Of all the stories told about the great teacher of Kozhnitz, this is perhaps one of the strangest and the most wondrous.
Among the teacher’s many righteous students was a learned man, a pious individual who, like so many others in those years, was beset by poverty. He had, many mouths to feed, but no steady source of income.
“Teacher,” he said one day, “please advise me. How can I support my wife and children? I simply cannot bear to watch them suffer, hungry and inadequately clothed. Is there anything I can do?”
“My dear teacher,” replied the man, “I am so desperate to feed my family that I will do anything. No profession, no matter how lowly, is beneath my dignity.”
“If you insist,” said the sage grudgingly, “I can tell you, but you will not be happy with what you hear. It is revealed to me from the heavens that the only profession in which you can succeed is thievery. If you turn to stealing, nothing can stand in the way of your success.”
Sadly, the man returned home. “How can I ever steal?” he thought to himself. “It is against the will of God.” Time passed, and the man and his family grew more and more hungry. One night, he began to reason with himself.
“God allows us to break the holy Sabbath for the sake of saving a life,” he figured. “Why should stealing be any different? My family will soon starve to death. Let me go out and see if I can steal a little something. As soon as God wills it, I will have a few coins of my own, and I will pay them back.”
With that, he went to the deserted marketplace. He walked among the shuttered stalls and shops, trying the locks. Finally, he found an open door. He quietly slipped inside, tiptoed toward the back and rummaged around until he located the cash box, which was unlocked. With his heart in his throat, he withdrew a single coin and fled homeward as fast as his legs would carry him. The next morning, he went to the baker and bought bread for his wife and children.
The following morning, the shopkeeper was greeted by an open door flapping in the breeze. Suspecting the worst, he entered his store and was surprised to see that none of the merchandise had been disturbed. In fact, even the cash was still in his box, save for a single coin. Word spread quickly, and people began to talk about the strange robber who took just one coin.
After the poor man and his family finished their bread, the man tried his hardest to resist the temptation to “borrow” another coin. But the sight of his hungry children proved too much for him, and he found himself once again walking among the deserted market stalls. Once again he located an open door, and was soon holding another coin.
This became a regular occurrence. Every few weeks a single coin would be missing from another shop, and no one had the slightest idea who could be the one behind the rash of mini-robberies. Guards were posted at every store in town. But the honest thief managed to slip through their fingers. After all, his teacher had assured him that he would find success in thievery.
One night, the mayor himself decided to stay up late and see if he could solve the mystery. Dressed as a civilian, he waited in the shadows, watching for any sign of movement. Finally, he saw a hunched figure hurrying away from a shop. “I got you!” he cried, grabbing hold of the man’s collar. “You thought you could run away, but I’m not going to let go of you. Tomorrow I’ll bring you to the mayor, and he’ll see to it that you are properly dealt with.”
“Please have mercy on me,” begged the distraught thief. “I’m just a poor man trying to borrow a few coins to support my starving family. Everyone can attest that I never took even a single penny more than what I needed. If the town finds out that I was the one, I will be ruined. This will stain my good name and standing in the community forever. Believe me, God is my witness that I plan to pay every penny back just as soon as I am able.” The thief continued to beg, and the undercover mayor finally relented.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “You’re obviously a skilled thief. Do me this one favor, and I’ll let you free. I have secret knowledge that the mayor of this town just received a large sum of money. He has it in a box under his bed. There is a small window to his bedroom. If you can manage to squeeze into his room and come back with the box of treasures, we can split it evenly between ourselves, and I’ll let you go free.”
“I cannot do that,” protested the man. “I’m not a burglar or criminal. I took just what I needed. How can I rob an innocent man of what is rightfully his?”
“That’s your decision,” replied the mayor. “Either you do as I say, or I report you in the morning.” Left with no choice, the man made his way to the mayor’s house, but soon returned empty-handed.
“Thank God, I did not take a thing,” he told his captor. “I crept into the room and was about to look for the box, when I heard voices. The mayor’s household assistants were talking among themselves, saying that they were planning to slip some poison into their master’s morning tea and then make off with his treasure. We must warn the mayor as soon as possible. He may even reward us.”
As soon as the mayor heard the man’s words, he said, “You go home, and I’ll warn the mayor. Just give me your hat, so that I can later identify you.” With that, the mayor returned to his mansion. The following morning, as soon as his tea was served, he had it fed to one of the dogs, who immediately began showing signs of distress. He had caught his servants in their treacherous act.
As soon as the drama of his near-death had subsided, the mayor summoned the leaders of the community. “Do you know who owns this hat?” he asked them. “He is the one who has been stealing from the market.” “It cannot be,” they replied. “We know the owner of that hat. He is one of the most respected men in our community, a gentle, God-fearing scholar of the highest order.”
“No matter,” replied the mayor. “Summon him immediately.”
When the brokenhearted man was brought before him, the mayor asked, not unkindly, “Is this your hat? “The leaders of the community have told me about you, and it is truly out of character of you to have been out pilfering coins in the market,” continued the mayor, whom the man now recognized as his captor from the night before.
“It seems to me that you must have been sent by heaven to save me from the plot of my staff, who tried to take my life and steal my money. It is only right that you should have half of the treasure as reward for your actions last night.” The poor man had never seen so much money in his life. He immediately set aside a significant portion for charity, and then went back to repay all the shopkeepers from whom he had taken coins. He then devoted the remainder of his life to charity, prayer, Bible study and other lofty pursuits.