In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Four Different Questions
It was Spring and all of Vaysechvoos was preparing for the holidays. The women were busy cleaning their homes, making sure that there was no chometz. The everyday dishes, silverware, pots and pans were carefully packed away and stored in cupboards fastened with cords, so as not to be opened during the eight days of Pesach. The special utensils and cookware were brought out for their one week a year of use.
The youngest son in each family was preparing as well. For it was his duty to recite the Mah nishtana–the four questions. What an honor this was! And each boy would practice again and again his moment of glory when he would stand before the zayde and recite the ancient chant. It was important to know it well, so as not to have to look too closely at the haggadah but, instead, to fix one’s gaze at the esteemed head of the family.
Passover was also a time to purchase special items. The kosher for Pesach wine had to be bought. And then, of course, there was the Pesach matzoh, for without matzoh one could not celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Which brings me to the story of the matzoh fund.
At the approach of any major holiday, the first duty of every Jew is to concentrate his thoughts on the poor and needy. He must always be concerned about those less fortunate. The rabbis say: If a Jew fails to provide for the indigent, yet takes pleasure from the festival meals with his family, he is not fulfilling the will of the Almighty in the observance of the holidays.”
In every Jewish community (and Vaysechvoos was no exception) there was the custom that all of the townspeople were to contribute to a matzoh fund. It was called the “moat hittim,” which means “money for wheat.” It was given that name because in years past, the head of the house would purchase a supply of wheat for Pesach. He would take that wheat to the mill, which was made clean and ready for Pesach use. And it was there that the wheat was ground into meal and then taken to a specially equipped bakery for the making of kosher for Pesach matzoh.
The wheat money had been collected this Passover, as in the past, and was to be used so that every Jewish family in the village had matzoh and whatever else was proper for their observance of the feast. Motel the Junk dealer had a particularly good year and he put a little extra into the fund. Mendel the Shoemaker and Shimmon the Butcher both had prosperous years, and so their contributions were higher than in previous years. And so it went for many of the others.
The fund was so very well endowed that when it was distributed to all the poor families of Vaysechvoos, it provided not only for a little matzoh, a bottle of Pesach wine and a chicken–but allowed for the purchase of haggadahs so that each member of the household would have his own to read and sing along with for the seder. There was no happier family than poor Chayim Potashnik’s.
Chayim’s son Yossie was busy preparing to recite the Mah nishtana. He had worked very long and hard, but the only haggadah which the family owned had the marks of time on its pages and the print had become well worn in places, including the section where the four questions were recorded.
With the windfall in the matzoh fund and the purchase of new haggadahs for all the poor families, including the Potashniks, Yossie discovered the following:
There were four questions instead of two. He had always wondered what had been on the rest of the faded page of the family haggadah.
Yossie took home the three haggadahs from the itinerant bookseller and started checking through the pages to see what else he might have missed. He noticed a strange bookmark that had writing in the gentile language. So he asked his father,
“What is this strange green and orange finely printed piece of paper, Papa?”
“Where did you get it?” Chayim asked his son.
“It was here in the haggadah.”
“A thousand ruble note,” gasped his father. Could this be happening to our family?”
Yossie had heard about other children receiving a ruble note for finding the hidden matzoh, the afikomen. But his family was so poor that a kopek had to do.
It took Chayim a moment to regain his composure, but once he did, he was firm. “We must go to the rabbi. It might be counterfeit, or, then again, it could be the life savings of some very pious Jew.”
So they went to the rabbi who said,
“This situation resolves itself in the answer to the four questions.”
Yossie stood up and began to recite the Mah nishtana.
“No, no…” said the rabbi. “There are four different questions:
First, is this bill counterfeit?
Second, is there a moral obligation to return it?
Third, if there is not, then what shall we do with it?
And finally fourth, why did this happen to Yossie?
Well, the last question was easily answered. Yossie was favored of God, and this was a sign to the household that the fortune of the Potashniks had changed. The other questions were answered in short order as well. The district magistrate assured them that the bill was genuine.
The other rabbis in the district gathered to discuss the other two questions. Yossie brought the book and all therein. The rabbis agreed that had there been a flower or an envelope or a pressed butterfly between the pages, it would have belonged to Yossie. Only one rabbi thought they ought to try to see if perhaps the ruble note was lost by a poor deserving person. But the others pointed out that no person with a thousand rubles could ever be considered poor.
After much consultation, they decided that they didn’t know anyone who was poorer or more deserving than the Potashniks. And so Yossie was told to do with the thousand rubles as he thought best. He didn’t need to think but for a moment, and immediately gave nine hundred rubles to his mother, with which she bought six cows, a house, a barn, a mule and a wagon.
She also laid aside enough for the two daughters’ dowries and for Yossie to attend a fine Yeshiva. But ah, you ask, what about that other hundred rubles. Yossie put it into the matzoh fund, of course.
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.