How Did a Watermelon End Up in the Story of Yud Tes Kislev?

Do watermelons have any connection to Yud Tes Kislev? Sholom Ber Kirsh takes a closer look at the famous story of the government minister who passed a message to a chossid…with a watermelon?

By Sholom Ber Kirsh

Do watermelons have any connection to Yud Tes Kislev?

I assume you answered yes. But do they?

We all know the story, but I’ll recap anyway.

As the Alter Rebbe was being arrested, he asked his brother-in-law Reb Yisroel Kozik to travel to Petersburg. Reb Yisroel immediately did as he was instructed.

Not having been told what he was to do in Petersburg, Reb Yisroel walked around the city hoping he would discover the purpose of his being there.

One day while walking, an official approached and asked him his name. Reb Yisroel, who had left Liozna without even picking up his ID, was carrying someone else’s documents and gave the official that person’s name.

The official, who happened to be a government minister, responded: “You’re lying,” and walked away.

Bewildered by what had just happened, Reb Yisroel spoke it over with the other Chasidim. The Chasidim thought that perhaps this was somehow connected to the Alter Rebbe. They advised him to continue walking around and, if he meets the minister again, to give his real name.

A short time later, the minister again saw Reb Yisroel and asked him his name. This time Reb Yisroel gave his real name.

The minister turned around and started walking. Reb Yisroel understood that he was supposed to follow behind. After a short walk, the minister walked into a house, and Reb Yisroel waited outside.

A few moments later, a window opened, and the minister dropped a…

Did you say watermelon?

Reb Yisroel picked up the … and brought it to the Chasidim. When they cut it open, they found a letter with the Possuk of Shema written by the Alter Rebbe.

That’s the story. Now back to the blanks.

Are there watermelons available during the winter? How about fifteen years ago? Make that 200 years ago in the Russian winter?

Describing the wealth of Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi and Antoninus, the Gemara writes that they had certain seasonal vegetables all year round. Nowadays, we’re getting there, but 200 years ago?

Another question. Did you ever drop a watermelon? Were you lucky enough not to get dirty when it exploded?

So where does the watermelon in the story come from?

Let me give a simple suggestion.

Translation error!

The Russian word for watermelon is Arbuz (арбуз).

The Ukrainian word for pumpkin is Harbuz (гарбуз), it can also mean the extended pumpkin family, such as a gourd or squash. 

Is it starting to make sense?

The story was probably told by Chasidim, who would say that the minister dropped an Harbuz. Someone asked a Russian speaker what the word means, and he was told a ‘watermelon’. There you have it, a watermelon in a Russian winter 224 years ago.

Pumpkins (and gourds), on the other hand, are winter vegetables. You can also easily make a small cut in them and clean out their seeds. You can even drop a small one, and it will stay whole.

If you haven’t yet, click on the words to see Google translate. Take it or leave it.

Enjoy the watermelon!

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  1. I’m no expert, just a product of chabad moisdos from the 80s and 90s. NEVER in the retelling of the story in all of my years have I ever heard someone tell the story with a watermelon! The first time i heard of it was when my child arrived home in recent years with a watermelon project from school in honor of 19 kislev leaving me beyond confused.

  2. In the old Yiddish Kehos book ארעסט און באפרייאונג פון אלטן רבין compiled by הרב אברהם חנוך גליצנשטיין on page number לא where it recounts this story it is written אַרבוז…

    1. The story presumably comes from the sefer בית רבי, which was printed in the 1900’s in Yiddish and Loshon Kodesh. The Loshon Kodesh version has the word אבטיח, which generally means watermelon and the Yiddish version says פלוצער (I do not know the meaning of that word).
      Although the watermelon popular today is harvested in the summer and has a thinner rind, not all varieties were like that, there are Russian varieties that have a thicker rind and are available deep into the winter, and this story probably took place much earlier than that – toward the beginning of the Alter Rebbe’s imprisonment.

  3. 1. Thanks for putting it out to the public – this was something discussed by my family members for a while now… 🙂

    2. In Hebrew אבטיח translates as watermelon OR squash.
    Apparently the original story was written in Hebrew (mokor ?) and that’s the word used.

    1. ב”ה

      הסיפור נזכר על ידי הרביים?

      הרבה פרטים בסיפור המאסר המקובל לא הולכים יחדיו עם הסיפור המסופר על ידי הרביים.

      ואף שיש מעלה בסיפורים שסופרו בין חסידים. הנה עיקר הקאך במה שסופר על ידי הרביים.


  4. Sorry, but in the original Bais Rebbi (in loshon hakodesh) it says (on page ל):
    “פתאום ראה שמחלון עליית בית השר נפל אבטיח…פתחו האבטיח”

  5. in the Arrest and Liberation page 44 it says “an envelope” fell

    in the Hebrew Beis Rebbi, page 30 it says אבטיח

    i remember seeing in the YIDDISH version of beis rebbi “א פלוצער” fell. no clue what that means

  6. You can observe many times especially by Israelis when they write down Yiddish words the letters Aleph and Hei are often exchanged (for no reason that I can ever figure out)
    So the fact that by the glitzenshtein book it’s printed ארבוז and not harbuz is not an indication.

    However even if in Ukrainian bits spelled or pronounced Harbouz, in Russian that would be Garbuz similar to Belarusian Horodna is pronounced in Yiddish (and Russian) Grodna, so to mistake a G for an A is a stretch

    The writer’s “theory” is interesting and it would be nice to know if there can be sources traced to support it but it’s not enough based on a question you have to come and change a story.

    That’s how broken telephone works and how stories end up polar opposites than where they began, because of a question someone could not figure out!!!!

  7. The word פלוצער means a pumpkin
    The fact that in the original it says אבטיח:
    1. It can also translate to pumpkin (check out google translate if you wish)
    2. There was no modern Hebrew back then.
    So, some the Yiddish and Hebrew version were written by the SAME person – it only makes sense to say that he meant pumpkin

    If I would be able to, I would upload some pics to prove all the above…

    1. 1) What makes you say the Hebrew and Yiddish were written by the SAME person?
      In the version I found it says it was translated and compiled by י.ח.
      2) Not that I know differently – but just wondering if you have a source that the translation of פלוצער is pumpkin?

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