So many wonderful stories are told about the behavior of our Gaonim and sages at this time of the year, that they have become legend to be repeated in every home, in every country during Pesach. Many of these stories have been told in this column during the past number of years, but they are so inspiring that they bear repeating.
For weeks before Pesach the people of the little Polish, Lithuanian or Russian towns lived only with Passover in mind. The housewives turned their homes upside down, the matzah bakery became alive, tailors and cobblers prepared to meet the seasonal rush, and the children worked themselves into a pitch of excitement which they could not have endured had they had to wait for the seder night one day longer than they already did. The Rabbis study naturally did not escape this communal upheaval; in fact, it was the focal point, which reflected all that went on in the community. The hectic days left their traces in a good many tales passed down from mouth to mouth.
The story is told of Rabbi Naphtali Ropshitzer coming home worn out after delivering the long sermon customarily preached on the Shabbat HaGadol (Great Sabbath) before Pesach. His wife asked him how he felt, and Rabbi Naphtali replied: "This was a particularly trying sermon. Times are bad, and a great deal of money is needed if the community is to provide all the poor with the necessities for Pesach. I had to put all my strength into an impassioned appeal for support of our efforts."
"And how did you succeed?" his wife asked.
"Halfways," Rabbi Naphtali said with a smile.
"The poor are willing to take; whether the rich will give remains to be seen."
Won't Share It With A Horse
Once, a few days before Pesach, Rabbi Meir Margulies was walking along a muddy street towards the river, carrying a large pitcher. The Maggid, Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Ostrog, was likewise on his way toward the river, but he rode in a wagon. He noticed Rabbi Meir and exclaimed: "Why do you walk in the mire, O Rabbi?"
The latter replied: "The mitzva of drawing water for the baking of the matzah for the seder comes only once a year. I do not care to share it with a horse." The Maggid descended from his wagon, and walked beside the Rabbi to the river.
Four Cups Of Milk
A poor man came to Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, the Rabbi of Brisk, with a question of ritual law: "Is it permissible to drink the four cups prescribed for the seder night with milk instead of wine?" Rabbi Joseph Ber asked whether the questioner was, G-d forbid, sick and could not drink wine. After some hesitation, the man admitted that he did not have enough money to buy wine. The rabbi at once asked his wife to get out 25 rubles, and pressed them upon the poor man, finally persuading him to take them as a loan.
After the man had left, Rabbi Joseph Ber's wife asked: "Why did you have to give him 25 rubles? He could get wine for two or three rubles."
But the Rabbi replied:
"Reflect a moment! If he wanted to drink milk at the seder, it is evident that he had no money for meat either."
The Most Important Din Of Baking Matzahs
Rabbi Israel Salant was usually particular about the baking of matzahs. From the time of the cutting of the wheat, kneading of the dough to the actual baking, Rabbi Israel watched every transaction until it was completed. Through this method Rabbi Israel made sure that the community had kosher matzahs for Pesach.
It happened that one time Rabbi Israel became sick and he couldn't attend his annual supervision of the baking of matzahs. His disciples volunteered to take over his job.
"Don't worry," they told the Rabbi "we'll take every precaution to see that the matzahs are baked according to the din."
Rabbi Israel was very pleased to hear that this burden of supervision would be lifted from him while he recuperated.
"We have only one question to ask of you," said his disciples. "Are there any last minute instructions? What is the most important thing we should guard against?"
"There is something very important," answered Rabbi Israel Salant. "There is a poor old woman, a widow, who comes every year to bake her own matzahs. Be very careful of her honor, donít yell at her or embarrass her. Do everything to help her!"
A Nice Stylist
It was a custom in the famous Yeshivah at Volozhin that all those students who didnít go home for Pesach attended the Seder at the home of the head of the yeshivah. This was a great experience, and many students stayed over Pesach, on purpose, in order to be at the Rabbis Seder. Of course, this was a great burden on the Rabbis wife; she remonstrated with him, and one year, he finally agreed to discontinue the custom.
When the students heard the news they felt disappointed and, indeed, cheated of a right, theirs by prescription. One of them, who had dabbled in "modern" learning, acquired a good literary style and a measure of disrespect for his Rabbis, rushed to pen an ill-mannered and insulting complaint and put it on the rabbiís desk. With some trepidation, the student saw the Rabbi enter the study hall and pick up the note. He turned around to them, and said, "a nice stylist!... Excellent!"
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