Settling a legal dispute in the shtetl of Vaysechvoos is no easy thing. After all, the czar had made sure that Jews were prohibited from the civil court system, and that was probably a good thing, since what kind of justice would a Jew find in the czar’s Russia? But disputes occurred, even in Vaysechvoos, and it was the rabbi who was designated to serve as the judge. The rabbi, of course, is looked upon as one imbued with traits of both wisdom and fairness, and so his decision is the law.”

But what do you do when one of the parties in the dispute is the rabbi himself? And so it was in the story of the missing rabbi. It all started when the parent of one of the rabbi’s young students arrived at the synagogue in the middle of the school day, only to find that while the students were busy at their tablets, there was no rabbi in sight.

“Where is the rabbi?” asked Feivel the Tailor of his son. Heshie responded, “Papa, he is out feeding the chickens.” “Does he do this every day?” “No Papa, some days he goes out to feed the goat.” Well, Feivel was more than a little upset at this news. After all, the rabbi was receiving payment from the parents to educate their sons; no one wanted to have their hard earned kopeks wasted.

The parents tried to reason with the rabbi, but he calmly replied that he would continue to spend part of his students’ time feeding the animals. Word soon spread and many of the townspeople of Vaysechvoos got embroiled in the controversy— even though their own sons were grown and it wasn’t their kopeks being wasted. Still they felt it their duty to be concerned over whether their rabbi was wasting their neighbors’ money in activities that had no bearing on his duty as a teacher and spiritual leader.

Well, the rabbi couldn’t settle this dispute, since he was hardly a disinterested party, so another “judge” was needed for this situation. But who?

Shimmon the Butcher was a sensible man and the first to be asked, but he sensibly pointed out he should not be the judge because, after all, he was not without a bias: well-fed animals were very important to his livelihood.

Menachem the Milkman was approached as well, but since a shidduch between his daughter and the rabbi’s son was in the making, he would not be an objective party either.

And so it went with Nahum the Tanner and Chaim-Meyer the Bookbinder and Mendel the Merchant. Each had good reason why he would be less than fair in adjudicating this situation and should therefore decline. Finally someone suggested that perhaps the rabbi’s brightest pupil, Shmuel, would be the proper choice. After all, although he was only eleven years old, the boy could recite the holy writings from memory and was without guile.

Shmuel did not know the first thing about being a judge, and since he was only a boy, he also didn’t know that he could decline—so he was made the temporary judge for this one case. Shmuel listened to the parents who insisted that the rabbi should refrain from other duties while teaching their sons. Then he listened to the rabbi, who in his own defense offered only the following words, “Shmuel, you have been a good student of the holy books. Use them to make your decision.”

And the boy took that advice.

The townspeople assembled in the meeting room the next morning. All eyes were on Shmuel, who took a deep breath and then said, “Last night I asked the Almighty for wisdom, and words of the writer of the book of Proverbs came to my mind: ‘A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.’

“I know that I am just a boy, but it seems to me that you would want your children taught by someone who is regarded as a righteous person according to the standards of the Almighty. In feeding the animals and caring for their needs, our rabbi daily teaches us by his example how we can be righteous too. That is a good thing . . . isn’t it?”

As the rabbi beamed at his student, the townspeople agreed that indeed, it was a good thing. A fair judge had ruled on a righteous rabbi.

Glossary

shidduch: an arranged marriage; a “match.”