About two hundred years ago, a Jew from Romania named Mendel departed that country and took up residence in Russia, in the city of Kishinev. Another Jew, with whom he had once been close but who had become his enemy before he moved, leveled a nasty libel against him to the Romanian government. He claimed that Mendel had found a treasure chest of gold coins which was really lost government property, and that was why he had left Romania for Russia.

The Romanian government sent a request to the Russian government to extradite Mendel to Romania so that he could stand trial there. The Russian government refused; Mendel had already acquired official citizen papers and all the rights to which that entitled him. Instead, they replied, if Romania wanted to make a legal claim against him, they would have to do so in Russia, in the courthouse in Kishinev. They would be welcome to send their own prosecutor and whatever witnesses he desired to bring along with him.

He himself would send him an excellent defender . . .

Mendel traveled to the rebbe known as the “Holy Grandfather,” the Shpoler Zeide, and told him the whole story. The Rebbe told him not to be afraid of the impending case, only that he should do everything within his power to arrange that the trial take place on Purim day. He also told him not to hire a lawyer, for he himself would send him an excellent defender.

Mendel asked how much this first-class lawyer would cost him. The Zeide replied that he was arranging the wedding of an orphan girl to an orphan boy, and that if Mendel would help with the expenses of three hundred rubles, he himself would take care of any legal fees. Mendel happily contributed the entire sum, and the Rebbe blessed him.

Mendel then asked when he would be able to meet his attorney-to-be. “Not until the day of the trial,” the Zeide answered. “He will meet you at the courthouse. Be sure to have your power-of-attorney prepared for him to file with the court.”

“But how will I know who he is?” asked Mendel, puzzled.

“Oh, that will be easy,” smiled the Rebbe. “He’ll be wearing a white hat and red gloves.”

Mendel returned to Kishinev, where after considerable effort on a number of different fronts, he succeeded in having the trial delayed until the exact date of Purim. Immediately he sent a telegram to the Rebbe to notify him of the auspicious news.

Four weeks before Purim, Mendel received official notification of the charges against him and a summons to the trial. At the same time the Romanian government received an invitation to send a prosecuting attorney and whatever witnesses they had.

Shortly before Purim, Mendel discovered someone on his way to Shpoli to spend the holiday with the Rebbe. Mendel sent with him a kvittel (note) requesting the Rebbe’s blessing, and money and food packages for the Rebbe to distribute to the poor on Purim day.

Wondrous salvations for individuals or the community often followed . . .

Purim in Shpoli was always interesting, as well as joyful. Whenever the Zeide had some mission to accomplish that required overcoming government obstacles, he would convene a “Purim Performance.” He would draft a number of clever people from among his followers to appear in disguise. Sometimes he would appoint one of them to be a “Purim King” or a “Purim Chief Rabbi,” while others would take the parts of noted court dignitaries or other significant personages. A case would be presented before the esteemed gathering, and they would decide according to the Shpoler’s wishes. All this was based on secret mystic principles, and wondrous salvations for individuals or the community often followed close upon the conclusion of the Purim Play.

This year the Zeide requested that on Purim certain men should come to his house and disguise themselves as judges of the secular court system. The chief rabbi of the town was designated to play the head judge, while two others represented the other two judges, in order that they could conduct a mock trial of Mendel. Another disciple was assigned the role of the prosecutor from Romania. He blackened his face, and every time he spoke, everyone present would jeer and catcall and otherwise make fun of him. Someone else was given the role of the informer, and, of course, someone had to play Mendel. Rounding off the cast were two others, acting the role of witnesses from Romania who would testify in Mendel’s behalf. Finally, the Shpoler Zeide spread on top of his large, round streimel (fur holiday hat) a white handkerchief, and enclosed his hands in a pair of red gloves. He himself would assume the part of the lawyer for the defense! Guards were posted to make sure that no one but the players could enter the rebbe’s room.

The trial began. Secular court procedures were followed precisely. The chief judge read out the charges. The prosecutor presented the claim in the name of the government of Romania, although the continually interrupted to heckle and ridicule him. Then the informer testified his version of events. Next to take the stand were the two witnesses for Mendel. They described how they had seen the informer approach Mendel and arrogantly demand a large sum of money. He had threatened Mendel that if he didn’t pay, he would take nasty revenge upon him. Finally, the judges called upon the defense attorney to present the case for his client.

The Shpoler Zeide rose and began to speak eloquently. He explained how the informer was motivated by jealousy and the desire for revenge. He proved that the story of the treasure chest filled with gold coins was a total fabrication. He also elucidated that even if there were such a chest, the Romanian government anyway would have no legitimate claim upon it. His delivery was emotional yet brilliant, and extremely convincing.

As soon as the Zeide finished, the judges announced their verdict: they declared Mendel to be totally innocent. All the players then shoved the man in blackface out of the room, whereupon he ran off to wash away the paint and makeup.

After they had all removed their disguises they rejoined the chassidim, and the Zeide sat at the head of the table to lead the Purim festive meal. Word spread among the chassidim about the “trial” that had taken place in the house. That night they received a telegram from Kishinev: Mendel had won his case and would soon travel to Shpoli.

Several days later Mendel showed up at the synagogue in Shpoli. The chassidim were overjoyed to hear him, and wanted to know all that had transpired. Mendel reported an outline of events, and emphasized that the main ingredient of his success was the wonderful lawyer that the rebbe had sent to defend him. “He gave such a magnificent speech in court,” Mendel exuded, “and so brilliant.”

. . . How did you like the lawyer I sent you?

The chassidim expressed interest in exactly what the clever lawyer had said, so Mendel began to quote from the speech to them. They stared at him in amazement. It was word-for-word what the Zeide had said in his lawyer’s disguise during their mock trial on Purim!

At his first opportunity Mendel entered into the rebbe’s study to speak to him privately. Before he could say a word, the Zeide said to him: “Nu, Mendel, so how did you like the lawyer I sent you?”

“He was great!” Mendel exclaimed. “He captivated everyone in the court with the brilliance of his defense, and as you know, I was judged innocent as a result of his efforts.”

The happy Mendel was startled by the rebbe’s response to his words.

“You should know, Mendel, that your defender was an angel from heaven, created by the generous donation you gave me for the wedding of the two orphans. If you merit, you will see him again advocating on your behalf—in the heavenly court, when (after you reach 120 years of age) it will be time to give a reckoning of your deeds in this lowly physical world.”

Biographical notes:
Rabbi Aryeh Leib (?–6 Tishrei 1811), known as the Shpoler Zeide (“Grandfather of Shpoli”), is famed as a miracle worker and for his devotion 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 Chasidim. He was called zeide not because of advanced age, for that was his nickname even when he was very young—but that’s another story. The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggested that he and Rabbi Leib Sarahs may be the same person.

[Translated-adapted from Sippurei Chassidim by Rabbi S. Y. Zevin and other oral sources.]