All his adult life, Rabbi Chaim Toledano, the rabbi of Salé in Morocco, was careful to make sure that he hosted guests, or at least one guest, at his table for every holiday meal. After all, what is a holiday meal without a guest? “Merely a stomach celebration,” our sages say.
So dear was this mitzvah to Rabbi Toledano, who was known for his piety and holiness, that if a holiday approached and no guest was expected, he would send his attendant to search the marketplaces and the outskirts of town. The whole time he would be restless, unable to relax, until his attendant returned with a poor person, or a traveler from a different city, in tow.
There were simply no guests to be found...
One year, Shavuot eve fell on a pleasant, clear spring day. The whole morning, the Jews of Salé were busy preparing everything they needed for the two-day festival. Although he did not yet have a guest, Rabbi Toledano was confident that G‑d Almighty would provide one for him. Noontime arrived, but still there was no guest. As he usually did in such cases, he requested of his attendant to go out to search for a traveler in need of hospitality.
The rabbi’s attendant circulated throughout the entire town, but he was unable to find a single Jew who didn’t have a place to be for the holiday. With upturned palms, he ruefully informed his master that he had returned emptyhanded—there were simply no guests to be found.
“Go search again, please,” Rabbi Chaim commanded. Then he paused for a moment. “You can even look in the Jewish cemetery, if you don’t succeed elsewhere. Perhaps someone will be wandering there.”
The attendant hurried to do the rabbi’s bidding. When he again was unable to find anybody appropriate in the streets, he reluctantly walked over to the cemetery. There, almost immediately he saw a Jewish man, bearded and wearing a Moroccan-style jalabiya, whom he didn’t recognize. The man was sitting on the ground between two graves, hunched over with his face in his hands, crying bitterly, his whole body wracked by grief.
The man continued to cry uncontrollably, and never uttered a word in response...
The attendant did his best to comfort him and to invite him to come to the rabbi’s home, but to no avail. It was if he wasn’t even there. No matter what he said, the man continued to cry uncontrollably, and never uttered a word in response or even acknowledged his presence.
The attendant rushed back to the rabbi, and told him about the strange man he had found in the cemetery, sitting on the ground crying, and how he refused to say a single word—not to identify himself, and not to explain his tears.
Rabbi Toledano immediately rose, put on his white festive cloak, took his walking cane in hand, and set out at a brisk pace for the cemetery. Usually, when the townspeople would see him in the street, they would eagerly dart over to kiss his hand and receive a blessing, which he was always happy to bestow. This time, seeing he was hurrying so, they didn’t dare to interrupt him.
When he and his attendant reached the cemetery, they found the man lying on his back next to one of the graves, still crying his heart out. After much effort, Rabbi Toledano was able to calm him down somewhat, but when he invited him to be at his house for Shavuot, the man refused. Out of respect for the rabbi, who was clearly a holy person, he broke his silence, but he said he was much too unhappy and upset to be anyone’s guest. Rabbi Chaim pleaded with him to tell what was causing him so much grief, saying that, with G‑d’s help, he would do everything in his power to help him. But still the forlorn man refused to reveal his thoughts.
In the end, feeling he had no alternative, Rabbi Toledano declared, “Look, our holy sages of blessed memory have said, ‘One must never despair of G‑d’s mercy, even if a sword is poised at his throat.’ I swear to you that I will rescue you from whatever terrible plight has befallen you. Now, just get up and come with me to be my guest for the Shavuot holiday.”
I put all my accumulated wealth…into a small wooden chest, and set sail for home...
The distraught man took encouragement from the rabbi’s sincere concern and forceful promise. He humbly accepted Rabbi Chaim’s invitation, and climbed to his feet. As they walked together, he unburdened himself of his story to his exalted host.
“I am a resident of Salé, but I left my family here several years ago in order to go overseas to seek prosperity. After many sea voyages and struggling in a number of different countries, finally, with G‑d’s help, I succeeded to amass a very large sum. I put all my accumulated wealth—gold, silver and assorted jewels—into a small wooden chest, and set sail for home.
“When the ship arrived in the harbor here, a small raft pulled alongside, to ferry the few disembarking passengers through the shallow water to the shore. As I was transferring my things to the raft, somehow I lost my grip on the heavy box and it fell into the water. It sank immediately. All my wealth! Everything that I slaved and suffered for all of these years! All wasted! Lost in a single moment!
“Truly, I wish I were dead. Anyway, ‘a poor person is considered as dead,’ our sages stated. I can’t bear the idea of being a pauper again!” Finishing his sad tale, he broke down once more, burying his face in his hands and weeping bitterly.
Rabbi Toledano girded himself... uttering a series of holy names...
Rabbi Toledano pondered what to do. He thought about turning over all of his money and everything he possessed to this unfortunate victim of fate. After all, he had promised to rescue him. But he quickly realized that even if he were to do so, it wouldn’t make up even half the value of what had disappeared into the ocean’s vaults.
He meditated on the matter more, standing deep in thought for many minutes. At last, he seemed to make up his mind, accepting the extreme measures necessary to fulfill his word and rescue his cherished guest from his desperate situation. Turning to his groaning companion, he said, “Come, my son. Let’s go back to the port. There you can point out to me exactly where your treasure fell into the sea.”
When they got to the shore, the guest estimated to the rabbi where he thought his box had sunk. Rabbi Toledano girded himself and, uttering a series of holy names known to masters of Kabbalah, adjured with a binding oath the heavenly officer appointed over the ocean. After just a few moments, an assortment of items could be seen floating on the surface of the water, all things that had been lost at sea. The waves became stronger—their white frothy crests rising high above the chilly blue surface—and a huge number of different objects, seemingly dredged from the ocean bottom, were now riding the powerful current towards the shore.
The rabbi’s features were cast in seriousness. “Don’t dare touch anything that is not yours!” he solemnly warned his guest. The latter stood frozen to his spot, too terrified by the vision taking place in front of his eyes to even think of responding. Suddenly he saw his precious wooden chest, being pushed by the waxing tide directly towards him. He snatched it up instinctively, and then hugged it in great joy and excitement.
Turning to Rabbi Toledano, he began to thank him profusely. The rabbi himself was very happy that he had been able to keep his promise, save a Jew in tragic need, and acquire a guest who would be able to enjoy with him the special Shavuot holiday meals in a proper festive spirit.
“Come, my son,” he said once more, this time with a wide smile. “Let us hurry home and get ready to receive the Torah.”
Translated/adapted from Echyeh v’Asaper.
Rabbi Chaim Toledano (c. 1700–1783) was the rabbi of Salé, Morocco, in the generation after the Ohr HaChaim left for Israel. In the book Tehillah le-David he is described as being “the glorious adornment of the sages... pleasing to G‑d and man.”
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