Weekly Chasidic Story #825 (s5774-03 / 11 Tishrei 5774)
The Darkest Busiest Sukkah in Jerusalem
One Sukkot day in pre1948 Jerusalem, Chief Rabbi Shlomo-David Kahane agreed to explain in his crowded sukkah hut the reason for his strange custom.
Connection: Seasonal — SUKKOT
All the Jewish inhabitants of the Old City of Jerusalem in the early 1940’s (1940’s C.E.) were well acquainted with the unique sukkah of Rabbi Shlomo-David Kahane, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of the Jewish Quarter. It was so special that even many New City residents made a custom of dropping in during Sukkot on their way to the Western Wall, in order to imbibe of its beauty, its special spirit of holiness and festival joy, and the inspiring Torah words of the rabbi.
Despite his advanced age (70’s), Rabbi Kahane always expended major effort in the mitzvah of building his sukkah. He would start, with the help of some of his students, immediately after having something to eat and drink after the 26 hour Yom Kippur fast. He wanted to be sure that it would be large and spacious enough for all the guests who always wanted to come. His young grandchildren and great grandchildren could hardly control themselves in anticipation until the sukkah was ready, so that they could make it even more beautiful and glorious with their innocent festive decorations.
While everyone was fascinated by the Rabbi’s magnificent sukkah, one custom of his in it perplexed them. Indeed, it seemed almost bizarre. On the first night of the holiday, the time of the only meal of the Sukkot festival obligated by the Torah, all the Sukkot in Jerusalem were filled with light…except the famous one of Rabbi Kahane, where the meal was conducted in great joy, but in near total darkness relieved only by the dim light of a few candles. And when those candles dimmed and extinguished, the Rabbi, accompanied by some of his students, sat in the pitch blackness the entire night, energetically discussing Torah topics relevant to the festival, and in particular to the commandment of dwelling seven nights and days in a sukkah. In a later year, on one of the days of Sukkot, Rabbi Kahane agreed to explain the background behind this strange custom of his.
* * *
Poland had been beaten into submission by the brutal Nazi war machine. Heavy artillery and rocket fire had devastated all the major cities, especially Warsaw. It was September 1939. The High Holiday season was just beginning. Rabbi Shlomo-David Kahane was then Chief Rabbi of Warsaw. He was well aware that he would not be able to fulfill the two Sukkot festival commandments of Dwelling in a Sukkah and Waving the Four Species in their full glory, as he was accustomed to. Not even a single lulav (palm branch) was available, nor any suitable myrtles or willows. In all of Warsaw there was one etrog (citron fruit), in the possession of Rabbi Meshulem Kaminer, the man in charge of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.
After Yom Kippur, with the Sukkot festival only four days away, it seemed that it would not be possible to erect asukkah for the week-long festival. True, Rabbi Kahane had in storage all the wooden boards necessary for the walls and the roofing of a sukkah, but to dare to actually build a sukkah would be to seriously endanger his life. Warsaw was occupied by blood-thirsty Nazis, who patrolled the streets voraciously. Any visible sign of Jewish observance could whet their appetite for another blood bath. No one in his family would be safe – not in the sukkah and not inside the house.
Nevertheless, despite the difficulties and the dangers, Rabbi Kahane was not willing in the slightest to give up themitzvah so precious to him. In the days preceding Sukkot, he prowled all over the area, looking for a spot in one of the Jewish courtyards that was sufficiently concealed for him to risk constructing a sukkah there.
In the end, he decided on a location in a courtyard only three houses away from his own dwelling. With the help of some of his students, he succeeded in removing the wooden walls and the thin strips of wood for the roof from storage, quietly transporting them to the chosen spot, and quickly erecting a sukkah that fit all the requirements of Jewish law. Around it he hung wet sheets and clothes, so that a casual glance would register only laundry hanging to dry.
On the first night of the festival, the Rabbi surreptitiously entered thesukkah with two of his students. They recited kiddush over two slices of bread, and discussed Torah topics relating to the holiday and the mitzvahof dwelling in a sukkah in as low tones as possible. There were no decorations in the sukkah, no delicacies appropriate for a festive meal to eat or drink; no visible signs of the holiday at all other than the baresukkah. Still, Rabbi Kahane felt as happy as he ever did in his life, filled with joy and gratitude at being able to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah in such extremely difficult conditions.
In order not to arouse the suspicions of the Nazi beasts, who patrolled everywhere in the area until there was no one left on the streets, the rabbi and his two students remained in the sukkah the entire night. That whole time they didn’t discuss even once the political situation and its continuous terrors; they continued with enthusiasm to analyze the holiday and its mitzvot from all the various aspects of Torah. One point which the Rabbi emphasized to his two students was the following:
“There is one question I always ask myself: when will I be able to fulfill the commandment to ‘rejoice in your holiday’ purely and in its entirety? Holidays contain many elements besides the mitzvah itself – eating, drinking, fancy desserts, resting, socializing, etc. Tonight we have learned that when we sit in a sukkahdevoid of all these components – no delicacies to eat and not even any light, overshadowed by an environment of dread and terror, yet still we make every effort to instill and feel joy in our hearts, this is true, pure, unadulterated joy in the mitzvah–the real thing!–an inner joy, stemming from the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah in the most antagonistic of conditions.”
A basic motif of Nazi activity in conquered cities was actions to depress the spirit of the Jewish community – to humiliate them, to subjugate them, to crush any remnants of Jewish pride and personal self esteem. One of their favorite methods for this was to topple the rabbi; it was on the top of their “to do” list. They well understood the role the rabbis filled in encouraging the people, strengthening them, and lifting their spirits.
So it happened that on the first night of Sukkot, in the middle of the night, while the Rabbi and his two students were still sitting and conversing in the blacked-out sukkah, a small group of uniformed Nazis came banging loudly with their gun butts on the Kahane family door. When the terrified Mrs. Kahane finally opened the door, the vile Germans burst in and amidst much cursing began a thorough search in every room and corner of the house, pausing only to present blows with their gloved fists to any family member who came too close.
The entire time of the search Mrs. Kahane stood stone still. When they were not able to find any trace of her husband, one of the Nazi soldiers placed the barrel of his revolver between her eyes and barked, “Tell us immediately where is the Rabbi, or else….”
It was with great difficulty that the terrified Rebbetzin managed to squeeze out a few words in reply. “He disappeared as soon as the explosions started.”
This explanation made sense to the Nazi murderers because at the time of the explosions many people ran off. So he lowered his gun, and they wrote in their report “the Rabbi fled,” implying there was no need to search the house any more.
While the Rabbi was sitting in his sukkah with his students that night, he heard the screaming, the curses and the tumult, but it never occurred to him that he was the main cause of it. It was only early the next morning when he managed to sneak home that his wife told him about the miracle that had taken place the night before. Subsequently, at the Festival Morning Torah Reading, Rabbi Kahane said the “Gomel” blessing, thanking the Almighty for the kindness of His intervention.
* * *
Only after a long arduous journey with numerous potential pitfalls did Rabbi Kahane finally succeed in escaping the claws of the Nazis and reading the shores of the Holy Land. He decided that as a reminder and an expression of appreciation for the wondrous salvation that had occurred for him, every year he would continue to sit in a darkenedsukkah, to remember and re-experience how it is possible to capture the true essence of the mitzvah of sitting in asukkah, even without light or any of the other usually available pleasures.
Into his remarkable story Rabbi Kahane managed to weave the pithy explanation of the Chasidic rebbe and tzadik,Rabbi Meir of Premishlan about a law of the festival as stated in the Mishna: “One who is suffering [from illness or from conditions in the outdoor sukkah] is freed from [the obligation to dwell in] the sukkah.”
Commented Rebbe Meirl: “One who is suffering, the sukkah frees him” – the sukkah can free us and save us from all of our sorrows.
Source: Translated-adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from Sichat HaShavua #1344.
Rabbi Shlomo-David Kahane [of blessed memory: 5628 – 27 Kislev 5704 (1868 – Dec. 1943 C.E.)] was considered a leading rabbinical authority in his generation. He was the Chief Rabbi of Warsaw and its rabbinical court for many years until the early years of WWII, when he managed to escape the deadly clutches of the Nazis who were hunting him and eventually arrive in Israel. He became the chief rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem until his death in 1943. His “Committee of Polish Rabbis in Israel” and his “Committee of Polish Rabbis for Freeing Agunot” saved literally thousands of Jewish women whose husbands’ whereabouts were unknown as a result of WWII horrors, and enabled them to remarry.
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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