“Enough!” the Shpoler Zeide called out. “That’s the final blow!”

His disciples from a rural area outside Shpoli had been suffering for years under the heavy yoke of their cruel landlord, a high-ranking noble who owned all the land in that area. He was constantly raising the rents on their homes and the leases for their businesses. But that he did to his non-Jewish tenants too. What hurt more were his vicious anti-Semitic twists. He would make Jews who were indebted to him sing and dance in front of his aristocratic friends during their drunken parties, so that they could enjoy themselves laughing at the Jews. He had tried to force them to open their businesses on Shabbat. But his most recent depravity was the worst: he had issued a degree that in all buildings on his extensive properties, there had to be hanging a depiction of “that man” from Nazareth, around whom the Christian religion was centered.

It is time for him to hear the Ten Commandments. There is no choice.

Over the years, whenever any of the Jewish tenants happened to be in Shpoli, they would ask the rebbe to bless them and pray for their relief from this anti-Semitic tyrant. But this recent decree was too much. It was unthinkable. They all gathered as one and came to the Zeide together. When the tzaddik heard this latest tale of woe, he was furious.

“I’ve waited a long time for that wicked man to change his evil ways. But this is intolerable. He has to be taught a lesson. It is time for him to hear the Ten Commandments. There is no choice.”

His disciples, circled around him, were astonished by his words. They had no idea what he had in mind. But before anyone could muster the courage to ask for an interpretation, the rebbe had already started speaking again.

“Listen carefully, please; this is what you must do. I know that every year for Shavuot you all travel to the city in order to celebrate the festival with a large congregation. This year, don’t leave. Instead, stay home, and gather together at the home of the tenant with the largest property for the prayers and the communal holiday celebrations.

“Before the holiday, send a small delegation to the poritz (nobleman), tell him about your arrangements, and invite him to come and hear the festive morning prayers, and to bring all of his noble friends with him.

“As for you, prepare yourselves and purify yourselves properly for the holy occasion of the Receiving of the Torah. I, also, shall come to join you. So now, go home in peace and don’t worry.”

All the dukes, counts and lords waited eagerly...

The astonishment of the listeners didn’t diminish at hearing these instructions. Indeed, it heightened, but still no one had the nerve to ask the tzaddik for an explanation. They quickly filed out of the rebbe’s room and hurried home, eager to carry out his commands.

The villagers who went to invite the lord met a pleasant reception, to their surprise. He happily accepted their request. Having heard individual Jews singing their prayers before, he figured to himself that a whole congregation of them should prove to be quite an entertaining spectacle for himself and his fellow aristocrats. He promised the tenants that he and his associates would definitely attend. He then dismissed them and immediately launched preparations for a huge party for all the Polish aristocrats in the region, the highlight of which would be the spectacle of the Jewish prayer that would take place on the grounds he had leased to one of his tenants. The invitations he sent out included his promise of a “highly amusing surprise.”

The Shpoler Zeide arrived early in the day before Shavuot, with a large number of followers accompanying him. They quickly realized there would not be enough room on the farm for so many people. The rebbe told them to go to the nearby hill and raise up a large awning there, under which they would set up a platform with a table on it for the reading of the Torah.

Shavuot morning arrived. The grassy lands around the hill were crowded with hundreds of Jews, waiting in nervous anticipation to see what would happen. A significant number of gentiles—all the dukes, counts and lords, and other wealthy landowners and nobility in the region—also waited eagerly, looking forward to the wonderful surprise their host had promised them.

His gaze finally settled on a tall, very distinguished-looking man...

The rebbe approached the platform to lead the prayers himself. A hush fell over the assembly. The Jews began to pray with enthusiasm. The gentiles—seeing an old man with a long beard, covered from head to knees with an oversized white shawl with strings dangling off it to the ground, chanting loudly the words of the prayers while all his limbs seemed to be trembling and shaking—all laughed heartily. But when he called out in a extraordinarily powerful voice, Shema Yisrael . . . echad,” their laughter ceased instantly. It was as if a lion had roared. They were gripped by terror. They tried to hide it with nervous smiles. How could a puny, absurd Jew make them afraid? But they couldn’t shake the mood as the Zeide’s voice continued to reverberate off the hillside, until, a few minutes later, the praying Jews stood absolutely still and silent.

The repetition of the festival Standing Prayer was followed by the joyous singing of Hallel (“Thanksgiving”) and chanting of the Akdamut. The festival joy was palpable. The rebbe signaled for the Torah scroll to be brought out and rolled to its proper position in the Torah portion of Yitro for the Shavuot reading. (Ex. 19–20) He then gazed at the surrounding crowd and slowly swiveled his head. It was clear that he was searching for someone. His gaze finally settled on a tall, very distinguished-looking man whom nobody else seemed to know. The Zeide summoned him to be the Torah reader.

Everyone murmured in surprise, but they were soon pleased by the choice. The guest’s voice was both musical and powerful. When they reached the section of the Ten Commandments, the atmosphere altered radically. It had been a beautiful, clear spring morning. The sun was shining brightly, the sky a solid sheet of pastel blue, with not a dot of cloud to be seen. Suddenly the heavens darkened, and tremendous peals of thunder boomed down upon them. Fright took hold of everyone.

The reader’s voice rose in volume and intensity. “I am G‑d who brought you out of Egypt.” A Jew stood next to the landlord to translate word by word, but amazingly, the man realized he was able to understand directly, without aid, even though he didn’t know a single letter of Hebrew. “You shall not have others’ gods before Me. Do not make any statue or image...” The lord trembled and felt weak in his stomach as he thought of how he had demanded the Jews put engraved images of Christian worship on their walls.

When he heard “Remember the Shabbat day that it should be holy,” his knees buckled. His throat was constricted. Why had he tried to force the Jews to open their businesses on their holy day? “...The seventh day is the holy Sabbath of G‑d.” He felt he was close to fainting.

Their faces were deathly white. Many of them fainted.

His friends were similarly affected. They too felt they understood the commandments directly, as if the Holy Tongue were their native language. Each one meditated upon his sins and was seized with fear. Their faces were deathly white. Many of them fainted.

After a few moments which seemed like an eternity, the reading drew to a close and the noblemen recovered somewhat. Deeply embarrassed, they slipped away by ones and twos.

After the conclusion of the prayers, the Jews sat down to the traditional dairy meal. Between courses, the Shpoler Zeide said he would now explain the mysterious events that had taken place. The excited chassidim listened attentively.

“I assure you that your landlord and the rest of those noblemen will remember for the rest of their lives how they heard the Ten Commandments here today, and they will never afflict you again. To accomplish that, I was forced to trouble Moses, our teacher, himself to come here and to read the Torah. I had no choice. He went too far. You have a great merit, my friends, to have been here today.”

The assembled Jews all looked at each other in amazement. But there was more to come.

“You should know that your landlord, the duke, is not just an ordinary gentile. He has in him a spark of the soul of Jethro, the priest of Midian, who came to the Jews in the desert before they reached Mt. Sinai and acknowledged the existence of G‑d...and that Israel is His chosen people.”

That night, after the holiday ended, the duke sent a pair of messengers to his tenant’s house to request that the rebbe come to see him. The tzaddik agreed and went with them to the castle. The two men spent hours together alone, behind locked doors. The next morning the Shpoler Zeide returned home. He never told anyone what he had spoken about privately with the lord.

From that day on, the landlord’s attitude towards his Jewish tenants changed dramatically. They were able to live in peace and prosperity, without any unfair pressure from the lord. Not only that, but with his own money he paid for the construction of a synagogue for the Jews who lived on his estates. He did insist, however, that it be built on that spot on the hill where the holy rabbi had come to pray.

Adapted from Shim’u Utechi Nafshechem #258; first published in Kfar Chabad Magazine.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Aryeh Leib [?–6 Tishrei 5572 (1811)], known as the Shpoler Zeide (“grandfather”—a nickname given to him by the Baal Shem Tov at his circumcision), is famed as a miracle worker devoted to the succor of poor Jews in distress. In his early years he was a disciple of Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, a leading figure in the first generation of chassidim.

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