In the mid-sixteenth century, a secret Jew from Portugal moved to the holy city of Safed. Deprived of the opportunity to do so in his youth, he was overjoyed to finally be able to practice the religion of his ancestors openly.

Years later, he heard a talk by the rabbi of the synagogue that he attended about lechem hapanim, the "show-bread", which was offered in the Holy Temple each Friday before Shabbat (see Lev. 24:5-9). After explaining the various laws and procedures governing this offering and touching on its mystical significance, the rabbi had sighed deeply and bemoaned that, because of our sins, we no longer had this ready means to propitiate G‑d.

The Jew took these words to heart. When he arrived home, he asked his wife to prepare two special challahs on Friday. He related to her all the details he remembered from the lecture on show-bread. She should sift the flour thirteen times, knead it while she was in a state of purity, and bake the dough very well in their oven. He told her that he wished to present these loaves as an offering to G‑d; hopefully He would consider them an acceptable sacrifice, and eat them.

...when no one was likely to be in the synagogue, the man brought the loaves….

His wife loyally fulfilled his request, and early that Friday afternoon, when no one was likely to be in the synagogue, the man brought the loaves there under his cloak. He prayed and cried that G‑d should look upon his offering with favor, and eat and enjoy the lovely, freshly baked bread. He went on and on, like an errant son begging his father for forgiveness. Then he placed the loaves, wrapped, in the Holy Ark beneath the Torah scrolls, and quickly left for home.

The caretaker of the synagogue arrived later that day to complete the preparations of the synagogue for the holy Shabbat. One of his duties was to check that the Torah scroll was rolled to the proper place for the reading the next morning. When he opened the Ark, he was surprised to see a package had been neatly placed inside. He opened it and found two fine-looking loaves of challah! He had no idea where they had come from, but he didn't think too much about it; he simply decided to take them home and eat them - after all, they looked and smelled so tasty!

And they were delicious. The caretaker was delighted with this unexpected fringe benefit of his job.

That evening, the Jew from Portugal waited impatiently for the end of the prayers. When everyone had left the synagogue, he approached the Ark in great trepidation, and swung open its doors. The loaves were not there! He was so happy. The Creator Himself must have accepted his offering! He hurried home to share his joy with his wife. He innocently proclaimed G‑d had not disdained the poor efforts of such insignificant people as themselves. Indeed, He had accepted their two loaves and eaten them while they were still warm!

Therefore, he exhorted her, let us not be lazy, for we have no other way to honor him, and we see that He loves our bread. Every week we must try to give Him this pleasure, with the same care and devotion that we did this first time.

His wife was swayed by his wholehearted excitement….

His wife was swayed by his wholehearted excitement and gladly cooperated. Every Friday morning she faithfully prepared two beautiful loaves, paying careful attention to every detail, great and small, and every Friday afternoon he delivered them to the synagogue and earnestly prayed and pleaded with G‑d for their acceptance.

And every Friday the caretaker would come along and happily eat the delicious challahs, and every Friday night the Jew from Portugal ecstatically informed his wife that once again their meager offering had been accepted.

So it went, for many weeks and months.

One Friday, the rabbi of the synagogue stayed much later than usual, until the afternoon. It was the same rabbi who had given the speech about "show-bread" that had so inspired the Jew from Portugal. He was standing on the bima (pulpit), reviewing the sermon he planned to give the next day, when, to his surprise, he saw one of his congregants enter carrying two loaves of bread, walk up to the Ark, and deposit them inside. He realized that the man was unaware of his presence, and he heard him utter fervent prayers for G‑d to accept his offering and enjoy the challahs.

The rabbi listened in astonishment. At first he was silent, but as he began to understand what was going on, his anger rose. Finally he was unable to restrain himself any longer and burst out in fury: "Stop! You fool! How can you think that our G‑d eats and drinks? It is a terrible sin to ascribe human or any physical qualities to G‑d Al-mighty. You actually believe it is the L-rd who takes your measly loaves? Why, it is probably the synagogue's caretaker who eats them."

At that moment the caretaker entered the synagogue, blithely expecting to pick up his challahs, as usual. He was a bit startled to see the rabbi and another man standing there. The Rabbi immediately confronted him: "Tell this man why you came here now and who has been taking the two challahs he has been bringing each week."

The caretaker freely admitted it. He wasn't embarrassed at all. He couldn't understand why the rabbi was so agitated or why he was yelling at the other man who looked so unhappy, whom he knew to be an unlearned but sincere Jew.

He left the synagogue in shame and despair.

As the rabbi continued his rebuke, the man burst into tears. He was crushed. Not only had he not done a mitzvah as he had thought, it seemed he was guilty of a great sin. He apologized to the rabbi for having misunderstood his lesson about the show-bread, and begged for forgiveness. He left the synagogue in shame and despair. How could he have been so wrong? What was he to do now?

Shortly thereafter, a messenger from the holy Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) strode into the synagogue and approached the rabbi. In the name of his master, he told the rabbi to go home, say goodbye to his family, and prepare himself; because by the designated time for his sermon the next morning, he soul will already have departed to its eternal rest. Thus it had been announced from Heaven.

The rabbi couldn't believe what he had just heard, nor could the disciple explain it to him. So the rabbi went directly to the Arizal, who confirmed the message and added, as gently as possible, "I heard that it is because you halted G‑d's pleasure, the likes of which He hasn't enjoyed since the day the Holy Temple was destroyed. That is what He felt when this innocent Jew from Portugal would bring his two precious loaves to your synagogue each week, faithfully offering them to G‑d from the depths of his heart with joy and awe, and believing that G‑d had taken them - until you irrevocably destroyed his innocence. For this the degree was sealed against you, and there is no possibility to change it."

The rabbi went home and sadly told his family all that had transpired. By the time of the sermon the next morning, his soul had already departed to hear Torah in the Heavenly academy, exactly as the Arizal had said.


[Editor's note:
A version circulating in Safed has it that the rabbi at this point was living "extra" years, beyond his original allotment, in the merit of the pleasure he indirectly caused G‑d through his lecture on the show-bread.]

Translated/adapted from Kfar Chabad Magazine #885, based on Rabbi Moshe Hagiz (1572-?), in his book Mishnat Hachamim, where he writes that he heard this story from reliable people in Safed who were there when it happened.

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