Chapter 1

by Suzanne Sadowsky

Part I – The Writing – Poland 1845
Chapter 1

ornamented Rabbi Shmuel sat at his drawing table, drew a final ן nun at the end of the word אָמֵן “Amen” and put down his pen for the day. It was late evening, almost 7:30, and his eyes were tired. Rabbi Shmuel was a young man, only 24 years old, but he and his wife already had a young child with another one on the way. Shmuel was a sofer, a scribe, one of the most honored professions in his village. Today he had started working early in the morning and had worked all day as long as he could. It was mid-summer and the sun had come up at a little after six in the morning. At the first glimmer of light in the sky Shmendrick, the rooster that lived in his neighbor’s yard started to crow. Every day, winter or summer, spring or fall that rooster would wake up the entire neighborhood at the first crack of dawn.

Today was Thursday and the next day was Shabbas. “Boruch Hashem” Rabbi Shmuel said to himself, “Thank God”. Tomorrow he would only work for half a day at his studio and then go home early and start getting ready for the Sabbath. Rabbi Shmuel smiled with delight thinking about Shabbas — the seventh day of the week, a day of rest when he could just be at home with his loving wife Rifka and their little daughter Leah who was just two years old. But Rabbi Shmuel was also worried about finishing his work on time. For nearly eleven months, day and night, Rabbi Shmuel had been working diligently to complete a new Sefer Torah Scroll that he had started in the month of August a year ago, right after the fast day of Tisha B’Av. The scroll was not yet completed. The Scroll was promised to a little shul in the village of Amschelberg which was in the province of Bohemia, about 50 kilometers south of Prague. It was in this shul that his uncle, his father’s brother, Reb Avram, was the Rabbi. The shul had commissioned a new Sefer Torah and it was supposed to be ready in time for the High Holidays which were just two months away. The days were already getting shorter and there was not enough good light after 7:00 PM. He was already on the fifth and final book of the Torah, but he was worried that it would not be done in time.

Rabbi Shmuel was only 24 years old, but he was already considered to be the best young scribe in the entire region. His letters were elegantly formed and very clear and the size and spacing of his words were so beautiful that his reputation as a scribe had reached beyond his little town. His work was being talked about in Lublin, Cracow and even as far away as Prague. Before he had begun this undertaking of a Torah Scroll, Rabbi Shmuel had done many other smaller works — A מְגִלָּה Megillah of the Book of Esther for reading on Purim and also several illustrated Passover Haggadahs.

When Reb Shmuel started walking home he thought about his wife Rifka and the child she was carrying. This would be their second child and Rabbi Shmuel was wondering if this one would be a boy. The baby was due in a few months, in October after Yom Kippur, during theSukkos festival.

Rabbi Shmuel was the son of a Reb Shlomo who was now 70 years old and like his father before him, he was also a scribe. Shmuel was Reb Shlomo’s youngest child, born when Reb Shlomo and his wife Bina, of blessed memory, were well into their forties. Shmuel thought about his own childhood as he walked through the winding streets of the little village. His mother had given birth to seven children, but there had been an outbreak of smallpox and two of the youngest children had died when they were infants. Shmuel was born in 1820. Even when he was a little child everyone knew that he would be a scribe like his father Shlomo.

Shmuel’s two older brothers, Yakov and Mendel, took after their mother’s family and were more musically inclined. They studied music with their Uncle Yitzak and now Yakov was an assistant cantor in the next village and Mendel was a violinist with a group of musicians that played at weddings throughout the region. But Shmuel was different, he took after his father. From the time he was very little, even before he was three years old he would take pieces of chalk and copy letters on a slate. His drawing was so beautiful, his letters so finely drafted, that even then everyone knew that he would follow in his father’s footsteps.

Shmuel’s two older sisters, Sarah and Hannah were also very talented and artistically inclined. Shmuel remembered that when they were children his sisters would sing lullabies to him that they had learned from their mother. His sisters had voices like angels. They also had beautiful handwriting and would always be sending notes to their friends with drawings of flowers and sometimes even poems in Yiddish. The two girls would make up songs when they helped their mother with the laundry or the cooking. One day when she was 10 years old, Sarah asked her father if he would also teach her to write in Hebrew, like he was teaching Shmuel. Reb Shlomo promised that he would one day when he had more time, but even though Sarah kept asking and Reb Shlomo kept promising, it seemed that there was never enough time. Now that Sarah was married and had four children of her own, she was the one who didn’t have enough time.

The next day at one o’clock in the afternoon, Rabbi Shmuel cleaned the ink from the quills that he used for his calligraphy. The quills were from goose feathers that came from the geese that his cousin Tziporah kept in her backyard. Then he tightly closed his ink well and he waited for the parchment to dry. He had just finished the final chapter 27 of the Book of Deuteronomy.

It was Friday, Erev Shabbas, and instead of coming back to work in his studio after lunch, he planned to visit his father, run some errands, and shop for some last-minute items. Maybe he would buy some fresh peaches and melons that he saw the farmers bringing in their horse-drawn wagons. He saw the wagons coming into town that morning when he was on his way to morning services. He also would need to make sure that there was enough ice in the cellar of their house for the weekend to keep the milk and eggs nice and cold. The challah would already be baked and the house would be spotless, but Rifka would still need some help with the household chores. Reb Shmuel would need to make sure that the fire in the stove had enough fuel to keep the pot of cholent cooking on low heat all night so that it would be ready for lunch on Saturday afternoon. Cholent was the delicious stew that they ate every Shabbas afternoon. It was made with a little meat or chicken and lots of beans and barley and onions. When he came home from shul the pot of cholent would be steamy and fragrant with herbs and spices and ready to eat.

On Friday night Rabbi Shmuel would go to shul for services and then he would come home and be able to relax and unwind from the intense work of the week. That Friday they were having guests for dinner. His sister-in-law, Annamalka, Rifka’s younger sister, was visiting from the next town. Shmuel had also invited his friend Mordecai to come home with him after services to enjoy the Shabbas with them. Mordecai was a bachelor, 22 years old and still not married. Annamalka was eighteen and she was starting to look for a husband. Maybe they would hit it off and if they did then Rifka would perhaps talk to her father about arranging a shituch, a match, between Annamalka and Mordecai. If it turned out that they really liked each other and both sets of parents agreed, maybe they would sign a marriage contract and there would be a wedding after the High Holidays.

Rabbi Shmuel hummed a Shabbas song to himself, “Shalom Aleichem, malakai ha’sholom…”. But he couldn’t keep his mind off his work. He was on a tight time schedule with this Torah. He needed a day off, but he was anxious about finishing the Torah on time. As was his custom on Friday afternoons, he went to the mikveh, the ritual bath house, then rushed home, put on his Shabbas suit, kissed his wife and his little daughter and hurried off to shul so as not to be late for the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services.

Samuel Bak - Stars of TwilightIt was already 9:00 PM when Shmuel got home from shul with his buddy Mordecai. Mordecai was a little shy. He wasn’t so sure he wanted to meet Annamalka. He didn’t know if he was ready for marriage or if he would be able to support a wife and family and maybe Annamalka wouldn’t like him anyway. When the two young men walked in the door, the candles which Rivka had lit at sundown were still glowing on the kitchen table and the house smelled of hot chicken soup and cinnamon noodle kugel that had come out of the oven. Shmuel saw his beautiful wife and his daughter and he finally stopped thinking about his work on the new Torah scroll. He said a blessing over the wine and a blessing over the bread and gave a piece of the freshly baked challah to his friend, Mordecai, his wife and daughter, and then to his sister-in-law, Annamalka. Then they all sat down and ate dinner and sang songs, laughed and told stories about what had gone on during the week. It was a beautiful, peaceful Shabbas with his friends and family. It was nearly midnight before Mordecai went home. He seemed to want to linger and spend more time with Annamalka. The two young people really seemed to like each other and Mordecai asked if could come back the next afternoon. When Reb Shmuel finally got to sleep that night he dreamed of the Sacred Torah. Letters of the alphabet swirled in his head as he drifted off to sleep —א aleph, ב bet, ח cheit, צ tzaddi, ל lamed— dancing in the night sky like stars.

Copyright © 1998 Suzanne Sadowsky

Chapter 2