Rav Ephraim Zalman Margolis of Brodi was a descendant of Rashi, whose own life was one of marvel and mystery. The very name “Margolis” is a reminder of a beautiful story told about Rashi’s father and a great sacrifice he made for his religion.
Rav Yitzchak, the father of Rashi, was a great scholar but never wanted to use the Torah as a means of making a living. Instead, after marrying the sister of the great scholar and poet Rav Shimon HaGadol, he opened up a store that specialized in precious stones. The years passed for him in contentment except for one thing. After being married for 10 years, he still was not blessed with a child.
Though he wanted a child more than anything in the whole world, Rav Yitzchak never complained, but continued to live his life according to the dictates of the Torah. Then, one day, he came into possession of a truly remarkable gem. News of this flawless stone spread throughout the city of Mayence where he lived and finally reached the ears of the bishop.
The bishop decided that he would like to acquire the gem and have it mounted in a statue in the main cathedral. He sent word that he was prepared to offer a great sum of money for the jewel. Rav Yitzchak discussed the matter with his wife.
“I cannot sell any possession of mine knowing that it will be used for a religious purpose contrary to my own.”
Thus he sent a cordial letter of reply to the bishop telling him that his religion forbade him from selling the gem. Though the bishop accepted the answer, some of the more extreme priests hit upon an ugly scheme by which they hoped to force Rav Yitzchak into selling them the precious stone.
By means of a clever pretext, they succeeded in getting Rav Yitzhak aboard a ship and sailed it down the river. There they threatened him with death by drowning unless he handed over the gem. Rav Yitzchak never hesitated. With a mighty heave he sent the gem, which had cost him a small fortune, into the water, preferring to lose money rather than his principles.
No sooner had the waters swallowed up the gem than a voice from heaven cried out: “In place of this precious stone, G-d will send you another gem in the form of a son who will illuminate the eyes of Israel with his Torah and wisdom.”
That year, Rav Yitzchak’s wife gave birth to a son, who was named Shlomo. He was the great Rashi. Because of this wonderful story, one of the families that descended from Rashi named itself “Margolis,” or precious stone.
Godfrey Of Bouillon
One of the tragedies of Rashi’s life was that toward the end of his days, he saw the terrible excesses of the Crusades in which thousands of Jews were killed and their property plundered. Rashi himself almost died.
One of the leaders of the Crusades was named Godfrey of Bouillon. According to historical records, Godfrey conquered Jerusalem and massacred the Muslims there. Following this, he turned his attention to the Jews. Rounding up every Jew in the city, he forced them into one of the synagogues and then set fire to the structure. Every Jew in the building was burned alive.
It has been said that prior to his murderous journey, he had visited Rashi to ask his view as to the success or failure of his mission.
“Why have you come here?” asked Rashi.
“I have heard that you are a holy man,” answered the crusader. “I want to know whether I will succeed or fail on my crusade to the Holy Land.”
Rashi thought for a moment and then answered, “You do not really want to hear the truth. You only want me to say that you will come back victorious.”
“No, no,” he protested. “I wish to know the truth. Tell me what my fate will be in the Holy Land.”
“Very well,” said Rashi. “You will indeed succeed in conquering the city of Jerusalem. You will only hold it, however, for three days before you are driven out by the Muslims. You will flee the Holy Land and return to this city with only three horses.”
When Godfrey heard this he grew livid with anger.
“I promised you that I would do you no harm and I will keep my word. But I give you fair warning now. Should I return with even four horses, I will cut your head from your shoulders and massacre all the Jews of France.”
“I have told you what the truth is,” replied Rashi. “You will not enter the city with more than three horses.”
“Very well, stubborn Jew,” scoffed the crusader. “We shall see who is right.”
Godfrey went on his Crusade and was away from France for four long years. Eventually he succeeded in conquering Jerusalem, committed his atrocities, and was then driven out by a powerful Muslim army that destroyed his army and forced him to flee for his life.
He returned to the soil of France and made his way to the city with four horses, his own and three others, ridden by the sole remnants of his once mighty army. As he neared the gates of the city, he remembered the incident with Rashi and the desire for punishment burned within him.
“The Jewish rabbi dared to think he could emerge victorious. I shall kill him and wipe out the Jewish community in the kingdom of France.”
The four horsemen neared the gates of the city and rode through the archway. As they did so, however, a heavy slab of masonry broke away from the arch and came crashing down on one of the horses, killing both the horse and its rider.
The prophecy of Rashi was fulfilled. Godfrey returned to the city with only three horses.