Friday, December 09, 2005

Eruv Stories: A Burning Issue

The history of city eruvin has many fascinating aspects to it. What follows is a truly amazing story about Harav Mordechai Benet zt"l (1753-1829), a world renowned posek who was Chief Rabbi of Moravia from 1790 until his passing. Harav Mordechai Benet authored many seforim including Gedulas Mordechai, Mharam Benet, Magen Avos, and Parshas Mordechai. For further reading on Harav Mordechai Benet see Pe’er Mordechai by Ruven Faerber, 1951.

Der 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 Cabalist Mordechai 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 mystic. 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 judgment 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 villainy 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.

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 honor of a visit! Mordechai 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 Mordechai 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...

This photograph of the house in the preceding story was printed in Hickl's illustrierter Jüdischer Volkskalendar, 1926/27. According to Mark Tritsch the house was demolished during the communist era. In a related vein, after a fire consumed a house in Siget the Yatev Lev of Siget declared that the cause was because there was no eruv there. He then went on to guarantee that those who establish an eruv would be protected from all harm (Gedulas Yehoshua; see Pinini HaMaor, 3 p. 273 regarding the Chasam Sofer).


The following letter by the Dayan of Nikolsburg Harav Moshe Lieb Cohen zt”l (niftar 1890) is another mention of the Nikolsburg story and was published in Kovetz Kerem Shlomo, 1998.

ברכת צדיק עושה רושם

ניקלשבורג שנת תרל"ד לפ"ק

בעזה"י ניקאלסבורג יום א' י"ב מרחשון תרל"ד

ת"ר מה שלחו בני לשכת הגזית לחוני המעגל, ותגזר אומר ויקם לך, אתה גזרת מלמטה והקב"ה מקיים מאמריך מלמעלה (תענית כ"ג ע"א).

על דברי אמת במאמר הזה נתעוררנו, בראותנו פה עדתינו מעשי ה' ונפלאותיו. – שלשום בנטות צללי ערב, ובא העת הגיע היום שבת קודש לה', והנה פתע פתאום גדלה צעקת אנשי העיר גם רבה, כי אש אלקים נפלה משמים ותבער בית איש נוצרי ברחוב היהודים.בעזרת ה' עושה גדולות ונפלאות, טרם בא הכנסת כלה, כבר אש אבדון כלה, ונאום האדון ה' צבאות למשרתיו אש לוהט: עד פה תבא ולא תוסיף.

אכן כל עין רואה כן יתמה וישתומם על המראה ואין מבין, כי קרוב הבית מאוד אל בית שכנו הנוצרי עד אפס מקום, וחצר א' לשניהם, והנה כידודי אש יתמלטו מפה ומפה, וגדרות צאן של שכנו מחופות בתבן ובחציר יבש, נצבות מבלי נזק מאומה, הלא זה אוד מצל מאש. – וכולם פה אחד השיבו מלים: אין זה כי אם ברכת צדיק וטוב עליו תבא, ולא לבד מאחינו בני ישראל נשמע כן, אף גם בגוים אומרים ככה.

והמעשה אשר נעשה, היא ממעשה תוקפו וגבורתו ופרשת גדולת מרדכי. – בעת אשר האיש מרדכי גדול ליהודים הי' רועה עדתנו, ה"ה אמ"ו הרב הגאון קדוש ישראל מ' מרדכי בנעט זצוק"ל זי"ע, קרה כי הנוצרי (אדון הבית הניצל) לא אבה להציג מוטה העירוב אצל חומת ביתו, ולדברים רבים דברים טובים ונכוחים, אזניו הכביד משמוע, ונתן כתף סוררת, לכל לשון מדברת, עד כי נקרא אל מורנו הרב הגאון הנ"ל, והוא הבטיחו על משענת הקנה אם יסמך אל ביתו, ישא ברכה מאת ה', כי לא תשלוט בו אש להבה. וכשמוע את הברכה הזאת חרד לבו והטה אזנו לשמוע בקול דברי איש האלקים הזה, ועד היום הזה מוצב ארצה.

והנה אנכי יודע ועד, כי לא א' ולא פעמים שמעתי מאדון הבית הזה קמוט בכלחו משבח ומפאר עצמו בברכה הזאת, כי תצא אש ונאכל הגדיש, תמיד תהלתו בפיו לאמר: "איך פירכטע ניכט, איך האבע פאן דעם הייליגען מאנן איינען זעגען בעקאממען" (אני לא אירא רע, יען הברכה היא לי מאת איש אלקים הקדוש), וגדול הי' כבוד הבית הזה גם בפעם הזאת בעיני כל רואיו, באמרם כאשר גזר הצדיק והקדוש, כן קם הבית הזה לבעליו, ועל זה נאמר מן החכם שבחכמים, "זכר צדיק לברכה" – ואנכי אומר "אמן כן יעשה וכן יקום ה' לנצח"...

משה ליב כהן דיין דק"ק הנ"ל

(הובא בקובץ כרם שלמה שנה כ"א קונט' ו' אייר-סיון תשנ"ח)

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