It was Passover eve of 1910. In the town of Lubavitch, every Jewish home was freshly scrubbed. The tables were bedecked with threadbare but meticulously cleaned white linen, surrounded by families about to begin their Seder celebrations.

But before Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn could begin his own Seder, he first took a detour to visit the yeshivah, Tomchei Temimim, where he served as dean. (He would later become the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe.)

There, he was pleased to find the large study hall lit upEvery Jewish home was freshly scrubbed with a sea of candles. Dozens of tables filled the room. Each table had eleven settings, for ten younger students and one senior student, who would serve as a memuneh, the overseer and guide who would take the place of their fathers, many of whom were hundreds of miles away.

Each student’s place was set with a kaarah, a ceremonial tray holding bitter herbs, a bone, an egg, a bit of vegetable and the special sweet mixture known as charoset, all arrayed on a kerchief that covered three hand-baked matzahs.

Two of the matzahs were made from flour that had been zealously guarded against contact with water from the time of the grinding. The third matzah—the one to be used for the very first bite of matzah over which the special blessing is said—was made from wheat that had been under close watch from the time of harvest. Both types were considered shmurah matzah, guarded from water, but the difficulty involved in watching the wheat from the time of harvest made the second kind prohibitively expensive and a highly prized commodity.

While all Passover matzahs are made from only flour and water, the two kinds of matzah were made from different grades of grain and were easily distinguishable.

As the Rebbe strode through the hall, he took his time delighting over the students’ shining faces, the meticulously prepared settings, the care that had been put into ensuring that every speck of leaven had been cleaned from the premises, and the festive atmosphere that filled the room.

Suddenly, he stopped.

Turning to one of the tables, he lifted the kerchief covering the matzahs of the memunah, a 16-year-old boy named Yochanan Gordon. Lo and behold, he discovered three coveted shmurah matzahs, guarded from the moment of harvest, instead of just one.

“Hay lach minayin?” demanded the Rebbe, using a Talmudic expression that literally translates as “From where do you have this?”

Yochanan managed to mutter, “A memuneh git zich an eitzah,” “A memunah figures things out.”

“For this,” the Rebbe replied, “you’ll go without midday meal tomorrow.”

The following day after prayers, Yochanan steered clear of the dining hall. He knew that there was no food for him there, and besides, he was in no mood to socialize.

Instead, he chose to still his hunger pains by walking along the river, which ran through the town and served as the local mikvah, swimming pool and laundromat.

In this old map of the village of Lubavitch (by Rabbi Zalman Shimon Dvorkin and Hendel Lieberman), the river (in blue) and the yeshivah (in red) are seen to be quite close to each other.
In this old map of the village of Lubavitch (by Rabbi Zalman Shimon Dvorkin and Hendel Lieberman), the river (in blue) and the yeshivah (in red) are seen to be quite close to each other.

As he strolled along, he suddenly heard his name being called out.

Turning around, he saw his friends, Shlomo Chaim Kesselman and Peretz Mochkin, running along the riverbank.

“Yochanan!” they called. “Here you are! We’ve been looking everywhere. The dean knew you’d have no place to eat today and sent us to find you. He wants you to join him at home for the holiday meal.”

He suddenly heard his name being called out

By the time Yochanan arrived, the meal had already been finished. But he gained something more than a full belly. He learned that Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak truly cared about each and every student; even those who were punished deserved a warm holiday meal.

Nowadays, when it is relatively easy to obtain shmurah matzah made with flour that has been watched since the time of harvest, it is preferable to do so for the Seder. (See Shulchan Aruch HaRav 453:19.)