Illustration (Image Credit: Wix)
Who could believe it? Who could entertain the possibility of such an occurrence happening to any devout Jew, let alone one who was widely recognized to be a Tzadik and a Talmid Chacham (Torah scholar)?
How did it happen that Rabbi Sinai Steiner, the Av Beis Din of Ulanów, close associate of the venerable Sanzer Rebbe Chaim Halberstam, z’’tl, an ardent Chassid, and author of Sefer Har Sinai, an impressive collection of original commentaries, did not sell his chametz for Pesach (Passover)?
The barrage of endless preparations required for Pesach has relegated the selling of one's chametz to being a technicality accomplished with relative ease. To Rabbi Sinai Steiner (1780-1849), living in a nineteenth century Polish shtetl, selling his chametz turned into an ordeal that challenged the very depths of his being. The relationship between a Jew and his gentile countrymen during the bleak protracted Polish galut (exile) was a tenuous one that would erupt with monotonous frequency into a crisis. Rabbi Steiner, like many of his contemporaries, was a whisky dealer, a common Jewish trade that was carefully regulated and licensed by the Polish authorities.
It is not known whether the conspiracy was born out of malice, mockery, or mere mischievous intent, but one Pesach, Rabbi Steiner could not find any non-Jew who would consent to buy his chametz. Pesach was rapidly approaching and the prospect of being in possession of his chametz filled him with insurmountable dread.
There was only one thing that he could do! Rabbi Steiner left the doors to his whisky establishment wide open, proclaimed the entire contents public domain, and quickly left town. He would bask in the resplendent sanctity of Pesach with a serenity that regarded his inevitable financial ruin with impervious disdain. Rabbi Steiner returned to his town over a week later after Pesach had ended, expecting to find his property in a shambles and his inventory completely depleted.
He was amazed to find everything in perfect order. When the Commissar had heard that Rabbi Steiner fled the town, he assumed it was because he owed the townspeople money. When he unearthed the conspiracy that prevented him from selling his chametz and made Rabbi Steiner a fugitive from his own home, the Commissar took charge and protected his property for the entire Pesach. From which impregnable crucible of strength did this precious Jew summon the ability to face complete financial disaster and the derisive judgment of those around him in order to fulfill a technicality of his precious laws? Then again, this was the same man who had once faced imprisonment and a death sentence with equanimity and bitachon (trust). When he was finally declared innocent and released from prison after being falsely accused of a crime, the entire town came to greet him. The venerable Sanzer Rebbe, z’’tl, the Divrei Chaim, headed the jubilant delegation and asked Rabbi Steiner how he was able to endure the threat of a death penalty. This precious Jew explained that he was too concerned thinking about a particularly difficult question in the writings of the Rambam to consider his impending death penalty. The same imponderable spirit that animated Rabbi Steiner's life was evident decades later when his grandson and namesake, Sinai Gruner, jumped into a raging fire in order to rescue the life of a mentally disabled boy. The same impregnable crucible of strength enabled his great-great-grandson, another Sinai Gruner, to perish in the Holocaust Al Kiddush Hashem (for the sanctification of G-d’s name) with a soul unblemished by the horrors around him. So dear readers, if the task of preparing for Pesach is too challenging, if you feel as though every crumb that must be unearthed from the crevices and shadows of your possessions is a chametz conspiracy that taxes your strength - and possibly your sanity - let your burden become a joy. Let us appreciate the luxury of being able to sell our chametz with relative ease. I am indebted to a descendant of Rabbi Sinai Steiner for preserving the story of the Chametz Conspiracy in order that it inspire the lives of those who today still draw their courage from the same immutable crucible of eternal strength.
Darla Chavkin Stone's features have appeared in magazines, news publications, and research journals in the US, England, Israel, and Mexico and on the web. She is the editor of "Explorations In Soular Space." This story, reprinted with permission of the author, previously appeared in the London Jewish Tribune, The New York Jewish Tribune, and in Kehilah Links