This is the strange but true story of a great scholar who turned coachman in his declining years, because . . . But let me tell you the whole story.

His name was Joseph, and he lived in a little town in White Russia called Beshenkovitch. Joseph had spent many years in ardent study of the Talmud, until he became known far beyond his own community. His wife ran a grocery store all by herself, so that her husband could devote all his time to study and have some time left for teaching youngsters. Needless to say, Joseph taught them all free of charge.

Although no longer a young man, Joseph would often walk all the way to Liozna to visit the great rabbi of that town, Rabbi Schneur Zalman (known as the Alter Rebbe), to listen to his public discourses and sermons. He became one of the rabbi’s most ardent followers.

One day, when Joseph came in to take leave of the rabbi, the rabbi asked him whether he knew any of the six tractates of the Mishnah by heart.

“It is my custom to repeat all the six tractates of the Mishnah by heart in the course of a month, so that during the year I repeat them twelve times, besides my other studies,” Joseph replied.

“It is a very great habit," said the rabbi. “Mishnah contains the letters of neshamah (soul). To study the Mishnah is very good for the soul. As for your soul, it would be better for you to become a coachman, rather than a rabbi.”

Joseph was somewhat dazed when he walked out of the rabbi’s presence that time. True, he did not contemplate becoming a rabbi, but neither did he ever dream of becoming a coachman, of all things! Yet he knew the rabbi to be a saintly man, whose words were not to be trifled with.

By the time Joseph returned home, however, he had completely forgotten about the rabbi’s words. He returned to his studies and his teaching.

Ten years passed by, and Joseph’s name became more and more famous.

One day a delegation of prominent Jews from the town of Lepla, not a hundred miles away, came to Joseph, inviting him to become the rabbi and spiritual leader of their community. Joseph was about to accept the invitation, when through his mind flashed the rabbi’s words: “For your soul it is better to become a coachman than a rabbi.”

“The rabbi is truly a seer,” Joseph thought, “and the time has come for me to act upon his advice.”

Without hesitation, Joseph declined the honor, though he did not tell the delegation the reason.

However, when it came to making a resolution concerning his future, Joseph found that it was not so easy to fulfill the rabbi’s words. He, a great scholar, and in his declining days, to begin to drive a horse and wagon! Why, that’s preposterous! People will think he’s become touched in his head.

For a few days Joseph suffered great mental agony while he was weighing the matter, now for, now against it. Finally, he mustered up all his courage and went down to the marketplace where the coaches were stationed. When the coachmen saw him approach, everyone greeted him respectfully, and offered to take him wherever he wanted to go.

“No, my friends, I have no intention of going anyplace. I merely came, er . . . to get acquainted with your profession,” Joseph said bashfully.

The coachmen exchanged curious glances, and looked upon Joseph, wondering whether they understood him clearly.

“It’s not like you, Rabbi Joseph, to jest,” one of them finally said.

“But I am not jesting,” Joseph said, his eyes downcast.

Still the coachmen did not believe him. Some of them thought the old man had lost his wits. Finally, one of them approached him and said earnestly, “Follow me to the stable, Rabbi Joseph, and I will teach you the art.”

Joseph followed. The coachman showed Joseph how to harness the horse, grease the wheels and so forth. Poor Joseph was not accustomed to it. He got himself thoroughly dirty, and nearly lost an eye when the horse lashed him with his tail.

Dirty and dejected, Joseph came home. He washed himself and changed his clothes, and went to shul for the Minchah service, after which he was to give his daily discourse on the Talmud. Everyone looked at him sympathetically.

When Joseph came home that night, he noticed his wife’s eyes were red from weeping. She must have heard all about it. Joseph went to his room and wept too. Finally he decided to follow the advice of the sages, and share his problem with his wife. He told her why he had tried to learn the trade of coachman.

Far from feeling unhappy, his wife replied almost cheerfully:

“If the saintly rabbi told you to do so, what problem can there be? Tomorrow I shall sell my jewels so that you can buy yourself a horse and cart.”

For a moment Joseph looked at his wife in astonishment. Her matter-of-fact attitude, simple faith and complete confidence in the rabbi’s words left him speechless. Joseph felt ashamed of himself, and a feeling of remorse filled his heart. However, all doubts had been dispelled, and his mind was made up. The following day he bought a horse and coach . . .

One day, Joseph was on his way to the town of Senna with a load of merchandise. When night fell, Joseph decided to stay overnight at the nearest inn on the road. The innkeeper was a Jew, and Joseph made himself quite at home there. A little while later the count of Batchaikov with his suite arrived at the same inn, and also decided to spend the night there. However, when word reached the nearest village that the count was at the inn, the priest came to invite him to his house. The count could not turn down his request, and accompanied him. His Jewish manager, however, stayed at the inn, intending to proceed to Senna the following morning.

Joseph was busy studying the Talmud. When he finished and closed the Gemara, the innkeeper introduced him to the manager, whose name was Solomon Gametzky, and who said he wanted to go to Senna.

“Very good, sir,” Joseph said. “I’ll be glad to take you to Senna tomorrow morning.”

“What time?” Gametzky asked.

“After prayers,” was the reply.

“You can pray as much as you want,” Gametzky said unkindly. “I must leave early, and must know the exact time when to get up, so that I can get washed and eat without hurrying.”

“. . . and pray,” Joseph said to him.

“Keep your prayers to yourself,” Gametzky retorted.

“How can a Jew talk like this?” Joseph reproached his would-be customer. “How can a Jew do without prayers? And what about the sacred mitzvah of tefillin? Some scholarly opinions hold that tefillin are really two mitzvot in one!”

Solomon Gametzky did not say anything more. Having ordered the innkeeper to get him another coach for five o’clock in the morning, he retired without saying “good night.”

Joseph also retired, after he had said his evening prayers and had supper. But at midnight he got up again to pray tikkun chatzoth (midnight prayers), as he was used to doing.

The sound of Joseph’s prayers and supplications broke the stillness of the night.

The count’s manager fell asleep with a strange heaviness in his head. He woke up with a start and sat up in bed to listen. It was a familiar voice, and for a moment he thought it was his deceased father’s. Gametzky recalled what a fine and venerable Jew his father was, and that he also used to get up at midnight to pray in exactly the same manner as this coachman.

On and on Joseph prayed, and his prayers and supplications were so moving that the manager sat entranced. He now recalled his youth very clearly, as though it was projected on a screen before his eyes. He saw his beloved father, a pious man, who together with the rabbi of the community shared in the greatest honor accorded to men of learning and piety. He recalled the delightful way of life, so quiet and harmonious, which he had been leading in those days, until he met that horrible boy who led him astray and persuaded him to run away from home.

To be sure, he made himself a “fine career”—he made friends with the count, and had become his personal secretary and manager; together they drank a great deal and made merry; but he knew his spiritual life had been an empty one all the time. His soul was yearning for that enchanting Jewish environment in which he had grown up . . .

A knock at the door roused him from his trance. Gametzky found his cheeks wet, for unconsciously tears had been rolling down his face. He wiped them off quickly, and called out, “Yes? What is it?”

“Your new coachman is here, sir,” the innkeeper replied.

“I am not going with him. Pay him off well. I’ll wait for Joseph,” Gametzky said.

Solomon Gametzky got dressed and went out to borrow a tallit, a pair of tefillin and a siddur from the innkeeper. He returned back to his room to pray. Never had he prayed with so much feeling as this time. He made a firm resolution that from now on he would become an observant Jew with all his heart and soul.

That providential meeting with Joseph was a turning point in Gametzky’s life.

Solomon Gametzky did not return to his position. He asked the count to accept his resignation, and this was granted him. He became Joseph’s best friend; together they studied, and together they went to Lubavitch, where the Alter Rebbe’s son was the spiritual leader, in the place of his father.

When Joseph entered the study of the rabbi, the rabbi said to him: “My father told me that you have fulfilled the mission for which he had made you a coachman. There is no further need of your remaining a coachman. I appoint you spiritual leader in Beshenkovitch.”

Rabbi Joseph sold his horse and coach, and for many years was the beloved teacher and spiritual leader of his congregation in Beshenkovitch, reaching a very ripe old age. He never regretted those hard years when he drove his horse and cart around, for he was very happy to have helped a lost fellow Jew return to his faith and his people.