Chanukah Miracle in Willy: The Shamash, The President, And The Rav

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rabbi-gershon-tannenbaumBy Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum

This past Chanukah (5770-2009) a miracle happened in a leading Williamsburg beis medrash. Der Blatt, the popular chassidishe Yiddish weekly, had the exclusive story. Other than the rav involved, the shul, its president and its shamash are not identified by name. The story is that of a she’eilah (halachic inquiry) and the response that saved one man’s job and salvaged a beis medrash.

The following is a translation of the article.

The long- serving shamash at the established beis medrash and its president had, over time, developed a relationship that might generously be characterized as difficult. The president seemed to anticipate failings on part of the shamash and did not hesitate to raise red flags. The shamash, fully aware of the extra scrutiny he was being given, attempted to fulfill everyone’s expectations, regardless how unreasonable.

The beis medrash was a 24/7 full-service institution, and its congregants, who had grown comfortable, had many demands on the shamash. Some were immediate and some almost immediate. Satisfying everyone all the time was a practical impossibility. The shamash had mastered that which needed his attention most. He labored to take care of all the necessities first and then attend to demands in order of importance and priority. Nevertheless, even this experienced shamash would sometimes fail in meeting some meaningful expectations.

Friday, Erev Shabbos Parshas Vayeshev, December 11, was one of the calendar’s shortest days with one of the earliest candle lighting times (4:11 p.m.). That Friday was also erev Chanukah, when we lit the first Chanukah candle. Needless to say, Shabbos Parshas Vayeshev was a special Shabbos, with so many families joining together to celebrate Shabbos Chanukah. Either a family was visiting or hosting visitors. Friday was the day when all the preparations had to be ready for travel or for guests. In addition to everything else, menoros, olive oil, wicks, candles, and matches had to be found, set up, polished, and prepared for lighting.

Chassidishe Williamsburg follows the established minhag of mehadrin min ha’mehadrin, whereby every member of the household kindles individual Chanukah lights. A separate menorah must be prepared for each. The combination of a very short exceptionally busy Friday and erev Chanukah is a formula for chaos. This applies to every Jewish home all over the world and especially to Williamsburg, the largest chassidishe community in the world.

These preparations are not limited to the home. The beis medrash, too, is where all of the busy activities multiply on such a hectic Friday. The preparation for the extra Sefer Torah reading, the increased use of the mikveh, additional seats needed in the beis medrash, extra siddurim and Chumashim, are just some of the added musts that absolutely need to be in place before the time Shabbos candle are lit.

The Menorah

On that Friday, at the time of his own Chanukah candle lighting, the president had a premonition that the menorah that should be lit in the beis medrash was not prepared. At Shacharis, that Friday morning, he saw no signs of any menorah preparations. After having lit his own Chanukah menorah, he quickly sent his young son to the beis medrash to see if the menorah was in place and lit. It was 15 minutes after Shabbos candle lighting time and there was no menorah in shul. The son returned home and reported that no menorah was set up in the beis medrash. The boy’s father, the president, hearing the bad news steamed, literally releasing smoke from his ears.

The Rav

The young son, realizing the real possibility of spectacular fireworks at Kabbalas Shabbos in shul, hurried to the home of the shamash and respectfully reminded him that a menorah had be lit in the beis medrash. Startled, the shamash, who had already lit his own menorah, thanked the boy profusely, dropped whatever he was in the midst of, and rushed to the study of Rabbi Sholom Krausz, Udvarer Rav and author of the seven-volume Divrei Sholom. The Udvarer Rav is a close neighbor of the shamash.

The nonagenarian (over 90 years of age) Udvarer Rav is greatly respected and widely quoted in Williamsburg as well in the entire universe of Torah scholarship. He is the son of Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Kraus, zt”l (d. 1911), Udvarer Rav; son of Rabbi Dovid Avrohom Moshe Krausz, zt”l (1814‑1891), Ungvarer Rav. The Udvarer Rav is the son‑in‑law of Rabbi Israel Avrohom Alter Landau, zt”l (d. 1942), Edelener Rav and author of Beis Yisroel; son of Rabbi Sholom Landau, zt”l (d. 1924), Volover Dayan. The Edelener Rav was the son-in-law of Rabbi Yeshayele Steiner, zt”l (1852-1925), greatly beloved Keresturer Rebbe.

Panting, the shamash explained his predicament, confessing that in the day’s great rush, he forgot to prepare and light a menorah in the beis medrash. He added that the president of the beis medrash would be greatly discomfited to find that a menorah for the shul was not prepared. The Udvarer Rav absorbed the predicament, glanced at the clock, and pondered the depths of halachic applicability. It was then 25 minutes after the z’man.

The Udvarer Rav then authoritatively instructed the shamash to have a non-Jew take a menorah of one of the children from the home of the shamash and put it in its proper place in the beis medrash. The underlying reasoning was that it was still bein ha’shemashos, therefore a shvus d’shvus, and also tiltul shelo k’derech gufo as well as a hefsed merubah and bimkom mitzvah (halachic reasons for leniency).

When the president entered through the doors of the beis medrash, sure that he would not see a menorah in shul, he was ready to shout, glare and rave at the shamash. But, lo and behold, there it was. The menorah was in its appropriate place and properly lit. The incredulous president, very slowly, released his built-up steam.

That evening, after the Shabbos meal, the shamash realized that he did indeed prepare the Sifrei Torah correctly for their reading Shabbos morning. However, the handsome silver Torah crowns that were supposed to adorn the Torah Scrolls on this celebratory Shabbos, were brought home for special polishing, and were still in his house. They sparkled beautifully, but they were in his house, not in shul where they were supposed to be.

In a panic, he again knocked on the door of the Udvarer Rav, who was just finishing his Shabbos meal and graciously received him. The shamash told the rav about the Torah crowns and reiterated the likelihood of extreme unpleasantries should the president see the Sifrei Torah without their silver crowns on this grand Shabbos. The Udvarer Rav digested the information and proclaimed that the shamash was permitted to take the silver crowns to the shul.

The Miracle

The shamash immediately hurried home and followed the instructions that the Udvarer Rav directed. Upon entering the beis medrash, the shamash instantly realized that one of the yahrzeit candles had fallen from the Amud and started to blacken the Aron HaKodesh. He quickly ran and brought bottles of water, which he poured around the fallen yahrzeit candle, preventing the fire from spreading and engulfing the entire beis medrash in flames.

Shabbos morning, as all the congregants entered the beis medrash, they learned of all that transpired from Shabbos candle-lighting time until the water was poured around the fallen yahrzeit flame. The shamash shared all the details, his own lapses, the Udvarer Rav’s responses and instructions, as well as the miraculous outcome. He was joyously congratulated by one and all, including the now most appreciative president.

{Rabbi G. Tannenbaum-The Jewish Press}

{ Newscenter}


  1. Nu, if the shamash and president made up – THAT would be a Channukah miracle.

    The Hashgachah seemed to be practically begging them to. I hope they got the messages.

  2. I always had this shailo. Is the shamash allowed to do that as there was no one living there and no pikuach nefesh so was he able to be oiver shabbos to put out the fire? Maybe there were people living there? I do not know all the details.

  3. I don’t get it. I have a number of problems with this.

    Let’s examine what R. Tannenbaum wrote –

    1) “Chassidishe Williamsburg follows the established minhag of mehadrin min ha’mehadrin, whereby every member of the household kindles individual Chanukah lights.”

    A) And everyone else (Ashkenazim) doesn’t?

    B) His words imply that even women and girls light their own menoras in Williamsburg, which I don’t believe is the case.

    2) “The combination of a very short exceptionally busy Friday and erev Chanukah is a formula for chaos.”

    No, not if you use your head and plan properly. Maybe they need a Yekkishe shammos there.

    3) “The boy’s father, the president, hearing the bad news steamed, literally releasing smoke from his ears.”

    Literally? Come on…..I don’t know if such a thing is even physically possible. I would like to see that. Midevar sheker tirchok. Such claims do not reflect well on the writer.

    4) One could say that it was hashgocho that the shammos came in time to see the problem and prevent fire spreading. But I think to call to make it into a big miracle is exaggerating things and foolish. The shammos needs help if he messed up in such a big way, with both menoras and Torah crowns. If he can’t handle the job, let them either get someone who can, or get him help.

    The whole thing is a comedy of errors and incompetence. If they would have been properly careful and not left a yohrzeit lamp alone, there would have been no problem. You recently publicized a psak, about people not leaving menoras burning when they leave a house. So why wasn’t more care taken in this case with the yohrzeit light?

  4. MR.#7
    B”H that these are your problems
    but I have a problem with one of your problems your point #4 why isn’t it a miracle every breath that you breathe is a miracle (hashgocho & miracles could word together)

  5. To Mister No. 7:
    The rav, a big talmid chacham, paskened that in this situation, the menorah of a child (boy or girl) was allowed to be taken to the shul. He based his pask on it was still being ha’shemashos, therefore a shvus d’shvus, and also tiltul shelo k’derech gufo as well as a hefsed merubah and bimkom mitzvah (halachic reasons for leniency).
    By the way, Mister No. 7, girls do light menorahs in Williamsburg – and in Kiryas Yoel too!!
    Everything else is simple reality. Yes, if everyone did everthing properly there would be no shailos. We are all sure that wherever you live, all the yidden are perfect and there are no shailos, and you will go straight to gan eden. The rest of us are real Yidden and we live in a real world, and we will get schar min shomayim for our efforts.

  6. Another point to think about –

    I find it interesting that neither the President nor the shammos was apparently in Shul even by the time of shkiah. And that seems to be taken for granted, as if that is their normal state of affairs. If they would have come to Shul right after licht bentshen, as many Yidden do, they could have taken care of their problems before shkiah.

    Why were they not in Shul earlier? The writer talks about mehadrin min hamehadrin – isn’t it proper to be in Shul at least before shkiah? Is mehadrin only for Chanukah and not for Shabbos? We are not talking about some shleppers here – we are talking about the President and Shammos – leaders of the congregation. And where was the Rav? And what about other people that daven there? No one else noticed that the menora was missing? It seems that basically no one else was there either. Isn’t there an inyan of tosfos Shabbos? Of waiting for Shabbos? Some people say shir hashirim and make other hachonos. And in such a big Shul too yet? No one was around when shkiah came, a little boy had to be sent to see if the menorah was there?

  7. To No. 13. Yes, his father was niftar in 1911. The Udvary Rov is almost 100 years old, if he isn’t already. He should have arichas yomin tovim!!


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