The Ninth day of Khag Hamatzot
The book of Ecclesiastes is the great wisdom of King Solomon, and there we read the following rather strange passage, "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for you know not what evil shall be upon the earth." [Ecc. 11:1,2] Here we are about to celebrate Khag Hamatzot, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and you may ask, what am I doing bringing this verse about bread on water to your attention. I have my reasons. Listen to this story:
The city of Prague was a great center of Judaism in the middle ages. One of our great sages, Rabbi Yekheskel Landau, author of a book called "Nodah Biyehuda," and known by this title, was an outstanding Rabbi of his generation. He gained the utmost admiration and respect of all the members of his congregation and the entire Prague Jewish community. He was known for his great love and compassion for all mankind.
One day, as he was on his way home from his Shul late in the evening, he came across encountered a child sitting on the ground and crying his eyes out. Looking at this child, the Rabbi could tell right away that he was not Jewish, but still he stopped to inquire.
"What's the matter, son?"
The boy looked up at the bearded man, whom he had never spoken to before. He saw the kind eyes of the loving man looking down on him, and he was encouraged to open his heart and tell this man his sad story.
"My father is one of the leading bakers in Prague. My mother died when I was only a baby and my father remarried. My stepmother hates me and treats me cruelly. Every day, she beats me as soon as I enter our house."
"Today," the child went on, " I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I carried a tray of bread on my head to the market and sold every last loaf. However, as I was walking home, I was attacked by a couple of thieves who grabbed my tray and emptied my pockets realized of all my money. Now I'm scared to go home now, because I'm sure my stepmother will not believe my story and will beat me and call me a liar and a thief."
Rabbi Landau looked at the young child for a long moment. Sure, it could all be a scam. But the boy just seemed so earnest. He asked the child how much he had lost. The child named an amount that was most definitely on the steep side for a hand-out.
"Here," the sage said, "this what you need and a little extra. Why dont you buy something to eat, you look half-starved." The child looked at the Rabbi with wonder in his eyes. He took the money and counted it. He thanked the rabbi repeatedly and then he asked,
"Why are you doing this, Rabbi? I am not even Jewish."
"Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for you know not what evil shall be upon the earth." The Rabbi replied, smiling, "you too were created by God Almighty." The boy hurried away, and the Rabbi continued on his way home.
More than ten years later, on the seventh day of Khag Hamatzot, the Nodah Biyehuda was sitting in his study immersed in study of the text of diney khag, the laws of the holiday, when he heard someone tapping on the door. His shamash, the synagogue sexton, came in to inform him that he had a visitor who would not give his name, and as soon he saw the visitor, a step behind the shamash, he immediately recognized him as the child he saved from his step-mother years earlier.
The Rabbi rose and spoke a few words of welcome, but the young man cut him short. "Rabbi," he began, uncomfortable with himself and highly irritated, "I have never forgotten your kindness to me when I was young. I have always meant to pay you back, but frankly I never had the courage to come here to see you. I know you did not expect me to come. But believe me, today I'm here for that reason to repay you for what you did for me." He swallowed hard and went on: "As you know, my father is a leading baker in the city. Last night, the Bishop, who I dont have to tell you is a rabid anti-Semite, called a meeting of all the Christian bakers in Prague. They met in my father's house. The Bishop spoke to all the assembled bakers and said that there are too many Jews in our region and that it was time that they be removed from us.
"He promised the bakers that they'd be guaranteed a place of honor in Heaven if they agreed to take part in his plan to rid the city of every Jew. He reminded them that the Jews of Prague were so sick and tired of matza by the last day of the holiday that they would stand in line to buy their first bread from the gentile bakers. The Bishop then distributed a vial of poison to each and every baker, instructing each to mix it into the dough of the "extra" bread they'd bake immediately after the Jews holiday. This bread, obviously, was to be sold only to the Jews."
"You must do something," the young man said, "to save your community as you have saved me." Again he thanked the Rabbi, and immediately he left.
The sage was in total shock. He sat motionless for a long time, thinking of ways to avert the evil that was upon them, of the need to save his people. The next morning, the eighth, and last, day of the holiday, he sent a message to all the shuls in Prague urging the entire community to attend a special Yizkor service for the martyrs, to be held in his shul, the main synagogue of Prague, at 3 p.m. that afternoon.
The Jews were surprised to be summoned like this, but in his honor, the came. Total silence reigned as the great Rabbi arose to speak.
"My dear people," he began, "although we fixed a date for all of our festivals, it has been brought to my attention that I have made a grave error in fixing this year's calendar. The night of Pesach should have begun a day later and we did, which means that the second Seder was really the first night, and therefore I am delighted to let you know that you have been saved from transgression, and you must keep one extra day of matza this year. It is therefore forbidden to eat any bread tomorrow."
The audience was astonished how could such a mistake have occurred? All the Rabbis made the same mistake, that did not make sense. And yet, the great Nodah Biyehuda would not make such a confession for nothing. We have not had bread for a week, another day will not be the end of the world... So they went home and continued to celebrate the redemption from Egypt. Prague celebrated nine days of Khag Hamatzot that year.
As the sun set in Prague, the bakers of the city had the "special bread" ready for their Jewish clients. They waited for an hour after dark, and not one Jew came in to buy bread. They had prepared all that poison-laced product, yet not one Jewish customer entered any of their shops. Another hour passed, and a delegation of bakers stormed into the governor's office with complaints:
"We had prepared bread for the Jews of Prague, and the ungrateful people did not come to buy our product. We are left with all this bread, and we will lose our shirts." The governor sent for the "court Jew" who arrived anxious and apologetic to report that an extra day of matzot had been proclaimed by the great Rabbi.
The governor immediately summoned the Nodah Biyehuda. He reprimanded the Rabbi and informed him that he must assume responsibility for lost sales.
"I am prepared to pay for every single loaf that they have of their shelves. All I ask is that they take a little bite of each loaf. Just so it will not go to waste, since we Jews cannot touch it."
There was a hush in the room, and all the bakers faces turned white. The governor, a fair and honest man, thought the Rabbis request was not unreasonable. He was surprised the bakers refused to accept it. He began to question them, and before long the Bishop's plot against the Jews emerged. The poisoning pastor was posted in prison to pastor to brigands and cut-throats and the bakers were severely reprimanded and made to bear the cost of their folly.
The Jews of Prague, spared from panic and from death, gathered in the main synagogue to give thanks to the Holy One, Blessed be He, and to His faithful servant, Rabbi Yekheskel Landau, for saving their lives. And he, in turn, taught them the passage,"Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for you know not what evil shall be upon the earth."