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A Boy and a Calf

A Boy and a Calf

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At the age of eleven, the young Yosef Yitzchak began to keep a diary in which he wrote faithfully for his entire lifetime, often for several hours a day. He recorded his personal experiences, as well as the wealth of chassidic wisdom and lore which he absorbed while growing up in the White Russian town of Lubavitch, in the home of his father, the rebbe, and surrounded by the great chassidim of the time. The following excerpt was written when he was twelve years old, and recounts an event which took place one year earlier.

Following the guidance and instructions of my father, I devoted my entire fortune—which at the time amounted to some thirty rubles, received in reward for reviewing mishnayot (Talmudic passages) by heart—to establish a free-loan fund. I provide interest-free loans in small sums of three to five rubles to market people and to peddlers who make their rounds in the villages with bundles of flax, pelts, chickens, eggs, onions and the like.

On the advice of my teacher, Rabbi Nissan, I keep accounts. The days before and after the market day are my business days, in which I distribute and collect the loans.

Among the “regulars” who frequently make use of my fund is Reb Dovid the butcher, nicknamed “Buckteeth Dovid.” Reb Dovid is a man of fifty, heading a family of eight souls, a frightful pauper who earns a living from the toil of his hands. No work in the world is too difficult for him—be it in the scorching heat of summer, in a winter snowstorm, or in the rainy season—as long as he earns a few kopeks for his toil. Never does he complain about his miserable state and poverty.

A simple man is he, this Reb Dovid: if he studied at cheder during his childhood, he has already forgotten his learning. Aside from the prayers—including those of the festivals and the High Holy Days—and the Psalms, the Passover Haggadah and the Ethics of the Fathers, he doesn’t know much. But he is a wholesome and honest man, and every day—save those that he works in the next village—he is among the first ten men to make up the Psalm-reciting society and the vatikin quorum to recite the morning prayers at the crack of dawn.

I love to catch those moments on an afternoon preceding Shabbat or a festival when Reb Dovid would head home from the bathhouse, his face aflame and the edge of his white shirt peeking out, his four sons surrounding and running after him. Another hour would find him humming a tune as he walked with his four sons to the large synagogue, where he prays.


My parents were away for a time. I was staying at the home of my grandmother, Rebbetzin Rivkah. My cheder studies were held in the home of Reb Yeshayahu Kastier on Shileveh Street.

At the time, the Lubavitch police force consisted of a pristov, an uradnik, and three diesatniks, with another five diesatniks added on market days to help keep the peace.

And this is what happened:

It was two o’clock in the afternoon of a day in Av 5651 (August or September 1891), a market day. I was walking home from cheder for lunch together with my friend Shimon, the son of Reb Shmuel the copyist. The market square is jammed; also Shileveh Street, on which we walk, is filled with carts, horses and peasants.

We met Reb Dovid the butcher carrying a calf on his shoulders and a small lamb in his arms, and a basket of chickens hanging in front of him. Noticing me, his face—black as an African’s—lit up, and with white teeth peeking out he said: “I hope to G‑d that I’ll earn well today . . .”

Before he finished speaking, the police uradnik suddenly sprang up beside him and struck him a blow across the face. Blood ran down his nose. Seeing this, I yelled at the uradnik, “Drunk! Despicable one!” and I shoved him hard.


The uradnik cast upon me the libel that I had ripped off the brass badge sewn on his chest and interfered with the carrying out of his duty, and instructed one of the diesatniks to take me to the police station. Before I had a chance to utter a sound, a half-drunk peasant grabbed me with a coarse and powerful hand by my clothing and neck.

The commotion in the market was at its peak, and with great difficulty we proceeded, pressed together, through the crowd of people, carts, horses and other livestock. Because of the heaven-splitting sounds of the market, no one paid attention to me and my escort.

We passed the market square, passed Chachlukeh Street, and arrived at the station courtyard. The guard opened the gate, and my escort handed me over to the officer on duty with the notification that I had been arrested for the aforementioned crimes.

The officer on duty received me with a wrathful face, glared at me with contempt, awarded me a slap across the face, grabbed me by the lobe of my ear and led me to one of the cells. He opened the doors of a dark room, pushed me in and locked it behind me.


And I, a terrible fear descended upon me. I also felt very hungry. But after a moment, the thought flashed through my mind: why, I too—just like my holy ancestors—am sitting in prison! So I must occupy myself with words of Torah. As I was already fluent in two volumes of mishnayot, Zeraim and Moed, I began to review them by heart.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of a drawn-out grunt. My imagination ran wild, and I trembled in terror. I strained to focus my thoughts on the words which I was reciting by rote, and moved away from the corner from which the grunting and sounds of flailing came. I concentrated on reviewing the mishnayot.


To this day, I remember the thoughts which ran through my mind at the time concerning the afternoon prayer of minchah.

Since I was sitting in the dark and did not know the hour, I hurried to pray minchah. I said the Ketoret and Ashrei passages; upon reaching the amidah, I hesitated as to which version of the prayer I should recite. Should I include the Aneinu passage, since I was in a state of distress, and say the confession of Al Cheit (most of which I knew by heart) in repentance, or not? But before I could finish the thought I decided that no, I should not say Aneinu, nor Al Chet. In fact, I should not even say tachanun (the confession of sins recited in the daily prayers but omitted on festive occasions); on the contrary, the day on which the Almighty granted me the privilege to be imprisoned for defending the honor of a Jew should be a festival for me. With a feeling of joy I prayed the amidah with proper concentration, to the best of my knowledge and understanding.

After the minchah prayer, as I was reviewing the mishnayot of the order of Zeraim, I heard the sound of grunting and flailing limbs, accompanied by a lengthy struggle. My knees were knocking together in fright, but then I remembered that my friend Shimon had been showing me the box of matches he had bought for his brother Leib, and that in the great confusion of what happened it had remained with me. I lit a match and saw a bound calf with a muzzle on his mouth lying in a corner, and my fear was calmed.


I finished reviewing the order of Zeraim, and proceeded with the order of Moed. Before I could finish Moed, I heard the sound of steps approaching the room of my imprisonment. Soon the door opened and I saw the officer on duty.

“Please forgive me,” said the officer. “I did not know that you are the nephew of Raza.” (All the townspeople, also the non-Jews, called my uncle “Raza,” short for Rabbi Zalman Aharon.) “Now, his honor the pristov has arrived and has commanded to release you . . . Please, have mercy on me and do not tell them that I hit you and pulled you by the ear. I didn’t do it in malice—only out of habit—why, no blood ran from your nose, and none of your teeth fell out, so what’s so terrible . . .?”

When we entered the pristov’s room, Reb Dovid the butcher—bruised and beaten—already stood there together with the policeman who had hit him, and the witnesses Reb Yoel the tin man and Shaul the wagon-driver.

The police officer argued that the calf which Reb Dovid had been carrying was the calf which Reb Meir the butcher had purchased from his, the officer’s, brother, and was stolen from Reb Meir by Reb Dovid. This was why his hands had struck the face of the thief. “And this youth,” he said, indicating me, “insulted me and ripped off my badge.”

The witnesses testified that Reb Dovid the butcher had purchased the calf he was carrying.

While they were still speaking, Mr. Mordechai Zilberbord—the servant of my uncle Raza—entered and handed a note to the pristov. Upon reading it, the police chief said to Zilberbord: “You can take him. He is free of any punishment.”


All my friends were waiting for me outside the station house. We walked together—I didn’t want to ride in the coach which had been sent from our home—and I told them all that happened to me.

When Mr. Zilberbord heard my story about the calf in the prison cell, he rushed to find Meir the butcher. Meir rushed to the station, where he found the pristov still presiding over the case of the police officer versus Reb Dovid, and said to the pristov, “I was told that a bound and muzzled calf is lying in the jail of the police station.”

The pristov, who was in a bad temper—he had been forced to leave his company and his card game—stood up in a rage and went to investigate, followed by the station manager and the court clerk. Also Meir, Dovid and the witnesses trailed after them, to see if it was true about the calf in the jail cell. How amazed they all were to discover that it was indeed as Meir says, and that here indeed lies the calf which Meir had bought from the brother of the policeman who had beat Dovid.

Upon investigation, it was discovered that the policeman and his brother had conspired to first sell the calf to Meir and then to steal it from him.

For a week the policeman sat in jail, after which he was brought to trial. Another wrongdoing of his was discovered, and he was dismissed from his post.

My friends later told me that five hours had gone by until the pristov was found in the company of Mr. Azmidov and Dr. Yermakov, engaged in their card game at the doctor’s home.


When my father returned from his trip, my uncle Raza recounted to him the entire incident of “Buckteeth Dovid,” and praised my strength of mind. Thanks to me, he said to father, Dovid’s innocence and the policeman’s guilt had been established, and the calf had been returned to Meir.

My father said to me: “You did well to protect the dignity of an honest Jew. And if for that you suffered for a few hours, so what?

“Now it has also been demonstrated to you,” father continued, “how good it is that you are fluent in mishnayot by heart. Were it not for this knowledge, in what way were you any better than—lehavdil—the calf of Meir the butcher, which also sat in prison? But because you knew the mishnayot and you reviewed them there, the hours of imprisonment passed with words of Torah and prayer, in which lies the advantage of man over beast.”

Father’s words remain engraved on my mind and heart: Love and esteem every honest Jew, be he rich or poor in Torah. Protect the dignity of every Jew, even if danger is involved. And always prepare “provisions for the way”—by learning by heart—in case of any mishap, so that no time will be wasted without study of Torah.

My father gave me ten rubles to add to my fund, that I might increase my loan-granting activities.

From the diary of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn; translation/adaptation by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Once Upon A Chassid (Kehot, 1994).
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Queen January 19, 2013

heartwarming, we are our brother's keeper. Reply

Jack Aal Frederick, MD via jewishfrederick.org June 25, 2010

A boy and a calf This is a wonderful story. It shows how we can make the most of our Jewish education and values. Reply

Rabbi David Mark Margate, FL May 14, 2009

Providence in our Lives I am always fascinated by tales of Hashgacha Prateet (G-d taking part in our lives), and this is a wonderful example of how a young Jewish man, completely at home in his tradition, was able to work justice for a fellow Jew in the midst of a largely anti-semitic society. How much more are we Jews, living in America, able to feel G-d's hand in our everyday lives! I would be very happy to read more stories of this nature. Reply