By Yerachmiel Tilles
Rabbi Nissan was a wealthy man who lived in Yergin, a small town near Pressburg, the capital city of Slovakia. When younger, he had been a student at the famous Pressburg yeshivah. He and his wife were already married for many years, but still had not been blessed with children. When, finally, a son was born to him in 5583 (1823), it was no surprise that he honored his former rosh yeshivah, the world-renowned scholar known as the Chatam Sofer, to perform the circumcision. Unfortunately, the brit milah, circumcision ceremony, had to be postponed because of the weak health of the baby. It wasn’t till several weeks later that it was announced that it would take place on . . . Purim!
Much to the distress of his parents, his ability to understand Torah was not at par . . .
At the brit, the Chatam Sofer was glowing with “light, happiness, joy and honor.” Whether it was the joy of Purim day, happiness for his former student, or a combination of both, nobody knew. After completing the circumcision, when he dipped his finger in the wine and then in the baby’s mouth (following custom), he raised his voice and called out very loudly the Talmudic expression, “When wine goes in, secrets come out.”
The baby was given an appropriate name for a Purim brit: Baruch Mordechai, which means “blessed be Mordechai,” from the paragraph recited after the megillah readings.
The child grew. At an early age, he was already outstanding in character and religious observance. However, much to the distress of his parents, his ability to understand Torah was not at par. As a boy, he didn’t seem any different than his age-mates; but after his bar mitzvah, when he entered the famous Pressburg yeshivah, it was noticeable that he was having major difficulties in his studies.
In truth, he was very diligent. He would sit absorbed in the holy books from morning to evening. But whenever he was asked to repeat or explain anything, he was unable to respond, and could only sit silently.
His less-sensitive classmates liked to make fun of him because of this. Once, when he left his place for a few minutes, they switched his volume of Talmud for one of another subject entirely, leaving it open to the page of the same number as the one he had been on. When he resumed his seat, he didn’t seem to notice the difference at all.
Baruch Mordechai began to work as a water-carrier . . .
When he turned eighteen, the Ketav Sofer (who had succeeded his recently departed father as the head of the yeshivah) advised Baruch Mordechai’s parents to send him to the land of Israel. Perhaps there, where “the air of the holy land makes one wise,” his studies would prosper.
His parents decided to do it. They hoped it would also enable him to make a good match.
Baruch Mordechai arrived in Jerusalem with a letter of recommendation from Rabbi Shraga Feldheim, mashgiach (study supervisor) at Pressburg, which said that he “is truly pious, prays with great devotion, and that his desire to learn Torah is sincere and enormous.”
One of the scholarly leaders of the Jerusalem community then, Rabbi Yeshayah Bardaki, “adopted” Baruch Mordechai, concerning himself with all of his needs. He was impressed with the young man’s sterling character and piousness, but he could not fathom how someone who had done nothing but study Torah diligently all his life could have retained so little.
When Baruch Mordechai reached age twenty, Rabbi Bardaki found a bride for him: a simple girl from a good family in Jerusalem who wouldn’t mind that her husband was an ignoramus.
Several years after the wedding, Baruch Mordechai began to work as a water-carrier. He was honest to an extreme, and as a result quickly became very popular. Every rosh chodesh, he would deliver water to his regular customers for free; he worried that over the course of the previous month water might have spilled, whereas he had charged for full buckets.
The sage’s reaction was surprising . . .
For more than forty years Baruch Mordechai toiled at his chosen profession, the whole time in joyous spirit and with gratitude to G‑d for his lot. He took special satisfaction from serving the many Torah scholars within the walls of Jerusalem; he considered this a great merit and refused to accept payment from them. It anguished him that the great scholar, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Diskin, refused to take water from him. “I cannot allow myself to be served by the likes of Reb Baruch Mordechai,” he would say—but refused to explain his words.
On Purim day of 5653 (1893), at the time of the festive meal, most of the chassidim and notables of the old city of Jerusalem crowded, as every year, into the home of Rabbi Schneur Zalman Fradkin of Lublin, the celebrated author of the scholarly book Torat Chesed. The atmosphere was exceptionally joyous, even for a Purim celebration. The men were constantly erupting into lively song and dance, and there was a complementary flow of wine and wise words.
All of a sudden, Baruch Mordechai called out to the host in a loud voice, from the midst of the swaying chassidim, “Rebbe! Today is seventy years exactly since my brit milah.”
Everyone smiled tolerantly, figuring that such an outburst from the simple water-carrier could only be a result of all the Purim wine he had imbibed.
“If so,” responded Rabbi Shneur Zalman, “you deserve an extra-large measure of l’chaim.”
Immediately a large tumbler of a special strong wine was poured and passed to Baruch Mordechai, who speedily dispatched it as commanded. It had an immediate effect. The elderly water-carrier began to sing and dance energetically.
The sage’s reaction was surprising. He looked up at Baruch Mordechai and shouted over the crowd, “It would be nice if you would stop fooling around already, and honor the holy assemblage with some strong words of Jewish law and lore.”
All the grins slowly gave way to wide-eyed stares of astonishment . . .
Suddenly there was silence. Everyone’s gaze shifted in amused anticipation to the tipsy Baruch Mordechai, as he climbed up to stand on the table and began to speak.
But then, all the grins slowly gave way to wide-eyed stares of astonishment, as it penetrated their ears that the water-carrier was discoursing enthusiastically on scholarly Purim topics, and peppering his words with learned citations from Tractate Megillah and a variety of midrashim and works of Jewish law. And he waxed on and on! Indeed, if the strong wine hadn’t finally taken its toll, it seemed that he could have continued indefinitely.
Even before the holiday was over, the news of the extraordinary scholarship of the unassuming water-carrier had spread throughout Jerusalem. The community was in an uproar. How had they allowed such an accomplished scholar to be disdained in their midst, and to labor as a mere water-carrier for so many years? And how had his erudition remained hidden for so long?
A few of the elders of the community recalled hearing of the mysterious words of the Chatam Sofer seventy years before. Now, some clever minds were saying they could finally be understood.
“Wine enters, secrets emerge.” Yayin, the Hebrew word for “wine” (spelled yud-yud-nun), has a numerical value of seventy—and so does sod, the Hebrew word for “secret” (spelled samech-vav-dalet)!
The Torah giant Rabbi Moshe Schreiber (1762–1839) was known as the Chatam Sofer, after the title of his volumes of responsa, which have been highly significant in the modern development of Jewish law and thought.