IT WAS ONLY NATURAL THAT THE DAUGHTER OF THE prosperous Reb Shmuel Shmelka Reich would marry an outstanding young man. Day after day, matchmakers visited the opulent Reich home in Prague to recommend the best boy in the world for this special girl.
An only child, Perel incorporated every fine quality that might be
sought in a bas Yisrael. Whoever married her would be privileged to a
life of both Torah and prosperity. As yet, however, despite all the suggestions, Perel had not found her destined husband.
One day, a childhood friend of Reb Shmelkas came to visit.
His host treated him with great respect, inviting him in and asking him to sit down. The two sat opposite each other, chatting about this and that, until the guest revealed his purpose in coming.
I live in Posen, which also happens to be the home of a very respected family. The father, Reb Bezalel, has four sons. Each one of them has an excellent character, and they have all won names for themselves as outstanding Torah scholars with brilliant futures ahead of them. The oldest three have married into fine families, but the youngest son, Leib, has just reached marriageable age. I thought it would be suitable for him to enter your honored family, and for you to have such a young man as your son-in-law. This is the boy youve been davening for.
Reb Shmelka was persuaded by these words to travel to Posen to meet the young man in question. From the moment the two met, Leib found favor in Reb Shmelkas eyes. Matters proceeded at a rapid pace, until both sides
announced with joy that the young illui, Leib, had become engaged to
Perel. The happy news spread quickly.
Within days, however, dark clouds began to gather in the Prague
skies. It was a troubled time, as Christian hatred for the Jews periodically erupted into violent action. One night, terrible cries woke the Jews from their sleep. The glare of flickering flames lit the entire city. A raging fire devoured one house after another, until it reached the Jewish quarter. Many homes in this part of town were rapidly demolished as well. One of these belonged to Reb Shmelka Reich. His beautiful house was reduced to ashes and rubble.
As if that were not trouble enough, the Christians then accused
the Jews of starting the fire, and fresh violence erupted in the Jewish quarter. Jews were beaten mercilessly -- Reb Shmelka among them. For many days he lay comatose in his bed; he had been struck down twice: His wealth was gone and his body was broken.
Gradually Reb Shmelka began to recover from his wounds. As he slowly healed, his thoughts turned to his daughters nuptials. In an agony
of spirit he recalled his promise to his future son-in-law to provide the financial security Leib would need to involve himself in Torah to the exclusion of all else. Now his dearest hopes had been swallowed up in poverty and anguish. He would have to inform Leib of the change in his fortunes.
Naturally, these concerns were shared by his family. The spirit of
the entire household would have been depressed in the extreme, if not for the valiant Perel.
Father, she said, I understand the situation. We cant fulfill our promises to Leib. He has a great future ahead of him and
needs a family that is able to support him. If it is impossible for us to do so, we must send him a letter saying that, for our part, we are prepared to break the shidduch and release him from his obligation to us.
Inwardly, Perel wondered whether she had been found unworthy of such a groom. Had all this evil befallen her family on her account? In tears, she beseeched her Creator, I cannot bear the shame. Have pity on Your
daughter, Perel bas Shmuel. She could only cling to the tenuous
hope that something would happen at the 11th hour to save the day.
The letter made its way to Posen, where word of the tragic events in Prague had already preceded it. R Leib read the letter, then sat down
at once to reply.
Why break the shidduch? There is no reason to do so ... We must continue to be strong in our faith, for good days will certainly return.
The euphoria with which this letter was received can well be imagined. Every line bespoke the young mans fine character and steadfast
faith. It was a missive to comfort the heaviest heart, and it brought great encouragement to the family.
Reb Shmelkas family moved into a meager hut, where cold was
rampant and darkness seemed to swallow the light. Their lives were very difficult to bear, especially in contrast to the memory of the splendors lost to them. Poverty and pain brought the family to a very low point. The father was still recovering from his injuries, the wife was tending to his needs -- and where was their livelihood to come from?
Once again, Perel rose to the occasion. Enough of this insufferable situation! Im going to do something to help. I can support us by baking bread. Ill go out to the marketplace every day to sell my loaves, and well get by on that.
If not for the hunger that oppressed every member of the household, Perels suggestion would have been rejected out of hand. As it
was, she rose early each morning, baked her loaves of bread and went out to peddle them from a modest stall in the marketplace. She did not bring home a great deal of money, but it was enough for them to live on.
One day, as she stood at her stall, a soldier cantered up on his horse. Unsheathing his sword, he thrust the point into a loaf and whisked it away. Perel, seeing her hard work being stolen, cried out in distress and ran to block the soldiers way. With pleading eyes she beseeched him to return
Astonished at her temerity, the soldier softened. He searched in
his pockets for a coin to toss at her. Failing to find one, he declared that he would return in a day or two to pay for the bread. To appease her, he pulled something out of his bag to serve as collateral.
Here, he called, pulling out a small pillow. This is booty -- booty from the enemy. If I dont return within three days, sell it and live off the proceedings! The last words floated
away on the wind as the soldier galloped off on his horse in a cloud of dust.
When Perel picked up the pillow, it felt strangely heavy to her. Inspecting it, she saw a great many stitches in the pillows fabric. Upon
her return home later, she related the incident to her parents. Her father, hefting the pillow, suggested that she open it, but Perel was adamant about waiting the three days. The pillow, she said, had been given to her as collateral. It would not be hers until three days passed with no sign of the soldier.
Three days passed, but the soldier never returned. With her parents looking on curiously, Perel took a knife and began slitting the pillows seams. Suddenly -- like something out of a dream -- large gold
coins began pouring out of the pillow.
The hovel was shaken by inarticulate cries. Gold coins rolled
about on the wooden floor as three pairs of eyes looked on in disbelief. Slowly, the tears came, and finally joy stepped in to replace the bewilderment.
Reb Shmelka was the first to regain his wits. In a ringing voice
he pronounced a prayer of thanksgiving to Hashem. Then he called for paper and ink. There was another letter to be written to his future son-in-law, announcing the wonderful news -- that Hashem had heard their prayers and restored his wealth.
The way was clear for Perels marriage to R Leib -- the
extraordinary young man who later came to be known as the Maharal of Prague.