If there was one thing that Rebbe Chaim of Kossov (1795-1854) stressed over and over again, it was the mitzvah (religious duty) of hachnosses orchim (hospitality).
The Rebbe constantly reminded his followers, who lived in the region, to open their doors to wayfarers who needed a hot meal and a comfortable bed, and he didn't hesitate to ask those Chassidim (disciples) who had come from far away how they were treated during their journey.
Rebbe Chaim emphasized the importance of this mitzvah throughout his life, yet it once happened that his words struck an even deeper chord than usual within the hearts of his followers.
"You should know," said the Rebbe to a large crowd of chassidim, "that the Messiah is very near. He is already wandering through the streets and knocking on the doors. I ask of you, therefore, to be very meticulous in performing the mitzvah of hachnosses orchim, and to greet him cordially should he knock at your door."
These words naturally created a great stir within the community. After all, who wouldn't want to open their door to the Messiah? The only problem was that the harsh economic conditions of the times had created so many beggars and wanderers that there was always some poor Jew knocking on one's door.
Those Jews who were still fortunate enough to have a roof over their heads were feeling overwhelmed by the burden being placed upon them. Sometimes they didn't have enough food for their own families, so how could they be expected to greet every beggar with a smile and a meal? In addition, every day, the wanderers seemed to get dirtier and sicker and angrier. Whereas once the householders had run to greet a wayfarer knocking at their door, they now ran to lock their doors and shutter their windows to give an appearance that no one was at home.
Yet the Rebbe's words changed the situation in the blink of an eye. Suddenly the entire community was burning with the desire to perform this important mitzvah. People joyously ushered into their homes the ragged guests, all the while searching the beggar for some sign that, perhaps, he was "the one."
The local shochet, kosher ritual slaughterer, Rav Avigdor, was also a chassid of the Rebbe. He, too, had been set on fire by the Rebbe's words, especially since Rav Chaim had given all the ritual slaughterers in the area a special warning.
"Since you are involved in slaughtering all day, you need a special protection," said Rebbe Chaim.
"You must perform more chessed [kindness] than other people so that you don't become hard and indifferent to suffering."
Rav Avigdor therefore always tried to make sure that he had a poor guest at his table. If the beggar happened to be particularly dirty or sick, even better. By waiting upon the wayfarer and tending to the unfortunate person's needs, Rav Avigdor had the satisfaction of knowing that he was both improving his character and obeying the words of his beloved Rebbe.
One Shabbes (Sabbath) eve, though, it happened that the ritual slaughterer's mind was on other things. His wife had given birth that morning to a baby boy, and all the preparations for Sabbaths and the shalom zachor ceremony therefore fell upon his shoulders. In addition to having to worry about preparing the meals and getting the house in order, Rav Avigdor had to make sure that all of the couple's many children were bathed and dressed in their Sabbath finery in time for the holy day.
The ritual slaughterer worked non-stop from dawn until late afternoon. A little bit before the time for candle-lighting, the tired but happy man saw with satisfaction that everything was ready for Sabbath, except himself. Noting that there was still just enough time for him to dash to the mikveh, ritualarium, he grabbed some soap and a towel and raced out of his house and down the street.
"Reb Yid! (My dear Jewish brother) " called out a voice from somewhere.
Rav Avigdor continued to run, pretending not to hear.
"Reb Yid!" the stranger called out again. "Perhaps you could invite me for Sabbath?"
Rav Avigdor kept his eyes focused on the setting sun. If he stopped, he would lose his chance to bathe his badly perspiring body before Sabbath and so he kept running.
"Reb Yid!" the stranger called out a third time. "Have mercy on me. I have no place to spend Sabbath. Let me stay by you."
By then, feelings of anger were welling up within the ritual slaughterer's heart. He had worked so hard all day. All he wanted was to have a few minutes for himself so that he could take care of his own needs and go into Sabbath feeling at ease.
"Can't that beggar see that I'm busy right now?" he thought angrily. "Why can't he wait until he gets to shul to find a place to stay?"
As Rav Avigdor continued to run, he tossed a reply over his shoulder to the waiting beggar. "I don't have time right now," he shouted. "I'm busy."
When the beggar heard those words, he let out a wail that made the ritual slaughterer stop in his tracks.
"Gevald [Oh, no]!" the beggar cried out. "I was so sure this would be the moment when I could finally take off these filthy clothes and put on my other garments. But I see that apparently the time still has not yet arrived."
The ritual slaughterer stood in the middle of the street, staring at the beggar. He dearly wanted to know what the beggar meant by his words, yet a part of him still longed for the purifying waters of the mikveh. He glanced for a moment at the rapidly setting sun, and then he decided that he must speak to this beggar.
However, when he turned to greet the wayfarer, he saw that it was too late.
The beggar had vanished into thin air.