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The Hidden Tract, The Grave, and the Tree

The Hidden Tract, The Grave, and the Tree

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In the old cemetery in Cracow, right near the burial place of Rabbi Moshe Isserles, stood a great tree. Its large branches seemed to have borne the weight of centuries, and were laden with the heaviness of time.

Come listen, and I will tell you the story of that tree, as it was told on Lag BaOmer, the day when Rabbi Moshe, known by all as the Ramah, passed away in the year 1572 (5332).


Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher was a great Talmudist who flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries. His most lasting contribution to Jewish life may have been his book Arba Turim (Four Towers), an encompassing compendium of Jewish law and tradition as applied to all areas of life in his day.

As the centuries wore on, more questions were asked and more answers were provided. Circumstances continued to evolve, and scholars dug yet deeper into the well of Torah.

Two great scholars took it upon themselves to compose commentaries on the Arba Turim. In Poland, Rabbi Moshe Isserles wrote a commentary known as the Darkei Moshe (Ways of Moses). Faraway in the mystical city of Tzfat, nestled in the hills of northern Israel, Rabbi Yosef Karo wrote a commentary, which he named the Beit Yosef (House of Joseph).

The commentaries were well-received, but Rabbi Moshe felt there was room to do even more. The time had come for a new work, a text that would provide guidance for Jewish people all over, encompassing the works of Rabbi Yaakov, but incorporating other voices and traditions as well, all in a concise and clear manner, eliminating the meandering conversation that sometimes obscured the Arba Turim and its commentaries.

Without fanfare, Rabbi Moshe set to work on the monumental text.

One day, after the work had neared completion, he received a prized visitor: a messenger of the Jewish community in the Holy Land.

In those days, there was precious little industry in Israel, and the Jews there relied on their brethren in the diaspora for crucial financial support.

Only the most special individuals were entrusted with the task of raising funds. The roads and waterways were fraught with danger, and the traveler needed to be resourceful and hardy. In addition, as a representative of the residents of the holiest place on earth, he needed to be learned and pious, a stellar example for all. And last but not least, he needed to be trustworthy and honest.

As soon as Rabbi Moshe learned of his guest, he called for a sumptuous feast to be prepared for him, and the two men soon found themselves deep in Torah discussions.

“Since you have set out such a fine table for me,” said the visitor after the meal was concluded, “I wish to leave you with a ‘set table’ as well. Here is a set of Shulchan Aruch (literally “Set Table”), which was recently completed by Rabbi Yosef Karo.”

Rabbi Moshe eagerly perused the books. He could hardly contain his emotions as he realized that his peer from the Holy Land had done almost exactly what he had set out to do, creating a terse and easily applicable code of Jewish law.

He spent the entire night poring over the work. By morning he concluded that although it was similar to his work, there were many critical differences. While Rabbi Yosef relied chiefly on the great Sephardic decisors of previous generations, he did not cite the more recent rulings, particularly those of the leaders of Ashkenazic Jewry.

What was he to do? Should he publish his work, competing directly with the already-published treatise by the sage from Tzfat? That would not do. No, he would need to hide his work, ensuring that it would never see the light of day.

The following night, after the town was asleep, Rabbi Moshe crept out of his house and made his way to the Jewish cemetery, which was not far away. There, under a tree, he buried his manuscript, and stole back to bed.

No one knew of his noble deed, except for the caretaker of the cemetery, who had seen the rabbi bury the manuscript.

Rabbi Moshe then began a new task, writing glosses that would accompany the Shulchan Aruch, allowing all of Israel to study a single, unified code, which he called the Mappah (Tablecloth). The Sephardim could rely on the words of the original author, and Ashkenazim could study the glosses that Rabbi Moshe artfully inserted.

Years later, the same visitor from the Holy Land once again visited Cracow. This time, Rabbi Moshe joyously presented him with his latest work.

“Please take this back with you to Tzfat and present it to Rabbi Yosef Karo,” he asked the guest. “Tell him that the tablecloth had been prepared before the table, but it was then tailored to fit after the table had been crafted.”

When the unified work made its way to the holy city of Tzfat, Rabbi Yosef Karo, who was then elderly, was pleased by what had been done. Full of gratitude to his humble, junior peer in farway Poland, he purchased 100 dinars worth of parchment and wrote a Torah scroll to be given as a gift to Rabbi Moshe.


Meanwhile, the tree under which the manuscript was buried continued to grow. Its strong arms spread in all directions, and it produced lush leaves year after year.

Before he passed away, Rabbi Moshe asked that he be buried under the tree’s ample branches. And so it was.

Years passed, and the tree grew ever bigger, and closer to the grave. One year, on Lag BaOmer, when thousands of pilgrims would stream to the resting place of Rabbi Moshe, the shoving got so bad, that there was talk of uprooting the tree to create more room for visitors.

Despite the caretaker’s objections, the men arrived with their tools and were about to set to work. Suddenly, a great storm began brewing, and the men felt themselves being blown in all directions. It was then clear to all that the tree was special, and no one dared touch it again.

Years turned into centuries, and the Nazis swept into Poland, bringing destruction and devastation in their wake. In the ancient Jewish cemetery of Cracow, the Nazis tore down the walls and hauled away tombstones to be used as paving stones.

The tombstone of the Rabbi Moshe was one of the few that remained undisturbed. It’s said that the tree’s boughs bent down to shelter the tomb from the Nazis and their henchmen.

When the city’s few, broken survivors returned home from the camps, they made their way to the desolate cemetery, and there they were greeted by a lone tombstone, that of Rabbi Moshe Isserles, sheltered by the tree that had borne witness to the rabbi’s magnanimity and sacrifice.

Adapted from Sichat Hashavuah.

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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Melissa Fort Kent May 16, 2017

I love this story. I'm not sure yet what I have learned, but I feel so uplifted. Thank you, R Posner! Reply

Izzy Melbourne May 14, 2017

Wow, beautiful. I'm assuming that the tree is still there!(?) Reply

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