Those who learn the Talmud are forever indebted to a commentary found on the side of the pages which enables the student to find the source of a particular law. This commentary, known as Mesoras HaShas, is the work of one of the most brilliant and erudite Talmudic scholars, Rav Yosef Shmuel of Cracow.
His greatest fame came as Rav of the city of Frankfurt. How he came there is the subject of a fascinating and beautiful story.
The chief Rav of Frankfurt was elderly. Realizing that his end was near he called in the leaders of the community.
“I wish to make sure that the Rav you choose to follow me will be a proper one to lead the holy community of Frankfurt.
“Therefore, I will now pose to you three extremely difficult Talmudic questions that only a true scholar will be able to answer properly.
“Send out people and if they find a scholar who can answer these questions he is worthy to sit on the seat of the Rav of Frankfurt.”
The Search Begins
The Rav relayed the three questions and then passed away. Following the period of mourning the community appointed a group of scholars and gave them the task of finding a new Rav.
In those days, few cities possessed as many scholars as the Polish city of Cracow. The delegation, therefore, headed directly there and made their mission known to the leaders of the Jewish congregation. The leaders were delighted, welcoming their guests with open arms and inviting them to search the yeshivas and study halls to their hearts’ content.
It so happened that the next morning, the guests and community leaders took part in a bris milah for the child of one of Crakows scholars. As the guests began their meal, the 10-year-old son of the happy father rose and delivered a Torah discourse that had been prepared for him by his melamed.
As the guests from Frankfurt sat in utter amazement, the 10-year-old proceeded to ask the very three questions they had come to hear answered, and gave direct and lucid answers to them.
The guests could not believe their ears. As soon as the youngster had finished, they hastened over to the father and asked him:
‘‘Where did your son learn this Torah discourse?’’
“It was taught to him by his melamed – Rav Yosef Shmuel, the shamash in the old synagogue.’’
The Frankfurt guests were even more impressed now. A teacher of young children and a shamash in the synagogue who was capable of creating such a Torah discourse! It was amazing.
Tells Them To Wait
Hurrying to the shul where Rav Yosef Shmuel worked, they found him sitting and teaching his young students Torah.
“Excuse us,” they said, “But we have something very, very urgent to talk over with you.”
Rav Yosef Shmuel looked at the guests and said:
“I am very sorry but I am hired to do the holy work of teaching children Torah. I am not allowed to even waste a moment from this work. This evening, when I have finished I will be glad to see you and talk with you.”
That evening, the guests returned and told Rav Yosef Shmuel: “Our late, great rabbi told us, before he passed on, that we should choose a man who could answer three difficult questions from the Talmud. This morning we heard one of your students give a Torah discourse in which those very questions were asked and brilliantly answered.”
Rabbi Yosef Shmuel looked at his guests in wide-eyed amazement.
`”What? I, a simple teacher of children, should become rabbi of the great and important city of Frankfurt? Impossible. I am not worthy of the honor nor fitted for the position.”
They Return Home
No matter how the Frankfurt delegates tried to persuade him, Rav Yosef Shmuel would not budge.
“I am only a teacher of children. I am not worthy of being a Rav in Israel.”
The guests were forced to return home, sad and disappointed, having apparently failed in their attempt to find a proper Rav for Frankfurt.
Not many days later, Rav Yosef Shmuel fell suddenly and mysteriously ill. The doctors were puzzled. They could not find the source of his sickness and could do nothing to cure him.
Rav Yosef Shmuel, however, understood what had happened. The Almighty wanted him to accept the position and had punished him for refusing to lead a community in Israel.
“Master of the Universe,” he said, “you know that my refusal to become Rav of Frankfurt was not because of stubbornness or such reasons.
“I honestly do not believe that I am worthy of holding such an illustrious position. But if you desire that I accept the post I am ready and willing to disregard my own personal feelings and accept your will.”
When Rav Yosef Shmuel finished speaking these words he felt that his strength was returning. When after a few days, he was better he sent word to the happy city of Frankfurt that he was finally ready to be their Rav.