Terumah: A Pinch of Snuff

Once, a poor man came with a group of beggars to collect charity at the shul of the Baal Shem Tov. The shammos (caretaker) of the shul gave each beggar a few coins...

5 min

Rabbi Tzvi Meir Cohn

Posted on 28.01.22

Parshat Teruma
“And God spoke to Moshe (Moses), saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and they should take to Me a portion, from every man whose heart will motivate him…” (Shemot 25:2)
“Whose heart will motivate him” This is an expression of voluntary contribution. (Rashi)
* * *
Once, a poor man came with a group of beggars to collect charity at the shul of the Baal Shem Tov. The shammos (caretaker) of the shul gave each beggar a few coins but the poor man declined.
“No thank you,” said the poor man, “I want to speak to The Baal Shem Tov.”
“Let me ask the Rebbe”, said the shammos. The shammos returned and offered the poor man a larger sum of money. The poor man responded, “No thank you, I really want to meet with the Rebbe.”
After the shammos related what happened to the Baal Shem Tov, the poor man was invited in to meet with the Baal Shem Tov.
“So,” said the Baal Shem Tov, closely studying the poor man, “you are not satisfied with my donation?”
“Rebbe,” said the poor man, “I don’t want a donation. I’m not a beggar, just a poor man that is down on his luck. I used to be a very rich man and was known as a baal tzedeka (philanthropist) that often helped people get started again if they had a business setback. Every Shabbat and Yom Tov my table was surrounded by poor people and wanderers. I had a large, successful business. Then one day, everything changed. I lost all my wealth and finally had to resort to living as a poor wanderer. Rebbe, why did I loose my wealth and position so suddenly?”
The Baal Shem Tov thought for a while and said, “My dear friend, it’s just a pinch of snuff.” (In those days, sharing a pinch of snuff was common and considered to be of little financial consequence.)
“What do you mean, Rebbe?” said the poor man. “It’s not just a pinch of snuff. It’s my whole livelihood that’s gone. Can’t you see, I’m walking around in rags and I have holes in my boots.”
“You don’t understand,” answered the Baal Shem Tov, “I mean your loss of wealth was caused by a pinch of snuff. Do you remember one Shabbat when you were sitting at your table surrounded by many guests and you took a pinch of snuff from your special jeweled, silver snuff box and then suddenly closed the snuff box?”
The poor man started to remember that fateful day as a clear vision of the incident flooded his memory. “Oh no!” said the poor man to the Baal Shem Tov, “there was a poor wanderer sitting next to me. When he reached over to take a pinch of snuff from my special jeweled, silver snuff box, I closed it and said, ‘What’s wrong, isn’t that other snuff box I put on the table for my guests good enough for you to use?’ That poor wanderer turned red with embarrassment and didn’t say another word.”
“That’s exactly what I’m speaking of,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “That man had also been a rich man that was down on his fortune. He had been planning to ask you for a loan to get back on his feet. But, he was so embarrassed by what you did that he just left without speaking to you. And just at that moment,” continued the Baal Shem Tov, “it was decreed in Heaven that you would change places with him. Your fortune would go to him and you would have to beg from door to door as he had.”
“Oh Rebbe, now I remember so clearly, moaned the poor man. From that day, all my business ventures failed and I lost everything until I reached my current state, having to wander and beg. Oh, what I wouldn’t do to take back that thoughtless act. Rebbe, is there anything I can do to change my
The Baal Shem Tov closed his eyes and thought. After a long pause he said, “Well, if you were to approach that beggar turned rich man and ask him for a pinch of snuff and he would refuse you, then your fortunes would again be reversed.”
The poor man immediately left and started to wander looking for that man with whom he had changed places. After many months, he came to a town that was buzzing with preparations being made for a big wedding. He learned that the bride was the daughter of a very rich man. A huge banquet was planned for the wedding and everyone in the town was invited.
The poor man went to shul to catch a glimpse of the rich man. At first he didn’t recognize him because of his fancy clothes and new stature. But, finally the poor man realized, “That’s him!”
The poor man began to plot a plan as to when to confront the rich man and ask him for a pinch of snuff. He decided to wait until just the right time, the night of the wedding.
At last, the night of the wedding arrived. It was a huge celebration as only such a rich man could afford. After the wedding ceremony, everyone was in the banquet hall eating and drinking and dancing.
Right in the middle of the party, the rich man was dancing surrounded by his friends and well wishers. Just at that moment, the poor man broke through the crowd and approached the rich man.
“Excuse me,” he said to the exuberant rich man, “could I please bother you for a pinch of snuff?”
The rich man, immediately broke away from the other dancer’s and took out his jeweled, silver snuff box and offered the poor man a pinch of snuff. The poor man fell down in a swoon. Everyone ran to see what had happened.
The rich man told them, “Move back, give him air!” Then he said to the poor man with great concern in his voice, “What’s wrong? Do want a drink? What can I do for you?”
The poor man started to cry. “Why did you give me the snuff? If you had just refused, I’d be rich again,” continued the poor man. Then he told the rich man the whole story of how they changed places.
“Oh yes, I remember that day. And it is true, from that day on, everything I touched turned to gold. I became richer and richer. It seemed to be Heaven sent. In some way you are my benefactor and I’m not going to let you suffer any more. Your wandering days are over. I have a great idea. Why don’t you join me in the business? There’s much more than I can handle by myself. You can move your family to this town and we can work together.”
And so it was.
Tzvi Meir Cohn attended Yeshiva Hadar Hatorah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after completing his university studies in Engineering and Law. While studying at the Yeshiva, he discovered a deep connection to the stories and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. His many books about the Baal Shem Tov can be found in the Breslev Store. He can be contacted at howard@cohnpatents.com.

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