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The Cabbage Thief
Many thoughts went through Rabbi Moishe Kessler's mind
as he stood hidden in a copse of firs not far from Abram Weisel's cabbage
field. The night was cold and windy, and he thought about a crackling fire and
a warm bed. The moon was high and bright, and he thought about all the
responsibilities he was neglecting for this mad errand. Most of all he thought
about Abram Weisel and Serah Leban, and wondered what he could do to bring some
small amount of joy to them.
Things could be much worse. The shtetl of Stowica was a bit more prosperous
than its neighbors in the Pale of Settlement. Although they were far from
wealthy, the inhabitants rarely starved. By the will of Providence, they had
not been the victims of pogroms for many years. The people were grateful for
their small blessings. But Serah and Abram did not share their content.
Rabbi Kessler shivered and wondered why this sort of thing had to happen to
him. He was perfectly willing to devote his time to mundane matters, such as
leading the local yeshiva. Although it was true that he had once freed an
unlucky fellow from a malevolent dybbuk, and that he had journeyed to Prague
and seen the remains of Rabbi Loew's golem with his own eyes, he was not one to
seek out the uncanny. Perhaps it would be best to go home, and tell Abram that
he had failed in his mission. But he thought about the two young people who
depended on him, and he remained.
Serah was a young woman of uncommon beauty and virtue, and she had been engaged
to Abram for many months. It was a match made by love alone, for neither the
Labans nor the Weisels had much in the way of material goods. Abram was an
honest and hardworking young man, Serah was skilled in the ways of making a
home, and the match was generally thought to be a good one. It was with great
astonishment, therefore, that Serah's parents saw her rush into their home
wailing, her pretty face red and wet with tears.
"Abram cannot marry me," she said, sobbing.
"What nonsense is this?" Her father tried to wipe away her tears, and
Serah buried her face in his shirt. "Abram is a fine boy, and he adores
"Let the child speak." Serah's mother folded her arms and waited in
Serah pulled away from her father and wiped her nose. "Abram has lost all
of his cabbages, and he shall have no money. He says he will not allow his wife
to live as a beggar."
"Such a fuss over a few cabbages," her father said gently.
"There will be other years, and other crops."
"Hush," his wife said. "Having nothing to take to market is no
joke, and marriages cannot survive on honeyed words alone. What has happened to
the cabbages, Serah?"
"I don't know, Mama. They're just gone, and now Abram is talking about
going to America!" Serah began to weep again.
This was a very serious matter indeed, for only the most desperate of people
were willing to make such a long and hazardous journey. Serah's parents were
able to convince their daughter to wash her face, sit down, and even to eat one
of her favorite poppyseed cakes. Soon she was calm enough to be able to explain
everything that had happened.
Although Abram had experimented with many crops, he had achieved great success
only with his cabbages. They were imposing monarchs of the vegetable kingdom,
arrayed in emerald robes. A strong man could hardly carry more than three or
four. More impressive than their size and weight, however, was their exquisite
Sliced raw into sauerkraut, the cabbages were crisp and tangy. Cooked, they
were sweet and delicate. Boiled with beets and potatoes, they produced a borscht
that might have graced the table of the Tsar.
Abram was understandably proud of his cabbages, and careful of their welfare.
Although he was a gentle man, and did not mind the fact that hares took a few
leaves for themselves. Hardly an hour went by during the day when he did not
inspect the cabbage field to make sure nothing threatened it. All the more was
his dismay when he awoke one fine day to discover that his entire crop had
vanished, leaving only bare earth behind.
If his barley had been devastated by blight, or his turnip patch ruined by
molehills, Abram might have sighed and gone on. But the loss of his beloved
cabbages left him a broken man, ready to abandon his beloved and his native
When they heard the whole story, Serah's parents knew there was only one course
"Rabbi Kessler must speak to Abram," her mother declared.
"Perhaps he can stop all this foolishness about America."
Serah's father went to speak to Rabbi Kessler, and Rabbi Kessler went to speak
to Abram. He praised Serah as a rare treasure; he noted the dangers inherent to
emigration; he chastised Abram for breaking the hearts of his family and his
betrothed; but to no avail. Yet perhaps there was something in Rabbi Kessler's
eloquence which sparked a tiny flame of hope within Abram's soul.
"You have seen that nothing remains of my cabbages," Abram said.
"This was not done by animal or insect. Find me the thief, and bring him
to justice, and I will remain in Stowica and marry Serah."
So it was that Rabbi Kessler found himself in the unlikely position of a
detective. He spoke to all of Abram's neighbors, but none of them could tell
him anything useful. He examined the field for himself, even going so far as to
crawl on his hands and knees, but he found no clues. The soil was undisturbed,
save for the footprints of Abram himself. It was as if the cabbages had vanished
by magic. He decided to investigate the matter by offering the unknown thief
more of what it desired.
By visiting various homes in Stowica, and explaining his plan, Rabbi Kessler
was able to gather a modest number of small cabbages from their gardens. To be
sure, these were mere peasants compared to Abram's aristocrats; but perhaps the
cabbage thief would not be so fussy. Rabbi Kessler placed the cabbages in
Abram's field just before sunset, and waited.
Now it was the middle of the night, and Rabbi Kessler had done nothing but
chill his bones. He tried to pass the time by admiring the beauty of the stars,
and praising their Creator. He fell into a kind of half-sleep, gazing at the
glory of the heavens.
The stars seemed to blur and waver, and Rabbi Kessler forced himself awake, but
the stars still shimmered. Something nearly invisible seemed to be passing in
front of them. He could almost make out the shape of the thing. He seemed to
see vast wings outlined by the stars. Was that the reason the wind grew louder
and stronger, as if a monstrous bird of prey were about to claim its victim?
Suddenly a pair of the cabbages rose into the air, apparently gripped by unseen
hands. More and more of them ascended, as if the thing could grow as many limbs
as it desired. Rabbi Kessler could no longer deny the supernatural nature of
the being he faced. Invisibility and flight. The ability to change its shape at
will. The cabbage thief could be nothing other than a mazikeen.
The mazikeen had been created with great powers, but they were as mortal as
human beings. They married and bore children, aged and died, breathed and drank
and ate. Apparently at least one ate cabbages. Rabbi Kessler knew that the
mazikeen were as unpredictable as people, and wondered if this one would be
willing to listen to reason.
"Cease your plundering!" Rabbi Kessler marched out of the firs,
hoping that the element of surprise would be on his side. "You bring great
harm to those who bear you no ill will."
"Who defies me?" The mazikeen's voice was loud and high, shrieking
like a blizzard. "Do you not know that I could destroy you like a
"Do so! You have already sinned against the commandments with your
thievery. Why not add murder to your list of crimes?" Rabbi Kessler hoped
that there was less fear in his voice than there was in his heart.
The mazikeen chose to make itself visible, and appeared in the form of a young
woman in shining robes. Did it think to disguise itself as an angel? But no
angel needed to steal vegetables!
"May not one who is starving take what is needed for survival?" The
mazikeen now spoke with a voice that was soft and gentle. Clearly it was not
eager to make use of violence.
"That is so," Rabbi Kessler replied. "But surely there is some
other way. You have no idea of the sorrow you are creating." He told the
mazikeen the story of Serah and Abram, hoping to appeal to its better nature.
The mazikeen transformed itself into a stallion, a sleek and muscular creature
blacker than the night. "Climb upon my back, and I will take you to my
people." Its voice was now that of a man of mature years. "Perhaps
there is some way you can help us."
Rabbi Kessler was no horseman, and meeting one mazikeen was enough of an
experience to last a lifetime. Reluctantly, he seated himself upon the creature
and wrapped his arms around its neck.
The mazikeen ran more swiftly than any bird, its hooves striking the ground so
lightly that Rabbi Kessler felt as if he were flying. It raced past the
outskirts of Stowica in the time it takes for a single breath. Fields and
forests flashed by like dreams. The mazikeen leapt over wide rivers in single
bounds, and climbed great mountains as if they were woodpiles. Soon they had
reached the mazikeen's native land.
It was a barren place, with skeletal trees brooding over muddy fields. A few
scrawny beasts, something between goats and cattle, grazed on wisps of brown
grass. There were strange huts built from stone and clay, but no inhabitants to
"My people choose to remain invisible to you," the mazikeen
explained. "Ever since the time of King Solomon, who made slaves of so
many of us, we have been fearful of humans. Centuries ago we fled to this
remote land, and we have barely survived. We have been reduced to stealing food
wherever we can."
Rabbi Kessler dismounted and pondered. "How foolish is the fear that
divides two peoples! We both honor the Creator; should we not be
The mazikeen changed into a small fox, and eyed the rabbi curiously. "How
"To be a slave is shameful," Rabbi Kessler explained. "But to be
an honest worker, worthy of good wages, is honorable."
The next day, after many words with the mazikeen and a dizzying journey back to
Stowica on its back (this time in the form of an enormous eagle,) Rabbi Kessler
presented his plan to the people of the shtetl. They were amazed, and many were
those who condemned the mazikeen as the agents of evil. Yet at last the rabbi
was able to convince enough of them with his eloquence.
Serah and Abram were married, and raised three girls in a home full of love and
happiness. His cabbages were finer than ever, and drew buyers from many places.
Even the goyim praised them, and paid well. Stowica developed a reputation as a
pleasant place, blessed by the Creator. It was true that there were some who
shunned it, swearing that they had seen a servant suddenly disappear into thin
air, or a drover change shape into one of his beasts; but this was thought to
be mere superstition, brought on by an excessive love of wine.
As for Rabbi Kessler, he never again had an experience outside the ordinary,
for which he was thankful. He married a woman of extraordinary grace who came
from some distant and unfamiliar land. If no two people described the woman in
exactly the same way, and if she sometimes seemed to appear from nowhere, this
was thought to be part of her feminine charm.
Read more stories by this author
excellant story telling - a new twist to an old tale.
Awesome, and comforting, Thank you!
A beautiful fairy tale-- I loved it!
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Timothy O. Goyette
|The Wizard's House|