The only light in the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos that night was a soft, filtered glow from stars almost hidden by a translucent fog. The dark figure placed a basket carefully at the entrance to the shul, leaned tenderly over the blanketed bundle inside and gave it a gentle kiss. The figure then straightened up and turned to go. Yet there was a hesitancy in the steps. The figure gazed longingly once more at the small package. Wisps of frosted breath spoke softly to the silent treasure and lingered in the cool, damp night. The distant bark of a dog startled the figure and, with one last look at the basket’s contents, the mysterious visitor turned and walked swiftly to the edge of Vaysechvoos, then disappeared into the fog. As gray-pink light crept above the horizon, the bundle began to cry.
It was Shimmon the Shammes who first found the baby. Hurrying to open the doors to the shul for the early morning prayers, he heard the wailing sobs as he approached, and quickened his pace. Shimmon spotted the wriggling package inside its little basket and exclaimed, Lord Almighty, a baby!” Of course, the Almighty knew already that it was a baby. But such is the way we humans respond to surprises. Shimmon stooped over and looked with amazement into the little pink face, wet with tears, its mouth quivering and its hands struggling to be released from the tightly wrapped blanket. He lifted the tiny one, unbuttoning his own wool coat so he could warm the little bundle inside his wraps.
“Shhhhhh, little one, how frightened you must be. Who would leave a little baby all alone in the night?” He held his arms tightly around it and bent his head down to kiss the baby’s forehead. “Have you been here long? Poor little one. But I must get you inside. No, I must take you home until we can find your mama or papa. Shhh, never mind, little one, we’ll find your home.”
The shammes’ wife, Hannah, was not pleased. ” A girl, Shimmon, a baby girl!” she scolded. “To leave a baby girl on the steps in the night? How could it be? Who could do such a thing?” Hannah clucked her displeasure as she hurried about the kitchen to warm milk for their tiny guest. “Was there a note? Did you see anyone? Whose baby is it? No one in Vaysechvoos has an infant that young. Who would do such a thing? Who?”
“I don’t know,” Shimmon replied, ” but someone must know. I’ll start inquiring.”
He returned to the shul only to find the pious men of Vaysechvoos huddled at the door. “Where have you been, Shimmon? You are the only one with the key and we have been standing here for almost half an hour!” The voice of Motel the Melamed was raised well above normal speech. Shimmon, in his hurry to get the little baby to his home, had forgotten his duty to open the shul.
“I am so sorry for your inconvenience, but when I arrived here earlier…” And so Shimmon related all he knew about the child left in a basket at the shul door.
News travels quickly in Vaysechvoos, and all in the shtetl were soon speculating about the baby and who would have deposited her there.
“Maybe the mother was running from the czar’s men and thought her baby would be safer with us,” posed Dora the butcher’s wife.
“No. I think it more likely that the parents were so poor that they thought that even a poor town like Vaysechvoos could better provide for the child,” countered Feivel the Tanner.
“It seems plain to me,” said Yonkel the Milkman, “that the family had too many daughters. For if it was a son, they surely would have kept him no matter what.”
The chatter continued, but Shimmon was no closer to finding out the circumstances of the baby’s arrival in Vaysechvoos.
“Did no one see who left her?” asked his wife again, later at home.
“No one,” he answered, thoughtfully stroking his gray-peppered beard. “Maybe tomorrow we’ll know more,” he added, but there was little hope in his voice.
The next day all the townspeople went to see the little child. One by one they crowded around as the cuddly bundle gurgled happily at her new neighbors.
No one recognized the child. And it was clear from her wrappings that she was from a distant place, perhaps Kiev. The blanket was of a fine wool and the basket she slept in was much sturdier than those the merchants brought to Vaysechvoos.
Over the next days and weeks, it became increasingly obvious to the people of Vaysechvoos that their dilemma was not how to find the parents, but what to do with a baby who had been left in their care, or more specifically in the shammes’ care.
Of course, they all agreed that they should bring her up in the ways of Torah, but that subject brought up another question–was the little girl Jewish? They couldn’t tell from her features–not, of course, in the way they could have known with a baby boy. And this caused quite a stir. Should she be regarded as a Jew or a gentile? if only there was some test, some way of knowing.
Soon the rabbi of Vaysechvoos was overwhelmed with suggestions as to how to determine the child’s parentage. “I once heard that all gentile babies completely lose their fingernails and toenails between their thirty-second and thirty-third week. Then they grow them back at age one,” said the widow Miriam. Some of the others nodded, still others shook their heads in disbelief.
“But if that is true, how will we know–even if she does lose her fingernails and toenails–that it is exactly between the thirty-second and thirty-third week?” someone asked. “We don’t know when the child was born.”
“Do we need to know exactly?” another queried. No one could answer.
“If she’s a Jewish baby,” said Menachem, the farmer and town philanthropist, “she will be able to recite the Sh’ma by the time she is 18 months.” Again, some murmured approval. “But that can’t be,” protested Motel the Melamed. “I didn’t know the Sh’ma until I was four years old.” And everyone knew how learned Motel was.
“If she can properly light the Sabbath candles, we’ll know she’s Jewish. If not–she must be gentile ” said the melamed’s wife, Frieda. But the people all agreed that they couldn’t wait that long to find out whether she was a daughter of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel.
“My uncle from the city says that a gentile baby will always grow blonde eyelashes,” said the baker.
“But so did our little Herschel,” protested Lotte, the rabbi’s wife. The townspeople shrugged. What could they do to determine the baby’s true identity?
Meanwhile, Shimmon and Hannah saw to the baby’s needs. Whether or not she was born of Jewish parents, she was being cared for by Jewish parents.
As the months passed and the child began learning to speak, Shimmon knew that things must soon be settled as to how the child should be regarded–as a Jew or a gentile. So he came to the rabbi once more. “Rabbi,” said the shammes, “Hannah and I believe the Almighty put this child into our hands to raise in what is good and right. But how can we know her heritage?”
The rabbi, who had been pondering that same question for quite some time, answered with twinkling eyes. “Ah, my dear Shimmon,” he said. “You already know what to teach the child. You will teach her the truth of Torah, the Word of God. That is the only truth there is. It does not change according to a person’s identity. Has not the Almighty said that his word stands forever? This little child cannot change the truth, whether she is Jew or gentile.
“You will teach her to be as Sarah, Abraham’s obedient wife who bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged him faithful who had promised. It was through that child, Isaac, that Abraham’s seed was called. You will teach her to be as Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, who bore him the son Jacob, whom the Lord named Israel. And you will teach the child to be as Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel.” The rabbi paused, then continued. “And then, no matter what her background is, this child of unknown parents can become a child of the Most High. You will raise her as one of your own.”
The room was still. Shimmon pondered the words of the rabbi. And then he replied, “Ah, Rabbi, you have spoken the truth. The Word of the Lord does not change. And if we knew the child were Jewish, we would have no questions. But just in case, Rabbi–just in case she isn’t–just in case she is gentile–we would like to have her undergo a mikvah. Then we could truly accept her as one of our own.”
“Where is your faith, Shimmon?” responded the rabbi. “There is one other mother of Israel in whose likeness this child should be raised. You shall teach her to be as Ruth, who though from among the nations, chose to be one of our people. And the Almighty blessed her in that from her came King David. If God could accept the Moabite Ruth, can you do less?”
So the child was given the name Ruth. Ruth never did lose all her fingernails and toenails, although she did have blonde eyelashes for a time. And she learned to recite the Sh’ma by the time she was three years old. She grew into a lovely young woman with features that could not be definitely described as Jewish, nor could they be called non-Jewish. Shimmon and Hannah were very proud of their Ruth, and all the people of Vaysechvoos agreed. Ruth was raised to honor the Scriptures and to discover in them the truth that is most important, the truth that does not change for Jew or gentile. Truly, said the townspeople, she is one of our own.