[This has to be one of my all-time favorite stories. The first time I heard it was about 25 years ago during Purim at Shoresh, outside Jerusalem, told by a Chassidic rav while he was “mevusam” and donning a Mexican sombrero!
The story is actually taken from the book Ahavat Chayim by the Rav Menachem Menashe who was discovered to have been one of the hidden 36 Tzaddikim of Eretz Yisrael only after he was niftar and this book-manuscript was discovered. Btw, I mention the Rav Menachem Menashe in chapter 6 of my book To Cross the Line With a Bridge in telling a story that involved him and the great Kabbalist Rav Petaye – check it out!].
This account took place on the Galician border, where one particular duke ruled a number of villages where a couple hundred Jews resided. All of the Jews were pious and had wonderful unity and ahavat achim, and among them was a talmid chacham who also served as the duke’s official. The duke knew this t.ch. (talmid chacham) was especially pious and thus used to send him gifts for all the holidays.
After a while when this t.ch. proved his continued loyalty and dependability, the duke gave him the position of the government’s treasurer with double the salary and all kinds of great perks.
But as usual, there was a bishop who saw all this grandeur and glory going to a Jew and decided to find a way to take revenge. So he went and got together a number of clergymen and told them a story that he claimed he heard from the duke. He then went to the duke and told him that it is beneath Christian dignity for a Jew to be in charge of their treasury. And, of course, he added a good measure of lashon hara and the typical smear and hate tactics. The duke, though, did not pay him any heed, but out of respect, he didn’t answer him.
A few months went by, and when the bishop saw that nothing happened, he again assembled his fellow clergymen to get them to pester the duke and not let up until he fires the t.ch. and appoints the bishop to replace him. The bishop finally persuaded the duke to present the Jew with three questions, and if he cannot answer them, then he needs to be hanged.
The three questions the bishop told the duke to ask are: (1) What am I (the duke) worth at the very moment I am talking to you (the Jew), (2) What am I thinking, and (3) Show me something I’ve never seen before. I (the duke) have traveled most of the world and have seen a lot too, so it has to be something I’ve never ever seen before.
If you (the t.ch.) can answer, all stays the same; but if you cannot, then you will be hanged, and you have 30 days. Of course, he was sure the Jew could never answer the 3 questions – how could he know what the duke is thinking? Plus, anything he shows him, he could just say he’s already seen it.
From here the talmid chacham went to the head rabbi and told him about the new decree, and special fasts and continual prayer sessions were arranged in the shul to ask Hashem for rachamim. Three days after they started this, the talmid chacham’s father came to him in a dream and said, ‘Why are you rattling all the worlds? You yourself have the zechut to annul this decree.’ And then his father told him what to do about the three questions.
On the same night that the t.ch. dreamed his father, the duke had insomnia, and started to think about what he did to the Jew who had been so trustworthy and really didn’t do anything wrong. And he began to regret what he did.
The next morning, the duke wore plain clothes and went to the t.ch.’s house incognito to ask forgiveness plus to tell him that the three questions he was now going to put to the bishop with a 15 day deadline. That year was a leap year, and that morning that the duke went to apologize was the 1st of Adar 1.
Close to the end of his 15 days, the bishop still had no idea what to do and only knew that his life was at stake. His family persuaded him to go seek council from the talmid chacham to save his life.
The Jew knew the bishop would be showing up on the 14th day, which is called Purim Katan, and so he told his wife that when the bishop comes and asks for him to say that he is extremely busy and does not have time and cannot see him. In the meantime, the Jew took a small basin and filled it with eggs, and then took a blanket and wrapped it around himself and the basin so it looked like he was sitting on the eggs.
To be expected, the bishop arrived and insisted he see the t.ch., and his wife put the bishop off. This went on back and forth until the bishop was basically pleading for help to save himself. At that point the t.ch’s wife gave in and told him that her husband was in the back room. Of course, upon opening the door to the room, the bishop was totally dumbfounded at what he saw!- the Jew was roosting eggs!
The t.ch. acted extremely annoyed, ‘Why are you coming now to distract me?!!! I don’t have time, since in exactly two hours these eggs are due to hatch and I need to make sure they’re kept warm!’ And, of course, the bishop stood totally confuddled just at the sight of this Jew – that any human could be – sitting on eggs.
But then the t.ch. said that he saw how distraught the bishop was and he was willing to help him if he took off his clergy garb and got into the basin to sit on the eggs himself. Having no choice, the bishop took off his frock and hat, sat on the eggs, and the Jew covered him with the blanket, and then on himself put on the bishop’s clothes and a mask he had specially prepared of the bishop and went to the duke. On his way, the t.ch. bought a small cross for two coins.
When the t.ch., who was dressed as the bishop, walked into the duke’s room, he held up the cross and the duke bowed. Then the Jew said that the duke had given him 15 days to answer the three questions and he has come to answer them. The first question is How much are you worth?, and the answer is 1 coin. Of course, the duke got very angry and yelled how he dare say such a thing, to which the t.ch. answered with a question: ‘If one bows before another, how much less is he worth than the one he bowed to?’ The duke answered, ‘The one bowing is worth half.’ ‘Exactly,’ said the t.ch. ‘And I just bought this cross for 2 coins. You just bowed, so you are worth exactly half of it, being 1 coin.’
As for the second question, What are you thinking? – I can tell you that right now you are thinking and wondering who I am, the bishop or the Jew. The duke hesitantly nodded yes, and the t.ch. took off his mask and revealed that he is the Jew and not the bishop.
As for the third question, to show you something you’ve never seen before, please come with me and I will show you something you have never ever seen before, and I apologize for inconveniencing the duke in having you come with me, but to see this wonder will make it worth the while. And with that, the Jew took the duke to his house and to the back room and opened the door, and lo and behold the duke saw none less than the bishop in a basin roosting on eggs. The duke then exclaimed that no one in the world would ever believe this – that the big revered bishop would be in the Jew’s house, and unbelievably…sitting on eggs!
This was one of the few happy endings for Am Yisrael, where, instead of a pogrom or expulsion resulting, the bishop was actually the one to be hanged.
[Ahavat Chayim, Parshat Tetzaveh]