Pressburg was one of the most important cities in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and its yeshivah was among the largest and most respected in all of Europe.

In the mid-1800s, there lived a wealthy merchant who had a large store in the center of the city. He was well-respected and active in the Jewish community, and also known for his generosity. One charitable custom of his was remarkable. Each day he would count the proceeds of his business, calculate how much was profit, and from that separate 10% for maaser (tithe), which he would deliver daily to the yeshivah.

. . . this outstanding man suddenly took ill and passed away . . .

Tragically, this outstanding man suddenly took ill and passed away at a relatively early age, leaving behind a widow and five young daughters. His wife was a clever and energetic woman who had always helped her husband in the business and knew it well. After his death, she took it over and maintained its prosperity. She was also careful to continue in her late husband’s generous ways, and each day would deliver the maaser from the profits to the rosh yeshivah, the illustrious Ketav Sofer.

Immediately upon her husband’s passing, as she had no sons, she asked the rosh yeshivah to arrange for Torah scholars to say kaddish for her husband for the entire eleven months, and also each successive year on the yahrzeit. She also requested that a second kaddish be said each day, having in mind all those souls who have no one saying kaddish for them.

This went on for nearly ten years. Sometimes the maaser would be as much as hundreds of kroner a day. But however much it was, she would always inquire to make sure that the yeshivah was keeping its side of the bargain.

But then the wheel turned. Instead of daily profits, there began to be losses. Even so, the widow maintained her schedule of appearing daily at the yeshivah, except that she would inform the rosh yeshivah that today, unfortunately, she had nothing to give. Still, she would persist to ask if they were still saying the kaddishes even though she was no longer able to contribute financial support. They would assure her that of course they were, and she should not worry.

Day after day her situation got progressively worse, until finally she had to start selling some of her jewelry and other valuables in order to put food on the table for her daughters. No one was aware of her deteriorating situation, except for the senior students and staff of the yeshivah, who knew that her business was virtually bankrupt.

“Just tell me how much dowry you are willing to provide for each one.”

One day a matchmaker came to her house and, after some pleasantries, said, “My dear lady, your daughters have all matured nicely and grown quite pretty. Perhaps because of your extensive involvement in the business, you haven’t noticed that it is time for them to get married. I am confident that I can find many outstanding yeshivah students that would be interested in them for you to choose from; just tell me how much dowry you are willing to provide for each one.”

She wisely decided not to admit her true situation to him, and instead merely said that she would think it over and then get back to him about his offer. He left, and she burst into tears. Afterwards, she dressed and hurried to the yeshivah. She poured out her misery to the rosh yeshivah. Sobbing, she said, “I just don’t understand why my situation deteriorated so.” Again, she asked if the kaddishes were still being said, and he comforted her that they were.

Suddenly the door opened. A distinguished-looking older man entered, turned to the widow, and asked her why she was crying. He told her that he knew of her desperate situation and that he was prepared to help. He then requested of the rosh yeshivah that they all go into his office, and that two scholars of the yeshivah join them. The rosh yeshivah acceded, and summoned two of his five great disciples present that year: his son, Rabbi Shimon Sofer, and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.

When they were all assembled, the mysterious guest said, “I know you have five daughters of marriageable age. Let’s figure. Each one needs a thousand kroner for dowry money, and another thousand kroner each for the expenses of the wedding and for buying furniture and setting up a household. So, that is two thousand for each of the five, or ten thousand altogether. Plus, to put your business back on its feet, you need another ten thousand kroner, so that makes twenty thousand altogether.

“All right, then,” he said, “I’ll write you a check.” Whereupon he took a checkbook out of his pocket, tore off a check, wrote the woman’s name on it, inscribed it for twenty thousand kroner and signed it! Before handing it to her, however, he asked the two young scholars to sign on the back as witnesses to the transaction. He also asked them to take out their personal notebooks so he could sign in each a sample of his signature, in case the signature on the check would be challenged. Turning back to the woman, he told her that she should present the check at the government bank when it opened at nine o’clock, and they would honor it. Then he left as suddenly as he had come.

All present were shocked still in disbelief. It was as if they were sharing a dream. Then one of the young rabbis jumped up. “A man like that could really help the yeshivah,” he said excitedly. “Let’s go ask him.” The two ran out and searched, but they couldn’t find him or anyone who had seen him.

At nine the next morning, the widow was at the bank. The guard at the door directed her to one of the tellers, to whom she showed the check. He looked up the records and told her there was sufficient funds in the account to cover the check, but for such a huge sum he has to first get permission from the manager. He asked her to wait, and went to the administrative section. There he presented the check to the head of the bank, who took one look at it and fainted!

The doctor that was summoned quickly revived the bank manager.

Pandemonium broke loose. People were running this way and that. The police came, and after questioning a few employees, confined the astonished businesswoman in a security room and locked the door, pending further investigation.

The doctor that was summoned quickly revived the bank manager. As soon as he gained consciousness, the manager asked that the woman who had brought the check be shown in to him. When told she had been locked up by security, he said that he must go to her; a great mistake had been made, to lock up such a righteous woman. He went quickly and, after apologizing, invited her to accompany her into his office.

“Tell me, please,” he opened, after they were seated, “how did you get this check?”

She told him of her difficulties and the sudden appearance of her unknown benefactor. She explained about her deceased husband and his practice of daily maaser, and of the kaddishes she had arranged through the yeshivah for him and for those souls who had no one to say kaddish for them.

He asked her: if she would see her benefactor again, or his picture, would she recognize him? She said yes. She added that two rabbis from the yeshivah were official witnesses to the whole episode, and that their signatures are on the back of the check, and that the man had also signed in their personal notebooks. The manager was excited to hear this, and after looking at their signatures, contacted the yeshivah to ask that Rabbi Sonnenfeld and Rabbi Shimon Sofer come to his office.

They came and confirmed all that the woman had said. The bank manager then told the three of them that he would personally honor the check, as it was drawn on his own family account, but that his wife had to endorse it too. He then sent for his wife with the message that she should come quickly, because people were waiting for her, but first she should collect all the family photographs in the house and bring them with her.

Although the bank manager was a Jew, his wife was not. When she arrived, he asked the widow and the two rabbis to wait in a different room. He told his wife what was going on, and said, “Let’s see if the woman can identify the man who signed the check from among these photographs.” She declared that if it all turned out to be true, she would convert to be Jewish.

The manager then spread out all of the photos on his desk. He asked each of the three to enter separately and see if the man who gave the check appeared in any of them. Each one confidently picked out the same person.

The bank manager called everyone in. “Do you know who is this man who gave the check?” he asked. “It is my father, the manager of the bank before me. But he has been dead for ten years!

“I must confess,” he told them, “that I never said kaddish for him. Last night he appeared to me in a dream. He said that he had been saved from Gehinnom by the kaddishes that she had arranged for the yeshivah scholars to say for those souls for whom kaddish was not being said, and now that she was in difficulty we must help her. He said that he would give her a check for twenty thousand kroner, and that if I didn’t pay it, he would strangle me in my sleep.

When the check was shown to me at the bank, I fainted.

“I woke up, frightened. In the morning I told my wife the dream, and she was disturbed too. When the check was shown to me at the bank, I fainted. I knew then that the dream was true.

“I will pay the twenty thousand my father promised, for it is certainly a deserving cause. Not only that,” he added, turning to the woman, “I will add another twenty thousand of my own, because you fulfilled my obligation for me, and helped my deceased father’s soul with the kaddish-saying you arranged.”

He addressed the three of them again. “I fully regret my lapse from Judaism. I see now that our G‑d is the one true G‑d, and He gives to all their just reward. I resolve that from now on I will fulfill His commandments as revealed in our Torah. My wife, too, has reaffirmed her promise to convert and to live in accordance with Jewish law. Please guide us to understand what we have to do.”

He instructed the teller to give the woman forty thousand kroner. The first thing she did was to give ten percent of it to the yeshivah. Soon thereafter, her business waxed prosperous again, and her five daughters made good marriages with G‑d-fearing young Torah scholars.

Connection to the weekly Torah reading: the five orphaned daughters of Tzelafchad.

Translated and retold from Otzar Hamaasiyos, vol. 1, pp. 42–47, in the name of Rabbi Y. Shapira, who heard it from Rabbi Sonnenfeld himself.
In honor of the yahrzeit of my mother, Ella bas Sarah-Yehudis & Eliyahu HaLevi

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Biographical notes:
Rabbi Avraham Binyamin Schreiber (1815–1875), known as the Ketav Sofer after the title of his halachic responsa, was the son of the illustrious Torah giant the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Schreiber (1762–1839), and his successor as the head of the Pressburg yeshivah, the most prestigious in the Austro-Hungarian empire and the largest in all of Europe.
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (1848–1932), the one from whom we know this story, studied at the Pressburg yeshivah from 1865 to 1869. He was a major Torah sage of the Ashkenazi community in the Old City of Jerusalem for nearly sixty years, and its official leader after the death of Rabbi Shmuel Salant in 1909.

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