You probably think I am joking, and the relationship between Purim and curtains goes no further than a Purim joke. Well, you are wrong. There was really a Purim of the Curtains, originally called “Purim Vorhang,” and like the first Purim of Shushan and the other local Purims celebrated in different countries, it commemorates the miraculous salvation of a Jewish community from the hands of their enemies.
Purim of the Curtains used to be celebrated in the middle of the winter, on the twenty-second of Tevet, two months before our regular Purim. Its story happened more than 300 years ago in the once-famous large Jewish ghetto of Prague, in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). As far as we know, this is how it originated:
Rudolph of Wenceslav, the governor of Bohemia, was one of those who resented the rise of Jewish fortunes during the reign of Ferdinand II. He considered it a personal affront when a man like the wealthy Jacob Schmieles of the Prague ghetto was knighted and bore the noble title of Bassevi von Treuenberg. But there was little he could do to the Jews of Prague, who in those days counted more than 1,000 people, many of them rich and influential merchants and bankers. For the memory and influence of Chief Rabbi Judah Loew, famous as the Maharal, was still felt among Jews and non-Jews. Thus, despite all efforts, the governor was not able to provoke any riots or pogroms of major proportion. But one day, in the winter of 5383 (1623), providence really seemed to play into his hands.
Among the treasures of his palace were heavy gold brocade curtains, artfully woven by a famous medieval master weaver from Brussels. They were considered invaluable, and the governor was responsible to the crown for them. All through the spring, summer and fall, till the middle of winter, they were stored away so that the sun and dust would not harm their precious texture. December came, and Chamberlain Hradek, next to Rudolph of Wenceslav the mightiest man in all of Bohemia, gave orders to have all the velvet and brocade curtains and the Persian carpet taken out of storage to prepare the palace for the festival season. Everything proceeded in proper order, for each piece of the precious ornaments and furnishings had been carefully recorded and systematically stored away. At the bottom of the list were the famous gold brocade curtains of the state room. As usual, they had been placed in the huge iron chest in the cellar that held the most valuable articles of the palace.
The important day came when Hradek himself went down into the cellar to make sure that the servants treated the precious materials carefully. The heavy iron lid of the chest was opened, and the yellow glow of the candles showed—could it be possible?—nothing but the bare brown wood of the cedar-lined iron chest. Everyone present gasped, and a cry of horror passed from the cellar through the hundreds of halls and rooms of the palace, up to the battlements of the watchtower. Soon the governor himself heard the shocking news of the missing gold curtains. He ordered an immediate investigation. No one was permitted to leave or to enter the palace. Raging like a furious lion, Rudolph of Wenceslav questioned every one of the employees, from the chamberlain down to the lowest cleaning woman—but to no avail. They all staunchly denied any knowledge of, or connection with, the theft of the precious curtains.
“If they are not back here by tonight,” roared the governor at the frightened servants who were gathered in his office, “I’ll have all of you thrown into prison.” There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he really meant it.
After a few minutes of heavy silence—interrupted only by the furious pacing of the governor from one corner of the huge office to the other, and the violent rapping of his riding crop against his boots—the chamberlain suggested that the governor order all of the city’s pawnshops and warehouses searched by his soldiers. “If your honor permits, I’d suggest keeping a special eye on the stores and shops of the Jewish dealers. They have a liking for stolen merchandise,” Hradek added maliciously.
Rudolph of Wenceslav was highly pleased with the advice of his chamberlain, and shortly afterwards, troops of his soldiers combed every store and shop of Prague that might possibly hide the golden curtains. They sealed off the ghetto, and, without telling anyone of the object of their search, they turned every house inside out, in futile search and vengeful destruction.
One troop of soldiers came also to the large house and store of Enoch Altschul, who was one of the patrician leaders of the Prague ghetto, and a scholar as well as a wealthy merchant. Without care or consideration the rough soldiers searched every closet, chest and drawer, and threw their contents all over the floor in wild disorder. Unable to find what they were looking for, they put a pistol to the breast of Enoch Altschul and threatened to shoot him if he did not reveal where he had hidden his most precious merchandise. Rather than risk his life, Enoch Altschul opened the secret vault in the back of his store. Among other precious goods stored in the plain wooden closet behind the wall covering, soldiers came upon a pile of heavy, glittering materials. With a hoarse cry of fury and satisfaction, the soldiers pounced upon the old merchant, beat him and shackled him with heavy iron chains.
The story of the theft and of the search spread like wildfire, and brought out every citizen into the streets of Prague. At the point of their sabers, the soldiers led Enoch Altschul through the silent and shocked crowds of the ghetto, and then through the wildly shouting crowds outside the ghetto. One glance at the open chest with the brocade curtains told the story; and before his guilt had been proven, Enoch Altschul was given the vilest treatment ever accorded any common thief or criminal in public. As the procession left the ghetto, the guards immediately closed the chest, for there was no telling what the wild mob would do.
Governor Rudolph of Wenceslav was still furiously pacing the floor of his office when the soldiers brought in Enoch Altschul. The sight of the recovered curtains soothed his anger, yet he was even more pleased by the sight of the patriarchal Jew led before him in heavy chains. At once he realized that here was the opportunity for which he had been waiting ever since he had been appointed to the governorship, to humiliate the Jewish merchants and courtiers, and to do some looting among the treasure of the ghetto for his own and his people’s pockets. Outwardly, Rudolph of Wenceslav kept up his rage as he shouted all kinds of vile insults at Enoch Altschul.
The old Jew faced him quietly. His inner dignity served only to increase the governor’s rage. But neither by insults nor by vicious slaps with the riding crop was Rudolph of Wenceslav able to make the old Jew betray how he had come into possession of the precious golden curtains from the governor’s palace.
“I gave my word of honor to a most noble member of your court. Unless he himself grants me permission, I am not able to explain the presence of these curtains in my house,” Enoch replied firmly.
“You thief! You have no honor, nor does your word hold any value. You are only trying to save your hide. But never mind! We shall see whether the whip can’t make you talk.”
Torture and flogging were not able to break the will of Enoch Altschul. Towards evening he was again brought, lying on a stretcher, before the governor. “Are you now ready to tell me who gave you the curtains?” the governor shouted at the limp figure. Too weak to answer, the old merchant merely shook his head feebly.
“You have time till tomorrow morning. If you don’t talk by nine o’clock, not only will you and your family hang from the highest tree that can be found in all of Prague, but my people will be given permission to storm the ghetto.”
For the first time since being seized, Enoch Altschul lost his calm. No longer was he staking only his own life on his word of honor. The horrible meaning of the governor’s threat was obvious, and it shook his determination.
All through the night he tossed back and forth on his hard bed in the dark cell of the palace dungeon, his tortured body racked by pain. His was a terrible responsibility. Desperately, Enoch Altschul implored G‑d for help and guidance. Was it more important to keep his oath to the man who had brought him the ill-fated curtains, despite the fact that he had now pretended not to notice him when he saw him carried before the governor? Or was the fate of the community too vital to be risked by his, Enoch’s, code of personal honor? Towards morning he fell into a restless sleep. Suddenly, the cell seemed illuminated. The image of his beloved teacher and friend, the sainted Rabbi Judah Loew, appeared before him and assured him that everything would turn out well in the end. Although he awoke immediately afterwards, Enoch Altschul felt deeply strengthened and encouraged by this dream. All the time until the guards came to take him before the governor, he kept on praying to G‑d for His help. As he soon was to find out, though, he had not been the only one who had been unable to sleep that night, and to whom his master had also appeared in a dream.
Rudolph of Wenceslav was impatiently rapping his riding crop on the top of his desk when Enoch was carried into the state room before the fully assembled court. Despite the tortures of the previous day, the old Jew looked calm and collected. Without a word, the governor signaled to have Enoch carried to the large plaza crowded with hundreds of heavily armed soldiers. About them milled a large crowd of wildly shouting people, all seemingly waiting for something to happen.
“At a signal from this window, they will break into every house of the ghetto,” announced Rudolph of Wenceslav. Yet before Enoch had a chance to speak, Hradek, the haughty chamberlain, threw himself between the governor and the Jewish merchant. His face as white as snow, he called excitedly to the astonished Rudolph:
“Mercy, your honor, mercy, I am the guilty one! Punish me, not this noble old man who thinks he is protecting your own personal honor!”
The governor and the entire court were shocked by the confession of the chamberlain. Incredulously they listened to his tale:
“Several months ago I was in urgent need of 25,000 ducats, which I had lost in a night of heavy gambling. I could not think of any other way to pay this debt than by taking the precious gold brocade curtains from the palace chest and pawning them to the venerable Enoch Altschul, who has helped me in many a tight spot. In order to protect myself, I wrote a note in your name, signed and sealed with your seal. In it, I had you ask for the money, and promised kind treatment for the Jews of Prague if no one found out about this transaction. At the same time, the note threatened that if Enoch betrayed the secret to any person in the world, the entire ghetto would be severely punished. Not satisfied with the note, I had Enoch swear personally by his G‑d and his honor to guard the secret as his life, for the sake of your reputation and political career.
“When you questioned us,” continued Hradek, “I advised you to have all Jewish stores and homes searched, because I knew your soldiers would recover the brocade curtains. I knew that you would not play long with the Jewish merchant in whose possession they were found, and that I could count on Enoch not to break his word of honor under any circumstances. Thus, both you and I would be helped. I almost succeeded. But during this past night I had a terrifying vision. After hours of trying vainly to quiet my guilty conscience, I fell asleep. In my dream, the famous leader of the ghetto whom they called the Chief Rabbi Loew, who died several years ago, appeared to me. He was accompanied by that terrifying monster of clay, the Golem, feared by all the citizens of Prague. No one who dared to accuse an innocent Jew of a crime ever lived to escape the Golem’s crushing fingers. The voice of the old rabbi said quietly: “You had better tell the truth tomorrow!”
“Shaken by fever and fear, I could hardly wait for the dawn of the morning, and for the hour when you had the Jew brought before you, to confess my guilt in public.”
As he spoke, the chamberlain’s hands were constantly fumbling with the collar of his coat at his throat, as if to free himself from someone’s clutches. After he had finished the tale of his shameful deceit, he fainted and slid to the ground before the governor and the members of the gathered court, terror written all over his lifeless face and figure.
Enoch Altschul was at once freed from his chains, and the soldiers dispersed the waiting mob, instead of leading it to attack the ghetto as had been their original purpose.
In commemoration of this miraculous turn of events, Enoch Altschul asked his people to celebrate “Purim of the Curtains” every twenty-second day of Tevet, the date when this incident took place. For more than one hundred years the Altschul family, and with them the entire Jewish community of Prague, observed this celebration faithfully, and commemorated their salvation from the accusation of stealing the famous gold brocade curtains from the palace of the governor of Bohemia.