The Talmud tells us that a man’s true character can be recognized through “kiso, koso, ka’aso, his purse (money); his cup of wine and his anger.” This means that a person is usually capable of hiding his true feelings and putting on a good front for others.
When he is tested, however, by a demand for money or when his guard is down through drink or anger, his real character comes out. If a person is capable of responding nobly when he is tempted by wealth, it is a true measure of his greatness.
Such a man was Shimon Ben Shetach, who lived at a critical time in Jewish history, when Greek influence threatened to uproot Torah culture in Israel.
Shimon Ben Shetach was a man who spent every possible moment of his working day in the study of Torah. His only support was from his work in the forest where he would collect nuts from which ink would be made. This was a very precarious living and he was so poor he did not even own a mule.
Despite all this, he not only persisted in learning, but he also taught many students without charge. They loved their teacher and he was proud that he was able to instill in their hearts a love of Torah.
One day, however, as he was out in the forest gathering the nuts, he was struck by a sudden thought: “The fact that I have no mule makes my work take so much longer and causes my students to lose a great deal of time during which they would be able to study Torah.”
Buys A Mule
The thought bothered him so much that he went home and gathered up all his belongings. Taking them to the marketplace, he exchanged them for money and proceeded immediately to look for a mule.
He found a non-Jew who had a mule to sell and a bargain was quickly struck. Happily, Shimon Ben Shatach rode home thinking: “Now I can do my work quickly and have all the extra time to devote to teaching my students Torah.”
When his students saw the mule, they decided to clean it and smooth it for their teacher. As they did so, they saw something attached by a string beneath its neck. They looked closely and were amazed to see – a precious diamond!
Running excitedly to their teacher they cried: “Rebbi, Rebbi, may the name of the Almighty be blessed; from this time forward you will never again know from any poverty!”
“What do you mean, my children?”
The students eagerly told him about the diamond that they had discovered and said: “Now you will be able to sit the entire day for the rest of your life and study Torah.”
Shimon Ben Shetach listened to their words very carefully and then quietly answered: “No, what you say cannot be. When I dealt with the non-Jew, I only bought a mule, not a precious stone. I had no idea that the stone was there and it would be forbidden for me to take it.
“I must go immediately and return it to the man.”
So speaking, he climbed on the mule and rode back to the marketplace. Finding the seller he said to him: “Here is the diamond that I found on your mule. It is yours.”
When the non-Jew heard these words and saw the diamond that had been returned by the Jewish rabbi he exclaimed: “Blessed is the G-d of Shimon Ben Shetach.”
The Importance Of Kaddish
Once Rabi Akiva, while traveling through a wilderness, was startled to hear a voice crying out in such agony. He immediately knew that this was not a human voice, but rather the cry of one who had passed on.
Looking about, he beheld an old man, carrying on his back a great bundle of wood and bent beneath its weight, moaning in agony.
“Oh, suffering soul, what terrible deeds you must have done in your life to be punished so.”
“What you say is true,” answered the soul. “For I violated all of G-d’s commandments and this is my punishment.”
“Perhaps I can help you,” said Rabi Akiva. “Have you any children?”
“There is one son who was born to my wife but he knows nothing about Judaism.”
Rabi Akiva left the wretched soul and proceeded to go to the town where the man’s wife and son lived.
Stopping before a man he asked the whereabouts of the family. When the man heard the name of the soul, he cried: “I never want to hear the name of that wicked scoundrel! He was the blackest blot on the name of this town with his sins and evil deeds.”
Teaches The Son
Nevertheless, Rabi Akiva found the woman and saw that her son was indeed ignorant. With the mother’s permission, he circumcised the son and began to teach him all that a Jewish child should know.
When he was old enough, he taught him to say kaddish. He then took him into the beit midrash and said: “Now remember that you are saying kaddish for your father who has departed this world. Through your kaddish your father may be saved from suffering in the World To Come.”
The son then rose and in a small, clear voice slowly said the holy words of the kaddish. The words rose swiftly to the heavens and pierced the iron curtain separating Jews from their Father in Heaven.
Some time later, Rabi Akiva was passing through the same desolate area and whom should he see but the same soul.
How different he looked, however! This time serenity was noticeable on his face, and Rabi Akiva knew that the kaddish that the son had said for his father had succeeded in freeing him from the punishments that his own conduct had deserved.