Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Machlis Family: Ki Eshmerah Shabbat

My friend Reuven, urged by Yoni, decided to tell me this story of his experience at Rabbi Mordechai and Henny Machlis' house in Israel. I thought it was fantastic and that everyone would enjoy it.


Hidden within Jerusalem's Maalot Dafna neighborhood, Building 137/26, there is a family who has made it their mission to truly care for their brethren. This is the Machlis family. It doesn't matter whether you are a homeless person dressed in tattered rags or a yeshiva student who needs a place to stay; no matter who you are, you are more than welcome.

You enter their home to see bookcases lining the room from floor to ceiling. They are utterly filled with sefarim; in Reuven's words, perhaps more sefarim than the YU Gottesman Library. There are about five tables set up in the living room, and people pour into the house. There are Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Christians and those of other faiths, people of all skin colors and types of dress. Rabbi Machlis is a very trusting person who likes to believe the best of everyone. In one instance, he mentioned that he and his wife used to have these very elaborate silver candelabras. "Someone borrowed them," he said simply, "and never returned them." He did not wish to believe that anyone would have stolen them.

There are two rules for Shabbat participance at the Machlis house. Anyone is allowed to speak about any topic with the exception of:

1) Denigrating any religion or faith
2) Politics

The way that it works is that you stand up, speak your piece, and then sit down again.

Now, it once happened that a group of Teimanim (Yemenite Jews) came to R' Machlis' house for Shabbat. They all sat together; they did not speak a word of English, nor did they understand the language, and all they wanted to do was sing. At every single lull, pause, and whenever any individual stopped speaking, they broke out in song, slamming their hands against the table emphatically, closing their eyes and swaying at times.

A different man, one who clearly had something on his mind, arose and began to speak. In the course of his speech, he made the statement, "And Rabbis are low, like prostitutes!"


The entire room was silent, in utter shock. The speaker sat down, emphatically declaring that he had made his point.

"Ki eshmerah Shabbat el yishmereini," boomed the Teimanim, completely oblivious to the insult and the distinctly frosty reception of the speaker's remarks. The chill that spread throughout the room failed to affect them.

Men were getting up, overturning their chairs, angrily threatening the man who had dared to insult the rabbis, but the Teimanim sang on, blissfully oblivious.

R' Machlis kept his cool. "Perhaps," he suggested, "you understand prostitutes differently than I do? The way I understand prostitutes, and I could be wrong, is as something negative."

The speaker rose up once more. "Of course I mean that it's a bad thing!" he reiterated. "R' Moshe Feinstein was worse than Hitler!"

Again, a shocked silence filled the room. The Teimanim took this opportunity to continue the zemer.

"Bo emtzah tamid nofesh l'nafshi," they happily sang, their voices mingling to create a beautiful melody honoring the Shabbat.

People were shouting, antagonized by the speaker's remarks. A mixture of affronted remarks filled the air, made both in English and Hebrew. Reuven was laughing so hard (due to the response of the Teimanim) that he fell out his chair. Meanwhile, a different man took his chair and held it over his head, ready to throw it at the speaker who had made the offensive remarks about R' Feinstein. Reuven thought that there was no way the speaker could get out of there without being punched in the face.

But R' Machlis interrupted.

"You are upsetting my guests," he gently remarked to the speaker. "Perhaps after the meal you can stay and you and I can discuss your points?"

The speaker sat down, his dignity intact, and the guests begrudgingly decided not to punch him out. After the meal, R' Machlis sat with the man, listened to his grievances and answered his questions. At the conclusion of their conversation, a smile playing on his face, he began to sing "Ki eshmerah Shabbat" and the Teimanim, dazzling smiles lighting their faces, gladly joined in.

Only in Israel.


nmf #7 said...

Phenomenal story. Just phenomenal. The Machlis's are truly amazing people.

Anonymous said...

I could not stop laughing when Rueven first told me this story. His R'Machlis stories always leave me wanting more...

very well written.

Anonymous said...

Awesome. I've witnessed quite a few similar events where the Rav managed to allay the melee in a similar fashion. Each time it looks like there's gonna be blood but the Rav somehow manages to please everybody. A sight to behold.

And the retelling here was absolutely hilarious.


Moshe Rudner

Chana said...

Moshe Rudner,

Oh, please do share similar stories! I'd love to hear them.

I'm glad you enjoyed the retelling; it was part of a wager with Reuven (who claimed this couldn't be made funny in writing, while I claimed it could.)