The Underground Seder
Permission is granted to use this material providing that every copy bears the following acknowledgment in small type: Reproduced from The best of Olomeinu, vol. 5, Compiled by Rabbi Yaakov Fruchter, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
Dr. Aaron Gordon had guests for Pesach. Several Jewish businessmen had come to Vilna a short time before the holiday, and the doctor had invited them to his house. Now they sat at the table, looking with some wonder at all the expensive cups, silverware and dishes on the white tablecloth. They were surprised because this was Vilna in 1719, and the Jews of Vilna were not rich.
"You are wondering," said Dr. Gordon, "how I can afford all this. Well, I'm about the only rich Jew in Vilna at the moment. You see — I'm the only Jewish doctor in all of Poland, and last year the king appointed me his personal physician. Yes, I'm well-to-do now."
One of the guests spoke up, "But I heard that no Jew can go to any university or medical school in all of Poland. How did you ever become a doctor?"
"I went to Italy — the University of Padua. It was on my way back that something happened ... I'll tell you about it — now, before the Seder. It will explain why I spend so much to make my Seder table beautiful."
Dr. Gordon leaned back in his armchair and told his story.
I had finished my medical studies. How proud I was of the diploma in my bundle of belongings — the piece of parchment that said I was a doctor. With a happy step I boarded the ship that was to bring me back to this city and to my family. The sun shone bright on a glistening sea, and a good wind filled the sails. My heart was light, and I looked forward to being back in my own home for Pesach, after being away for two years.
The storm came suddenly, without warning. I was in my small cabin below deck studying Talmud to make up for my two years in medical school when I couldn't learn Torah as often as I wanted to. I heard a great wind howling, and thunder rumbling. The ship shook violently from side to side. I seized my tefillin, and the pouch with my doctor's diploma, and stumbled out on deck, holding on to the sides to keep from falling.
Rain was falling in great sheets. The men were working desperately, trying to get the sails down, while the captain shouted orders furiously. Waves of water lashed the sides. Suddenly a gust of wind hit the sails, and I saw the top of the ship move downward, while the deck turned sideways. The ship was turning over.
In a moment we were all in the water. It was ice-cold, and in that wind I almost froze to death. The water was carrying me away and the ship was now on its side, sinking fast. Suddenly I passed close by a large timber that had broken away from the ship. With both arms I seized it, and held it tightly. Now I could float. In the darkness of the storm I saw no one else in the water. The ship was going under as water filled more and more of its insides. I held on to the wood and let the water move me swiftly away — to where, I did not know.
Did I lose consciousness, or just fall asleep? Whatever it was, when I opened my eyes I knew that much time had passed. The sea was calm, and the sun shone again. But what held my eyes was the sight of land — right before me! I let go of the log that my hands had been clutching for dear life until then, and swam for shore.
Dripping, I walked along the main street of the town, looking for an inn. Inside my clothes I had found the pouch with my medical diploma, and inside that was some money. My tefillin were lost to the sea, but in any case the salt water had surely ruined them. When I finally found an inn, I paid the innkeeper to get me new clothes, and rented a room where I could rest and change clothes. In my new, dry clothes I felt like a new man. I felt like singing and dancing to show my gratitude to Hashem for snatching me from the hands of death. And then the innkeeper told me the terrible news — I was in Spain!
Can you imagine my feelings at that moment? I was in Spain — in the spring of 1692 — where church fanatics had the right to burn you alive if they discovered that you were a Jew. I was in Spain, the land of the dreaded Inquisition. And it was three days before Pesach. For three days I could pretend to be a vegetarian, and eat only bread, vegetables and fruit. But what about Pesach? And the two Seder nights?
In a town of this size there were certainly Jews. But they were Marranos — hidden Jews. They would make sure that no one ever suspected their Jewishness. Their lives were at stake.
I had to find a Jew who kept the Torah and its mitzvos in secret. Then I had to convince him he could trust me enough to keep me for Pesach. How? I hadn't the faintest idea.
"Well, let's see," I said to myself, as I walked to and fro in my room at the inn. "Suppose I were a Marrano. I must prepare for Pesach; yet no one must suspect that I am a Jew. Wine is easy to get from another Marrano. Matzos I will bake secretly, or get secretly from some fellow Jew. Greens — parsley and lettuce — I can buy in the market place."
I stopped short. There was the idea I needed.
On the day before Pesach I found my way to the market place. I loitered around the vegetable stands and watched every buyer like a hawk. Hours passed, and still I stood there watching. It was after noon when a coach and horse drew up. A servant climbed down from his seat next to the driver, with a basket in his hand, and opened the door of the coach.
The man who stepped down looked important. His clothes were so rich. And there was nothing to show that he was a Jew. I watched closely as he chose the vegetables for his servant to buy. He bought much. Was it my imagination or did he look around nervously before he pointed to the parsley and the long lettuce? He was back in his coach, the servant was beside the driver, and the horses galloped off.
"Who is that man?" I asked the vegetable dealer. "Where does he live?" The dealer told me that the man was a high government official who lived in the rich part of town. I soon found the large house where he lived. The coach stood inside the gate, empty. I sounded the bronze knocker on the door. The servant opened.
"Tell your master," I said ...
"My master receives no visitors today," he snapped, and shut the door. I kept pounding the bronze knocker until the servant opened again.
"Even if your master receives no visitors, at least take this message to him: ‘I have no place to eat tonight.’" In two minutes I was shown into a richly-tapestried room, to see the owner of this house.
"Sir," I said, "I put my life in your hands now. You can tell the Church of Spain that I am a Jew, and I will be killed. I can also tell them that you observe Pesach, and you will be killed." I told him my story — how I had come to this town after the shipwreck, and how I had discovered his secret. I saw him look at me. He was afraid that 1 was a spy.
"Are you mad?" he shouted at me. "Get out of my home this instant. I am not a jew, and I have nothing to do with Pesach."
"No," I said calmly. "I won't go. Please don't become enraged. You have nothing to fear from me." We talked back and forth; he told me to go, and I insisted on staying. Finally he made up his mind.
"All right," he whispered. "Recite Shema Yisrael." I did so. With tears in his eyes he embraced me. "Welcome, welcome to my home."
Never will I forget that Seder night. Early in the evening the servants left for a week's vacation. Hours later, his family and I watched as he moved aside a tapestry that covered a wall in his room. He pushed a panel, and part of the wall opened. We entered a secret passageway. We descended to a winding underground passage. Soon we came to a larger room, filled with tables prepared for the Seder. Many passageways led to this room deep in the ground and other families came from each of them.
Those people were happy that night. They never raised their voices, but they were full of enthusiasm and enjoyment as they retold the story of the Hebrews in Egypt and how Hashem set them free from the tyrant's yoke. For one night, at least, they could be Jews; they could obey the commands of their Maker, as their forefathers had done since Sinai. The Sedarim there were the most wonderful I have ever seen.
To this room we came during the entire holiday, to pray and to eat.
After Pesach, my host forced me to take enough money to get back to Vilna. Ever since then, I've tried to make Pesach as happy a time for my family as it was for those Jews who faced the danger of death to keep the mitzvos of Pesach.