Rav Eliyahu Chaim Maisel of Lodz was a great scholar who had a very sharp mind. This combination allowed him to once save an innocent Jew from an unjust punishment.
One day, a Yid from Lodz appeared at the home of Rav Eliyahu Chaim, pale and greatly upset.
“Rebbe,” he said, “I am in great trouble. I do not know how I can get out of it. Can you help me?”
“What is the matter?” asked Rav Eliyahu Chaim. “Tell me what your troubles are and I will try to help you.”
“I was walking along a street last week and suddenly noticed a wallet lying at my feet. I bent down and picked it up. Opening it, I was astounded to find 1,000 gold pieces inside. There was no identiﬁcation, and I took it home with me.
“The next day, I read in the paper that one of the Polish noblemen had lost a wallet and was offering a reward of 100 rubles to the man who found it and returned it.
“Naturally, I was overjoyed and I rushed over to the nobleman’s home.
“‘I have found the wallet you lost and here it is,’ I announced.
“The nobleman beamed with happiness and opened the wallet I gave him. I stood, waiting impatiently for him to give me the reward.
“I suddenly noticed, however, that his facial expression had changed and a cloud seemed to pass over him. My heart sank for I assumed he had begun to regret his decision to offer a reward. It was even worse than that, however.”
“The nobleman suddenly looked up and, with a face filled with fury, snarled: ‘Thief! All you Jews are thieves! There were 2,000 gold pieces in this wallet and you have only returned half of that. I demand that you give me the rest of the money!’
“My heart sank as I heard these words and I tried to calm him:
“‘No, it is not so, I am an honest and God-fearing Jew. Because of this I returned your lost wallet to you. If you do not wish to give me the reward I gladly waive all right to it. I only ask that you do not accuse me falsely.’
“But the nobleman was like a mad dog. He began to bark wildly at me, calling me all sorts of names and accusing me of stealing his money.
“‘Thief, son of a thief! You took a wallet with 2,000 gold pieces and have returned only 1,000. I will not rest till I take you to court and you get the punishment you so richly deserve.’
“In short,” the Jew wailed, “I have already received a summons from the court to appear and face trial. How can I ever hope to receive justice from this court against a Polish nobleman? Why was I punished in this manner when all I wanted was to perform a mitzvah?”
Rav Eliyahu Chaim listened quietly to the entire story and saw that the man had told the truth.
“To begin with, the reason for your trouble is that you did not perform the mitzvah properly. You did not do it for its own sake but for the sake of a reward. This is wrong. However, I will try to help you. Do you have an attorney?”
“Send him here tomorrow,” said Rav Eliyahu Chaim.
The next day, the attorney appeared at the home of Rav Eliyahu Chaim to discuss a strategy.
Within a few days, the day of the trial arrived.
The frightened Jew listened while the Polish nobleman stood before the court and said:
“I lost a wallet that contained 2,000 gold pieces. This Jew who sits there returned the wallet but with only 1,000 of the coins. I demand that the miserable, thieving Jew be punished for his crime.”
The Jew, naturally, protested his innocence, declaring, “I give you my solemn word that I have taken nothing from that wallet. There were only 1,000 gold pieces and I returned them all.”
The prosecutor now took over and began to attack Jews as thieves while asking how the court could hope to take the word of a Jew against that of a Polish nobleman.
Soon, it was the defense attorney’s turn and he used the strategy that Rav Eliyahu Chaim had outlined for him.
“Do you swear that there were 2,000 gold pieces in the wallet you lost?” he asked the nobleman.
“I swear it!”
Turning to the judges, the attorney now said: “No one can doubt the word of the nobleman so it must be that he did indeed lose 2,000 gold pieces.
“Since, however, there is a presumption that no one who returns a loss is a thief – since a thief would have returned nothing – we must assume that there is a simple answer: The wallet that the Jew found is a different one from that lost by the nobleman!”
The nobleman’s face turned purple with anger but the judges had no choice. They could not accuse their fellow nobleman of lying but neither could they refute the fact that a thief would have returned nothing, so they gave the entire wallet to the Jew.