The Pesach Seder Plate in Prison

A miracle whose source is Jewish dedication to mitzvot.

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich

OpEds Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich
Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich
INN:YM

It was while I was in the Chistopol Prison. This was a very harsh prison. I was sent there for having kept the Shabbat in the hard labor camp. This was considered to be an offence. It was the tenth year of my incarceration. I was for some time in the same cell with another Prisoner of Zion, Hillel Butman

A month before the Passover festival I suggested that we hold a Pesach Seder.

He only laughed: "A Pesach Seder in the prison? It's impossible." I knew that he was an obstinate person and that if he said no- there was nothing one could do about it.

Therefore, I decided to make all the preparations alone.

In the Jewish underground in Russia one of the activities of Jewish education was to teach young people about the Pesach Seder.

I was lucky. Among my personal belongings I kept a postcard from Israel on which there was a photograph of a Pesach Seder Plate from the Israel Museum- a Pesach Seder Plate from Germany, from the 18th century.

Therefore, from this postcard I learned what I would need for the Seder Plate. And there was a further small miracle: in the margins of the postcard there was all the order of the Pesach Seder: Kadesh Urechatz.. I began at once to write my own Pesach Haggada according to the order written in the postcard.

I would need four cups of wine. How to obtain wine in the closely guarded security prison? – Very simple.

My father, Moshe Ben Aaron of Blessed Memory, had sent me 10 years previously a kilo of raisins. This was during the interrogation period and it was permitted to receive raisins. After the trial it was no longer permitted to receive anything like this.

I had saved the raisins during these years, I only used them for Kiddush. Although one needed the fruit of the vine –wine, but out of ignorance I decided that raisins were also fruit of the vine. Every Shabbat we would gather in another hut and I would make Kiddush over two raisins. By the tenth year there only remained to me a few handfuls of the raisins, but this was enough to make wine. And there was more. Every day a prisoner would receive a spoonful of sugar. People at once ate the sugar. But I decided to collect it. Every day I added another spoonful and another. After a month I had enough sugar.

I poured the sugar, raisins and hot water into the water-bottle and hid it underneath the bed. Although I was afraid that there might be a sudden search and they would discover my wine, but I had no choice.

I wanted to find something bitter for Chazeret (Horseradish). Suddenly there began an outbreak of influenza in the prison. The prison management didn't have medicines. They heard that onion prevents flu. One day every prisoner received a fresh onion bulb. It was a real asset! For years I hadn't eaten a fresh vegetable. All the prisoners swallowed the onion in a trice. But I thought to myself that if I put the onion in water the onion would sprout leaves and I would be able to make bitter Chazeret from them. And that is what I did. I had an empty tin in which I put water the little onion bulb and placed it on the cell windowsill exactly under the bars. They all laughed at me – "Are you crazy? Why didn't you eat it? Are you trying to grow flowers here?" And I remained silent.

Now came the time for Karpas (celery or parsley). Where could I find some leaves like Karpas? Now, every day they took prisoners out for a walk. Not like you see in films where all the prisoners walk in the yard together. Our prison was only for security prisoners and it was forbidden that we should meet one another (Natan Scharansky also was a prisoner there).

In that place they used to take out all the people in one cell to the roof of the building which was divided into cells, but without a roof. Instead of a roof there were bars.

One day I saw in the yard near our yard (all of them 3 x 3 meters) a small green leaf bursting through the asphalt on the roof. When I had been previously in the forced labor camp we had eaten grass and one knew that this type of grass was edible. I prayed that no one would stamp on my leaf until the Pesach festival.

The egg I made from egg- powder (one spoonful of which remained in my bag), and I also had a Zeroa - a soup cube from Israel with a picture of a chicken on the wrapping. (For a certain time it was permitted to receive once a year a small parcel with soup cubes and egg powder, but after some years they forbade this as well. And miraculously I still had a bit of each left over.) It was still permitted to receive Matza which the prison authorities called "dry bread." I received a kilo of Matzot, the only food for the seven days of Passover.

All that remained was to find the Pesach Seder Plate. I decided to make a Seder Plate from a Pravda newspaper full of "true" Communist propaganda. What was good was that it contained big newspaper pages.

The eve of Pesach arrived.

On the way from the exercise yard I ran quickly to the adjacent yard and picked my "Karpas." Such a an act was considered a grave offence. The warder escorting began to laugh at me – "Who gave you permission?"

I knew him, that warder- he was a good man. He shouted, but did not punish. I explained to him that this plant was very healthy. He listened to me and allowed me to take the Karpas to my cell.

In the evening I asked the warders to bring me the Pravda newspaper to read. I made from the newspaper a circle and wrote on it as on a Seder Plate: Zeroa, Egg, Maror (leaf of the onion) Everything was ready. I hid the Seder Plate under my blanket. When the evening of Tet-Vav Nissan arrived I called Hillel and said – " Pesach has arrived, come let us sit at the Seder table."

He laughed at me: "You again with your stupid ideas, I already told you that it is impossible to hold a Seder in the prison!"

Then I showed him the Pesach Seder Plate. He examined it. Everything was in place. And then he said to me: "But you don't have wine- it's impossible without the Four Cups."

I bent down and took out the water bottle with raisins from under the bunk. The truth is that I wasn't sure if I would get wine. Hillel uncorked the bottle, smelt, and declared " real wine." If that's the case, come let us sit down and hold the Pesach Seder."

Thus did I hold a Halachically-correct Pesach Seder in the prison.

The next morning Hillel and all the members of Operation Wedding were freed and emigrated to Israel. For them this was a true "Festival of Exodus from the Gulag." However, I remained in prison for a further two years. That is what Hashem decreed.

As soon as he arrived in Israel, Hillel Butman told the media how I had held a Pesach Seder in the prison.

The story became "a real Pirsum Haness" – "Publicizing of the Miracle"

Sent to Arutz Sheva by Rabbi Mendelevich.



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