Reb Ezra was sentenced to death in front of hundreds of cheering spectators. Why wouldn’t the Rav permit his widow to remarry and move on with her life?
he dayanim in the Aleppo beis din of 1780 were tense and anxious, after having sat for weeks deliberating over their psak. One of the pillars of the local Jewish community had been falsely accused of extorting state money and was slammed with the death penalty. The horrifying sentence had been carried out a month previously, to the outrage of the entire city. After the incident, the condemned man’s widow — crushed and devastated by the tragedy but determined to move on with her life — had gone to the beis din to ask for a ruling that she was permitted to remarry.
The question was not simple, however. The prison authorities refused to hand over the body for Jewish burial, and so the death could be authenticated only by the executioner himself. On the other hand, the dayanim reasoned, it could be safely assumed that the anti-Semites would be only too happy to fulfill the decree which had been gleefully announced in front of the hundreds of spectators present at the trial, and therefore, by all probability, the man was indeed no longer among the living. And so, after days and nights of deliberations, the dayanim presented their ruling to the widow that she was indeed permitted to remarry.
The shamash of the beis din was summoned to take the ruling to the holy gaon, Rav Refael Shlomo Laniado ztz”l, the esteemed rav of Aleppo. The rav didn’t take part in the actual beis din proceedings, but he was always presented with the rulings to give his final confirmation.
Rav Refael Shlomo welcomed the shamash and read the detailed halachic response. But to the shamash’s surprise, he exclaimed, “Tell the dayanim that I invalidate their ruling!”
The dayanim, all righteous talmidei chachamim in their own right, were astonished by the Rav’s refusal to conform to their ruling. They’d given a detailed and extensive explanation of what they’d based their arguments on, but Rav Refael Shlomo hadn’t even related to those arguments. What, they wondered, was his reasoning?
That same day, the widow’s family came to Rav Refael Shlomo and asked him why he had contradicted the ruling of the dayanim. The Rav looked at them with his kind eyes and said, “Tell the widow that I can’t reveal my reason, but I promise her that she will yet experience happiness and rejoicing!”
The righteous woman accepted her fate, and when anyone asked her about it she replied, “It’s a mitzvah to obey our chachamim, whether we understand or not.”
An opulent path lined with gleaming gemstones led up to the mansion of the nagid Ezra Fijuto in the Jewish quarter of Aleppo. Reb Ezra served as the treasurer to the governor of Aleppo, which at this time, over 200 years ago, was a bustling metropolitan center where a large Jewish community lived and prospered.
The local Jews honored and respected Fijuto — he was their representative to the authorities and they knew he was scrupulously trustworthy. The governor himself, Muhamad Najem, also admitted publicly that without Ezra Fijuto the Jew, he wouldn’t be able to manage the complicated maze of all the financial accounts involved in the running of the city. Najem was subject to steady supervision on the part of the Ottoman delegates from central Turkey, and he often said that it was thanks to the shrewd and cunning Jew, Ezra, who kept all his accounts in order and saved him from the strict reviews of the comptrollers.
The other ministers and city councilors, however, were not as well-disposed to the nagid — some of them harbored a deep hatred, both for him and for the governor who appointed him.
Reb Ezra wasn’t blind to the animosity of his peers, but in his heart he scoffed at them. He knew that there truly was no one else capable of managing the multi-faceted financial ins and outs of the city other than he. Any governor would run after him, in dire need of his services.
One day, when Ezra was driving his carriage through the streets of Aleppo, he noticed the Rav of the city, Rav Refael Shlomo Laniado. Ezra told the driver to stop, and after alighting from the carriage, he bowed his head and asked the Rav for a brachah, as he always did when they met. Rav Refael Shlomo looked at him with affection and whispered: “Ezra, are you familiar with the Mishnah from Pirkei Avos that says, ‘Do not make yourself known to the authorities?’ They befriend a person and honor him only for their own sake, and do not stand behind him in his time of need.”
Ezra understood very well that the Rav wanted to warn him about his enemies among the governor’s ministers. “The Rav shouldn’t worry. I am the authorities!” the confident young man stated. “I have a key position in the administration and no one would dare do me any harm.”
The Rav wasn’t convinced; he repeated his earlier statement with pathos, and then went on his way. Ezra, too, returned to his carriage and made his way to his mansion.
Not long afterward, the residents of Aleppo were informed that the governor was being replaced. A festive ceremony was held where Najem gave a farewell speech and the new governor, one of the former city councilors, Zaim Nasser, gave his acceptance speech. Ezra didn’t notice the knowing looks and winks that were exchanged among the keffiyeh-wearers at the event. He also didn’t know that the new governor hated him with a passion that knew no bounds. Zaim Nasser’s first and most important project was seeing the downfall of his archenemy, Ezra the Jew.
At the end of the festivities, Ezra climbed into his carriage and returned home, never dreaming that it would be his last drive as treasurer of the city.
Later, when Ezra was sitting in his study, three police carriages pulled up in front of his mansion. They rushed up the ornate path and pounded on the carved wooden door, holding an arrest warrant from the new governor, who clearly wasted no time.
When Ezra heard the commotion, he peeked through the lace curtain of his window. The sight that met his eyes took his breath away, making him feel faint. It was just as the Rav had said! Like a defenseless sheep scampering away from beasts of prey, Ezra ran to his wine cellar and hid inside an empty barrel.
The policemen spread out all over the huge mansion, searching for Ezra in every nook and cranny, and breaking everything in their path. They’d received a warrant from the new governor to bring the treasurer, and they were determined not to leave the house without him. At the sound of his wife’s and children’s blood-curdling screams, Ezra decided to turn himself in. The police pounced on him like vultures and quickly handcuffed him.
Ezra was taken to the local police station, where his fine clothes were replaced by a prison uniform. The metamorphosis was as rapid as it was cruel.
For the first time in his life, Ezra experienced what it was like to lie down on a foul-smelling, flea-bitten mattress, to eat moldy bread and to drink rancid water. The veteran prisoners were singly unimpressed by his venerated past as the treasurer of the city, and demanded that he adhere to the laws of the prison: to share with them whatever his wife sent him, and to take turns with cleaning and other chores in the prison cell.
Ezra’s regret for not having heeded the wise words of the Rav, spoken just weeks earlier, knew no bounds. Rav Laniado had given him an explicit warning, but Ezra had been boastful, believing in his own greatness. And now he was paying the price big time.
Meanwhile, the Jews of Aleppo were shocked and horrified by the news of Ezra’s imprisonment, and tried to determine the grounds for arrest. The new governor wasn’t about to answer them, but he sent a message through his aides that he was an honest man and that he wouldn’t punish the prisoner without a trial. Needless to say, he had reams of forged documents ready to present at the trial, “proving” that Ezra had stolen money from the public coffers — a crime punishable by death.
Everyone, Jew and gentile alike, knew that the accusation was false, and that there was not a more honest man than Ezra in all of Aleppo. However, Zaim Nasser had prepared a stack of incriminating evidence to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ezra had indeed dipped into the public purse and enriched himself at the expense of the poor taxpayers.
A delegation of community leaders went to the home Rav Refael Shlomo Laniado and told him the terrible news, and that they planned to collect money to redeem the nagid.
“Stop!” the Rav said, shaken. “Captives are not to be redeemed for more than their worth — and anyway, it won’t help.”
The community leaders took their own initiative, though, organized a drive, and came to the new governor with a chest containing a huge fortune: 2,000 Turkish gold liras.
The eyes of the new governor were glued to the chest full of gold, and he barely listened to what the delegation was saying. Grabbing the chest, he asked them to bless him on his new position.
“We bless you and wish you success,” the leader said with a bow. “And we ask that you do justice and free the treasurer to house arrest until his trial, when the truth will come to light that a regrettable mistake has been made.”
The governor turned a deaf ear to their plea and with a phony smile thanked them for the money, as if they’d brought him a gift for nothing more than the honor of his new appointment.
A month after being thrown into the Aleppo prison, Ezra was brought to court for what turned out to be a mock trial. The prosecutor read out the charges, stressing to those present how the accused had used his position to extort money from the city. The carefully crafted lies and false evidence succeeded in swaying the judge who turned to Ezra and asked him if he had anything to say for himself.
Seeing that the outcome of the trial had been decided in advance, Ezra saw no point in speaking. As there was no defense lawyer, the prosecutor took the floor, continuing to proclaim the heinous crimes of Ezra the Jew. Ultimately, the sentence was handed down as expected: the death penalty.
The horrified screams of Ezra’s family filled the room. They tried to run to the judges to beg for mercy, but were abruptly pushed away by the court ushers, while Ezra was led away back to jail to await his death sentence.
In prison, Ezra was approached by the prison elder, a huge, brawny monster of a man with wild hair. Jaber had the entire prison quaking in fear from him. The hundreds of inmates obeyed his every word — woe to those who didn’t. The prison wardens, too, knew that Jaber was the uncrowned king, and that if they wanted anything from the inmates, Jaber was the one to go to.
One night, Jaber sat with Ezra and revealed to him that he, too, was a Jew. He’d left the path of Torah and mitzvos and had joined a gang of road bandits. “The truth is, I never did a good deed in my life, and there’s no sin that I didn’t do, but now I want to save a Jewish life. I don’t believe what they say about you, Mr. Treasurer. I think it was a plot against you, just because you are a Jew.”
Jaber gave a slight wave with his hand, and all the other prisoners as if on cue took a few steps back, giving them privacy. “Come, and I’ll tell you what to do,” Jaber whispered in Ezra’s ear and outlined his plan.
That night, the warden in charge of executions, Muhamad Jalal, was on duty. Jaber called him over, as Jalal started to shake from fear. It might seem strange for a warden to stand in submission before a prisoner, but in the Aleppo prison of the 18th century, the prison elder was in a rare position of power.
“In the coming days, you’re going to be called upon to hang Ezra the Jew, the former treasurer,” Jaber explained to the executioner. “I’m asking you not to kill him. I know you’ll find a way to mislead everyone and make it look as if the Jew died. If you do as I say, you’ll get from me 800 Turkish gold liras. And if you dare kill Fijuto, consider your life worthless.”
Jalal trembled in fear. He knew that Jaber never made empty threats.
The prison elder suddenly bent down and pried a stone tile from the floor, right underneath the chair he always sat upon. In the thick darkness, it was just possible to make out a crevice from which he removed a small package. He handed the package to Jalal who opened it and, to the faint light of the torch, counted out fifty Turkish gold liras, a down payment for saving the Jew’s life.
Three days later, Ezra was pronounced dead. The new governor and his cronies were ecstatic. It never occurred to them for a moment that Ezra was really alive and wandering on the outskirts of Aleppo, thanking Hashem for every breath and weeping because he could not inform his family that he’d been saved from death.
Only the rav of Aleppo, Rav Refael Shlomo Laniado, had sensed that the “widow” was actually an eishes ish and that the husband of her youth was still among the living.
For ten years the evil governor Zaim Nasser ruled over Aleppo, a time when all residents suffered from his corrupt leadership. Ezra’s absence was sorely felt by Jew and non-Jew alike.
After ten years, Nasser died a most humiliating death, as befitting such a wicked man. As soon as Ezra heard the news, he knew it was time to return home.
Cries of elation and shock filled the streets upon Ezra’s return. As far as everyone knew, he’d come back from the dead! His wife, however, was not shocked at all. She, together with her “dead” husband and the children, made their way to the Rav to personally share the fulfillment of a brachah, and to thank him for saving her from remarrying. Rav Laniado knew it all along — she would yet rejoice with the husband of her youth.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 703)
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