The Shamash of Nikolsburg

A story about Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke

Jewish Children International - Tzivos HaShem

Over 200 years ago Nikolsburg, the capital of Moravia (then a province of Austria-Hungary, and now part of Czechoslovakia), boasted of a very important Jewish community.

For many generations it had been the seat of famous Rabbis, among them Rabbi Yehudah Leib, son of Bezalel (who later became famous as the MaHaRaL of Prague) the Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller (famed for his commentary on the Mishnah, the Tosfos Yom Tov), and other outstanding Torah scholars and rabbis.

Whenever the need arose to choose a Chief Rabbi for Nikolsburg, who would at the same time be the Chief Rabbi for all of Moravia, the community naturally looked for an exceptionally brilliant and saintly Gaon, one of the leading rabbinical figures of that generation.

That description eminently fitted Rabbi Shmuel Shmelka, a disciple of the great Maggid, Rabbi Dov Ber of Miezritch (successor to the Baal Shem Tov), who had occupied important rabbinical positions in several Jewish communities in Poland.

The community of Nikolsburg decided to invite him to come for a Shabbat as a candidate for the position. Rabbi Shmuel Shmelka accepted the invitation. He was welcomed with much honour.

Long before the appointed time the main synagogue was crowded to overflowing to hear him deliver his Drashah. The people were greatly inspired by his Torah message. The Talmudic scholars of the community were particularly impressed with the Rabbi's mastery of the Talmud.

Some weeks after returning home, Rabbi Shmuel Shmelka received an official document from the community's leaders to the effect that he was unanimously elected Chief Rabbi and Head of the Rabbinic Court of Nikolsburg, as well as Chief Rabbi of Moravia.

The new Chief Rabbi arrived in Nikolsburg and was warmly greeted by the entire community. He lost no time in giving his attention to various daily problems. These often left him with much less time for his Torah study than he desired. So to make up for it, he studied late into the night and in the early hours of the morning, cutting down on his sleep to a minimum.

Now, at that time there still lived in Nikolsburg the old community Shamash, a deeply G-d fearing Jew, though not much of a Torah scholar. It was his daily task to get up very early in the morning and knock at the windows and shutters of Jewish houses, with his call: "Wake up Jews; arise to the service of the Creator."

He used to complete his round at the Rav's house, where he would slip in for a moment's rest. Unobtrusively, he would sit down and listen to the Rav's melodious humming, engrossed in his Talmudic study. Often the Shamash would refresh himself with a glass of steaming tea.

He continued this practice also when the new Chief Rabbi occupied the Chief Rabbi's residence.

One early morning, on reaching the Rabbi's house, the Shamash saw him sitting, as always, with a Gemarah in front of him, absorbed in study. Beside him stood a strange-looking man, with long hair, and with a leather girdle around his waist. Knowing all the Jews in town, the Shamash reckoned that he must be a traveling Jew who had stopped over for the night at the Rabbi's house.

The following morning, at the same early hour, the old Shamash was surprised to see the stranger again, standing near the Rabbi and listening to his learning. So he decided that he would inquire about the stranger from the Rabbi at the first opportunity.

Later that morning, when the Shamash found the Rabbi alone in his study, he asked who that stranger was. The Rabbi was somewhat taken aback by the unexpected question. After some hesitation he told the old Shamash that it was the prophet Elijah, but that it's better not to talk about it. So the Shamash asked no more questions.

Some days later, the Shamash happened to be passing the Rabbi's house late one night, when he was startled to see something quite extraordinary:

The outer door of the Rabbi's house was opened from inside, and there appeared the Rabbi carrying a candlestick with two lit candles, escorting two guests. One of them was the hairy man with the leather girdle, whom the Shamash had seen twice before, and he knew that it was the prophet Elijah. But the sight of the second man made him tremble with awe, for he was wearing a crown on his head, and carried a royal sceptre in his hand!

The Shamash stood there petrified, as he watched the king walk out of the door first, followed by Elijah, while behind them walked the Rabbi, carrying the brightly shining candles. The Rabbi escorted his visitors for a few more steps, entered the house and went to his room to continue his Torah study.

The old Shamash wanted very much to know who the king was and what business he had with the Rabbi. He plucked up courage and went into the house to see the Rabbi just as he was about to begin learning. The Shamash cleared his throat and began most apologetically:

"I humbly beg forgiveness of the Rabbi for my Chutzpah. But it is the request of a foolish old man. Please, do tell me, who was the king whom you had just escorted from your house, and, if I may know it, what was the purpose of his visit?"

"Actually, we shouldn't talk about this," said the Rabbi. "But since you saw what you saw you might as well know the whole story. The man you saw in the royal robes was King Menashe, the son of King Hizkiyahu, king of Judah. King Menashe came with a special request in connection with a din torah we had today.

This is how it came about:

"In a certain town in this country there lived a Jew who was very artistic and had a great talent for painting pictures, making dolls, toys, and the like. But despite this great urge to express his talent freely, he was ever so much determined to obey most carefully the commandment: You shall not make for yourselves any carved idol, or any image...

"Not only did this man not do any of these things, but he felt it would be a sin even to look at idols or statues. So one night he went into town and began to smash every statue he saw. A night watchman caught him in the act, and arrested him. He was brought to trial and sentenced to be put to death, and was hanged on the same day.

"Needless to say, the whole Jewish community was in great danger. But the Jewish leaders, with G-d's help, managed to convince the authorities that no one else in the community had anything to do with the destruction of the statues, and that the only person responsible for smashing the statues was the man who had been convicted and put to death: and he did it only because he believed that he was carrying out one of the Ten Commandments which G-d proclaimed at Mount Sinai.

"Now, the man who had been executed was very poor, and left no estate from which the widow could collect what was due to her according to the ketubah. Usually in such a case, it was the obligation of the Holy (Burial) Society, the Chevrah Kaddishah, to pay out the ketubah from a special fund it had for the purpose of helping poor widows. However, the Burial Society turned down the widow's request on the grounds that its obligation was only in the case of a normal death, not a suicide. And in this case, the man who smashed the statues surely knew that his actions would result in his being put to death, and it was the same as if he had taken his own life! Therefore the responsibility was not theirs but that of the community.

"The case came before the Rabbi and Bet Din of that town, and they decided to refer the matter to the Chief Rabbi of Nikolsburg for judgment.

"So today," continued Rabbi Shmuel Shmelka, "my colleagues and I looked carefully into the matter, and after discussing all its aspects in great detail could not come up with a decision regarding the widow's claim. We decided to continue our discussion tomorrow.

"Tonight, while I was sitting and pondering the problem, King Menashe appeared before me. He told me that he was an interested party in this case, and he should be heard too. He told me that since he had died - more than 2200 years ago, his soul could find no rest because of the sin of idolatry he had committed in his lifetime and for placing an idol also in the Bet Hamikdash.

"In every generation his poor soul had had to return to earth in a different person, in order to make amends for the sins he had committed. Yet, the purification of his soul had not been completed - until the death of the statue-breaker. It so happened that the statue-breaker's soul was King Menashe's soul, reincarnated yet another time. But this time, the statue-breaker had devoted his entire life to the commandment "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol," until he had actually given his life for it. This finally brought about complete atonement for his sin and now his soul can rest in peace!

"And now that my colleagues and I have to issue the verdict, King Menashe came to tell me that we should not consider the hanged man as a person who took his own life lightly, but as a saintly Jew who gave his life for the Sanctification of G-d's Name."

Thus, Rabbi Shmuel Shmelka concluded his strange story to the old Shamash. He did not tell the Shamash whether he had now reached a decision, and whether it was in favor of the widow or the Chevrah Kaddishah. But he did ask the Shamash to keep this whole matter secret.

The old Shamash did, in fact, keep both unusual occurrences secret for many years, until he felt compelled to reveal them one day. The circumstances that brought this about were as follows:

A din-Torah had come before the Rabbi, in which a rich and influential member of the community council was personally involved.

In the dispute, the Rabbi ruled against this prominent Jew. As a result, he and his family and friends became sworn enemies of the Rabbi. They began to plot to have the Rabbi sent away, and looked for some faults or wrongdoings of which to accuse him. So what "faults" did they find? They discovered that the Rabbi follows certain customs of the Chassidim!

In truth this was nothing new. It was no secret that the Rabbi was a disciple and follower of the Great Maggid of Miezritch, the successor of the Baal Shem Tov who founded the Chassidic movement.

Moreover, Rabbi Shmuel Shmelka had not changed his conduct from the way he conducted himself since the first day he took office in Nikolsburg. However, the malicious tongues of the Rabbi's enemies continued wagging, until the community was split into two camps, for the Rabbi and against the Rabbi.

Finally, a special meeting of the community council was called, and it was decided to inform the Rabbi that for the sake of peace they saw no other way but to ask the Rabbi to give up his position and look for a rabbinic position elsewhere.

Thereupon the old Shamash was called and instructed to go to the Rabbi and inform him of the community council's decision.

The old Shamash was horrified.

He simply blew his top, berating the leaders of the community for their unjust and unkind decision against such a saintly tzaddik and gaon. "You'll have to find another messenger for this lowly errand. I will not do it!"

The community leaders were dumbfounded to hear such talk from the usually quiet and dutiful old Shamash. Some of them demanded that he be dismissed forthwith; others (and they were in the majority) thought that the Shamash should be asked to explain why he took such a stand in defense of the Rabbi, even at the risk of losing his job in his old age.

The old Shamash began his striving tale:

"Worthy leaders and masters! What I am going to tell you has been kept secret by me for many years, for our saintly Rabbi, in his deep humility, did not want me to talk about it. But now I have no choice but to reveal to you what I saw with my own eyes, and heard with my own ears..."

He then proceeded to tell them how he had for the first time, and then again, seen the prophet Elijah come to the Rabbi to hear him learning Torah during the night.

The Shamash also told them how he saw the Rabbi escort his two visitors, Elijah and King Menashe, describing the scene in every detail and the reason for that extraordinary visit.

Needless to say, after the members of the council heard what the Shamash had related with such sincerity and reverence, there could no longer be any question of requesting their saintly Rabbi to give up his position! Even the most outspoken critics of the Rabbi were now ashamed of their attitude and became his admirers and friends.

Rabbi Shmuel Shmelka remained Chief Rabbi of Nikolsburg and of Moravia to the last day of his life.

When Chassidim related this story, they did not conclude by saying that it showed what a great and saintly man Rabbi Shmuel Shmelka was; this went without saying. But they did marvel at the simple humility and saintliness of the old Shamash of Nikolsburg, to whom Elijah had revealed himself more than once, yet he never breathed a word about it to anyone, except that once, for the honour of the Torah, the honour of the Rabbi, and the honour of the entire community.

Copyright © 2010 Bob Lenk

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