In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, there lived a G‑d-fearing Torah scholar who earned his livelihood as an innkeeper. He leased a tavern on one of the estates of one Count Potozki. Fortune did not smile kindly on him. For two years, he was not able to pay his rent. The count warned him that if he did not pay off his debt in the third year, he and his family would soon taste the vengeance that was common among the local squires in those days. The entire household of the poor man was plunged into misery. There seemed to be no hope for them.

One day, his good wife said: “Listen, my dear husband, I’ve heard that not too far from here, there lives a holy rabbi who has helped many people in distress. His name is the Baal Shem Tov. My advice to you is that you travel to him and tell him all about our situation. Do exactly what he tells you to do, and G‑d will surely help us through this.”

At first, the innkeeper refused. He was no chassid, and he did not understand how the Baal Shem Tov could help. But the wife persisted in her request, until eventually he agreed to go. He set out with a heavy heart to the Baal Shem Tov, to whom he described his terrible plight.

The Baal Shem Tov advised him: “Go for a stroll in the street on Sunday morning, and when you are approached by a villager who offers to sell you something, buy it at once. Take absolutely no notice of what the object is, or whether it is worth the price the villager asks for it. Then come to visit me again, and I will tell you what to do with your purchase.”

This sounded like a bitter jest to the poor man. He had never been one to believe in wonders and miracles. He had no intention of carrying out the strange instructions of the Baal Shem Tov.

When he came home, his wife asked him what the tzadik advised him to do. When he told her, she insisted that he do exactly what the tzadik advised. When Sunday morning came, she gently encouraged him to go for a stroll. Immediately, the man saw the words of the tzaddik coming to life—a villager approached him and offered to sell him the fleece of a sheep. He asked how much it would cost, and the villager answered, “One gold ruble.”

So astonished was the man at what was happening that without a second thought, he handed over the last gold ruble he owned and took the fleece.

Immediately, the man regretted the transaction. He went home vexed and disgruntled, and burst out to his wife: “Look what I’ve earned by listening to your advice. What on earth can I possibly do with a fleece? And I went and spent my last gold ruble on it! What will become of us now?”

His wife answered him, “Don’t you recognize that the Baal Shem Tov is a man of G‑d? Haven’t you seen with your own eyes that no word of his is said in vain? Why don’t you go back and visit the holy man again, just as he told you to. Surely G‑d will come to our aid.”

Her husband had no choice, so he went. The Baal Shem Tov heard his account of what had transpired with the villager and said: “My son, you did the right thing by buying the fleece. Now, take note of what I tell you. In a few days, a great number of nobles will be coming to visit your count for his birthday. Each one will bring a gift. You go along on the same day and present him with the fleece as a birthday gift.”

Was the Baal Shem Tov making fun of him? he thought. What a preposterous suggestion! How could he do a thing like that? He came home and let his wife know how he felt.

His wife, however, was a woman of faith. “Does it not say in the holy books that you should not try to figure out things that are beyond the reach of our humble mortal understanding? All you should do is carry out whatever the Baal Shem Tov told you to do and be strong in your faith in G‑d who works through the tzadik,” she said.

On the day of the count’s birthday party, the innkeeper’s wife bustled him out of the house with the fleece over his shoulder. His heart was heavy with foreboding and his steps trembled with terror as he made his way to the count’s castle.

The many elaborate carriages surrounding the palatial home bespoke the nobility inside celebrating the count’s birthday. The poor innkeeper paused at the door, not knowing what to do. Should he go inside and garner the wrath of his landlord, or turn back and go home? He had just about decided to go home when the massive door opened and one of the count’s guards sized him up and shouted: “Jew! What are you carrying? Did you come here to bring a present to the count as well?”

In his bewilderment, he held out the fleece. The guard grabbed it from his hand and hurried inside with it. He showed it to the count and all the assembled guests.

“This,” he announced, “is a gift from the Jew who rents the inn on the count’s estate!”

The count was furious. He had the Jew thrown into his prison, while contemplating this riddle.

“Can it be that this man would have the nerve to insult me in the middle of my festivities?” he questioned, as if speaking to himself. “Surely no man hands himself over to be killed.”

The count rose from the table, still holding the fleece, and secluded himself in his room. Perhaps there was something special about this strange gift. As he gazed upon it, he saw what appeared to be letters in the fleece. Soon he was able to make out his name, his father’s name, and the year, the month and the day on which he was born! He was so overawed by this wondrous sight and so filled with joy!

He strode back to the reception hall and went from table to table with his prized possession, asking the guests whether they thought this was the work of a gifted craftsman or whether it was an uncanny product of nature. They were all of one opinion—no craftsman in the world could contrive such a wonder. It must be a miracle from Heaven.

The count immediately had the trembling innkeeper released and brought before him. From all sides he was asked the same question—“Where did you get a hold of such a fleece?”

The poor fellow was now convinced that death was indeed near at hand. In his desperation, he hurled himself at the feet of the count and with bitter tears told him his whole sad story.

All the nobles listened attentively, and when he fell silent, the count spoke up: “Do not fear, my good man, for the holy man sent you here for a blessing.”

He then showed him the wonder of the fleece that he had brought. The visiting nobles meanwhile decided that the count should make himself a fur hat out of this fleece. Every year thereafter, on his birthday, he should wear it and present the Jew with special gifts.

To start the tradition, all those present gave him gifts of gold and silver. The count announced that he would forego the entire debt of the preceding years.

The innkeeper was escorted from the palace with due pomp, and from that day till the end of his years, he prospered in all his ways.

(Adapted from Sippurei Chassidim, Parshat Toldot)