Securing Captives’ Release

Posted by Levi Cooper on February 16, 2024
Topics: The Maggid of Melbourne, Hasidic Lore Series

This article is the second in a series of articles:
Part 1 – Trading Places with Captives
Part 2 – Securing Captives’ Release
Part 3 – Extracting from Deep Cisterns
Part 4 – Why Are Your Mercies a Fist

Rabbi Yisrael Berger (1855-1919) was one of the key collectors of hasidic tales. He came from hasidic stock, with familial ties to Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1751-1823), hasidic master in Kraków and author of Maor VaShamesh (Breslau 1842). 

Rabbi Berger was born in northern Transylvania in the town of Magyarlápos – then in Hungary and today Târgu Lăpuș in Romania. He served as rabbi in Probużna (then in Galicia, today in Ukraine), Dorna Watra (then in Bukovina, today in Romania), and Buzeu (then in Wallachia, today in Romania). In 1898, he accepted a rabbinic post in Bucharest, Romania and he served there for twenty-one years until his death. 

Rabbi Berger printed his collection of hasidic tales under the title Zekhut Yisrael – a tetralogy that included Eser Kedushot (1906), Eser Orot (1907), Eser Tzahtzahot (1909), and Eser Atarot (1910) – all published in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland. Each volume recounted tales about ten (eser) hasidic masters. An addendum with additional material was posthumously published: Zekhut Yisrael Mahadura Tinyana (Seini 1925). 

In many cases, Rabbi Berger recorded the sources of his tales. These sources included contemporary rabbinic figures, such as Rabbi Avraham Ettinger (1875-1924), rabbi of Dukla in Galicia (today in Poland), and Rabbi Zvi Yehezkel Mikhalzohn (1863 – Treblinka 1942), rabbi in Płońsk, Poland.

Both Rabbi Ettinger and Rabbi Mikhalzohn recounted tales about the hasidic master Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasów (ca. 1745 – 1807) and his efforts to fulfil the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim – securing the release of captives. Rabbi Berger recorded both accounts in his Eser Tzahtzahot in the section dedicated to Rabbi Moshe Leib. I begin with Rabbi Mikhalzohn’s tale, before moving to Rabbi Ettinger’s story.




Rabbi Moshe Leib was a student of Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke Halevi Horowitz of Nikolsburg (1726-1778). After seven years under the tutelage of Rabbi Shmelke, the master told his student to return home and gave him provisions for the journey: a gold coin, a loaf of bread, and a halat – a long white coat. 

While on his way, Rabbi Moshe Leib heard a bitter cry and he followed the sound to a house. The crying was coming from the cellar, where a Jew was being held captive underground. Rabbi Moshe Leib called out to him and asked why he was being held captive. The man replied that he did not have the 300 ruble he needed to pay for the inn that he was leasing from the village owner. 

Without hesitation, Rabbi Moshe Leib threw the loaf of bread down to the man so that he would at least have something to eat. He then made his way to the village owner to discuss releasing the Jew in exchange for the gold coin that he had received from Rabbi Shmelke. The village owner rebuffed the offer: one, solitary gold coin could not cover the 300 ruble that he was owed! Disheartened, Rabbi Moshe Leib left the village owner.

Nevertheless, as he walked away, Rabbi Moshe Leib felt that he could not leave the Jew to rot in that dark, dank cellar. So he raced back to the village owner and once again offered the gold coin. The village owner had no patience for Rabbi Moshe Leib and he promptly called the executioner to take care of the impetuous interloper. Rabbi Moshe Leib was to be thrown to the dogs who would viciously tear the meat from his bones. 

Rabbi Moshe Leib was shoved into the dogs’ yard for a grisly end. Surprisingly, the dogs did not even bark at him, let alone attack him. The village owner did not understand what was going one. He instructed the executioner to bring Rabbi Moshe Leib to his personal zoo of wild animals where he was to be thrown into the cage. As the wild animals began to charge Rabbi Moshe Leib, he quickly donned the white halat that he had received from Rabbi Shmelke and the animals retreated. The village owner was shocked. 

Reeling from the experience of what he had witnessed, the village owner personally went to the cellar, unlocked the door, and told the Jew that he was free: “Leave and go home in peace.”


Once Rabbi Moshe Leib travelled from place to place in order to collect money to the secure the release of people held hostage for ransom. Despite his earnest efforts, Rabbi Moshe Leib did not succeed in raising the requisite funds.

Despondently he thought to himself that he had wasted his time. He had set aside important pursuits for the sake of this endeavour – he had not learned Torah and he had not prayed – and yet he did not succeed in helping those held in captivity. He decided that from here on, he would not dedicate his time to the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim; rather, he would remain at home and spend his time on focused Torah study and heartfelt prayer. 

On that very day, a Jew stole a certain object and was caught fleeing the scene. The Jew was remanded in custody and while in prison, he was physically abused and injured. When Rabbi Moshe Leib heard about this, he hurried to the courthouse and petitioned for the release of the Jew. 

After much effort, Rabbi Moshe Leib succeed in securing the Jew’s release. As they walked away from the jailhouse, Rabbi Moshe Leib reprimanded the thieving Jew: “I hope the pain of the injuries you sustained in prison will remind you not to do such disreputable acts like stealing.” The thief responded – perhaps with an impish grin on his face: “Why not? So what if I did not succeed one time. I hope that the next time I will succeed!”

Rabbi Moshe Leib immediately felt that the thief’s words were also directed at him: “So what if I did not succeed one time to collect the money to secure the release of the captives. Just because of that failure will I discard the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim – Heaven forefend! No! No! Perhaps next time I will succeed in securing their release.”

About Levi Cooper

Levi teaches Bible, Hasidut, Maimonides and Midrash at Pardes. Originally from Australia, Levi holds an LL.B., LL.M. and Ph.D. from the Law Faculty of Bar-Ilan University, and is a member of the Israel Bar Association. He is currently an adjunct professor in the Law Faculty of Bar-Ilan University and post-doctoral fellow in the Law Faculty of Tel Aviv University. Click here to read more. You can find books written by Levi by clicking here

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