Weekly Story: The Worth Of A Sefer

by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon

As a way of including all the readers of the Weekly Story to participate in the simcha of our daughter Devorah Leah’s שתחי׳ chassuna with Shloime ben HaRav Yosef Yitzchok שיחי׳ Schwei this Sunday; I am posting the first story of the Teshurah (memento) that will be given out bezras Hashem at the Chassunah. And may we all share in simchos.

It is a story that I heard from my father, Reb Meir a”h, and is an excerpt from the sefer Sippurei Meir – Stories of a Chossid, that is being prepared for publication.

At the same time I request from the readers if they remember any of my father’s stories to please share them with me so I can include them in the sefer.

Rav Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye

Rav Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye was one of the greatest talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov.[1] He was the first person to publish a sefer containing the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. The name of his sefer is Toldos Yaakov Yosef.

Rav Yaakov Yosef desired to publicize the teachings of his Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, so he wrote and published the sefer Toldos Yaakov Yosef (in the year 5540/1780).[2] Since the entire purpose of publishing the sefer was to spread these teachings, he undertook the difficult task of personally traveling from town to town and selling it.

One day, Rav Yaakov Yosef arrived in the town of Zhitomir, which was known as being a chassidishe community. He made his way to the local marketplace, opened a box displaying the seforim he had brought, and announced that they were for sale. “This sefer contains the teachings of my holy teacher, the Baal Shem Tov!” he proclaimed.

Hearing his announcement, many people rushed over, eager to buy the prized sefer. “What is the cost of the sefer?” they asked. Rav Yaakov Yosef specified a certain amount.

The townspeople were not all that pleased. “The price you gave is much too high, even for such an important sefer,” they declared. “A sefer of this size is never sold for even close to such a sum!” When they saw that they could not convince the vendor to lower his price, they walked away disappointedly.

Rav Yaakov Yosef was beside himself. “How can it be that no one appreciates the true value of my master’s teachings?” he thought. “Yes, my sefer is more expensive than other seforim, but the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings are worth even more than what I am asking for! Many of the people here are chassidim, and they should appreciate its value!”

The hours passed, and Rav Yaakov Yosef had yet to sell a single sefer. His frustration mounted with every passing moment, to the point that he could no longer contain himself. “This demonstrates a lack of respect for the Baal Shem Tov!” he rebuked the townspeople sharply. “You deserve to be severely punished!”

The residents were taken aback at these strong words, fearing that they might, chas veshalom, cause negative consequences. Nervously, they hurried to their rov, Rav Velvel of Zhitomir, and told him what had happened. Reb Velvel immediately understood that the seller was none other than the tzaddik Rav Yaakov Yosef himself, whom he had not seen for some time. He hurriedly made his way to the marketplace to appease Rav Yaakov Yosef.

“How many seforim do you have for sale?” Rav Velvel asked him. “How much do they cost?”

Rav Yaakov Yosef named his price, and Rav Velvel — whom Rav Yaakov Yosef did not yet recognize — proceeded to purchase every single sefer available for sale. “What a fair price this is!” he made sure to add. “After all, the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov are truly priceless. What a bargain!”

Thankfully, Rav Yaakov Yosef was no longer visibly upset at the townspeople. After all, at least one individual in town had appreciated the sefer’s value and had bought all the seforim he had with him at the time! Rav Velvel had succeeded in averting the punishment that could have resulted from the tzaddik’s displeasure.

Rav Yaakov Yosef agreed with Rav Velvel wholeheartedly. “Indeed, these seforim are worth much more than the amount I’m asking for. However,” he added sadly, “no one else in town wants to buy the sefer, even at this bargain price. Evidently, they don’t understand its true value!”

“You are correct,” Rav Velvel replied. “The people here apparently don’t recognize the true value of the sefer. But Rebbe, may I ask you a question?”

“With pleasure,” replied Rav Yaakov Yosef.

“Before Hashem gave us the Torah,” said Rav Velvel, “Hashem offered it to all the nations of the world, and each nation declined the offer. Nevertheless, Hashem didn’t display any sign of displeasure. He didn’t threaten to destroy them or punish them. Shouldn’t a servant be just like his master?!”

Rav Yaakov Yosef understood the point the buyer was conveying, and he realized that this person was no simple Jew. “Among the Maggid’s talmidim was a student who was known as Velvel the Sharp One,” he said with a smile. “Can it be that you are none other than that talmid?”

“I indeed have the merit of being a talmid of my great master and teacher, the holy Maggid,” Rav Velvel answered humbly, “and they called me Velvel.”

I believe I heard this story from Reb Itche Der Masmid. Oros Ba’afeilah, pp. 129–130.

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Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. He is available  to speak or farbreng in your community and can be contacted at avtzonbooks@gmail.com

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[1] Compiler’s note: In fact, in a note from the Cherson genizah (published in the Hatomim), it is stated that the Baal Shem Tov initially instructed that certain seforim of his should be given to Rav Yaakov Yosef. Later on, after the Maggid became the Baal Shem Tov’s talmid, the Baal Shem Tov gave those seforim to the Maggid. Based on this it is believed that before the Maggid’s arrival, it was assumed that Rav Yaakov Yosef would eventually succeed the Baal Shem Tov.

[2] This was seven years after the histalkus of the Maggid.

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