Of Wood and Medicine

By Mordechai Muller (Moscow)

An excerpt from a letter, written on November 28, 1965, to Yehuda Ronder, Kovno, by Mordechai Muller, a Moscow resident. The writer (the son of Alter the badkhn, or wedding-jester) ended up in Moscow after the first World War, and wrote this after receiving a parcel of medicines from Yehuda Ronder.

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You expect me to say “thank you” for the medicines I received from you. Be patient, however, before you hear these words from me. My thanks will not flee from you, and I shall not remain your debtor. I shall not even ask you how much this all cost, together with postage and packaging, and how much money I should send you. I am not poor, thank God, and you are not richer than I am.

When you read this introduction, you will surely think that, since I have been lying in hospital for a year, I have become witless – God forbid! – or demented. Neither this nor that, but while writing to you, I suddenly remembered a story from the distant past in Keidan.

This happened about 1908 or 1909. Our barber shop (if you could call it a barber shop), was situated in a house belonging to Yasse Deitsch, and exactly opposite us was a pharmacy run by a Jew called Kamai, in a house belonging to Blumberg. This was before he was appointed Rabbi with us. He was a very talented Jew, maybe the most talented in the whole region. He was a highly learned man and surpassed ten other rabbis together in knowledge.

One winter day his son, who was helping him in the pharmacy, entered and addressed my father. “Reb Alter”, he said, “Reb Kamai sent me to ask you please to lend him ten bundles of wood. When he buys wood, he’ll return them to you immediately.” My father, may he rest in peace, took the key of the storeroom out of his pocket, gave it to him, and told him to choose ten bundles as he pleased. “It can happen,” my father said to himself; “As it is written in Ecclesiastes: ‘…nor bread for the wise[1]‘.”

A few days passed. The youth entered once more, and told my father that Reb Kamai had asked that my father come by the next time he happened to be near his house. Reb Kamai had something for him. When father entered his house Reb Kamai said, “Sit down Reb Alter, let’s chat a little.”

“I owe you ten bundles of wood. About this I have a request for you: Give them to me as a present. Ten bundles of wood are indeed ten bundles, but I have no other choice than to ask you to give them to me as a gift….”

I should point out here that my father wasn’t stupid; to tell the truth, he was very clever. However, he had one failing in that he had little education. He had mastered six or seven languages, and spoke them well. His tongue was properly attached to his palate, but without grammar. In other words, he didn’t know why one should say this but not that. Yet he had a feeling for how things should be said, without being able to explain why. And so, because father wasn’t stupid, he stayed seated, open-mouthed, and looked at him. As the Talmud says, “What does this teach us?” Kamai asks for the ten bundles as a gift? He looked at him and smiled…

“Rabbi,” my father said to him; “What’s there to talk about here? After all, I didn’t come here to ask for the bundles back. I came because you asked me to, not to collect a debt. Use them, that is, burn them for your own enjoyment. It’s not worth talking about.”

“That means,” Kamai responded, “that you have given me the wood as a present. We are therefore agreed! If so, I also want to give you a present: ten bundles of wood.”

My father said, “Thank you, but I still have enough wood to last me a few weeks.”

“No,” Kamai replied; “You must take ten bundles of wood from me, I give them to you as a present. Yankele”, he said to his son, “Put ten bundles of wood in Reb Alter’s store room”.

My father, may he rest in peace, was still astonished… “What does this teach us?” once again.

When Kamai saw that my father still didn’t understand, he told him, “Well then, I’ll explain my reasoning.”

“We Jews have a great and wonderful Torah. Without this Torah, the memory of our people would have vanished long ago. The Torah unites all Jews, wherever they are. Look, it is written in the Torah that if a man is needy, and borrows money or something else from you, and you lend it to him, you are forbidden to charge him interest. The borrower must not pay you interest, because interest is usury, as simple as that. You see, in the course of time, if he cannot repay the loan, the interest can become larger than the principal. The interest continues to grow and becomes usurious…”.

“Now look here, please”, said Kamai to my father, “how the Torah cares for everyone. You are allowed to receive a pledge when you lend money to someone, but on condition that, if you received a pillow as a pledge, you are forbidden to keep it the whole night, because the borrower won’t have anything to sleep on. You must, therefore, return the pillow to him for the night, but you are allowed to take it back in the morning until the next night. The same principle applies to tools used during the day; for example, a pot used for cooking meals. You must return it to the borrower in the morning, and you can take it back again for the whole night.”

“Do you see now, Reb Alter?” said Kamai, “what I mean when I ask that you give me the ten bundles of wood as a present, while I give you back ten bundles as a present? Indeed, when I took ten bundles of wood from you, you didn’t measure or weigh them. Neither did I when I repaid the debt. I didn’t measure or weigh. It is thus possible that one of us took interest from the other: for example, your pieces of wood may have been thicker and longer than mine, or vice versa. Now,” said Kamai, “you can fully understand me. When you give me a present, and I give you a present in return, everything is equal, and no interest is involved.”

That is to say, are you giving me the medicines as a present? …I therefore hope I will soon be able to leave the house and also give you something as a present…

If you should visit the Ninth Fort[2], I ask that you stand in my name before our martyrs and honor their memory with a minute of silence. The same if you visit Chaim [Ronder]’s grave at the Aleksot [cemetery.]

Now, I can thank you very much for the medicines.

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[1] Ecclesiastes 9:11

[2] “A military facility near Kovno, where more than 50,000 people, most of them Jews, were murdered by the Nazis and their local collaborators.”

 

Translated by Chaim Charutz.