In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Butcher
In the shtetl of Vaysechvoos, no one had a meaner disposition, a shorter temper or a sharper tongue than Zelde, the butcher’s wife. And when she was angry, how she could curse! The mere mention of her name brought terror to the village. Outdoors, people glanced about uneasily and hurried home. Indoors, they would bolt their doors and pull the curtains shut. Little children grew big-eyed, and pious elderly folk whispered a hasty Shema Yisroel!” under their breath. Even the dogs and cats of Vaysechvoos scurried for shelter when they saw Zelde coming. Many of the townspeople attested to the suspicion that Zelde possessed terrible powers from the Evil One. Hadn’t Chayim the milkman’s cow taken sick and died only days after Zelde cursed at him for not delivering her milk? Then there was Yoselle, the widow’s son, who mysteriously shook with chills and fever shortly after Zelde caught him chasing her chickens. And what about Reb Yitzchok’s wagon that overturned with him in it after a quarrel with Zelde? So many villagers couldn’t be mistaken!
Berish the butcher feared his wife Zelde as much as everyone else because much of the time her bad temper fell on his head. But whenever Zelde nagged and cursed him, Berish comforted himself with something to eat. And since Zelde had numerous grievances against him daily, poor Berish continued to comfort himself, and he grew fatter and fatter. In fact, Berish grew so fat that one morning as he ate his breakfast, his chair broke under him with a loud crunch. Zelde ran in, screaming, “Idiot! Look what you’ve done! Fat pig! You might as well be a pig already! Heaven knows what I suffer from you!”
Berish for once left his food and made a hasty retreat to his butcher shop. There, at least, he was king over his own domain. After a successful business day, he scrubbed everything spotless and closed the shop early in preparation for Shabbos that night. Then, pockets bulging with the day’s receipts, he set out for home. Unfortunately for Berish, two peasant thugs had discovered that every Friday Berish left with unusually large receipts because of extra Shabbos sales. They decided this Friday they would like to share his good fortune. As Berish hitched his horse to the wagon behind the butcher shop, the two malefactors crept up behind him and knocked him unconscious. Throwing him into the wagon, they quickly drove out of town to a deserted stretch of country road. There they emptied his pockets and left him in a ditch while they rode off in his wagon.
By the time Berish regained consciousness, the sun was beginning to set. As he surveyed his torn, muddy clothing, his bruises and his empty pockets, he realized this would surely bring forth a fresh tirade from Zelde. That was more than a man could take! As he pondered how he could escape another of Zelde’s tongue lashings, Berish hobbled past the house of Alexei, the Shabbos Goy. Behind Alexei’s house were a chicken coop and a pig pen, and suddenly Berish had an idea. He would borrow one of the pigs and teach Zelde a lesson. His fear of Zelde overcame his disgust for the unclean beasts, and opening the gate of the sty, Berish grabbed the largest pig. Hanging on for dear life while it grunted its protest, he managed to slip its two front legs through the sleeves of his torn butcher’s coat. Then with his last ounce of strength, he dragged the pig in the direction of the town. He turned it loose facing the main street, and crept back to the butcher shop to hide.
The pig ran squealing into Vaysechvoos just as the townsfolk were beginning to gather at the synagogue for Shabbos prayers. Two small boys spied the pig running down the street in Berish’s coat, and they ran after it, shouting, “Berish the Butcher has turned into a pig!” The more they shouted, the more frightened the pig became, and the faster it ran. Soon people were gathering from all directions to see what the commotion was, and they joined the chase down the street. When the crowd reached Berish’s house, Zelde was standing outside, waiting to greet him with some choice oaths for being so late. When she saw the pig wearing her husband’s coat, and heard the shouts, “Berish has turned into a pig,” she grew white and clutched her throat in terror. “Oy, heaven has punished me,” she moaned. “It’s all my fault! My curse has come true!” The good people of Vaysechvoos, sensing that she was truly repentant, felt sorry for Zelde and tried to help her. But what could they do with Berish, who was now an unclean animal? Someone ran to fetch the rebbe. Surely he would know what to do. Meanwhile, one of the boys had captured the pig and held it on a rope. The rebbe arrived, perturbed at the disruption of his evening prayers, but ready to perform his duty. He paced and tugged hard at his beard while he thought, and finally laid down his edict: “The pig is an unkosher animal, and Zelde cannot live under the same roof with him. Therefore, they must be divorced. Let him be taken to Alexei the Shabbos Goy until after Shabbos. Then we will write a get and the pig…I mean Berish…must consent to the divorce.”
They did as the rebbe instructed, and the next day after sundown, all the townspeople gathered by Alexei’s pig sty for the divorce proceedings. Zelde had aged overnight. A pathetic shadow of her former self, she stood meekly, supported by two devout women of the sisterhood. The rebbe stood by the pig sty, his coat tails lifted so they wouldn’t touch the muddy ground, and he read in a loud voice to the pig in the hearing of two male witnesses: “Berish, son of Beryl, do you divorce this woman Zelde, according to the law of Moses?” The pig looked away. The rebbe repeated the question, shouting louder this time, and the two witnesses added their voices. The pig squealed with fright at all the fuss and noise. And since a pig can’t talk, they all took this squeal to mean yes, he wanted the divorce. All that was necessary now was his signature on the divorce paper. Opening the pig pen, the rebbe thrust the paper and a pen at the pig, and the witnesses and all the onlookers shouted together, “Sign it, sign it!” At this additional noise, the terrified pig bolted through the open gate of the sty and fled down the road so fast that no one could catch it. The divorce was not final without the husband’s signature, and Zelde, still apparently married to the pig, was led home, half fainting and moaning bitterly, with all the townspeople following in sympathy.
Meanwhile, Berish had decided now that Shabbos was over, he would leave the butcher shop and risk coming back. He made his appearance just as the crowd brought poor Zelde to her door. “A miracle!” they all gasped. “He’s been restored!” When Zelde saw Berish, she ran to meet him and threw herself at his feet. “Oh, husband,” she wailed, “Can you ever forgive me? I have sinned against you and against heaven! Never again will I say an unkind word, or wish an unkind thing on anyone!” And so it happened that Zelde became a new woman. No one in all Vaysechvoos ever heard anything but blessings from her lips, and she became an angel of mercy, ministering to the sick and feeding the poor. And Berish the butcher was regarded with envy and respect all the rest of his days because he had such a pious and saintly wife.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.