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The Fallen Key

The story behind the Schlissel Challah

“Therefore, lest we forget the miracle Hashem performed for our whole community, I am introducing a new tradition which will be known as “Schlissel Challah to be commemorated every year on the first Shabbos after Pesach!”– With these words, the Maharal finished his speech to the holy community of Prague.

The Background

What is Schlissel Challah?

On the Shabbos following Pesach, there is a fairly well-known custom known as “Schlissel Challah.” Practised mostly amongst Chasidim, the specifics of the custom vary. In some circles, the shape of a key is formed out of dough and baked onto the challah. Others bake a real key into the challah.

While various reasons have been offered for this unique custom, there is a riveting origin-story oft-recounted by the Bobover Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Halberstam zt’l. The story goes back more than 400 years, to the times of the Maharal of Prague.

Interestingly enough, there is no Golem in this Maharal story, possibly due to the veracity of the account!1The legend of the Golem is a matter that deserves its own article. Stay tuned to a future edition of Kankan!

Kiddush in Shul

There is an ancient custom to make Kiddush on Friday night, and Havdalah on Motzei Shabbos in shul. This custom goes back to times of the Gaonim and is still practised in many places today, even though everyone recites Kiddush and Havdalah at home as well.2Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, 269:1.

Those who have visited the Altneuschul in Prague can attest to the fact that there are no cabinets for storage anywhere in the shul and hence the wine for Kiddush and Havdalah was always kept in the Aron Kodesh.

(This gives a new twist to the idiom “Minhag Yisroel Torah,” that is, you keep the “minhag” (of kiddush) with the Torah!)

The History

This story transpired while the Maharal was the Rav of Prague, asIt is evident from the details of the account. This places the timeframe for its occurrence not prior to 1597, when he was first appointed Chief Rabbi, and not after 1609, the year of his passing.

The story is as follows:

It was Pesach night. The Maharal was sitting like a king at the head of the Seder table, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Suddenly, everyone heard a strange noise coming from another room. The Maharal turned to one of his attendants and requested that he investigate the source of the odd sound.

The attendant returned, saying, “All is well. There is nothing to worry about. The bundle of keys fell off the hook and I returned them to their place.”

The Maharal continued with the Seder. It didn’t take long, however, before the same noise was heard again! The keys once again fell off their hook.

Anyone else might not have taken notice, but not a great man such as the Maharal. He understood that he was being sent a message and he had to figure out what was going on. After all, keys just don’t jump off the hook by themselves! But which key was the culprit? The Maharal removed all the keys from the ring and hung each one separately, hoping to determine which key needed his attention.

No sooner had the Seder recommenced than the clink of a single key hitting the floor rang through the air. The attendant ran and picked up the individual key and brought it to the Maharal. The Maharal immediately recognized the key as the one which unlocked the Aron Kodesh in the Altneuschul!

“Please summon Uncle Chaim,3Reb. Chaim Shamash was the brother of Rebbetzin Pearl, the second wife of the Maharal. the Shamash!” he asked, reaching for his coat.

It was in the middle of the Seder when the Maharal and Reb Chaim left his home on the Rabbiner Gasse, which is now part of the Meislova Street. They walked down the dark street by the light of the full moon, disappearing into the  Altneuschul. With the key in hand, they knew exactly where to look for potential trouble.

They opened the Aron Kodesh, but strangely enough, nothing looked out of place. “Chaim! Check out the three bottles of wine!” the Maharal told the Shamash. Chaim, the Shamash, proceeded to uncork the first bottle of wine and gave a sniff.

“Ach! This does not smell like wine at all!” he gagged.

The Maharal himself took a whiff. “This is definitely not wine! This smells of blood!“

Turning to Chaim, the Maharal said, “Quickly pour the blood out! We must rinse the bottles, refill them with fresh wine, and put them back in their place! And Chaim, do not tell anyone about this encounter. It must stay a secret between us. Who knows what catastrophe Hashem has just saved us from!”

The Maharal and Reb Chaim returned to their homes. They joyfully continued with the special mitzvos of the Seder night, leaving their families to wonder what the strange interruption had been all about.

The next morning, the Jewish people of Prague came to Shul, jolly and happy, not having the faintest clue of what was about to happen. It didn’t take long before the  Altneuschul was surrounded by police officers. The Police Chief entered the shul together with the local priest.

The davening came to a halt and the Yidden were all in total shock. Reb Chaim the Shamash approached the officer. “Good morning, Officer!Is there anything I can help you with?”

“Well, I was notified by the priest that you slaughtered a Christian boy and used his blood for your Passover matzah. We’ve also been informed by some highly confidential sources that the leftover blood has been hidden here in this synagogue. So, either you hand over the evidence or we will find it ourselves!”

“Sir, I have no knowledge about any blood nor any slaughtered Christian child. I obviously cannot present you with non-existent evidence, so I invite you to look for yourself.”

“You want to play it the hard way? Very well! We will find it! Now get out the way!”

Hearing the back-and-forth with the police, the Yidden became very frightened. Blood libels were common in those days and they all understood that trouble was brewing. It was clear to them that someone had planted incriminating evidence and it would not take long before it was found. Terrified, they thought of respected members of the kehillah being tortured into “confessing” and the inevitable pogroms that would follow if the “evidence” were uncovered.

They were therefore very surprised when they noticed the calm and collected manner in which the Shamash handled the situation. A glance towards their beloved Rav with his unfazed demeanour gave them the feeling that there was nothing to worry about. With a prayer in their hearts, they hoped for the best.

In the meantime, the officers searched high and low, in every nook and cranny of the shul, but their exhaustive search produced nothing.

“The Ark! the Ark!” the priest exclaimed. “The blood must be in the Ark!”

“Open the Ark at once!” the officer commanded the Shamash, who gladly obliged.

“Here you have it! Three bottles of Christian blood! Here is your evidence!” the priest shouted fiendishly, barely containing his glee.

Reb Chaim calmly stepped in. “Sir, this is not blood. These bottles contain wine which is used for sacramental purposes.”

“It is blood!” cried the priest.

“No, it’s wine!” insisted Chaim.

“Listen!” the officer said. “Why argue when we can solve the problem on the spot? Bring me the bottles!”

The officer opened one bottle and took a long sip. The shock was evident in the eyes of the priest as the officer licked his lips and exclaimed, “This is some tasty wine you Jews have.”

The priest exclaimed, “Obviously this bottle is wine; however, the other ones are full of blood!”

The officer wasted no time in sampling each of the three bottles, and to the surprise of the priest, he agreed that the Shamash was correct. Indeed, the bottles were full of wine!

The bewildered priest began mumbling to himself. “How could this be? I myself exchanged the wine for blood! No one was in on the plan. What is going on here?!”

He didn’t have time to wonder very long. He was arrested, eventually tried in court and duly punished.

The Yidden breathed a collective sigh of relief and returned to the davening with renewed joy and fervour. “In every generation, they stand against us to destroy us and Hakadosh Baruch Hu saves us from their hand.” The words of the Haggadah which they chanted last night were never more true and apparent.

The police officer, himself quite surprised by the turn of events, apologized to the community for the unnecessary disturbance and made his way to the exit.

Reb Chaim Shamash accompanied the officer out of the shul and, never missing a beat, presented the officer with the three bottles of leftover wine. “Sir, I’d like to offer you this very special wine – we call it ‘Yayin Nesech’ – as a token of appreciation for your swift and just handling of this horrible libel against our community.”

Image Information:
Title: Rabi Jachezkiel Landau – Rabin w Pradze Czeskey
Date: 19th century.
Extras: Behind the main figure in the protrait – the Noda Byhudah, one sees two smaller portraits, on the right is Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, known as the Maharam Padova, on the left is the Maharal from Prague.
Image Information:
The Aron Kodesh in the Altneuschul, Prague – where our story unfolded!

And to remember this miracle, which was caused by a key, the community of Prague made a Schlissel Challah the first Shabbos after every Pesach. While it would seem appropriate to mark the matzos themselves with the shape of a key, the custom is not to make any shapes on matzos.4Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 460:4. Therefore, the commemoration of the miracle is postponed until the first week after Pesach.

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