The Great Power and Beauty of Shabbos
Hashem said to Moshe Rabbeinu, “Matanah tova yeish li b’beis g’nazi, v’Shabbos sh’ma” - I have a fine gift in My divine vault, and its name is Shabbos. Go and give it to the B’nei Yisroel.” Imagine! The Creator of every imaginable pleasure! What is so precious that He keeps secreted away in His Celestial vault? Shabbos! This gives us a glimpse into what a very special place Shabbos has among other earthly pleasures. What a special day - when we finally escape from the cell phone, the computer, from shopping and traffic, from waiting in line for a train or bus, or circling with annoyance trying to find parking. It’s a respite from a potpourri of weekday aggravations.
In the previous three articles, we’ve emphasized how the thoughtful Shabbos observer makes it his or her business to ensure that Shabbos remains a time of contentment and to diligently protect its spirit from the pressures and troubles of the workweek. We also cited from the Zohar advising that achieving proper menuchas Shabbos can even help a person keep away the malach ha-maves, the angel of death.
To strengthen these two lessons I want to relate to you the incredible story of the Salonican stevedores. I owe a great debt of appreciation to Rabbi Berel Wein, shlit”a, for making me aware of this incredible story. Let me first give you a bit of background. Salonica had a Sephardic Jewish presence for 450 years. As a matter of fact, in the beginning of the 20th century, the only country in the world whose national language was a Jewish language was Salonica, where the language was Ladino, the special language spoken by Sephardic Jewry. The Port of Salonica was a major international port serving huge mercantile ships and hundreds of passenger boats. What was extraordinary about the Port of Salonica was that it was absolutely closed on Shabbos. The stevedores, porters, pilots, and even the chandlers were all Sabbath observers.
In the 1920s, a ship arrived at the port on Saturday morning. A small boat filled with young Greek urchins paddled out to the huge ship and told them that the port is closed on Shabbos - but if they wanted, they would offer their services to help them come ashore. The captain of the boat gave them one look and wisely decided not to risk his expensive cargo, his precious ship and passengers to this lot and instead, to the chagrin of all above, waited until Sunday morning. On the boat was a journalist by the name of Alexander Kailand. He experienced how, throughout the entire Saturday, passengers on the boat were roundly cursing the Jews for making them wait at sea until Sunday morning.
Nonetheless, bright and early Sunday, the port sprang to life and the biggest and most burly professionals sprang into action. Pilots came onto the boat to expertly navigate the ship into the dock. Giant stevedores and porters skillfully unloaded the boat, not with machinery but with brute bodily strength. Kailand, with his keen journalistic eye, observed all of this with bewilderment. This brutish lot did not seem the sort to be inclined to sacrifice the Sabbath commercial activities and profits for spiritual reasons. Right there and then, he decided to stay in Salonica for the week in order to experience a Salonican Shabbos firsthand. On Saturday morning, he took a stroll down the central Jewish promenade and, to his great amazement, he noticed the same burly men (you couldn’t miss them!) strolling down the boulevard dressed in their finery, surrounded by their wives and children with such a look of serenity and peacefulness on their faces that he couldn’t believe that they were the same men.
He then writes almost poetically that upon seeing this feat he was able to understand how the mighty Romans fell to the Jews. He adds with a flourish that ‘where he comes from the Jews do not have such a Shabbos and it should be mandatory for them to travel to Salonica to learn from their brethren what Shabbos really means.’
If this would be the end of the story it would be fascinating enough. But, fasten your seatbelts. In the 1940s, there were about 90,000 Jews in Salonica. Hitler, may his name rot forever, murdered 89,000 of them. One thousand escaped - destination Palestine. There, they were met by the British. One boat was cruelly returned to Hamburg; others were sent to be interred in Cyprus. However, one huge boat was an exception. When the British came abreast of the boat, they noticed circling its perimeter the biggest, burliest men they’d ever seen, not holding guns but each one gripping iron rods in their hands with steely determination in their eyes. The British captain in charge took one look at them and wisely decided not to attempt to board the boat. This boat was one of the very few that made it safely into the port of Haifa and it was occupied with, as you might have already guessed, the Salonican stevedores. Until this day, their descendants are the nucleus of the stevedores and porters and pilots in the Port of Haifa.
Such is the power of Shabbos both in transforming a person during this holy day and in saving a person from almost certain death. May Hashem bless us and our families to be always able to preserve and enjoy menuchas Shabbos and in that merit may He grant us long life, good health, and everything wonderful.
Sheldon Zeitlin transcribes Rabbi Weiss’ articles. If you wish to receive Rabbi Weiss’ articles by email, please send a note to ZeitlinShelley@aol.com.