The Ketav Sofer, Rabbi Avraham Binyamin Schreiber, was elated. So much of his time and energy in recent years had been involved in the fight to protect the traditional way of life, and now the government decision was finally official: the right of the religious community to their own educational system was now ensconced in law.

Feeling boundless joy and relief, he decided to sponsor an enormous celebration of thanksgiving, to which he invited the leading rabbis, Torah scholars and community leaders of Austria-Hungary, all those who had shared in the struggle and would benefit from the new law.

Perhaps there had never been a comparable gathering in Pressburg throughout its glorious history as a great center of Jewish scholarship. The evening was filled with new and exciting Torah interpretations, as one distinguished rabbi after another offered his presentation. Hours passed unnoticed. The food and drink were secondary, barely registering in the lofty consciousness of this rarefied assembly.

The exhilaration heightened when the Ketav Sofer rose from his seat and began to speak excitedly. Without preamble he announced that, in honor of the occasion, he wished to share something unique and thrilling with all those present; not only was it something they had never seen before, it was something they had never even imagined they would see.

With all eyes and ears continuing to focus upon him, he took out his wallet and withdrew from it a small object wrapped in silk. When he carefully removed the cover, they could see it was a small, ancient silver coin.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “my elders, my mentors, my peers. You are looking at a genuine machatzit hashekel [half-shekel coin], such as was donated to the Holy Temple two thousand years ago for the various holy purposes that all of you know well (as per Ex. 30:11–16, 38:25-28; Mishnah, tractate Shekalim; et al). I inherited it from my holy father, of blessed memory; it has been a prized secret possession in our family for many generations. I don’t think there is another one in the world today. I never thought to display it publicly until this evening.”

The listeners all stared in amazement. An actual silver half-shekel from Temple times! Everyone wanted to touch it, feel it, examine it closely. The coin passed from hand to hand. Spirited discussions erupted throughout the room as to its weight, its shape, and the manner of its use. Voices rose louder and louder.

. . . The coin had disappeared!

A soft voice penetrated the din of scholarly argument. A rabbi who had yet to see the coin up close inquired as to its whereabouts. No one could answer him. The coin had disappeared!

Everyone began searching frantically. They felt all over the floor, and probed under whatever food and utensils remained on the table. The priceless coin, the artifact of inestimable value, was nowhere to be found.

Silence descended upon the crowded room. All eyes turned to their illustrious host. The Ketav Sofer was visibly upset, his face white as frost, at the loss of the unique coin which had been treasured in his family for so many generations.

He stood at his place. Casting his eyes around the room, he addressed them again. “Gentlemen, G‑d forbid to think that I suspect any of the honorable people in this room of transgressing an explicit commandment of the Torah. However, we were all so engrossed in analyzing the half-shekel and its significance; it could be that by mistake someone got it mixed up with a current coin of his own, and slipped it into his pocket by mistake. We have no choice; with all due respect, I must ask everyone to empty their pockets, wallets and change purses, so that we can determine if such an accident has taken place.”

Everyone quickly agreed. They well understood the delicacy of the situation. But then a voice was heard from the side of the room. It was one of the oldest, most respected Torah scholars present, who had been an important rabbinical leader in Hungary for over forty years. “I oppose such a search,” he called out. “Better to wait a quarter-hour or so, and perhaps in that time the coin will turn up.”

The Ketav Sofer had great respect for the venerable sage. He agreed to his suggestion. The quarter-hour passed, with noticeable tension, but without a trace of the coin.

“All right,” said the Ketav Sofer, “let’s empty our pockets in front of each other, as we already agreed.”

To everyone’s surprise, the elderly rabbi again objected, and requested another fifteen-minute delay. The Ketav Sofer agreed, so again everyone sat impatiently, waiting for the second quarter-hour to pass. The tension increased, became palpable. Several of the guests stared bitterly at the old rabbi who had caused the delay, suspecting that he had indeed pocketed the coin and had asked for extra time in order to come up with a way to return it without being detected.

At last the time was up. As before, there was no sign of the coin. The Ketav Sofer rose again. Sorrow and impatience could be heard in his voice. “Gentlemen, I have the greatest respect for our venerable, illustrious colleague. But we cannot postpone it anymore. The search must begin.”

Even though they were half-expecting it, everyone was nevertheless astonished when the elderly sage once again stood up to halt the process. This time his voice shook and tears streamed down his cheeks as he addressed the Ketav Sofer. “Please, rebbe, remember the great love of your father of blessed memory and me for each other, and let us wait another fifteen minutes. If the coin hasn’t been found by then, I agree that we shall do however you see fit.”

The Ketav Sofer hesitated briefly, then nodded his head in acquiescence. The tension in the room heightened again. The old rabbi stood in a corner of the room, his lips moving rapidly in silent prayer. The Ketav Sofer sat at the other end, his face extremely pale and etched with worry. It appeared that he might soon faint. The guests nervously awaited the next turn of events. Many expected that the old rabbi would confess to the theft.

Suddenly, all eyes turned toward the door. Running steps could be heard in the vestibule leading to the great hall where they now sat. The door burst open, and the attendant of the Ketav Sofer charged in. “Good news!” he cried out. “The coin has been found.”

The emotional crowd stormed toward the attendant. Each one wanted to verify the half-shekel’s presence with his own eyes. The thick tension dissolved instantaneously. Instead, voices loudly proclaimed, “Thank G‑d,” Baruch Hashem,” and so forth. Above all the noise could be heard the ringing voice of the Ketav Sofer, demanding of his attendant that he relate to everyone how he had found the precious coin. The crowd fell silent. Everyone turned towards the attendant anxiously, eager to hear his reply.

He smiled. “When I saw that everyone was so deeply involved in discussing the half-shekel, I decided to use the opportunity to begin cleaning up. I removed the tablecloths and shook them out over the garbage to get rid of all the crumbs and other food remains. When I heard that the coin was missing, I worried that it might have been put down on one of the tables, and that I had inadvertently thrown it out along with the rest of the garbage. I went to the trash pile and began to sift through a veritable mountain of refuse. Finally, something sparkling caught my eye. Here is the treasure I found in the trash,” he said, as he handed his precious find over to its owner.

Slowly the crowd quieted down and order was restored. Most of the guests returned to their seats. The elderly sage requested permission to speak. Everyone turned towards him eagerly, realizing that now they had not the slightest idea why he had acted as he did to delay the Ketav Sofer’s reasonable request for a search.

“. . . I left my half-shekel in my pocket.”

“Dear friends,” he began, “I’m sure you are all waiting for an explanation of my three requests for postponements. I suspect you will find it wondrous. You see, just like our esteemed host, I also have in my possession a genuine half-shekel coin from Temple times! It too was passed down from generation to generation in my family, just like in his. Today, in honor of this momentous festive gathering, I decided to surprise you by displaying it. But then the illustrious head of the yeshivah preceded me and showed his coin, along with the statement that it was unique in the world. I didn’t want to weaken the power of his presentation, so I left my half-shekel in my pocket.

“Now, imagine to yourselves, honorable colleagues, if the search had been conducted according to the instructions of our host. The coin in my pocket would have been immediately identified, and I certainly would have come under suspicion as having stolen it. That is why I tried everything I could to delay the process, the whole time praying that, in the merit of the great Chatam Sofer, of blessed memory, I wouldn’t be subjected to such a terrible embarrassment. Thank G‑d, my prayers were accepted.”

Concluding his words, the venerable sage slipped his half-shekel coin from his pocket and passed it to his enchanted audience. As it made the rounds, they were astounded to see that it was an identical twin to the one of the Ketav Sofer.

The exciting evening finally drew to a close. Before the concluding blessings, the Ketav Sofer rose to speak one last time. Once again, his words surprised his listeners.

“Gentlemen, I truly believe that the inner purpose of this great gathering was that we all gain a deeper perspective of the true meaning of the Mishnah’s statement, “Judge every man favorably” (Avot 1:6). If the search had been conducted and the coin discovered in our venerable associate’s pocket, is there anyone in this room who can honestly say he wouldn’t have presumed that he had stolen my coin—especially after I had influenced you by saying there wasn’t another one like it in the world?

“No, this teaching is not as simple as its wording makes it seem. The lesson of tonight is that even if all indications point to a person’s guilt, we still have to presume his innocence until proven otherwise. That is the divine providence of the unforgettable events of this thanksgiving feast.”

Translated and adapted from Shim’u U-Techi Nafshechem (#276), the teachings and stories of Rabbi Moshe Weber

Biographical note:
Rabbi Avraham Binyamin Schreiber (1815–1875), known as the Ketav Sofer, was the son of the illustrious Torah giant, the Chatam 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.

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