Weekly Chasidic Story #594 (s5769-29 / 22 Nissan 5769)

"Up Cossack!"

The Shpoler Zeide told Avraham the Angel (son of the Magid of Mezritch) that he had learned the art of dancing from Elijah the Prophet and the secret of dancing before the the Shabbat Queen from the Baal Shem Tov.

(Connection: haftorah)

"Up Cossack!"

Rabbi Leib, the Shpoler Zeide, once led the congregation in prayer on Friday night in the shul of Rabbi Avraham Hamalach ("the Angel"), son of the Maggid of Mezritch, successor to the Baal Shem Tov. After the singing of "Lecha Dodi", the Zeide danced for a long time -- wondrous dances spinning round and round with astonishingly quick and graceful steps. Those watching saw his tremendous enthusiasm as he seemed to cast off his material self in joyous dance.

Watching the Zeide dance, the Malach was extremely moved. Afterwards, he went over to him and said, "I see that Your Honor is an expert in the art of dancing. It is also apparent that you know the secrets of dancing before the Shabbat Bride and Queen, unifying the Name with every step of yours! Tell me, where did you learn to dance so beautifully?"

The Zeide said that he had learned the secret from the Baal Shem Tov, and the art of dance from Eliyahu Hanavi (Eliyahu the Prophet). This is the story he told:

During the period when the Zeide was traveling from town to town in self=imposed exile, he heard about** a village Jew who had not paid his rent to the local poritz (landowner). While the poritz was not an especially evil man, his estate manager was a wicked drunkard and a Jew-hater who persuaded the nobleman to punish the Jewish villager severely.

There was a deep pit in the poritz's courtyard where prisoners were let down by rope. Once a week a little bread and water was sent down to the unfortunate man inside. The prisoner would remain in the pit until the poritz's next birthday, when he would be taken out, dressed in a bearskin, and led by a man -- known as the "bear-keeper" -- who was an expert dancer. The "bear" and his "keeper" would go to the poritz's lavish birthday party, to which all the noblemen from the surrounding countryside were invited, as well as the poritz's family and friends.

Then the "bear-keeper" would signal the band to strike up a tune. If the gentile "keeper" was able to dance better than the Jewish "bear," the Jew would be thrown to the ground and the cruel guards would seize him and hurl him at a pack of vicious dogs. If, however, the Jew danced better than his "keeper," he would be set free. Not only that, but he would be given permission to attack his "keeper" and beat him to death.

Naturally, it was next to impossible for the Jewish prisoners to save themselves, as they did not know how to dance to the gentile tunes. Not only that, but the prisoners were exhausted and weakened by their long ordeal in the pit and the heavy bearskin they were forced to wear made moving difficult. From the start, they were doomed.

"Elijah," the Zeide of Shpoli said, "commanded me to go to the village and hire myself out as a tutor. Once there, I was to find out how it was possible to free the Jewish prisoner in the pit.

"After I discovered where the pit was located on the poritz's property, Elijah ordered me to take the Jew out of the pit and put myself in his place so that, on the poritz's birthday, I would dance better than my 'keeper.'

"I told him that I did not know how to dance, and could certainly not dance better than the 'keeper.' He then taught me all kinds of dances and their names. When I knew all the dance steps perfectly, I lowered myself into the poritz's pit, calmed the prisoner and refreshed him with a little whiskey, and switched clothes with him, putting on his filthy worn out garments. The prisoner went up the ladder I had lowered, pulling it up behind him, and I stayed in the pit in his place, awaiting the big day.

"It came at last. At midnight, I heard drunken laughter. My 'keeper' was the wicked estate manager. He pulled me out of the pit and dressed me in a bearskin. Then he led me, with a rope around my neck, in front of the merrymakers to the poritz's palace. I crawled on all fours so that it should not occur to them I was not the same Jew, and groaned as if I was in pain and unable to walk.

"My arrival was greeted with raucous laughter. All the guests were highly amused at the spectacle of a humiliated Jew. Suddenly, the signal was given and the announcement made: If the 'bear' danced best, he would be set free. If not, the dogs would teach him to dance!

"There was more loud laughter from the guests. A lively Kazak (Cossack) tune began, and my 'keeper,' the estate manager, began to dance. I began to dance, too, but slowly and sluggishly, as would be appropriate for a half-starved man who hadn't stretched his legs in weeks. The audience enjoyed it immensely, as they waited for me to drop in my place, exhausted.

"To their surprise, I gradually stepped up my pace, until finally I was dancing more quickly and also more beautifully than the shocked estate manager. He tried to keep up, but in his drunkenness he lost his balance and fell to the ground. The audience switched their preference, as they cheered me on and mercilessly taunted the fallen 'keeper'. I too made fun of him, and began to sing in time with the gentile music, 'Hupp Kazak, haha haha haha, up Cossack, get up if you can.'*** Then I jumped on him with a bear's roar and began to rain blows on him until some of the guests stopped me.

"The poritz could not accept my victory, and once again gave the signal for another round of music to start. It was a different melody this time, a marzurka, but the result was the same: the Jew in the bearskin danced wonderfully while the gentile fell to the ground and was beaten. At last, I was declared the winner and set free."

The Shpoler Zeide finished his story and smiled. "Now you understand where I learned to dance so well."

Rabbi Avraham Hamalach replied, "If so, your dances are better than our prayers!"


[Adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from "Stories of Elijah the Prophet" (Yisroel Klapholtz), "Stories my Grandfather told me" (Mesorah) by Zev Greenwald and from chasidic oral traditions]

Connection: The Haftorah (King David's unrestrained dancing)

Biographic note:
Rabbi Aryeh Leib [?-6 Tishrei 1811], known as the Shpoler Zeide ('grandfather'--a nickname given to him by the Baal Shem Tov at his circumcision), is famed as a miracle worker and devoted to the succor of poor Jews in distress. In his early years, he was a disciple of Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, a leading figure in the first generation of chassidim. The Lubavitcher Rebbe stated the possibility that the Zeide of Shpoli and Rabbi Leib Sarah's are the same person.

Editor's notes:
** [There is a back-story that this happened while he was in jail, having been arrested, but that story is for another mailing some time.]

*** [Chabad has a musical tradition for this tune, and often sing it lustily at chasidic gatherings, especially on Purim. To hear it, click here. (as in the story, it starts slow, then goes fast) For the more grandiose Avraham Fried version, click here.]



Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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