Weekly Chasidic Story #784 (s5773-13 / 20 Kislev 5773)

Prisoner Exchange

He shouted for his servants to bring clubs and whips to beat the tavern keeper….The news of this tragedy reached Rabbi Moshe-Leib Sassover.

Connection: Weekly Reading— thrown in the pit-dungeon


The tavern keeper stood before his poritz quaking with terror. His rent was due that day but he did not have a penny to pay. He would have to ask for a postponement. Would the hard-hearted gentile landlord agree? The Jew shivered, waiting for an answer, hoping and fearing.

From the frown on the landlord’s beefy face, he already had his answer. The heavy-set gentile growled as he said, “How dare you appear before me without bringing the money, you filthy Jew!”

He shouted for his servants to bring clubs and whips to beat the tavern keeper. They fell upon him with a lust of their own, striking him until he was bruised and bleeding. He suffered in silence, but his ordeal was still not over.

“Now take this Jewish dog, chain him and throw him into the dungeon. And throw his family out into the street.”

Mere mention of the dungeon struck terror in all Jewish hearts. It was a damp, dingy underground pit in a cellar on the landlord’s estate. It was used to punish all those who dared defy and displease the landlord, owner of the vast estate which employed dozens of Jews in various capacities. Not always did the victim emerge from this horrible pit alive.

The pain-racked Jew lay on the damp floor of the dungeon. He wept and thought, “Will I ever see my wife and children again? Will I ever get out of here alive?”

The news of this tragedy reached Rabbi Moshe-Leib Sassover, the great Rebbe whose heart wept for all of his brothers in sorrow. The plight of the homeless, fatherless family shook him deeply; the tears streamed involuntarily down his cheeks.

He arose and made his way to the landlord’s mansion. Rabbi Moshe-Leib knocked boldly on the door. The landlord’s gateman opened the huge door and was surprised to see a distinguished looking Jew standing outside.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Take me to your master,” Rabbi Moshe-Leib demanded authoritatively. “I must speak to him.”

The gateman was so impressed by the rabbi’s bearing and confidence that he led him straight to the poritz. The landlord was stunned to see this impressive Jew in his home.

“Sir,” said Rabbi Moshe-Leib, “I have heard that there is a wounded Jew imprisoned on your property, in the dungeon of your castle.”

“He deserves it!” the landlord replied hotly. “He did not pay his rent. That is the punishment for failing to pay rent.”

Rabbi Moshe-Leib did not make any demands. With a suave tone, he said, “I would like to suggest an offer.”

“An offer?” he landlord repeated, his voice rising with curiosity. “What could you possibly offer?”

“Look at the matter logically. What possible benefit can you reap from holding this Jew in jail? His suffering will not pay the rent; you surely can understand that. However, if you were to free him and imprison me in his stead, I am certain that my fellow Jews would hasten to redeem me for the amount that he owes and even more. What do you say to that suggestion?”

The landlord’s eyes lit up. He would never have conceived such a thought. He would be able to demand any amount of ransom for this distinguished Jew. “I accept your offer,” he said. He freed the Jew and imprisoned Rabbi Moshe-Leib instead, chaining him hand and foot.

Rabbi Moshe-Leib lay on the cold, damp stone floor, happy in his suffering, for he had freed a fellow Jew! The chains bit into his hands and feet but he gave them no care. He was so transported with joy that had he been able, he would have broken into a dance.

He lay there all morning, unconscious of any discomfort or pain. But in the afternoon, when the hour to pray Minchadrew close, he tried to rise and found that he could not do so. Now his imprisonment disturbed him.

“How will I be able to commune with my Creator?” Rabbi Moshe-Leib wept, sighing from the depths of his heart. “I cannot stand up!” The pain did not disturb him, but he suffered greatly because he could not pray erect.

Meanwhile, the landlord rubbed his hands in glee as he returned from the dungeon to this comfortable mansion. “It cannot take long for the Jews to find out that their beloved leader is being held prisoner here. Soon, they will send a delegation bearing a huge sum for his ransom. They will come begging on their knees for me to free him.”

The landlord sat himself in a comfortable chair to await their arrival. Suddenly, a spasm shot through his head; he could not see straight. His entire body began aching. He groaned in agony and begged his family to fetch a doctor.

The landlord’s private physician was summoned, but he could discover no cause for the strange pain. Specialists were called in, but they, too, were baffled. This was a strange disease which they were unable to diagnose or treat.

The landlord writhed in agony. His shouts and screams echoed throughout the castle and brought all the servants to his side. His family tried in vain to alleviate his pain, but they were utterly at a loss. They sought some clue to his illness. Perhaps, it was a result of something he had eaten? …Or done?

“What did our master do this morning?”

“He was fine until he came back from the dungeon. He released the tavern keeper and imprisoned the rabbi.”

“Perhaps…” the family hesitated to express their fear. Perhaps the rabbi had put a curse on the master; perhaps this was a punishment.

“Master,” said a number of his advisors, “who knows if the Jew is not to blame? Maybe if you released him from the dungeon, you might get relief.”

Unable to speak, the landlord merely nodded his head. Servants were quickly dispatched to free the Jew from his bonds and take him out of the dungeon.

When they arrived, Rabbi Moshe-Leib refused to be released, much to their amazement. “I demand that the landlord come here himself,” he insisted.

Moaning and groaning, the landlord was carried to the dungeon. Supported on either side, he cried down into the pit, “Please forgive me for having imprisoned you. You are free to leave. I will also forgive my Jewish tenant.”

Rabbi Moshe-Leib was still not ready to emerge. He had other demands. “I will not leave here until you allow the tavern keeper and his family to return to their home.

The landlord had not expected such a harsh demand. Despite his excruciation, he thought not to agree. But at that moment he had another severe attack, which served to remind him why he was suffering. “Very well,” he said, “they can return to their home in the tavern. And now, you are free to go. Please, leave my property at once.”

Rabbi Moshe-Leib had not come to the end of his demands, “I want you to guarantee to let him manage the tavern, as before. I want you to restore his lease.”

“Anything! Just go!”

Rabbi Moshe-Leib finally agreed to let the servants unchain him and lift him up out of the pit. And lo! The very minute that the tzadik stood on firm ground, the landlord’s anguish began to recede. The closer Rabbi Moshe-Leib got to the main gate, the weaker it became. The moment he departed the property, the landlord was completely healed.

And from that day on, the landlord was wary of his Jewish tenants. He treated them with respect and care and never dared harm them again.

Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from Tales of Tzaddikim (ArtScroll) by G. MaTov.

Connection: Weekly Reading – thrown in the pit-dungeon

Biographic note:
Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sassov (1745-4 Shvat 1807) was the leading disciple of Reb Shmelke of Nicholsburg. He also received from the Maggid of Mezritch and from Rabbi Elimelech of Lyzhinsk. Subsequently a Rebbe in his own right with many followers, he was famous primarily for his love of his fellow Jews and his creative musical talent. His teachings are contained in the books, Likutei RaMalToras ReMaL Hashalem, and Chidushei RaMal.


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.