The Eruw

A cabalistic legend from Nikolsburg

by Dr. Berthold Huller

[The German original, here translated by Mark Tritsch, appeared in Hickl's illustrierter jüdischer Volkskalendar, 1926/27, Brünn, a few years after the last great fire in Nikolsburg]

As the centuries old roofs of Nikolsburg burned like dry tinder during the fire catastrophe still all too fresh in everyone's memory, there was one house, covered with wooden tiles like all the others, that remained quite unaffected. It really seemed like a miracle, and people could only shake their heads in wonder...

Now, that house stood in the Quergasse, at the point where people used to pass from the Jewish into the Christian town, and there is a wonderful legend connected with it which deserves to be brought back out of the mists of time and reawakened to new life. It involves none other than the famous kabalist Modche Benett, who was Moravian Chief Rabbi at the time of which this story tells, and whose memory is garlanded with many charming tales and legends. He must have been a quite extraordinary man, part scholar and part sorcerer. He died in Lichtenstadt near Karlsbad where he was taking the waters, and lies buried in Nikolsburg. A massive gravestone there reminds later generations of his fame.

Once upon a time, the Jewish community decided that it wanted to set up an Eruw at the house on the Quergasse which is the subject of this tale. An Eruw was a special chain, intended to remind the pious of how far they were permitted to go abroad on a Saturday without infringing the law of the Sabbath. However, the plan could not be carried out because the owner of the house, the honorable master butcher Topolanski, a Christian, stubbornly refused to allow the chain to be set up. This was not so much due to any scruples of his own as because of his neighbors, who objected to the presence of this symbol of an alien belief in their proximity.

The governor of the town, to whom both parties appealed for arbitration, decided in favor of the house owner. After that, there was only one person who could still help, and that was Mordechai Benett, who was the object of almost idolizing veneration by both Jews and Christians and whose judgement was accepted unconditionally by all.

As a deputation of the community elders entered his study, Benett sat bent over an enormous folio deep in thought. Becoming aware of their presence, he asked curtly in his usual manner what they wanted. Hearing the litany of complaints which now poured forth over the villany of Master Topolanski, he answered again in the same taciturn way, assuring his listeners that he would soon attend to solving the problem...

And indeed the next day saw this tall, patriarchal figure making his lonely way through the streets and alleys of Jewish Nikolsburg, on his head the imposing bearskin hat, in his hand the staff of ivory. Before him went his servant Perez, anxiously rushing from corner to corner to make sure that no person of the female sex would appear on the street. Ever since Modche Benett had reached the age of the Psalmist, he had carefully avoided any contact with the opposite sex and had even left his own wife, living apart from her in another house.

Master Topolanski was sitting in front of his house relaxing and smoking his pipe, after completing the day's work. As he saw the Rabbi coming, he rose and went a few steps towards him. After all, it was a great distinction when this famous man paid him the honour of a visit! Modche Benett explained in his brief manner the reason for his coming. Master Topolanski responded with a bewildered shaking of his head and a torrent of objections: he himself was "not an enemy of the Jews", but "the wicked neighbors will complain" and he "wanted to live in peace with all". And anyway, the authorities had decided against the whole thing, he added.

The Rabbi listened quietly then replied: "As the authorities have decided in your favor, no-one can make any complaint against you or force you to comply with any wish of mine. But pay heed to the words of a man who has already seen eighty years sweep over this wretched earth. The justice of men is a fairground comedy. Enthroned above us all there is a supreme judge, for whom these childish games are at most the cause of a weary smile. Indeed all the different religious confessions, which divide pitiable humans against each other and fill them with blind hatred for one another, are his children, all equally dear and valued in his fatherly heart. And so you need not be afraid of complying with my request. Your God will not be angry as a result. And furthermore, you and your descendants will be richly rewarded: I shall utter a blessing on your house which will for all time protect it from fire". The deep earnest with which Modche spoke and his flashing eyes made the greatest impression upon the Master. He had heard too many wondrous things of the Rabbi, not to believe him now...

After a moment's silence he agreed to comply with the request and some days later the Eruw was set up. And what Benett had promised came true. When a terrible fire destroyed much of Nikolsburg in the 1830s, that house was protected from the flames. Time and again since then fire has broken out and destroyed part of the ancient town! In the year 1866, as the Prussians occupied Nikolsburg and Bismarck negotiated peace with Austria there... In the seventies and eighties of the nineteenth century... And so on decade after decade! In the confusion of flames, smoke and rubble that so often fell on Nikolsburg, that house always remained unaffected. And once again during the last fire, the biggest ever in Nikolsburg, the flames seemed to be brought to a halt before they reached that house, as if by some unimaginable sorcery.

Today, people come from far and wide to see this great wonder with their own eyes. For the calm rationalist it may be just a case of so many coincidences, but for one trembling before the mysteries of life it seems to be one more proof that much more lies between heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in our dry school wisdom...

[The house of which this story tells was demolished during the communist era. M.T.]

Copyright © 2000 Mark Tritsch
Copyright © 2009 Bob Lenk

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