the story by what we know, not by what we hope. Sorry, the Rebbe should show more compassion, fewer tears and more action – something tangible like returning the money. Reply

Ari Edson thronhill, ont October 8, 2008

To Harold, perhaps Rabbi levi Yitzchak understood that the donation of two groshen would do more in the heavens than could his prayers. Reply

Arden Beyer Cliffside Park, NJ, USA! October 7, 2008

The poor, elderly lady The Rabbi shouldl have given all of the money to the poor and elderly widow who had sacrificed for her own beloved son; she could then have easily paid the Rabbi the sum he was demanding for the Yom Kippur Blessing, and he, the Rabbi, could then have most properly blessed her for a year of Life, Health and Happiness. Poverty can be unbearable, and we should help the poor at all times as we also so treat the Stranger in our own midst! Reply

Anonymous norwelll, MA October 7, 2008

Two Groschen Perhaps this woman needed some sort of soul rectification and the chance to put herself aside in order for her beloved child to live! The Rebbe must have found it hard NOT to make an exception, but in the end, ahe sacrificed her own life for her child's. A true mother... Reply