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The Oath

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In one of the narrow lanes of the Jerusalem neighborhood of “Beth Israel” stands a large, handsomely built synagogue. For a hundred years, a marble plaque affixed to its north wall has borne the legend:

“For everlasting remembrance in the House of G-d. This synagogue has been erected by the generosity of a donor, whose name shall remain hidden and concealed, who contributed the sum of 110 napoleons of gold.”

For many years, it was presumed that the funds were provided by one of the wealthy citizens of Jerusalem who wished, through anonymity, to preserve his good deed from the taint of pride. Few knew the true identity of the donor and the story behind his donation.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Porush was a man of modest means, though large sums of money passed through his hands. He was the secretary of one of the “kollel” societies which supported the poor Jews of Jerusalem with funds collected for that purpose throughout the Diaspora. Rabbi Shlomo was responsible for the sustenance of several hundred families whose support had been pledged by the Jewish community of Minsk and its environs in White Russia.

One year, as Passover approached, the arrival of funds was delayed. Rabbi Shlomo knew that the money would be forthcoming, but in the meantime, the families for whom he was responsible had to be provided with matzot, wine and other festival needs. He therefore turned to a neighbor of his, Reb Faivish Stoller, a carpenter who worked hard all his life and had managed to put aside a considerable sum. Faivish agreed to loan him his life-savings—200 napoleons of gold—until he could be repaid with the money arriving shortly from abroad.

Soon after Passover, the long-awaited messenger arrived from Minsk. The purse he brought contained only 110 napoleons, but an accompanying letter promised that the remainder was on the way. Rabbi Shlomo lost no time in bringing the money to his neighbor.

Several weeks later, the rest of the money arrived. But when Rabbi Shlomo brought the 90 gold coins to Reb Faivish, a most unpleasant surprise awaited him. The elderly carpenter, whose memory had begun to fail him, had lost all recollection of the first payment and was adamant in his insistence that he had received nothing of the 200 napoleons owed.

No written contract recorded the loan or the payment, for the two men had had absolute trust in each other. Now they had no recourse but to present their case before the bet-din (rabbinical court) of the venerated chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shmuel Salant.

From a halachic standpoint, this was a textbook case: the borrower admits the loan, but claims that a partial payment has been made, which the lender denies. This is a classic example of modeh b’miktzat (“one who partially admits” an otherwise insupportable claim); in such a case, the burden of proof rests with the lender, but the borrower must take a “biblical oath” in affirmation of his argument.

Upon hearing the verdict of the bet-din, Rabbi Shlomo turned pale. Never in his life did he imagine that he would be required to take an oath in court, never mind a “biblical oath” performed upon a Torah scroll! He begged to be given several days to think over the matter.

When the bet-din reconvened, Rabbi Shlomo announced that he was prepared to pay the disputed 110 napoleons out of his own pocket rather than take an oath. He only asked that he be given a few weeks to raise the money. Faivish Stoller agreed, and it appeared that the matter had been settled. But Rabbi Shmuel Salant would not allow this arrangement. “I’m sorry,” he said to Rabbi Shlomo, “but this is not a private matter that can be settled between the litigants. It involves communal funds. As one who is entrusted with charity moneys, your honesty must be beyond reproach. Unless it is decisively established that the money was paid as you claim, people will talk. I therefore insist that you take the oath.”

Again Rabbi Shlomo requested, and was granted, a short respite. For three days he fasted, wept and recited psalms. On the fourth day he came before the bet-din and swore that he had paid 110 napoleons to Faivish Stoller.

Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Shlomo put up his modest home for sale. To his family he explained that he had intended to sell the house in order to avoid taking the oath, and now he did not want to benefit from money he had “saved” by swearing on a Torah scroll. To the proceeds of the sale he added almost all of his savings to make the sum of 110 napoleons, which he presented to a committee that was raising money to build a new synagogue. His only stipulation was that no mention be made of the source of the money.

Several months later, Faivish Stoller appeared in the small apartment to which Rabbi Shlomo had moved after the sale of his home. Without a word, he placed on Rabbi Shlomo’s table a purse containing 110 napoleons of gold, which he had uncovered in a drawer in his workshop.

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Norman Hauptman

This charming story is a metaphor, to strive not only to be honest, but to keep a record of acccount
in money matters.

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