For centuries after the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492, pockets of Jewish people clung to their faith in secret. While giving the appearance of being devout Christians, they maintained Jewish practice in hiding.
Some of these crypto-Jews held positions of great prominence in Spanish government, finance, culture and academia. One such Jew was a very high official in the royal court who enjoyed a close relationship with the reigning monarch.
But the day came when the powerful arm of the church caught up with him, and he was accused of living as a Jew. He was summarily tried and sentenced to death by auto-da-fé.
Since he had many important duties, he asked the king to defer his punishment for a year so that he would be able to put the kingdom’s affairs in order before being burned. Although the king rarely involved himself in church matters, he requested that his friend be granted a year, and his wish was honored.
The year passed all too quickly, and the king once again asked that the punishment be delayed by one month. This was followed by a request for an additional week and then a day.
Finally, word was given that the treacherous Jew, who had pretended to be a faithful Catholic, would be put to death by burning in the city square.
People gathered from miles around to witness the event. The pyre was burning, and the priests were performing their last rites.
Suddenly, the ground shook. Buildings crumbled. The bleachers wobbled. The crowd dispersed in panic as the city was gripped by an earthquake. In the mayhem, the accused managed to slip away from his captors.
A few weeks later, he escaped out of Spain to safety.
Well versed in classical philosophy, the Jew knew no rest. Was the earthquake sent by G‑d just to save him, or was it simple happenstance? Could it be that G‑d was intimately involved in his personal affairs and cared about him?
After giving the matter some thought, he decided to further contemplate the issue. If he would conclude that it was simple coincidence, then he would continue to live his life in the relative safety of his non-Jewish persona. If, however, he would come to understand that G‑d had ordained the earthquake for his personal protection, he would have no choice but to live according to G‑d’s will, as an open and proud, practicing Jew.
He immediately began discussing the issue with the philosophers and thinkers whom he met in Germany, where he had come to reside. He always talked of a theoretical minister, never letting on that it was he himself who had experienced such an amazing turn of events.
The opinions flew fast and furious, and every wise man had his say, but there was no answer that satisfied the stranger from Spain.
In desperation, he decided to travel eastward to seek the council of RabbiIsrael Baal Shem Tov, the leader of the nascent Chassidic movement.
As the travel-weary man came to the courtyard of the famed rabbi, he saw a man stroking the horses. It was none other than Reb Volf Kitzes, one of theBaal Shem Tov’s star pupils.
In response to the Spaniard’s query, Reb Volf indicated that the Baal ShemTov was inside the house.
As soon as the stranger entered, even before he was able to speak, the Baal Shem Tov called out, “Welcome, minister from Spain!”
Shaken by the fact that the Baal Shem Tov knew who he was without being told, he stood silently. “Regarding your question,” continued the Baal Shem Tov, “you would do well to speak to my student, Reb Volf. He’s the one you met outside stroking the horses.”
After hearing the man’s story, Reb Volf explained: “It is entirely conceivable that this earthquake had been preordained since the beginning of time. However, the fact that your punishment had been timed just so that it happened neither before nor after the earthquake is clearly a miracle that G‑d has brought about through His many messengers.”
Satisfied at last, the man began to live openly as a Jew and as an adherent of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings.