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The Onion Plot

The Onion Plot

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Blizzards and storm winds had pounded Lublin and the surrounding countryside for several weeks. The roads were piled so high with snow that no one was able to go anywhere. This meant that the farmers weren’t able to reach the city with their produce, and food supplies were dwindling rapidly.

Many items were completely lacking, such as onions. There weren’t even any onions to use in the tasty foods prepared in honor of Shabbat. This fact constituted a near-tragedy, because in Lublin the mixture of chopped eggs and onions, known in Yiddish as eiyer-un-tzibl, was considered a nearly indispensable ingredient of the holy day. The Jews of Lublin could remember occasions when there was no meat, or no fish, but whoever heard of being without onions?

The household of the famous tzaddik, the Seer of Lublin, was particularly distraught. After all, chassidic tradition attaches great significance to this humble dish. They tried to secure some onions by every means they could think of, but to no avail. Someone even managed to plod his way through the snowdrifts to a few of the local farmers, but they didn’t have any onions either.

On Friday morning, one of the leading disciples of the Seer, Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz, rose early as usual to make his way to the rebbe’s shul and pour out his heart in prayer to the Creator. On his way home he passed through the marketplace, where he unexpectedly came upon a peasant farmer with a sack filled with onions!

“Wow!” said Reb Naftali to himself, struck by a bold idea. “This is exactly the opportunity I’ve been waiting for! Baruch Hashem!” He approached the gentile and offered to buy the entire sack. The farmer well knew the value of his precious merchandise, and had been looking forward to making a tidy profit. He wasn’t going to compromise now. No wholesale discounts! He stated an outrageously high price. To his great surprise, Reb Naftali instantly agreed and handed him the money.

But that wasn’t the end of the surprises. “I’d like to buy your fur coat and hat too,” Reb Naftali added. The farmer couldn’t believe his ears. Astonished, he refused. How could he possibly return home in the freezing cold without his coat and hat? But the wad of bills in his customer’s outthrust hand argued persuasively, and the second deal was also quickly struck. Reb Naftali strode home with his sack of onions and unusual new items of apparel.


Later that day, a farmer appeared outside the Seer’s door. He was clothed in furs, peasant-style, with a huge hat covering his forehead and upper face, and with boots covered in mud. In the language and intonation of a gentile farmer he called out, “Onions! Onions for sale!”

Chassidim came pouring from every direction. Everyone wanted onions in honor of the holy Shabbat. They crowded around the onion seller, attempting to bargain with him. He refused to budge from his price. Then, suddenly, he announced that he was stopping for the day. No more onions!

The chassidim pleaded with him. “But we still have to get some for the Rebbe. He is a great, holy man. Blessings will shower upon you, if only you will allow us to buy onions for him.”

“If he is as special as you say, I’ll sell to him,” rejoined the farmer, “but only if I can sell them to the holy man directly, in person, face-to-face.”

The chassidim were shaken. How could they bring such an unrefined character to the rebbe? After a few moments of confusion, they realized they had no choice. A gala delegation led the onion-laden peasant to the Seer’s house.

When they came in, the Seer was busy polishing his unique kiddush cup, as he did every Friday before Shabbat. This was an extraordinary chalice, exquisitely crafted of pure gold, with intricate engravings depicting famous sites in the Holy Land such as the Western Wall, the Tower of David and the Mount of Olives.

Many rumors surrounded this kiddush cup and its history. It was said that the Seer had inherited it from one of the great chassidic masters of the previous generation, and whoever was privileged to make a blessing over its contents and drink from it benefited infinitely. Not that this merit was easy to come by. The Seer did not allow anyone else to use it, or even touch it. The whole week it stood in a locked cabinet, until Friday, when he would polish it until it glistened and sparkled on the white Shabbat tablecloth.

When his chassidim brought in the gentile with his sack, the Seer understood the reason at once. “How much do you want for your onions?” he queried the farmer.

“One moment. Not so fast,” the peasant replied coarsely, holding up his hand as if to ward off the rebbe’s offer. “I’m frozen stiff. I need a proper drink to warm me up.”

It was clear that he didn’t have in mind a cup of tea. The Seer instructed his attendant to serve the man some whiskey, and a brimming shot glass was quickly set down in front of the farmer.

“That’s all?” cried out the farmer, as if insulted. “Just this little cup?”

“Give him the whole bottle, and let him do as he likes,” said the rebbe, turning away.

Now the onion seller seemed mortally offended. “What! You think I’m a drunkard?” he shouted angrily. “I’ll show you! I’ll go home. I won’t sell you anything!” He tied up the sack and fastened his garments, as if preparing to leave.

The chassidim hurriedly attempted to soothe him, anxiously muttering words of appeasement. Finally he calmed down. Then he smirked. “I tell you what,” he offered. “I’ll sell you my onions if, and only if, you fill this goblet with whiskey for me to drink.” He pointed at the rebbe’s golden cup shining on the table.

The chassidim drew back, aghast. From this holy kiddush cup, which no one dared touch except the tzaddik, this uncircumcised drunken peasant should imbibe his crude booze? They offered him other cups and glasses, bigger ones, singly and in combination, but he was stubborn. “Only from this one, like I told you. Otherwise I go home.”

They tried again to dissuade him, but nothing worked. He simply refused to budge. With trembling hands and heavy heart, the Seer himself filled the precious vessel with the coarse fluid and, with a helpless shrug, presented it to the farmer. The latter lifted it with his right hand, squeezed his eyes shut, and with great concentration and intensity called out, “Baruch atah . . . shehakol nihyah bidvaro.”

Everyone was struck speechless. Only the Seer, after a quick stare, realized what had taken place. A broad smile spread across his face. “L’chaim, Reb Naftali! You are so clever; it must be that you deserve to drink from this cup. L’chaim!”


Biographical notes:

Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz (1745–1815), known as the “Seer of Lublin,” was the successor to Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717–1787), and a major personality in the spread of the chassidic movement throughout Poland.

His disciple, Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz (who was born on the very day of the Baal Shem Tov’s passing, 6 Sivan 1760, and passed away in 1827), became the rebbe of many thousands of chassidim. He was noted for his sharp wit and humor, and his elusive, shining aphorisms.

Translated-adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the Hebrew weekly Sichat HaShavua. Rabbi Tilles is co-founder of Ascent of Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the Ascent and Kabbalah Online websites.
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ruth housman marshfield hills, ma October 28, 2012

Divine Compensation I know in writing this Diary, which is deeply about words, which has gone around the world, and is a walk through Babel, will be amply compensated, and that the money is already targeted, by me, for charities around the world.

I am getting bolder in saying this. We all hit life's boulders and in writing down the lines for so many years, I have known that everything in my life is interconnected, and can prove this. So it's very clear, G_d wrote the entire story, and is responsible and active in all Creation and all Creativity. So what is happening between the lines here, is a story that deeply coheres. And maybe co hearance is a coming thing.

I am so serious about this. But curiously, no one is taking all this time I have taken, seriously. There is more to punning and that is, how is it we can do this? Ask the question.

It's a falling through veil after veil. And when you climb the mountain and see the valleys below, there's another vale, another valley, and another climb in sight. Reply

Anonymous Oak Park, MI via baischabad.com October 27, 2012

eggs and onions Nu? So, where's the recipe? Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma November 8, 2011

a great story! I loved this. It has just the right touch of humor.

Onions are interesting for other reasons, too.
Life has been referred to by many poets and writers as being like an onion, and we peel back the layers as we go through life. They also make us, cry. Life is filled with angst.
But we have peel and appeal, and what is so amazing about words, is just this, what we can do with them, in describing them, as in, describing life itself.

There is a humor magazine called The Onion. In life we laugh till we cry. And humor and tragedy go hand in hand.

I think G_d loves a good laugh. Let there be... Light! Reply

Loni Litten Dayton, Ohio, USA November 7, 2011

Great Story Does anyone have a recipe for eiyer-un-tzibl ? sometimes it helps to remember a story if a taste is associated with it. Reply

Menachem Posner for Chabad.org December 17, 2009

RE: Eggs and ONIONS There are a number of reasons given for why specifically eggs and onions are eaten. Here are some:

There are those who write that on Shabbat we "mourn" the death of Moses, who passed away on that day. In commemoration, eggs, a traditional mourning food, are eaten.

About onions, I have seen it written that the Shabbat food is reminiscent of the manna, which tasted like all kinds of foods. The exceptions were onions and garlic (because those tastes were not good for pregnant women). As such, the Shabbat food contains all foods within it except for onions and garlic. When we add the onions to our eggs, we now have all the foods in the world honoring Shabbat.

Alternatively, the Hebrew word for onion, "batzal," is very similar to the Yiddish word meaning payment—a reference to the fact that G-d promises to compensate all expenses incurred in honor of Shabbat. Reply

Anonymous December 17, 2009

Eggs and ONIONS What is the signifigance of eggs AND ONIONS on Shabbos? Reply

Memavet Lansing, Michigan June 11, 2007

Clever! haha great story i feel better about all the little things that bothered me today. hidden tzaddiks, hidden humor, hidden meaning look for all three in life and pray to G-D. Beezrat hashem we all try it tommorow moshiach would appear :-) Reply

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