The Three Conditions
Reb Mendel Pulichever, the young rabbi of Pulichev, stood at his study window and stared out at the steady autumn downpour. The new year 5370 (1609) had brought mild weather to the river valleys of Galicia in southern Poland, but then the rains had come. It had been raining now for almost a week without any signs of clearing. The little river that flowed down from the upper valley was already seeping over its banks. The narrow streets of the Jewish section of Pulichev had long since turned to mud. Soon the road leading up the mountainside to the Pytuma Pass would be awash with debris from the forests. It would be all but impassable. Reb Mendel sighed deeply and returned to his chair.
Ordinarily, the spacious study with the jammed bookcases lining the walls gave Reb Mendel a sense of relaxation. He enjoyed sitting in his faded armchair at the sturdy mahogany table surrounded by open sefarim and assorted writing materials. But today the ceaseless rains pounded mercilessly on his ragged nerves.
This room symbolized everything he had achieved in his life. At the age of thirty-two he was already a prominent Torah scholar. His wife Sarah, the kind and personable daughter of Reb Yaakov Sofer, the rabbi of nearby Molodietz, was beloved by all the people of Pulichev, who respectfully referred to her as “the Rebbetzin.” Their home was always open to guests and to poor people. They had more than enough for their simple needs, although they were by no means wealthy. Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin had everything they could possibly want, but they had never had any children.
At first they had been hopeful of still having children. But almost nine years had already passed, and their prayers were still unanswered. Hope gave way to despair. Their home echoed with emptiness.
Reb Mendel thought back to that day several months before when they had discovered that people like themselves had been helped by the blessings of the holy sage Reb Zalman Mintzer who lived in Krakow, the largest city in Western Poland. Krakow was far away, and travel was difficult and risky, but once again they dared to hope.
Letters had been written and posted, provisions and money put aside, a carriage with a driver and a team of horses hired, and the care of the house arranged. The date of departure was set for immediately after Sukkoth.
Unfortunately, the rains came then as well. As the journey kept being put off from day to day, Reb Mendel became more and more agitated. He tried to concentrate on the volume of the Talmud he was learning, but his mind kept wandering off. Most of the time, he alternated between pacing back and forth and staring glumly through the window at the rain.
There was a gentle knock on the door, and the Rebbetzin came in.
“Am I disturbing you, Mendel?”
“No, not at all,” he replied.
“Would you like to come into the kitchen? I’ve prepared some lunch for you.”
“No, thank you. I’m not really hungry.”
“Come, Mendel, you have to keep up your strength. The food is hot. It’ll be good for you.”
“I’m sorry,” said Reb Mendel, shaking his head. “I just can’t eat now. I’m too tense.”
“Don’t you think I know that, Mendel? I can hear you pacing back and forth all the way to the kitchen. Tell me, Mendel, why are you so on edge? We’ve waited so long. What do another few days matter?”
Reb Mendel rose and went to the window. The rains were like a misty mantle draped over the entire valley. For a few long moments he looked out the window in silence. Then he thrust his hands into the pockets of his long black caftan and turned to his wife.
“You know how much it means to me to have children. Oh, of course, I know that everyone wants and needs children. But to me it also means something else. My father and my grandfather, for six generations back, have served as the Rabbis of Pulichev. My great-grandfather, Reb Shloime Pulichever, after whom my father was named, was a student of Reb Moshe Isserles, the Rema. Will it all stop with me? I do not have any brothers or sisters. My father’s only sister is married to Reb Yom Tov Luria of Wielkowicz. They are older people, and they have no children either. I am the only one left in my family. Am I to be the last Pulichever?”
“I know that these things have been bothering you, Mendel,” she said quietly. “They have been bothering me too. For a long time. But why are these thoughts preying on your mind right now, just when we’re preparing to go to Krakow, just when we’ve found new hope? Is it the rains? They’ll let up soon enough. And if they don’t,” she added in a softly reassuring voice, “we’ll go in the spring.”
Reb Mendel shook his head.
“I wish it were as simple as that,” he said. “Many times I asked myself why we weren’t blessed with children. Why are we less deserving than other people? You are such a special person, so kind and goodhearted, never thinking of yourself before others. How could your prayers be refused? Surely for your sake we should have had a child.”
“Mendel, stop it,” the Rebbetzin protested. “Please don’t belittle yourself. There may have been some reason that Hashem didn’t want to give us children till now, and there as just nothing we could have done about it.”
“And you are saying that now it may be different?” asked Reb Mendel.
“Perhaps. I have hope in my heart once again, Mendel. Perhaps we will be helped through the privilege of the holy sage. Just as others have been helped too.”
“Yes, I too was filed with hope. And the glorious weather we had all Sukkoth also raised my spirits. But then on the afternoon of Simchath Torah it began to rain, and it hasn’t stopped since. You know we never have such rains in Pulichev. What does it all mean?”
“What do you think, Mendel? What do you think it means?”
“I think it might mean we are not meant to go see Reb Zalman. Perhaps it is not our destiny to have a child. I think I am not deserving enough to continue the Pulichever lineage. I don’t think it will do us any good to go. Who knows? We might even be putting our lives in danger if we insist on going to see Reb Zalman.”
“Do you really believe this, Mendel?”
“I don’t know what else to think.”
The Rebbetzin closed her eyes and knitted her brows in deep concentration.
“Perhaps we are being told that we want a child for the wrong reasons,” she said at last. “Perhaps we are too concerned with our own needs. Both of us want a child to fill the void in our own lives and also to continue the Pulichever lineage. Perhaps more is expected of us. Perhaps we should want a child to bring him up to serve Hashem and to help our people.”
Reb Mendel slowly nodded his head.
“Yes, I think you may be right. That is how my father and grandfathers would have felt about it. There is much wisdom in what you say.”
The Rebbetzin blushed.
“You would be wise to get some rest, Mendel,” she said. “Tomorrow we may be able to go, and you’ll need your strength.”
In the morning the rains had indeed stopped. By midmorning Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin were on their way. The roads were barely better than rivers of gravelly mud. The driver swore under his breath as he whipped the horses on. By day their bones were jarred by the ceaseless lurching of the carriage. By night they tossed restlessly on lumpy mattresses in drab roadside inns. On the Shabbath, they stayed with whatever Jewish family they could find.
After two harrowing weeks on the road they reached the Vistula River. Ahead, they could see the enormous royal castle looming over the walls of Old Krakow. At the southern tip of the city stood the smaller walls of Kasimierz, the section in which the Jews of Krakow had been permitted to settle after being evicted from the old city in 1495 by King Jan Albert. It was late afternoon when Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin finally found lodging in a comfortable inn in Kasimierz. On the day of their arrival they were too exhausted to step out of the inn. The following day they went to Reb Zalman’s house.
Reb Zalman lived in a ramshackle building nestled against the city wall. The door was opened by a gaunt man with a stringy black beard who led Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin though an archway into a small alcove that was completely bare except for one long wooden bench. He introduced himself as Mottel the Beadle and asked them what they needed. He listened gravely to their story, nodding sympathetically from time to time. Then he asked them to wait there. He would call them when Reb Zalman was ready to receive them.
Through the archway they could see a tiny synagogue and another closed door beyond. After almost a full hour, the door opened, and Mottel stepped out. He closed the door softly behind him and motioned to them to come.
“There are a few things I must tell you before you go in,” he said. “Reb Zalman is old and weak. He lies on a bed. You must bend over when you speak to him. I’ll be next to you to help you if you need it. Reb Zalman will give you his hand, but he will have a cloth wrapped around it. Do not be offended. He does this with everyone. Also, your wife cannot come into the room. She must wait in the doorway. Again I must ask you not to be offended. It is his way.”
Mottel opened the door and led Reb Mendel into the room. The Rebbetzin remained standing in the open doorway. Reb Zalman lay motionless on a narrow bed. He appeared to be sleeping. His eyes were closed. His beard and earlocks blended into the pillow, forming a snow white frame for the glowing, almost translucent skin of his face.
Mottel cleared his throat, and Reb Zalman’s lids fluttered open to reveal brilliant pale blue eyes. He fixed his gaze on Reb Mendel. The burning eyes seemed to bore into Reb Mendel’s soul, forcing him to look away in confusion. Then, much to the astonishment of Mottel the Beadle, Reb Zalman removed the cloth from his right hand and shook Reb Mendel’s extended hand.
“So you’re Reb Mendel Pulichever,” Reb Zalman said. “I knew your father well. How can I help you, my son? What do you need?”
“I have been married for over nine years, and I have still not been blessed with a child.”
“I see. And you have come all the way from Pulichev just to ask for my blessing?”
Reb Mendel nodded.
“You must want a child very, very much.”
Again, Reb Mendel nodded.
Reb Mendel’s mouth fell open at the unexpected question.
“Because it is the proper way to serve Hashem and to help our people,” he stammered at last.
“And your wife agrees, of course,” said Reb Zalman with a smile, “as one would expect from Reb Yaakov Sofer’s daughter. Tell me, Reb Mendel, what if the best way for you to serve Hashem is by not having children?”
“If I were convinced of that I would be happy with my fate,” replied Reb Mendel fervently.
“Yes, yes,” said Reb Zalman. “Quite so.”
Reb Zalman closed his eyes. For a long time, he lay absolutely still. Reb Mendel watched him intently, hardly daring to breathe aloud. When Reb Zalman finally opened his eyes they glistened with tears.
“Reb Mendel,” he said. “I can promise you a son, but I must make three conditions. They are as follows: One, every Yom Kippur you must be the one to say the Kol Nidre payer. Two, he must be born with a defect.”
“What kind of defect?” asked Reb Mendel, his voice filled with anxiety.
“I will pray that it won’t be too severe,” said Reb Zalman. He paused.
“And the third?” prompted Reb Mendel.
Reb Zalman sighed wearily.
“The third,” said Reb Zalman, “is that when your son reaches the age of three you must bring him to Krakow for me to cut his hair.”
“Then I accept,” said Reb Mendel eagerly.
“Reb Mendel, always remember to be thankful for whatever you are given,” Reb Zalman said with a strange look of sadness in his eyes. “Mottel, ask Reb Yaakov Sofer’s daughter to come here for a moment.”
Mottel signaled the Rebbetzin to come closer. She came forward several paces.
Reb Zalman looked at both of them and said, “May the Master of the Universe bless both of you and give you the strength you will need.”
With that, he turned away and closed his eyes, and they understood that it was time to go.
The following day they set out on the long journey back to Pulichev. Strange and unsettling as the experience had been, they could not contain their joy. They were going to have a child! A boy!
Almost exactly a year later, in the middle of the month of Cheshvan, Shloimele was born. The boy was missing the middle toe on his left foot, but that hardly seemed to matter. Reb Mendel thanked Hashem for letting the defect be so insignificant. Family, friends and dignitaries came from many towns and cities in Poland to celebrate the circumcision. The city of Pulichev had never seen such an exuberant celebration.
Shloimele was an unusual child. Before he was one year old he was already walking and talking exceedingly well. He had tremendous curiosity, learned very quickly and retained everything he learned. He was clearly a prodigy who could be expected to grow up to be a big Torah scholar, especially in view of the illustrious Pulichever lineage. Even at that tender age he was becoming quite famous. Travelers would detour through Pulichev to visit Reb Mendel and catch a glimpse of his wondrous child.
Much as Shloimele loved to learn new things he loved music and singing even more. He would sit on his mother’s lap and try to sing along as she crooned to him. And he would stand next to Reb Mendel as he prayed before the cantor’s lectern, his arms wrapped tightly around his father’s leg.
Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin were happier than they had ever been. They savored every moment of every day. Reb Mendel immersed himself deeply in the study of Torah. He sat in his study for endless hours, humming to himself as he pored over his books and wrote his novellae and responsa. The Rebbetzin busied herself with the needs of the poor people of Pulichev. She fed them in her own house or brought them food to their homes. She collected unwanted clothing which she distributed among the poor. She raised money to help them marry off their children. Every day Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin thanked Hashem for the wonderful gift He had given them.
Every chance he got, Shloimele would come into the study. Reb Mendel would put the little boy on his lap and bounce him up and down as he continued to learn the Torah. Shloimele would beam with delight, but he would never make a sound. He knew that he mustn’t disturb his father’s learning. When people came to consult with Reb Mendel about Torah matters or personal problems Shloimele would move to a corner of the room and sit there silently as he observed every detail. But Reb Mendel knew that Shloimele was there, and every once in a while, he would glance at him and smile.
Whenever Shloimele could not be in the study with his father he clung to his mother’s side as she stood in the kitchen cooking and baking. He especially enjoyed offering food to the poor people who frequented their house, and they in turn responded warmly to the kindness of the tiny child. They would kiss the top of his head and bless him.
The years passed, and Shloimele’s third birthday was approaching. A message came from Reb Zalman during the month of Elul reminding them that he was expecting them in Krakow on the child’s birthday, some three weeks after Sukkoth. Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin had not forgotten. In fact, they were very eager to make the journey to Reb Zalman with the child. They wanted Reb Zalman to see the child and to give him a blessing. They also wanted to ask his advice about how to bring up such an extraordinary child. They began to make preparations for the journey immediately. They would set out on the road to Krakow three days after Sukkoth.
Rosh Hashanah was a festive occasion that year. Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin poured out their deepest gratitude to Hashem for the happiness and fulfillment he had given them. Their joy was infectious; they had an aura of holiness about them. All the people of Pulichev felt swept along in the fervor. It would surely be a good year for everyone.
Shloimele sat in synagogue, looking about him in wide eyed wonder. He stared curiously at the grownup people standing with tears streaming down their faces like little children. He loved the sounds of the special Rosh Hashanah prayers. But most of all, he loved the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn. It made him thrill with excitement.
Yom Kippur came to Pulichev in a blaze of autumn color. People who ordinarily prayed in small synagogues all over the city crowded into the main synagogue to hear their esteemed Rabbi, Reb Mendel say the Kol Nidre prayer. Even though Shloimele was not quite three years old the Rebbetzin brought him to hear the Kol Nidre before he was put to bed.
Shloimele was overwhelmed by the excitement. Everyone was wearing white robes and white skullcaps. They were standing slightly bent, as if they were carrying heavy burdens; the looks on their faces were intent.
What a strange feeling there was in the air! Joyful expectancy mixed with dread and awe. What was the meaning of this? His still unsophisticated mind found the atmosphere puzzling but also fascinating.
Then Reb Mendel stepped to the cantor’s lectern, and a deep hush fell over the crowded synagogue. The Torah scrolls were taken out from the holy ark, and Reb Mendel began to sing. He stood wrapped in his white linen robe and prayer shawl, with beads of sweat gleaming on his forehead, and his warm, sweet voice soared high into the heavens. All that was in his heart poured into his singing, his Torah, his piety, his kindness, his compassion, his joy and his gratitude. He sang with a holiness that seemed to have no place in the mundane world.
Shloimele did not understand what was going on, but he still found it an intensely moving experience. He could not believe that a sound could be so beautiful, so haunting. And his little heart swelled with pride that it was his beloved father who was creating such beauty.
Yom Kippur passed and it was time to prepare for the festival of Sukkoth. It was still a very hectic time, and Shloimele was left to his own devices. He sat by himself under a tree in the yard, out of everyone’s way, playing with his toys or watching the passersby.
One day, while Shloimele was sitting in his secluded corner, a man approached him. The little boy gaped at the strange looking man, at his long black clothing and the black skullcap on his head. Yet, the man in no way resembled Reb Mendel. The man spoke to Shloimele, but Shloimele did not understand a word he said.
The man sat down next to Shloimele. He spoke more loudly and deliberately, gesticulating with his hands as he spoke, but still, Shloimele did not understand him.
Suddenly, Reb Mendel appeared beside them. He spoke to the man in the same strange language that Shloimele did not understand.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he said. “Can I help you?”
“How do you do?” replied the man, standing up to his full lanky height and extending his hand. “I am Father Zbigniew Mzlateslavski. I am the new priest of this parish. You must be Reb Mendel, the rabbi. I hear you’re a famous Talmudic scholar. Your Talmud fascinates me. Maybe I can come over sometimes when I am having difficulty with some passage and you can clarify it for me?”
The priest did not wait for the astonished Rabbi’s reply. He continued, “And this, I assume, is the celebrated Shloimele. I have heard so much about him. What a perfect, beautiful child he is! How fortunate you are to have such a son! But he doesn’t seem to be too friendly. I was speaking to him just now, and he didn’t answer me.”
Reb Mendel smiled. “Don’t be offended. He doesn’t understand the Polish language. The only language he understands is Yiddish.”
“Why don’t you teach him Polish?” the priest asked. “A boy like this is very rare indeed. With his Heaven-sent talents there is no limit to what he could accomplish if only you would let him broaden his horizons. Why keep him locked up only among the Jewish people?”
“Our Torah provides the broadest horizons ever here in Pulichev,” Reb Mendel said coldly. “Shloimele’s Heaven-sent talents will be put to the best use, I assure you. There will be plenty of time for him to learn Polish when he has to have dealings with the gentiles.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” said the priest. “He is your son. Do with him as you wish.”
The priest extended his hand to Reb Mendel once again. Reb Mendel hesitated for a moment, before he took the priest’s hand.
“It was nice meeting you,” said the priest. “I hope we can be friends.”
Then the priest bent down and took Shloimele’s hand in his own.
“It was nice meeting you too, Shloimele,” he said in Polish even though Shloimele did not understand it. “I will be living nearby. I think we’ll be seeing quite a bit of each other in the coming years.”
With those words, the priest turned on his heel and walked off.
Reb Mendel was very disturbed by the encounter. He gathered up Shloimele in his arms and carried him into the house. As soon as she caught sight of them, the Rebbetzin dropped what she was doing and came running.
“What is the matter, Mendel?” she asked anxiously. “Did something happen to Shloimele? Is he hurt? You look white as a sheet. What happened?”
Reb Mendel told her about the priest and what he had said.
“I’ve noticed him watching Shloimele from afar quite a few times these last few weeks,” said Reb Mendel, his voice shaking with agitation and concern. “I had a very uneasy feeling about it, but I told myself that it didn’t mean anything. But now this! I’m very concerned. He’ll be living nearby for who knows how long. I don’t want him coming around to influence our precious Shloimele with his ideas, Heaven forbid. I’m afraid he’s going to try to destroy everything we’re going to instill in him. I’m afraid Shloimele won’t see through him the way I do. He is so friendly and polite. But look into those hooded eyes and there is evil and malice.”
“I think you might be reading too much into this, Mendel,” the Rebbetzin said. “Once the priest settles in he’s probably going to be very busy with his own parish. He won’t have the time or the inclination to bother with trying to influence Shloimele. Besides, Shloimele is still very young, and the priest may leave to another parish long before he poses any danger.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Reb Mendel said. “I just have an uneasy feeling about the whole thing. Maybe you’re right, but this terrible premonition refuses to go away.”
“Wait a minute, Mendel. Shloimele doesn’t understand or speak Polish, and the priest doesn’t speak Yiddish. All we have to do is keep Shloimele from learning the Polish language as long as possible.”
“Yes, that’s true,” said Reb Mendel. “That will surely help for a while. You’ve certainly set my mind at ease to some extent. It always helps to talk things over with you.”
The Rebbetzin smiled.
“But the truth is that I’m worried by any association whatsoever,” Reb Mendel continued. “Even his passing by the house every day and saying hello to Shloimele worries me. I don’t want him coming anywhere near Shloimele.”
“But how can you stop him, Mendel?”
“I don’t know. I would rather leave Pulichev and move somewhere else before I would take any risks with Shloimele. There must be other places where I can serve as Rabbi. Perhaps I should look for another position.”
“But, Mendel,” she said, a note of alarm in her voice, “Pulichev has been in your blood for generations. How can you even think of leaving?”
“Nothing else matters when it comes to Shloimele. Nothing at all.”
“How deeply concerned you must be if you’re willing to make such a sacrifice!” she exclaimed. “I’m frightened, Mendel. What shall we do?”
“Wait, I know,” Reb Mendel said with a sudden flash of inspiration. “Next month we’re going to Krakow to Reb Zalman. Let’s ask him what to do about this problem. I will be content to do as he says.”
The Rebbetzin breathed a sigh of relief. “Of course! That is what we must do. In the meantime, let’s put all these disturbing thoughts out of our minds and concentrate on the upcoming festival. Let’s not allow this priest to interfere in any way with our celebration of the festival.”
On the first day of Sukkoth the weather was exceptionally beautiful and Reb Mendel took Shloimele for a stroll along the riverbank. Their walk took them past the overbearing stone church at the edge of Pulichev. Reb Mendel looked up and was startled to see the gaunt figure of the priest watching them from the belfry window. Their eyes locked for a brief electric instant before the priest spun in his heel and disappeared into the shadowy interior of the church.
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