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The Holy Silver Thief

The Holy Silver Thief

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When Rabbi Nathan Schapiro was still young, before his name as a master of the Talmud and Kabbalah spread far and wide, he quietly devoted his life to asceticism, Torah study, prayer and contemplation.

The only one to know the full extent of his rich inner world was his wife, Roza, whom he cautioned never to reveal what she saw and heard.

It once happened that Roza, the daughter of one of Krakow’s most generous and upstanding men, slipped and told her sisters about her husband’s nightly regimen, which included a tearful rendition of Tikkun Chatzot, the midnight prayer for the arrival of Moshiach. “Do you know,” she said with pride, “that my husband prays and cries every night with such devotion that the angels themselves come to listen? He even warned me to make sure that the door to his room is carefully locked every night, for if someone were to see him in the midst of his devotions, that person would be in grave danger.”

The sisters shared the juicy tidbit about their “eccentric” brother-in-law with their husbands, who listened with a mixture of interest and disdain.

The following night, the brothers-in-law decided to see for themselves what the fuss was all about. During the time that Rabbi Nathan went down to the river for his nightly ritual immersion, the young men crept into his room and hid under the bed.

Rabbi Nathan returned from the river and unsuspectingly went about his usual lofty pursuits. After sitting on the floor and crying bitter tears over the long and painful exile, he sat down at the table to study Torah for the remainder of the night.

It was only the next morning that the tragedy was discovered. The two brothers-in-law were found under Rabbi Nathan’s bed, lifeless.

The entire family was plunged into deep sadness, and none were more sad than Rabbi Nathan, who considered himself guilty of unintentional manslaughter, for which the biblical punishment was exile.

Rabbi Nathan swore his wife to secrecy and then set out on a protracted journey from town to town. He refused to accept food or accommodations, instead subsisting on the meager provisions he carried on his back and sleeping in the local hekdesh (charity guest house) among other indigent travelers. When people asked the noble-looking stranger what his name was and where he was from, he just smiled sadly and said nothing.

Meanwhile, back home, his father-in-law’s grief knew no bounds. His two sons-in-law had passed away in one night, and the third one disappeared without a trace. Yet, as much as he grilled his daughter about the whereabouts of her husband, the young woman remained tight-lipped.

At a loss, he wrote letters to rabbis and communal leaders in the surrounding cities and towns, describing his son-in-law’s appearance and begging them to please relay any information they may have.

In the meantime, Rabbi Nathan continued to travel from town to town, eventually arriving in the large community of Lublin to the northeast of Krakow.

It was the night before Sukkot, the holiday when every Jew makes a point to eat in the sukkah and recite the blessings over the Four Kinds in the morning. Eager to fulfill these mitzvahs, Rabbi Nathan made an exception and accepted the offer of an upstanding citizen of Lublin, who kindly invited him to spend the holiday in his home.

After the evening prayers, Rabbi Nathan followed his host into the sukkah. According to tradition, every sukkah is visited by seven guests: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and King David. Temporarily forgetting himself, Rabbi Nathan joyfully called out, “Come in supernal guests, come in!”

His host heard and immediately sensed that his guest was no simple vagabond. Rabbi Nathan remembered himself and quickly resumed the silence that had become second nature to him. Even though he refused his host’s entreaties to share Torah thoughts or lead the singing, his refined comportment and modest table manners reinforced his host’s suspicion that he was a great Torah scholar.

When the meal ended, Rabbi Nathan asked his host to allow him to remain in the sukkah. Full of admiration, the host agreed, and did not even bother removing the silver serving dishes that were still on the table.

As soon as he was alone, Rabbi Nathan took a small Kabbalah book out of his pocket and was deeply engrossed in his learning. He was so absorbed in his study that he did not even hear a thief enter the sukkah and deftly remove all the valuable utensils from the table.

The host returned some time later and saw a table bereft of utensils and the stranger with his nose in a book.

“You cannot fool me!” he shouted at the surprised Rabbi Nathan. “You stole the silver, and now you cloak yourself in piety and pretend to be studying Kabbalah. Fess up and tell me where you put the dishes.”

Yet, as much as he was cajoled, threatened and begged, Rabbi Nathan had no idea where the silver was, and was certainly not about to admit to having stolen it.

Rabbi Nathan was then unceremoniously locked up in the town hekdesh, where he was told he would remain until he confessed his crime.

Rabbi Nathan was not concerned for his honor or about the discomfort of his confinement. His sole concern was how he would be able to fulfill the next morning’s mitzvah to make a blessing over the Four Kinds. He therefore stuck his head out of the small window of the hekdesh and begged passers-by to please bring him a lulav and etrog so that he could do the mitzvah.

Word spread, and even the rabbi of the town heard about the strange thief who shamelessly stole silver and studied Kabbalah and boldly asked that a lulav and etrog be brought to him.

Curious, he made his way to the hekdesh to observe the stranger, whom he immediately recognized as the runaway son-in-law described in the letter he had received from Krakow.

“Come with me,” he said, taking the young man with him to his private study. “The game is up. I know who you are. You’re the brilliant young man who ran away from Krakow. Your father-in-law is beside himself with grief. You must go home.”

Left with no choice, Rabbi Nathan admitted that the rabbi was right and told him of the chain of events that led him to leave home and take up the wanderer’s stick. The rabbi then left the study and assured his congregation that Rabbi Nathan was in no way a thief.

Later, Rabbi Nathan told the rabbi that he saw the fact that his identity was discovered in such a shameful way as a sign from above that his penance was accepted, and that he was now ready to return home to his wife and family.

Profoundly impressed by his young acquaintance, the rabbi decided to accompany Rabbi Nathan back to Krakow.

On the way, they heard the news. The elderly rabbi of Krakow had passed away, and the city was looking for a new leader. The rabbi of Lublin suggested Rabbi Nathan as a most fitting candidate.

And so it was, at the age of 30, Rabbi Nathan Schapiro, who would one day be known far and wide as the author of the Megaleh Amukot, became the rabbi of the venerable city of Krakow.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Rishe Brooklyn October 14, 2016

oy, vey!
Rabbi Posner, this story is so awful. A young wife speaks when told not to. The result is two young men are torn from their families, leaving behind widows and orphans! I can't enjoy the "happy ending" knowing what happened in the beginning was something that didn't just go away. The real lesson here (to me) is to keep private things that should be kept private. Loose lips sink ships. Reply

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