Nahum was not from Vaysechvoos, but he never missed a market day there. This was no small feat because market day was held every third Thursday if it didn’t rain or it didn’t snow, or if there wasn’t a Jewish holiday. Villagers brought their produce to sell, and if something didn’t sell there were always the wholesalers who would buy anything produced in the area at a third the fair price the next day.
Nahum always arrived early. He would set out leather-bound books in Yiddish and Polish and Russian, even some in the Turkish language. All were elegant, and at prices that none in the district could afford. His jewelry, just as fine, was also too elegant for anyone in Vaysechvoos.
When people asked him where he came from, he would just nod, Up the road, over a few hills.”
“Are you married, Nahum?” some would ask.
“Not at the present time,” was his answer.
Nahum himself was elegance personified, always in a clean shirt with well-polished boots. Even the villagers knew that his dress was stylish and his manners were courtly. He sat on a nice chair and passed the time polishing his jewelry, reading his fine books and offering pleasant conversation to anyone who would sit and talk to him.
“No, no, no. It’s not necessary to buy anything!” he would say. “Just sit down for a moment.” And Nahum listened. He listened to the joys. He listened to the sorrows. He heard all about the children and the crops and the ailments of the milk cow. And he delighted to get people to play his game.
“Perhaps you’ll join me in a game?” he’d suggest to a villager.
“What kind of game?” the villager would ask.
He would reach for a few walnut shells and a dried pea. What market didn’t have walnuts and dried peas for sale? To make the game interesting, he’d suggest a wager of one kopek.
“Now,” he would continue, “you have the eye of an eagle. Watch and see which walnut shell I put the pea under. Keep your eye on it. I will quickly mix the shells’ positions. You tell me which one has the pea, and if you are correct, you win the kopek. If not, I win.”
The kopek was the smallest coin of the realm, so many played “Nahum’s game.” Most won. And so on market days it wasn’t unusual that Nahum’s elegant stall with its leather-bound books and finely polished jewelry was the most popular.
One would have thought that Henekh, the wool merchant, was above such things. If anybody in Vaysechvoos could be said to be well off, it was Henekh. But he liked Nahum’s game too. He started out playing for kopeks and zlotys–even rubles–but before long, he was wagering more money for expensive jewelry or books. The game was more exciting with such beautiful prizes at stake, prizes that Henekh occasionally won. They seemed to make up for the times he lost.
It seemed to Henekh that he won more than he lost, but his wife knew better. She had noticed him going to his hiding place before market, and she counted the gold coins after he left. Henekh was losing, badly. His once impressive savings were now barely enough for his daughters’ dowries. It wouldn’t have occurred to the mother of Henekh’s two daughters that his money was going to another woman or that he was making bad investments. He was an upright man, an astute man.
When Henekh came home, his wife tearfully begged him to see the Sage of Vaysechvoos, as he was obviously in the grip of a powerful demon that kept him from thinking straight. Henekh knew that his gambling was a vice and that he needed help, so he followed his wife’s saintly advice.
The Sage told him not to eat meat until the next market day had passed. He should spend from sundown to sundown before market day fasting and praying all of the selihot prayers. The Sage then instructed all of the men of the village to fast as well and to avoid playing Nahum’s game for the entire day.
On market day, things were busier than usual. But Nahum didn’t have the usual coterie of men standing around his table. The Sage waited till midmorning to approach the deserted stall.
“No one to play with, eh, Nahum? Perhaps you would care to play with me?” Nahum set up his pea and his nut pods, then smiled at the Sage, “Perhaps we could make it interesting by playing for a kopek?”
“No,” said the Sage, “my time is worth more than a kopek. I like all of your fine books and your jewelry. But even so, it’s not enough for the wager I have in mind.”
“Oh?” said Nahum.
“Perhaps if you add all of the gold coins that you’ve won from my landsmen?”
“Against what?” said Nahum, trying to suppress a smirk.
“Against the shul, and against the mikvah?”
“Why should I want those things?” asked Nahum.
“They might seem worthless to you, but they are necessities to us,” said the Sage. “We would have to pay your price as monthly rent if they belonged to you.”
“Hmm,” said Nahum. “My price, you say? Yes, let us play.”
Said the Sage to Nahum, “I don’t suppose you would mind if we said the Sh’ma first?”
Nahum’s eyes grew cold and steely, “You pray if you must, but me–never.”
The Sage prayed the Sh’ma–and all the rest of the morning prayers. Then he announced, “I am ready.”
Nahum’s hands whizzed, moving the shell from left to right, mixing, then intermixing until they stood three in a row before the Sage who, with his smallest finger, pointed to the one in the middle. By then all the men of Vaysechvoos had gathered.
“I’m sorry,” Nahum said. “You l–” and before he could finish the word lost, he picked up the center shell to unveil the dried pea.
The men and the Sage required Nahum to return each gold coin he had “won” from them. The Sage then declared that the leather-bound books would go to the village library and the fine jewelry would be sold at bargain prices to benefit the poor. The crowd dispersed, and Henekh hurried home to show his wife that their savings had been restored.
Nahum was furious. “You knew that the pea was not under any of the shells. How did you cheat me?”
The wise man chuckled and lifted the shell on the left and the right, revealing two more dried peas. Staring into Nahum’s eyes, he said gravely, “If a man says there is one, only one, when in truth there are none, God can make the one to be three or the three to be one.”