from The Noda Biyehudah (translator and editor).
Chapter Five: Chief Rabbi of Prague
The delegates set out from Prague to Yampol. Rain had turned the dirt roads to mud, and a cold drizzle beat down on the delegates’ carriages. The horses were uncomfortable and shied off the road, and one horse grew so sick that he had to be replaced. A number of times, the carriage got stuck in the deep mud and the delegates had to get out of the carriage and help push it free.
It was no wonder that by the time they arrived in Yampol, the delegates were tired and bedraggled, and several of them had full-blown colds. They found a place to stay, where they changed their clothes and washed up as well as they could. Then, they went out again into the chilly air to call upon Rabbi Yechezkel.
When the delegates came to Rabbi Yechezkel’s door, he invited them in. He threw a log into the great wood-burning stove, and asked his wife to bring in tea, brandy, and some food. Then, after a polite exchange of words, Rabbi Yechezkel asked, “Why has the community of Prague honored me with your visit?”
“Rabbi Landau,” one of the delegates replied, “we have come to invite you to serve as Chief Rabbi of Prague. We are authorized to give you this contract, signed by the leaders of the community, that explains what your responsibilities and salary would be.” With a flourish, the man drew the handsome document from his coat, unfolded it, and laid it before Rabbi Yechezkel.
Rabbi Yechezkel leaned over the document and glanced at it. Then he leaned back and said, “It would be a great honor to be Chief Rabbi of the great city of Prague. But I am afraid that I may not be fit to accept such an important position.”
The delegates knew better than to press Rabbi Yechezkel. Instead, they began to converse with him, asking him about his position in Yampol, and discussing various events that were taking place. Soon, the conversation turned to Torah ideas, and the talk flowed from one topic to another. Rabbi Yechezkel drew pleasure from his conversation with the delegates. They were well-learned—Prague must indeed be a pleasant home for a lover of Torah. And the delegates were also positively impressed with Rabbi Yechezkel. He seemed to have just studied whatever topic any one of them brought up. His understanding was sharp, and his personality was warm and calm.
The delegates shifted the conversation to Prague and to Prague’s last Chief Rabbi, Dovid Oppenheim. One of the delegates brought up the strange statement that he had made on his sickbed: “Perhaps it is Rabbi Meir.”
“We don’t know what he meant by that,” the delegate explained. “We never found a person fit to be Chief Rabbi called Meir. It is a total mystery.”
Rabbi Yechezkel smiled. “I think I have an idea what Rabbi Oppenheim meant. When you saw him on his deathbed, you assumed that he would soon die. As the Talmud states, ‘When we see a deathly ill person, we may assume that he will soon die, since most people who are deathly ill soon die.’ But Rabbi Oppenheim wanted to tell you that perhaps we follow the opposite opinion in the Talmud, that of Rabbi Meir, who says that we don’t follow the majority, but assume that even though a person is deathly ill, he will still recover.”
The members of the delegation liked this explanation of Rabbi Yechezkel. Again, they pressed him to agree to become Chief Rabbi of Prague.
But Rabbi Yechezkel still declined, saying, “I am not fit to be the head of such a large and important community.”
“But certainly if our community is so large and important,” said one of the delegates, “then our decisions are important too. And we have decided that we would like Rabbi Yechezkel to be our Chief Rabbi.”
Rabbi Yechezkel smiled at this comment, and he leaned forward over the contract that lay on the table before him. The delegates grew still. If Rabbi Yechezkel wanted to read the contract, that meant he was seriously interested in their offer. One of the delegates opened his mouth to say something, but the man sitting next to him tapped his arm. Now was the time to remain silent, while Rabbi Yechezkel made up his mind.
For a few minutes, Rabbi Yechezkel leaned over the contract, reading it carefully. Then he leaned back, and was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Very well. I agree to your proposal.”
Although the weather was miserable and the rain hard, the delegates did not want to remain long in Yampol. So after only a two-days’ stay, during which two of the delegates treated his sore throat by sitting next to a stove and drinking a great deal of tea, they again got into a carriage and set out on the muddy, dreary road to Prague.
By the time the carriage arrived in Prague a few days later, the clouds had dispersed, and the pale sun shone on the sodden earth. A few birds had resumed their lusty chirping in the newly-budding tree-branches, and cheered the spirits of the delegates.
When the delegates came into town, they went straight to the house of Prague’s communal leader, Rabbi Yechiel, and announced the joyful news: Rabbi Yechezkel had agreed to become their Chief Rabbi.
The news spread like wildfire across the small ghetto, and the people were filled with excitement. After nineteen years, they would again have a Chief Rabbi—a man whose reputation was sterling, a man who would be a valuable jewel in the crown of Prague. Feverishly, the people began to prepare for the festivities in honor of Rabbi Yechezkel’s arrival.
Rabbi Yechezkel rode into Prague alone. His family had decided to come in the summer, when it would be easier to travel with the children.
But the joy and enthusiasm of Prague’s townspeople, their warmth and eagerness to accept him warmed his heart.
With music and dancing, the people surrounded Rabbi Yechezkel’s carriage and welcomed him to Prague. Four musicians playing lively tunes on an oboe, recorder, fife and drum walked before Rabbi Yechezkel’s carriage, as the townspeople clapped and sang along.
The streets were crowded with well-wishers. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to greet the new Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Yechezkel stepped down from his carriage and mingled with the people, shaking their outstretched hands, thanking them for their warm wishes, and giving them his blessing in return.
Colorful pennants hung from windows and fluttered in the cool breeze. The community leaders were dressed in their Shabbos best, and the school children, who were scrubbed clean, were presented to Rabbi Yechezkel. Rabbi Yechezkel asked a few of the boys what they were learning, asked them some questions, was pleased with their responses, and pinched some cheeks. In the Alteneue Shul, a few rabbis made some warm speeches, and Rabbi Yechezkel replied with some heart-felt words of his own. Today was the day of Prague’s joy. The whole city seemed to have come alive with energy and excitement.
But the rejoicing was not universal. Some leaders of the community stood off to the side, looking on with sour faces and exchanging sarcastic comments with each other. They didn’t like Rabbi Yechezkel’s looks, his comments, or anything else about him. They hadn’t wanted him as Chief Rabbi, and they still felt that he shouldn’t be here. There was only one way to get him removed: to show that he is ignorant and incompetent. And these men were eager to do that.
Even now at the festivities, Rabbi Yechezkel’s enemies bowed their heads together and conspired with secret glee how to bring about his downfall.
A few people had warned Rabbi Yechezkel that there were men in Prague who would try to humiliate him in public. These men thought that they were standing up for the honor of Torah and a Torah scholar. They thought that it was a disgrace that their own rabbi, Rabbi Eidelitz, had been passed over. By bringing down Rabbi Yechezkel, they thought, Rabbi Eidelitz would become Chief Rabbi, and all would be right with Prague. But in their zeal to uphold the honor of Rabbi Eidelitz, they took no care for that of Rabbi Yechezkel.
When Rabbi Yechezkel was told about these people who would try to have him removed from his post, he listened in silence. But he wasn’t afraid. He felt that he had a deep responsibility as Chief Rabbi of Prague, and he would carry it out no matter what.
Soon Rabbi Yechezkel was shown to his new home, and the people of Prague returned to their occupations. But they were eager to know what sort of a man their new Chief Rabbi was. And so Rabbi Yechezkel scheduled a derashah for the Shalos Seudos (third meal) of that Shabbos, to which all the people of Prague were invited. This derashah would be an opportunity for Rabbi Yechezkel to show what sort of man he was. Here he could demonstrate his interests and his heart, as well as his ability in learning and his brilliance. The derashah promised to be an exciting and entertaining event, in addition to its value as a talk on Torah.
That Shabbos afternoon, Rabbi Yechezkel’s house was filled with people waiting eagerly to hear him. Someone leaned over to Rabbi Yechezkel and whispered to him that some of his enemies were in attendance. At these derashahs, listeners were allowed to interrupt with questions. Rabbi Yechezkel knew that his enemies would look for the slightest excuse to interrupt him and try to make him appear like a fool.
Everyone washed his hands and sat down at the long tables to begin the Shalos Seudos. Then Rabbi Yechezkel cleared his throat and launched into a profound derashah. Discussing involved topics from the Talmud, he brought up various difficulties and proposed solutions, displaying an amazing breadth of knowledge and an extraordinary brilliance.
But Rabbi Yechezkel’s enemies, who were also well-versed in the Talmud and the poskim, didn’t let him speak for long. They interrupted him with a barrage of questions and quotations that seemed to contradict him. Rabbi Yechezkel didn’t back down but answered back forcefully. He rebutted every one of their statements, and then continued calmly with his derashah, as though nothing had happened. People sitting at the table looked at each other and nodded with satisfaction. This was a rabbi! This was brilliance! He had completely beaten his enemies.
But then, as Rabbi Yechezkel continued speaking, a learned businessman stood up to challenge him. This businessman was well-known for his command of Rambam’s Mishnah Torah. He looked straight at Rabbi Yechezkel and quoted a statement from the Rambam that contradicted Rabbi Yechezkel’s position.
Rabbi Yechezkel paused for only a moment, and then, without responding to the man’s quote, went on to conclude his derashah. The people at the seudah (meal) were confused and upset. Could their new Chief Rabbi really have made such an elementary mistake? Yes, they had seen his brilliance, as well as his ability to handle a difficult situation. But could he be defeated in a Torah discussion by a businessman?
Meanwhile, Rabbi Yechezkel’s enemies were filled with glee. In their first run-in with him, they had beaten him. Why, he didn’t even have an answer. They were sure that if things continued this way, Rabbi Yechezkel would soon be looking for a new job.
After the seudah, Rabbi Yechezkel searched through the Mishnah Torah, but he couldn’t find the statement that the businessman had quoted. He realized that the businessman had simply made the statement up.
A few days later, when Rabbi Yechezkel met the businessman, he said to him in an acid tone, “Perhaps you own an extra volume of the Rambam that I don’t know about. In my edition, I couldn’t find the statement that you quoted.” In this way, Rabbi Yechezkel made it clear he knew that the statement from the Rambam was a fraud.
But the businessman wasn’t embarrassed. “You’re right,” he told Rabbi Yechezkel, looking right back at him. “I made that statement up. But it’s a disgrace that the Chief Rabbi shouldn’t know the Rambam by heart.”
These were the type of brazen, shameless adversaries that Rabbi Yechezkel had. This was only the first of his many encounters with them. But Rabbi Yechezkel did not allow himself to become either dismayed or distracted. With a firm hand, he took on the position as leader of the community and teacher of Torah. He could not allow the attacks of these people to take him away from that work.