Crisis in Krakow
Spring came softly to Pulichev in the year 5401 (1641) and caressed it with silken breezes. The waters of the melting snows sparkled and danced down the hillsides. Warm rains fell from the skies and were swallowed by the thirsty earth. The valley cast off its winter cape and adorned itself with shades of green and splashes of wildflower color. Along with the spring came a delegation from Krakow to see Reb Mendel Pulichever, the esteemed Rabbi of Pulichev. Among its members was Chaim Tomashov.
Nearly thirty years had already passed since Shloimele had been abducted. Reb Mendel and Chaim Tomashov had met only a few times over the years; their main contact had been through the frequent exchange of letters. Indeed, the few times they did meet were when Chaim Tomashov had occasion to visit Pulichev. Hardly ever did Reb Mendel travel beyond the valley in which Pulichev lay.
Over the years, Reb Mendel had thrown all his energies into the study of the Torah, and he had blossomed into one of the greatest and most respected Halachic authorities in Poland. His responsa were widely read and accepted. rabbis of other cities frequented his doorstep to seek his advice, Halachic and otherwise.
The publication of Reb Mendel’s responsa spread his fame throughout Europe. Many cities invited him to become their Rabbi, among them some of the great Jewish centers of Europe, but Reb Mendel refused to consider leaving his beloved Pulichev, for generations the home of his ancestors, the city whose name he bore as his own.
The arrival of the delegation from Krakow filled Pulichev with excitement. All of the Jewish communities of southern Poland had been keeping a close eye on its comings and goings for many weeks.
The year before, the crown of Krakow had been removed. Its illustrious rabbi for many years, the venerable Reb Yoel Sirkish, had passed away.
Reb Yoel had been a world famous Torah authority, one of the greatest of his generation. The publication of Beis Chadash, commonly known as the Bach, his energetic and scholarly commentary on the Arba Turim, had delighted the Torah world, and Halachic inquiries began arriving from as far away as Amsterdam. His ardent advocacy of Reb Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch as the definitive code of Jewish law was a crucial factor in its universal acceptance. Prominent Rabbis who had seen Reb Yoel’s private set of the Talmud marveled at the incisive marginal notes that covered almost every page. There was even talk of printing these marginal notes alongside the commentaries of Rashi and the Tosafists in future editions of the Talmud.
Reb Yoel had served Krakow well and brought it great honor among the Jews of Poland and the world. His passing left Krakow devastated and bereaved.
The purpose of the delegation now traveling from city to city was to make unofficial inquiries about prospective successors to the irreplaceable Reb Yoel Sirkish. To become Rabbi of Krakow was the dream of almost every Rabbi serving in the cities, towns and villages that dotted the map of Poland, but only the most outstanding could hope to even be considered. There were rumors that the delegation had tried to persuade the sixty-two year old rabbi of Lodmir, Reb Yom Tov Lippmann-Heller, the celebrated author of a commentary known as Tosefos Yom Tov, to come to Krakow, but they had apparently been unsuccessful thus far.
Other rumors had suggested that Reb Mendel Pulichever would soon be taking over the mantle of the rabbinate of Krakow, but these were easily discounted by the people of Pulichev and anyone else who knew Reb Mendel. It was inconceivable that Reb Mendel would forsake Pulichev, even for so great an opportunity as the rabbinate of Krakow. The visit of the Krakow delegation was seen as a ceremonial visit to honor the venerable sage Reb Mendel Pulichever rather than a serious attempt to bring him to Krakow, and it brought Pulichev only pleasure, not anxiety.
People stopped what they were doing and gathered in front of the main synagogue to welcome the delegation as it entered the city in the late afternoon. Reb Mendel shook hands with each member, then he and Chaim Tomashov embraced and shed tears of joy openly in the street.
Chaim Tomashov’s beard had grown white, Reb Mendel noticed, and he walked with a slight stoop, but his eyes still twinkled with undiminished zest for life and shone with the kindness that was in his heart.
“How wonderful it is to see you, Reb Chaim!” Reb Mendel exclaimed. “Your age sits well upon you.”
“The years have marked you too, Reb Mendel. You are no longer that intense young man I knew many years ago. How is the Rebbetzin?”
“She is fine, thank Heaven, and very excited. She is only disappointed that your kindhearted wife could not come. My house has been filled with the most delicious smells for the last week.”
A formal meeting with Reb Mendel was scheduled for the next day, and the visitors from Krakow were shown to their various accommodations. Chaim Tomashov was Reb Mendel’s guest.
Reb Mendel insisted that he rest from his journey before they sat down to talk. There would be more than ample time for that later.
When Chaim Tomashov awoke it was dark and quiet with the special stillness of midnight silence. As he came down the stairs, however, he could hear the faint sound of humming from behind the study door. He hesitated before knocking gently on the door, and instantly, Reb Mendel came running to open it for him.
“You looked pale before, Reb Chaim, but now you look much better,” he exclaimed with delight. “The rest has done you good. At your age, naps in a traveling carriage are no longer enough. You need a proper bed, you know. You must take care of your health.”
“I didn’t even realize how tired I was, Reb Mendel. The instant my head touched the pillow I was fast asleep. I hope it is not too late for us to talk a bit before the meeting with the others tomorrow.”
“Of course, we can talk, Reb Chaim. Even if we have to stay up all night. Meanwhile, I will go to the kitchen while you pray. I will brew a fresh pot of tea and bring you something to eat. My wife has already gone to sleep, but she left you a heaping tray of food.”
By the time Reb Mendel returned to his study, staggering under the weight of the tray, Chaim Tomashov had finished praying and had made himself comfortable in one of the chairs. He jumped to his feet when Reb Mendel entered and rushed to take the tray from his hands. Reb Mendel poured his guest a cup of tea and insisted he taste some of the cakes and fruit, especially the almost never seen pineapple they had managed to get for their guests.
“Well, Reb Chaim,” said Reb Mendel after his guest had eaten. “Your delegation’s movements have been the main topic of conversation here in Pulichev for quite some time. I’m sure it is not much different elsewhere. How is your search progressing?”
“With quite a bit of difficulty, Reb Mendel. The people we want are not interested, and the people who are interested we don’t want.”
“I heard you had asked Reb Yom Tov Lippmann-Heller, the Rabbi of Lodmir. Is this true? You couldn’t possibly do better than that.”
“Without going into detail, Reb Mendel, let me just say that he is not available at this time. Still, we are not discouraged. Perhaps in a year or two, if we have not yet filled the position, he might be willing to come to Krakow. Time will tell.”
“What are you doing in the meantime? Have you any other candidates?”
“Not really. But you know that quite often it takes a big city such as Krakow a number of years to find a suitable candidate to fill the position.”
“Is there any way I can be of help to you? I will be only too glad to help you.”
Chaim Tomashov smiled.
“You might consider coming to Krakow as our new Rabbi, Reb Mendel.”
“Why would you want an old man like me? You need someone younger and stronger.”
“Reb Yom Tov Lippmann-Heller is only one year younger than you, Reb Mendel, and he has suffered terribly from the harassment of Emperor Ferdinand II of Austria during much of his life. I don’t think you are less vigorous than he.”
“Reb Chaim!” protested Reb Mendel. “How can you even mention my name in the same breath with Reb Yom Tov Lippmann-Heller?”
Chaim Tomashov shrugged.
“I won’t deny that he is our first choice, but he has not accepted yet. At this point, it is still only a remote possibility. It would not be the worst thing if in the end we had to settle for you, Reb Mendel.”
“Always the merchant, Reb Chaim,” laughed Reb Mendel. “Anyway, you know I would not leave Pulichev for any other position in Poland.”
“I know, Reb Mendel. I hope the people of Pulichev appreciate their good fortune. I did not really expect you to accept, but nonetheless, I had to ask.”
The old man fell into a brooding silence. He stared at the remains of his tea and drummed his fingers on the mahogany table.
“Reb Mendel, we have a serious problem in Krakow,” he said at last.
“What are you saying?” breathed Reb Mendel, alarmed by the grave tones of the old man’s voice.
“What I am about to tell you is not yet common knowledge. I found out about it through my contacts, but hardly anyone else knows about it. Tell me, do you ever see the priest Zbigniew Mzlateslavski?”
Reb Mendel’s eyes filmed over as the images evoked by the unexpected question flashed through his mind. With a visible effort he regained his composure.
“I notice him passing by every once in a while,” he said. “The last few years he’s been away from Pulichev quite a lot. Why do you ask?”
“He’s been spending a lot of time in Krakow lately. It seems he’s become quite friendly with the Cardinal. The Cardinal is a very old man, and he has become very suspicious of those around him. This Mzlateslavski, however, has the Cardinal’s ear and his confidence.”
“Is this cause for concern?”
“Reb Mendel, you know things haven’t been good for the Jews of Poland for a while. There was a time when Christian and Jew lived side by side in Poland in peace and prosperity, a time when Jews enjoyed the enthusiastic favor and protection of the kings. Ah, I have still not forgotten the magnanimous King Stefan Bathory, may his soul find a resting place in Heaven. But that fanatic King Zigismund III gave the Jesuits free rein and brought an altogether different atmosphere to Poland, an atmosphere of intolerance and persecution against the Jews and the Greek Orthodox in the Ukraine. True, his son King Wladislaus IV has drawn the wrath of the Vatican by being more tolerant, especially toward the Greek Orthodox, but he has his hands full fighting the Danes and the Turks and negotiating with the Austrians and the French. The trend towards persecution will not change under him.”
Reb Mendel nodded soberly.
“We have had bad times in Krakow recently,” continued Chaim Tomashov. “The crops have not done well, and the people are suffering.”
“I know, Reb Chaim, but it is only temporary. Things will surely improve.”
“Oh, I have no doubt that they will. But in the meantime there is much tension and unrest in Krakow. The nobles and the clergy are very nervous. And this Mzlateslavski is agitating against the Jews. He’s claiming that the Jews are robbing the Polish people, that we are the cause of their misfortune.”
“But that’s preposterous!”
“The truth is irrelevant. Mzlateslavski is advising the Cardinal to call for the expulsion of the entire Jewish population of the Krakow region.”
Reb Mendel was shocked. “All the Jewish people of Krakow? Expelled? But how can this be? That would be a disaster! Where would they all go?”
“I don’t know.”
“But don’t they realize that they would be harming themselves as well? The economy of the whole region would collapse.”
“Some of them do realize it and are against the move. But others are not as reasonable. They are full of hatred. Mzlateslavski is one of them.”
“Has he convinced the Cardinal?”
“Not yet. The Cardinal is inclined to go along with what Mzlateslavski says, but the others have persuaded him to run a test first.”
“What kind of test?”
“The test will take the form of a debate between the Rabbi of Krakow and a priest of the Cardinal’s choosing. It will take place in early winter. The subject of the debate will be the historic attitude of the Jews toward the gentiles. The Cardinal alone will decide who has won the debate. Zbigniew Mzlateslavski will make the arrangements.”
“How dreadful! There doesn’t seem to be much hope, does there? Not much at all.”
“No, there doesn’t, especially since Krakow has no Rabbi at all. Reb Mendel, will you do the Jews of Krakow the honor of being their representative?”
“Reb Chaim, I am afraid that I am not good enough to accomplish what needs to be done. I have no experience in debating priests. I am not even very familiar with the records of earlier debates. There must be others more suitable to the task than I.”
“Reb Mendel, I have full confidence in you, and besides, no matter who it is will need a miracle from Hashem to convince the Cardinal. Please accept, and if we are deserving of a miracle, Hashem will send it through you.”
Reb Mendel smiled ruefully. “I am afraid this will take a bigger miracle than you think, but since you have put it in that way I will accept.”
“Wonderful, wonderful! Of course, you and the Rebbetzin will be our guests during your stay in Krakow. It will be wonderful having you as guests in my house once again. My wife will be delighted. By the way, this time it will be much calmer in my house. All my children are married and have children of their own.”
“On the contrary, we enjoyed the commotion very much. Maybe you can invite some of your grandchildren when we come. If things had been different I might have had grandchildren of my own by now.”
“Ay, Reb Mendel! My heart aches for you. I have not forgotten those dark days. Who can understand the ways of Hashem?”
“Let us not dwell on the painful past, Reb Chaim. It seems we have quite a painful present to deal with. We have much preparing to do. You must go back to Krakow and try to find other ways to prevent this terrible decree. Leave no stone unturned. And I must begin preparing for the debate. I have much reading and studying to do. I shall stay in Pulichev in the meantime to prepare. We will come to Krakow immediately after Sukkoth. By the way, has the Cardinal chosen the priest whom I will have to debate?”
“Oh, yes! The Cardinal has chosen your opponent. On Mzlateslavski’s recommendation, the Cardinal has chosen Gregor Tal, Bishop of Lubianewicz.”
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