The Last Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto


On Seder night, a Rebbe and his Hassid were arrested and taken to Gestapo Headquarters in Warsaw. The SS guards threw them into a cell together with a ganef (thief), looking forward to the amusement of watching the thief beat up the two Jews. At first, with the guards encouraging him, the thief pushed the Rebbe around, cursed him and spat on him. Then the Rebbe spoke to the thief, saying, “Why are you hurting me? I didn’t put you in here.” Acknowledging that this was true, the thief stopped abusing the two Jews. When all was quiet, the Rebbe turned to his Hassid and said, “It’s Seder night. You must ask the Four Questions.” The Hassid replied, “Rebbe, I can’t. I lost my entire family today. I can’t do it.”


Overhearing the conversation, the thief asked what they were talking about. “Tell me the story,” said the thief.


And so, the Rebbe painstakingly translated the entire Haggadah into Polish, sitting up with the thief, telling the story until four in the morning.


The thief made the whole thing possible, because without his question, there could be no Seder.


When the SS guard returned and found the Rebbe and the thief deep in conversation, he was enraged, and took them both outside, and shot them.


The Rebbe’s Hassid survived, and after the war, he told Reb Shlomo Carlebach this story.




The famous debate between Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein over the nature of reality highlights a great irony.


Einstein’s belief that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” motivated his life’s work, which was the pursuit of a Unified Field Theory that connects particles and waves. In spiritual terms, Einstein was looking for a way to connect the infinite with the finite, combining them into a single, orderly package. If he had succeeded in this, the dialectic of olam/world, and the ambiguity of life, would have disappeared.


The multiple meanings of the word Olam cover all five dimensions: three dimensions of space (olam/world); one dimension of time (olam/forever); and a fifth, spiritual dimension (olam/hidden).

Olam (ne’elam/disappear) is the place where God hides.

Rebbe Nachman said: the world is the rock that Hashem seemingly cannot lift.


Herein is the basic mystery, embodied in the fermenting wine of the Pessach Seder. The wine is the chaos, which Einstein hoped to cancel out with a ‘Unified Field Theory’.


Ironically, it was Heisenberg – the scientist in charge of the Nazi attempt to make the atomic bomb – who proposed that the movement of electrons is random and that the Unified Field Theory postulated by Einstein would never be discovered. A major part of Heisenberg’s theory, postulating that the act of observation alters and determines the reality of the thing that is observed, acknowledged the fundamental and vital role of chaos in the make-up of reality.


And so, in the irony of ironies, in the Heisenberg/Einstein debate, the Nazi is the Jew. The children and grandchildren of Nazis (including Hitler’s granddaughter) convert to Judaism. Just as the descendants of Haman, and of Esau, were great Jewish sages, the descendants of Nazis feel a need for ezer k’negdo/helpful opposition – for an open space in which dialogue and interaction can occur.


Part of this Torah – a difficult part - incorporates the understanding that even the enemies of the Jews are part of the Torah, and they contribute to the ambiguity of life.

Extremes provide a framework within which we can find balance, and so, in Torah, Ishmael and Esau are necessary and important, just as the secret of the Ketoret is in the foul-smelling galbanum. Ishmael and Esau are not outside the story, but necessary and integral to it. Many Midrashim defend both Ishmael and Esau – we learn Tshuvah from Ishmael, and we pay for every tear that Esau cried.


The Pessach Seder is premised upon this idea of a space opened up by opposite extremes, which is why the thief was the vital key to the last Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Pessach Seder is a structural masterpiece. Part of its effervescence is in the way it opens the space for questions and helpful opposition.


The Seder is defined by its questions. If there is no one to ask the questions, there can be no Seder.


In Reb Shlomo’s story, the thief’s role in opening up the space for the Seder represents the role of the fermenting wine at the Seder. The wine is not cooperative; it is the chaos, which is the presence of God.


The Esh Kodesh says (p.70) “It is a scriptural commandment to help all kinds of children – wise, wicked, simple and those unable to ask – to turn around and draw close to Torah….This may be why the Haggadah begins with the recitation ‘Originally our ancestors were idol worshippers, but now the Omnipresent has brought us near to His service.”


The test/Nes of the Seder is a great one – that of connecting with and reaching out to every person present, on his or her level.


Reb Shlomo  translates the Haggadah’s response to the wicked child –  hakaha et shinav – usually translated as “blunt his teeth” as “clarify his shechina”. (the word shin/tooth also stands for shechina)This is done by saying “what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt” – by sharing our own struggles and experiences, just as the personalities of the Torah and the Talmud share theirs. Through this, we come to understand the Exodus from Egypt as a real and ongoing personal process – a process of struggling with and coming forth from the narrow places.


The Haggadah tells us: R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua, R. Elazar ben Azaria, R. Akiba and R. Tarfon were reclining (at the Seder) in B’nei Brak. They discussed the Exodus all that night until their students came and said to them, “Our teachers, it is time for the reading of the morning Sh’ma.”


The obvious question is – why did these great sages need their students to tell them it was time to read the morning Shema?

The Piacezna Rebbe suggests they were waiting for the students to rise to the high spiritual level the teachers had attained, because teacher and student are vitally connected, and if a teacher leaves a student behind it is spiritually damaging to both.


Another question arises: What specifically were the Rabbis talking about all night? Which Mitzrayim (“narrow places”) were they discussing?


An enigmatic story in the Gemara  (Baba Mezia 59b) may provide an answer. In this Gemara, Ima Shalom, wife of R. Eliezer, upon hearing that her husband caused the death of her brother Rabban Gamaliel, says, “I have this tradition from my father’s house: All gates are locked, excepting the gates of wounded feelings.”


Perhaps the Rabbis were discussing their own personal Mitzrayim - the ways in which each of them had hurt each other.


The most difficult parts of the entire Torah are the stories dealing with Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers  – stories that show us the ways in which good people who love each other very much, hurt each other.”


In the Talmud we also find difficult stories detailing ways in which the great Rabbis hurt each other, through the “gates of wounded feelings”.


It seems that the higher a person’s spiritual level, the greater the capacity to hurt those he loves. The ultimate ambiguity in the entire Talmud is in the idea that the higher a person rises the Torah, the more he can hurt those he loves. The whole process of Teshuvah and refinement brings its own inexorable karma, as the margin of error becomes smaller and smaller. A person on a very high spiritual level can harm another with merely a word, or a look.


All the Sages mentioned in the Haggadah appear frequently in the Gemara, in the context of difficult and fraught relationships with each other. In a series of stories in the Gemara (Avodah Zarah) we learn how the Rabbis, who loved each other very much, also tested each other in extreme ways.


On this basis of this series of stories in the Gemara, it is possible to suggest that the Sages in the Hagaddah were talking of their own personal Mitzrayim, as much as they were talking about oppression on a national or political level.


Possibly the most distressing of this series of Talmudic stories is found in Rashi’s commentary on Avodah Zarah 18b, referring to what the Gemara calls “the incident about Beruria”.


When Beruria, wife of R. Meir, questioned her husband about the familiar Rabbinic adage “women are light-minded”, he replied that one day she would herself testify to its truth. R. Meir set out to prove that his wife’s daat/knowing was indeed kal/light. (This possibly means he wanted to prove that her daat was from the side of Chessed, which is the light side). R. Meir sent one of his students to test Beruria by trying to seduce her. When Beruria finally succumbed to the seduction, she committed suicide, and R. Meir, devastated, ran away to Babylon and was never heard from again.


Like the stories of Ishmael and Esau in the Chumash, Talmudic stories such as this are difficult, and people are often tempted to ignore them. They interfere with the orderliness (the seder) of Torah and Talmud, and yet they embody the utmost integrity of thought. They are integral to Torah because, like the thief at the last Seder in Warsaw, they represent the chaotic element through which people can connect with the text.


The very fact that the Sages chose to include these stories in the Gemara teaches us that in order to embrace the ambiguity of life, we need to maintain a delicate balance between Einstein’s order and Heisenberg’s chaos – because each are necessary for a true experience of life.



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