A Pounding Heart + A Trembling Soul = A Joyous Passover

by Rabbi Shlomo Galperin

During WWII Holocaust years, many from the Eastern regions fled deep into Soviet Russia to get away from the Nazi onslaught penetrating deeper into Russia cities and towns. Locals in the deeper parts of Russia (home to today’s “-Stan” countries) saw economic opportunity to take advantage of the refugees and divided and subdivided their apartments to rent to more and more refugee families. Often due to the extreme poverty and limited available resources whole extended families lived in one room and subsisted on meager rations. Berel Gansburg was one of those Chassidim who fled to Russia’s southeast with his family. They all lived in one room, more like the size of a large closet, and had little to eat, but thankfully they were saved from a much worse fate at murderous Nazi hands back in their hometown, where many of their relatives perished in a horrible gruesome manner. 

It was the night before Passover and as is the Jewish custom to search for any traces of leaven, they took ten tiny pieces of bread (more than that they could not set aside) to hide for the pre-Passover Chametz search. There wasn’t much room to hide anything, it was but one room and they had few possessions, so the search shouldn’t have take long, but they relished the traditional ceremony. At the end of the search, the father checked and rechecked and was alarmed to find that they were missing two pieces! They should had ten pieces but they only found eight! 

Oy – what to do!? Two missing pieces from the original ten pieces set out to find means they have two unaccounted for pieces of Chametz in their possession! On Passover Jewish law not only prohibits eating Chametz but even mere ownership of Chametz is forbidden. What to do? His heart was throbbing, his mind was racing – it was unthinkable that he should own even the smallest amount of Chametz on Pesach. Greatly disturbed and troubled, Reb Berel rushed out to ask Rav Mendel Dubravsky for guidance and a Halachic ruling. Even though their communities were disrupted and uprooted by the war’s turmoil, there was still some semblance of order and Rav Dubravsky who settled in the same area is the one he asked Halachic questions.

This Rav Mendel Dubravsky was of very short physical stature, he was emaciated due to the hunger, but he was a respected towering figure in that he was learned, sharp and wise, not only in the four sections of the Code of Jewish Law, but also in the “fifth section” which is commonly referred to as the necessary laws of common sense. The Rav thought intensely about the situation, he sized up the matter and he told Reb Berel to go home and quickly bring back all the children. A few minutes later the children were lined up in front of the Rabbi, in height order, oldest to youngest. The Rabbi looked each one in the eye, and then looking at the youngest, then maybe a child of 5 or 6 years old, asked gently, “Was it tasty?” The child began to cry, nodding in her tears, yes yes she said, it was so tasty. In those years of deprivation and hunger, the tiniest morsel of even stale bread was as sweet as candy, and she couldn’t help herself and evidently ate those two missing pieces during the search. 

The Rabbi joyously reassured them that all was well, and they had nothing to worry about. They should go home and enjoy the happiest Passover possible under the circumstances, without any fear or worry of Chametz ownership.

A few notes about this story: 

(1) It’s one of those classic rabbinical school stories demonstrating the need to understand the circumstances and not only the law. And that G-d’s given Torah helps guide the Rabbi to arrive at the right conclusion. 

(2) There are various Halachic legal mechanisms in place to deal with lost Chametz, especially of such a minuscule size. In fact, right after the search and again after the Chametz burning we make a special declaration nullifying all Chametz we have not found and therefore not responsible for it. Reb Berel’s concern for those two pieces belies a sincerity and conviction that goes far beyond the letter of the law, regardless of the incredibly challenging circumstances. 

(3) According to most Halachic authorities there is no legal requirement to put out those ten pieces to be burned after the search. One can fulfill their obligation of the search even without hiding the ten pieces or without finding anything. And if they did insist on having something to burn on the morning after the search, perhaps they could have put out 3 pieces instead of the customary ten. After all, the ten pieces is only a custom and is not required by Jewish law. This was a time of hunger, and a few extra morsels could have been eaten, as that youngest child did. But to a Chassid like Berel, such calculations of leniency were unthinkable. One must not deviate from even a custom! And think of the educational impact such dedication to our traditions imparts to our children…