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A Purim Secret

A Purim Secret


Nissan was a wealthy man who lived in Yargin, a small town near Pressburg, the capital city of Slovakia. When younger, he had been a student at the famous Pressburg yeshivah. He and his wife were already married for many years, but still had not been blessed with children. When, finally, a son was born to him in 5583 (1823), it was no surprise that he honored his former teacher, the world-renowned scholar known as the Chatam Sofer, to perform the circumcision. Unfortunately, the brit had to be postponed because of the weak health of the baby. It wasn’t till several weeks later that it was announced that it would take place on . . . Purim!

At the brit, the Chatam Sofer was glowing with “light, happiness, joy and honor.” Whether it was the joy of Purim, happiness for his student, or a combination of both, nobody knew. After completing the circumcision, when he dipped his finger in the wine to place a drop in the baby’s mouth (following custom), he raised his voice and called out very loudly the Talmudic expression, Nichnas yayin, yatza sod—“When wine goes in, secrets come out.”

The baby was given an appropriate name for a Purim brit: Baruch Mordechai, which means “blessed be Mordechai,” from the paragraph recited after the megillah readings.

The child grew. At an early age, he was already outstanding in character and religious observance. However, much to the distress of his parents, his ability to understand Torah was not at par. As a boy, he didn’t seem any different than his age-mates; but after his bar mitzvah, when he entered the famous Pressburg yeshivah, it was noticeable that he was having major difficulties in his studies.

In truth, he was very diligent. He would sit absorbed in the holy books from morning to evening. But whenever he was asked to repeat or explain anything, he was unable to respond, and could only sit silently.

His less-sensitive classmates liked to make fun of him because of this. Once, when he left his place for a few minutes, they switched his volume of Talmud for one of another subject entirely, leaving it open to the same number page he had been on. When he resumed his seat, he didn’t seem to notice the difference at all.

When Baruch Mordechai turned eighteen, the Chatam Sofer’s son, known as the Ketav Sofer (who had succeeded his recently departed father as the head of the yeshivah) advised Baruch Mordechai’s parents to send him to the Land of Israel. Perhaps there, where “the air of the Holy Land makes wise,” his studies would prosper.

His parents decided to do it. They hoped it would also enable him to make a good match.

Baruch Mordechai arrived in Jerusalem with a letter of recommendation from Rabbi Shraga Feldheim, mashgiach (study supervisor) at Pressburg, which said that he “is truly pious, prays with great devotion, and that his desire to learn Torah is sincere and enormous.”

One of the scholarly leaders of the Jerusalem community then, Rabbi Yeshaya Bardaki, “adopted” Baruch Mordechai, concerning himself with all of his needs. He was impressed with the young man’s sterling character and piousness, but he could not fathom how someone who had done nothing but study Torah diligently all his life could have retained so little.

When Baruch Mordechai reached age twenty, Rabbi Bardaki found a bride for him: a simple girl from a good family in Jerusalem who wouldn’t mind that her husband was an ignoramus.

Several years after the wedding, Baruch Mordechai began to work as a water-carrier. He was honest to a fault, and as a result quickly became very popular. Every Rosh Chodesh (first of the month), he would deliver water to his regular customers for free; he worried that over the course of the previous month water might have spilled, whereas he had charged for full buckets.

For more than forty years Baruch Mordechai toiled at his chosen profession, the whole time in joyous spirit and with gratitude to G‑d for his lot. He took special satisfaction from serving the many Torah scholars within the walls of Jerusalem; he considered this a great merit, and refused to accept payment from them. It anguished him that the great scholar Rabbi Yehudah Leib Diskin refused to take water from him. “I cannot allow myself to be served by the likes of Reb Baruch Mordechai,” he would say—but refused to explain his words.

On Purim 5653 (1893), at the time of the festive meal, most of the chassidim and notables of Old City Jerusalem crowded, like every year, into the home of Rabbi Schneur Zalman Fradkin of Lublin, the celebrated author of the scholarly book Torat Chesed. The atmosphere was exceptionally joyous, even for a Purim celebration. Everyone was constantly erupting into lively song and dance, and there was a complementary flow of wine and wise words.

All of a sudden, Baruch Mordechai called out to the host in a loud voice from the midst of the swaying chassidim, “Rebbe! Today is seventy years exactly since my brit.”

Everyone smiled tolerantly, figuring that such an outburst from the simple water-carrier could only be a result of all the Purim wine he had imbibed.

“If so,” responded Rabbi Schneur Zalman, “you deserve an extra-large measure of l’chaim.”

Immediately a large tumbler of a special strong wine was poured and passed to Baruch Mordechai, who speedily dispatched it as commanded.

It had an immediate effect. The elderly water-carrier began to sing and dance energetically.

The sage’s reaction was surprising. He looked up at Baruch Mordechai and shouted over the crowd: “It would be nice if you would stop fooling around already, and honor the holy assemblage with some strong words of halachah and aggadah (Torah law and lore).”

Suddenly there was silence. Everyone’s gaze shifted in amused anticipation to the tipsy Baruch Mordechai, as he climbed up to stand on the table and began to speak.

But then, all the grins slowly gave way to wide-eyed stares of astonishment as it penetrated their ears that the water-carrier was discoursing enthusiastically on scholarly Purim topics, and peppering his words with learned citations from the Talmudic tractate Megillah and a variety of midrashim and works of Jewish law. And he waxed on and on! Indeed, if the strong wine hadn’t finally taken its toll, it seemed that he could have continued indefinitely.

Even before the holiday was over, the news of the extraordinary scholarship of the unassuming water-carrier had spread throughout Jerusalem. The community was in an uproar. How had they allowed such an accomplished scholar to be disdained in their midst, and to labor as a mere water-carrier for so many years? And how had his erudition remained hidden for so long?

A few of the elders of the community recalled hearing of the mysterious words of the Chatam Sofer seventy years before. Now, some clever minds were saying, they could finally be understood.

Nichnas yayin, yatza sod—“Wine enters, secrets emerge.” Yayin (wine), spelled yud-yud-nun, has a numerical value of seventy, and so does samech-vov-dalet, the Hebrew word for “secret”!

Biographical note:
The Torah giant Rabbi Moshe Schreiber [1762–1839] was known as the Chatam Sofer, after the title of his volumes of responsa which have been highly significant in the modern development of Jewish law and thought.

Translated-adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the Hebrew weekly Sichat HaShavua. Rabbi Tilles is co-founder of Ascent of Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the Ascent and Kabbalah Online websites.
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Rabbi Danny Bergson PINNER March 10, 2016

Rabbi Shneir Zalman Fradkin is my great great great grandfather
so many amazing stories involving him
so pleased I found yet another ! Reply

Chani Lebel Brooklyn October 23, 2014

I have this article as a tape, by the way I am nine years old. I think it's an amazing story. Reply

Anonymous WC February 22, 2013

Purim Secret I listened to a speaker who deemed Purim the most important holiday, more important than Yom Kippur. He noted that Yom Kip pur had Pur-im in it, and made the argument that we wear masks and it has something to do with Hashem's hidden nearness to us. I always treat Chanukah as the most important because without the victory of the Macabees Judaism would have been wiped out. Hopefully everybody has their own most important. It all counts as Torah learning. This year via i am learning a bit about hiddenness. I am in no rush but it is on my radar.

To get back to the speaker i was listening to, his lecture could have been titled ' Purim's Secret because it surprised me that here is a learned person who doesn't follow the Yom Kippur first and foremost among significance. He did not mention it since he was into the hidden theme, but in my mind Purim is as important as Chanukah because once again, our survival hung in the balance. Same can be said of the Exodus from Egypt. All good. Reply

Anonymous Mesa, Arizona February 20, 2013

Heavenly City The story is from the set of books " the Heavenly City" Reply

Anonymous WC February 18, 2013

Schvach three things 1. You sound like a Rabbi

2. The Rabbi I described may have that title, but he is best off teaching people who want to get back to some degree to their Jewish heritage.

3. I am not sure that you understood my simplistic story. Why would quote the Rabbi. He was incorrect what he was teaching. He needed to be corrected not quoted.

Schvach February 17, 2013

Simplistic story Anonymous WC: Pirkei Avot states that he who quotes a rabbi in his name (ie, gives credit where it's due) brings peace to the world. Reply

Sara Menashe Dallas, TX May 1, 2012

Hebrew text of this story? Is it possible to find the Hebrew text of this story somewhere? I want to share it with some people who will understand it better in Hebrew than English.

Thanks so much for such an uplifting story!

We never know exactly the neshama of a person...we only sometimes can get a tiny glimpse! B"H! Reply

Anonymous WC February 26, 2010

great story Hi Rabbi- Apart from the great story, i was caught by your askance about a translation that was yours. It is human nature on a personal level to want recognition if one's work is being used.During a lesson, i once corrected a rabbi on a simple point he answered incorrectly. The next session he used my answer without mentioning anything about my teaching it to him. On this evening i seethed. I would not participate in the evening's lesson. At the end the rabbi asked me by way of challenge if i wanted to lead the next week's lesson. I said yes. He was dumbfounded. That whole week the rabbi was very nervous and tried to get me to change my mind. I would have none of it. I told him that i had prepared the lesson, and was most certainly going to deliver. And deliver i did and received compliments on it. The evening went on very long and the discussions were very animated.
I stopped learning with this rabbi. I consider him too unrefined. Reply

Yerachmiel Tilles Tsfat, Israel March 12, 2009

Olomeinu Probably it was a different rendition.
If they used my translation, I'd like to know about it! Reply

chanie March 10, 2009

Olomeinu This was on the back cover of the Olomeinu years ago, I think. (If not the back cover, it was one of the feature stories...) Reply

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