In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Blessed Scarf
It was a little too big for a babushka and a little too small for a waist sash. The dark brown, ancient pattern against the lighter background seemed like something the Turks might have designed. The repeated lines and angular letters looked, at first glance, like the heathenish language. Yet upon closer inspection, the word Baruch” appeared to be woven into the pattern, again and again. The scarf commanded a certain respect from all of the villagers. They called it “the scarf of blessing.”
It was not like any other. The scarf was made of fine wool, and years of wear had given it a shine so that at first glance, one might mistake it for silk. But when the rains came, the smell was the smell of wool. Still, it was so soft and shiny, some wondered if perhaps it contained mixture. Of course, the rabbi proclaimed that a scarf of miracles certainly could not contain mixture!
The people of Vaysechvoos rarely spoke of the blessed scarf, yet everyone in the shtetl was more than a little aware of its presence. It belonged to no one, yet in a sense, it belonged to everyone…but let me explain.
The scarf was indeed a blessing when the person who wore it at the time of the Rosh Hodesh was pure of heart. When such a person would recite the prayers, the desires of their heart would be granted…provided that they did not speak that desire to another living soul.
There are stories told of the most marvelous miracles–of barren women who became mothers. And of spinsters who became brides, and of those with prolonged grief who could smile. As for the impoverished, well, it would be an exaggeration to say they had become prosperous. After all, who in Vaysechvoos prospers? But they found there was a little more bread on the table and a little more wine in the kiddush cup.
Now the scarf was passed on from one person to another as a gift. It was not given to help celebrate a birthday or a shidduch. It was passed along rather unceremoniously, sometimes even surreptitiously from one to the next, lest any pure in heart be tempted into evil speculations and greed.
According to tradition, the blessed scarf could be in one person’s possession for only one New Moon. After that, it had to be given to another. The story is told of a man who forgot to pass it on at the appointed time. His house burned own, his wife ran away with the merchant from Kiev and six of his eight milk cows dried up. No one in Vaysechvoos cared to test the potency for “unblessing.” Everyone took great pains to make the scarf a blessing to someone else at the appointed time.
When Perele the Widow was seen wearing the scarf of blessing, the townspeople smiled. Here was a woman who was truly pure of heart. For though she had little of this world’s gods, she was always ready to put an extra table setting out for a stranger who might be passing through town. When a child was confined to bed with a head cold, it was the widow who offered to come and cheer up the kind with a little something sweet. And when the rabbi of Vaysechvoos appealed for alms for the poor, it was the widow who was the first to give and give generously from what seemed to be nothing. She would do anything to help the poor, not realizing that she herself was impoverished. The Almighty knew that if ever a woman deserved to have her prayers answered, Perele the Widow did. Everyone in Vaysechvoos would have concurred with the Almighty, until the strangest things began to take place.
At first there were “little” things that one might call troublesome. The widow lamented that her hen laid only three eggs a week instead of the customary seven. All of Vaysechvoos clucked their tongues sympathetically, but felt that the blessed scarf would more than compensate the widow. But when her son wrote from Kiev and said that he and his bride could not afford to come home for the holidays as planned, there were some eyebrows raised. Surely if Perele the Widow was truly pure of heart, a prayer to have her son and daughter-in-law home for Pesach would not go unanswered?
One mishap after another continued to befall the poor widow. People who had at one time praised her to the heavens now wondered what evil things she had been hiding all these years, that would account for the punishment the Almighty was meting out.
Strangers who passed through town were warned not to accept her meager hospitality for she was a woman of “mysterious” ways and perhaps not to be trusted. Mothers accepted sweets for their children from the Widow. But after she had left, they would say a prayer to guard against the evil eye and then proceed to bury the treats behind their houses.
Perele was not bitter over all this. Mostly she was puzzled. Daily she asked the Almighty’s forgiveness. For what sin, she did not know, but she did not see it as unreasonable to think that she might well have done something to warrant the Almighty’s anger. She prayed that her evil fortune would be turned to good.
As the time approached for her to think about passing the scarf along to another villager, she went out to the field and recited this Tehinnah:
“Lord of the world, Almighty God! In Your great mercy, You have created heaven and earth and all their creatures in six days. You have also given us New Moons. On the Sabbath before the New Moon we say the blessing and we pray that You bring us back to Jerusalem and renew our days of old. For now we have no Temple, and no altar, and no High Priest who can make atonement for us. We were called the children of our Father Abraham; how is it that today we are so desolate? Wash me thoroughly of my sins. Renew and bring about for us this New Month for joy and may all be turned around for us for good. You are truly our great King.”
She wondered if God would hear her prayer, or if he would turn his face from her as he had seemed to do from the moment she received the scarf of blessing. As she pondered these things she caught the scent of something in the air. It was the smell of burning timber. Turning toward her little dwelling, she saw bright orange flames through the black smoke and she knew the worst had happened. Her tiny home had become an inferno!
She sobbed and trudged toward the holocaust that was formerly a hovel. “Oh God Almighty,” she wailed, “what terrible thing have I done? Maybe I should just throw myself into the flames and perish!”
She didn’t see through her tears that the rest of Vaysechvoos was alerted to the fire and many had already arrived to put out the blaze. By the time she arrived, Yonkel the Butcher organized a line of people passing tubs of water from one to the next and finally onto the flames. Others were stamping and yelling. There was such a hub-bub like you’ve never heard. Who knows, perhaps the fire left of its own accord to avoid the noise everyone was making!
In any case, the fire was doused, but not before it had completely destroyed the dwelling with Perele’s few belongings inside. The widow hoped her neighbors would think it was simply smoke which caused her reddened eyes to water, instead of her suspicions that they had only come to her aid so that the fire would be contained and not damage their property. She quickly chided herself for having such unkind thoughts.
Actually, half the people of Vaysechvoos did shake their heads and say it was God’s final judgment on the widow and they only hoped the fire would not spread. But the other half remembered her many mitzvot and they were ashamed. These neighbors attempted to comfort her.
The widow accepted their condolences with a nod as she roamed aimlessly through the ruins.
“Widow Perele!” the butcher exclaimed, “You’re not wearing the blessed scarf!” Someone gasped. Another shrieked. Everyone was thinking the same thing.
“No,” the widow responded, too shocked and bewildered to really care. “The blessings seemed to have turned to curses, so I left it home as I went out to pray. It must have been destroyed in the fire.”
The townspeople shuddered for they all knew that it had to have been destroyed. How could a piece of cloth, no matter how well made, survive the flames that licked through the widow’s home that day?
The widow looked down at the ground. “If only I had perished in the flames!” she mumbled quietly. As she surveyed the smoldering remains of what had once been a wooden floor, the only luxury she’d ever had in her entire life, she saw it. The familiar angular pattern on that special piece of cloth. She cried out, “The scarf of blessing!”
She had to dig a little to salvage it from the smoky, sooty mess. As she dug, she felt something beneath it that was hard and round and warm to the touch. What could have possibly survived the fire? Setting the scarf aside, she pulled a gold piece from out of the ground. There were oohs and aahs from her neighbors. Not many in Vaysechvoos had seen a gold coin before. And where one gold piece is hidden, there are likely to be more, true? True.
The widow continued to dig through the rubble and found, to her utter amazement, one coin after another. Actually, there were seventy gold coins! A small fortune!
And so the Widow Perele was not only able to rebuild her home and restore her possessions, she was able to purchase three new hens, a rooster and a milk cow.
Furthermore, she sent for her son and daughter-in-law from Kiev, and they arrived just in time for Pesach. She forgave those in Vaysechvoos who had treated her poorly, and for the others she prepared her most delicious tzimmis which everyone thoroughly enjoyed at their seder tables.
And you might be wondering what happened to the scarf of blessing. The widow passed it along to Feival the Tanner. She winked as she warned him–” May God grant you the desire of your heart–if your heart is strong enough to take it!”
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.