Autumn in Vaysechvoos was a very comfortable time of year. It was cool enough to wear a warm woolen scarf and an extra sweater under one’s coat. But it wasn’t so cold that one had to wear the big heavy boots and look like a Cossack to keep one’s toes from freezing. The crisp air and the rich colors of the season put everyone in a placid frame of mind. If the harvest was good, the whole shtetl would thank the Almighty, and if it wasn’t so good, baruchha-Shem, they would thank him anyway; after all, it could have been worse.
This year the harvest had been especially bountiful. The trees had been laden with apples, and now that the apples were picked, the trees let their leaves turn bright shades of crimson and gold, as if to boast of the good fruit they had borne that season. The best of the apples were neatly stored away in the fruit cellars. The smaller ones were pressed for cider, and the ones that had been on the tree just a bit too long were baked, then laced with cinnamon…ah, such a delicious treat for the Sabbath meal!
Weeks passed and the wind began to whistle gently through Vaysechvoos, scattering most of the leaves to the village floor. Autumn was coming to an end. The changing weather seemed to signal the children of Vaysechvoos. No sooner did they finish their chores than they were outside playing. Soon it would be too cold to frisk out-of-doors and they were determined to enjoy their freedom while it lasted. There would be no running and jumping in the house, and that was certain! Who would take the risk of overturning mamma’s good copper samovar that her sister brought back from Kiev, or inviting the lengthy lecture that papa was sure to give if you interrupted his studies? No, the children of Vaysechvoos must confine their romping to the outdoors–which they did with great relish while there was yet time.
It happened that Nokhem and Shloyme were chasing their little sister Feygela past Reb Zuchman’s house one day. Feygela could not run as fast as the boys, because she was only seven and her legs were quite short. But she could climb just about any tree in the village. Her brothers had the little girl almost within reach when she spotted the tree in front of Reb Zuchman’s house. She scampered up the tree, jostling loose most of the remaining leaves. The boys stood below, laughing and shaking the tree. As the last few leaves fell from the tree, something wonderful was revealed. Ooooh” said Shloyme. “Look at that apple!” For there, dangling from a branch just above Feygela’s perch, was the most astounding apple in Vaysechvoos. Why it was larger, redder, and made one’s mouth water more than any apple since the Garden of Eden.
“How can it be?” asked Shloyme. “The apples were ad harvested weeks ago. And the ones we missed, the birds have pecked away.”
Nokhem, the older brother, felt responsible to offer an explanation. He stroked his non-existent beard and said, “It must be a miracle. The Almighty has seen fit to preserve this one apple for some divine purpose. See how perfect the apple is. If it were an ordinary apple, it would have ripened past the point of clinging to the tree.”
“Let’s show papa,” Feygela said, and she reached for the apple.
“No, don’t touch it!” her brother warned sharply. “If God has left it for a special purpose, who knows what curse we might bring upon ourselves if we take it.”
Feygela didn’t usually allow her brother to give orders, but in this case the threat of a curse, however remote, gained her respect. She decided she had better obey Nokhem, and the three children ran off to tell their parents.
It wasn’t long before everyone in Vaysechvoos knew about the apple. These good people had no concept of museums or zoos, but they were born spectators. Everyone was avidly interested in everyone else’s business, and if there was something worth seeing, everyone was prepared to pause from what they were doing to go take a look. So it happened that the whole village soon was gathered just a few feet from Reb Zuchman’s door, where the last apple in Vaysechvoos was hanging from a tree with no leaves. Reb Zuchman stood outside his door, smiling and nodding proudly. He could not explain the marvelous apple, but it was an honor that this wonder had occurred at his home. He certainly had no intention of plucking the apple off his tree. And he would allow no one else to do so either. So what became of the apple?
They didn’t believe in gambling, but for recreation the people of Vaysechvoos made a pool, into which every citizen put one kopek. In return for their kopeks, each was given a number on a small white piece of paper. They determined that when the apple fell, whoever had the number matching the amount of days that had passed would get all the kopeks. At first it seemed as if the last villagers to put in their kopeks were at a disadvantage, because after all, how many days could the apple remain on the tree? But wonder of wonders, even after the snow came, the apple remained on the tree. At times, Reb Zuchman would come out and gently brush the snow off the fruit, but the apple seemed to pay no heed to the season. It stayed firmly attached to the branch, looking just as red and delicious as ever.
Some said it was an omen, so the people speculated about the apple and what it could possibly mean. Itke the Yente boasted that it meant Reb Wolfe’s daughter, Pesha (whose marriage she had arranged), would give birth to a son before the next harvest. Meyer the Melamed thought it might be a sign that the Messiah had come and would reveal himself on the day the apple dropped. As for the dear rabbi, he shrugged and said. “It is the Almighty’s way of teaching us a lesson. What the lesson is, I don’t know yet. We shall have to wait and see.”
Now every year just before Hanukkah, a meshuloch would come to Vaysechvoos and gather kopeks for the yeshiva in Palestine. All the villagers eagerly awaited the coming of the meshuloch, for he would tell them stories of faraway places: the terror of the Turks and the adventures of Jews both rich and poor in other lands. He would always teach a new song, a nigun, and he remembered all the children by name. He was a good man–a learned and kind man–and therefore, he was a welcomed guest to any home in Vaysechvoos.
This year, the meshuloch was invited to the home of Reb Zuchman. As he trudged into Vaysechvoos, there was no way he could have known the family was not at home. They were attending the bris of a third cousin two villages away. In fact, everybody from Vaysechvoos had gone to that bris. So it was an empty village and an empty house that the meshuloch came to that day. When he knocked on the door and no one answered, he caught sight of the footprints in the snow, and realized the family was away. But he saw smoke coming out of the chimney. so he knew that they would be returning soon. The good meshuloch was too polite to enter the empty house, so he scraped the snow off a barrel beneath a tree and he sat. And as he sat, he grew hungry. And as he grew hungrier and hungrier, he began to pray.
As was the custom, he looked up as he prayed. Then something happened which the meshuloch would never forget. He saw the biggest, most beautiful apple he’d ever seen on the limb of the tree. With thanks to God, he rose to his feet and stretched forth his hand, but the apple was out of his reach. He stood transfixed, forgetting his hunger for the moment. He was oblivious to the dull ache in his own outstretched arm, so taken was he with the sight of the apple held forth by the outstretched limb of the tree. Then the apple dropped. It dropped right into the hand of the good meshuloch.
He sat back down on the barrel and stared at the apple in amazement. He turned it every which way and marvelled at its perfect, unblemished form. He noted the lustre and hue of the fruit, then he held it up to his face and the sweet fragrance reminded him of his hunger. So he bit into the apple. He closed his eyes in sheer delight. It was the crunchiest, juiciest, most delicious apple he had ever tasted. As he sat chewing, he heard children’s laughter and voices in the distance. The people of Vaysechvoos were returning.
The meshuloch jumped up and raced to tell the villagers of the miracle apple God had provided to answer his prayers. Feygela started to say something about the kopeks, but her mamma quickly shushed her. The rabbi stepped forward and proclaimed that it was indeed a wondrous thing God had done. “And who,” the rabbi wanted to know, “should be more worthy of such a sign from the Almighty than our beloved meshuloch?” The people of Vaysechvoos smiled and nodded their agreement. The rabbi embraced the meshuloch. “We so looked forward to your coming, this time we gathered the kopeks for you in advance.
The meshuloch had the most pleasant stay ever in Vaysechvoos that year. And henceforth, wherever the meshuloch went, he told about the miracle apple that God had sent out of season, to demonstrate his sovereignty and his tender care.