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"Then Ya'akov called for his sons and said, 'Assemble yourselves and I will tell you what will befall you in the End of Days'" (Bereishis 49:1).
Chazal tell us that our Patriarch, Ya'akov, wanted to reveal to his children the end of all of their exiles, when Moshiach will finally come, but the Shechinah (the Holy Spirit) departed from him and he could not tell them. Consequently, Ya'akov was afraid that perhaps one of his sons was not following in his ways; just as Yishmael and Esav did not follow in the ways of their fathers. But all of his children assured him that this was not the case and declared, "Shema, Yisroel - Hear, O Israel, our father (Ya'akov's name was also Yisroel), Hashem our G-d, Hashem is One. Just as you only believe in One, so do we."
In the commentary written by Rabbi Yonasson ben Uziel (as well as the Yerushalmi on the Chumash), it is recorded that Ya'akov responded by saying "Yehei Shemei Rabbah mevorach le'olam ule'olemei olmaya - May the Great Name be blessed for ever and ever." This, Reb Ya'akov Kaminetsky zt"l once told me, is the earliest reference we find to Kaddish - which a mourner recites during his period of mourning.
The Sages taught that the departed soul benefits greatly from the Kaddish which is recited in its honor. The following, amazing story is recorded in the book Ha'ish Al Hachomah. I found a translation of it (albeit slightly different) on a Chabad internet site called L'Chaim with a note that the story was translated by Yrachmiel Tilles from Otzar Hamasiyos in the name of Rabbi Y. Shapira, who heard it from Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld ztvk"l.
In the mid-1800's there lived a wealthy merchant who had a large store in the center of the city of Pressburg. He was well-known for his generosity. Each day he would calculate how much profit he had made and from that separate 10% for ma'aser (tithe), which he would deliver daily to the local yeshiva.
Tragically, this outstanding man passed away at a relatively young age, leaving behind a widow and five daughters. His wife had always helped her husband in the business and knew it well. After his death she maintained its prosperity. She was also careful to continue in her late husband's generous ways, and each day would deliver the 10% from the profits to the head of the yeshiva, the illustrious Rabbi Avraham Benyamin Schreiber ztvk"l, known as the Kesav Sofer.
As she had no sons, she asked the Kesav Sofer to arrange for Torah scholars to say kaddish for her husband for the entire eleven months, and also each successive year on the yahrzeit (the anniversary of the death). She also requested that a second kaddish be said each day, having in mind all those souls who have no one saying kaddish for them.
This went on for nearly ten years. But then the wheel turned. Instead of profits there began to be losses. Even so, the widow appeared daily at the yeshiva, except that she would inform the Kesav Sofer that today, unfortunately, she had nothing to give. He assured her that they were still saying the kaddishes anyway.
Her financial situation got progressively worse, until she had to start selling some of her valuables in order to put food on the table. No one was aware of her situation except for the Kesav Sofer and some of his closest disciples.
One day a shadchan (matchmaker) came to her home and, after some pleasantries, said, "My dear lady, your daughters have all matured nicely. I am confident that I can find many outstanding yeshiva students for you to choose from; just tell me how much dowry you are willing to provide for each one."
She decided not to admit her true situation to him, and instead merely said that she would think it over and then get back to him. He left, and she burst into tears.
She hurried to the yeshiva and poured out her heart to the Kesav Sofer. Suddenly, the door opened. A distinguished-looking elderly man entered and turned to her. He told her that he knew of her desperate situation and that he was prepared to help. He then requested of the Kesav Sofer that two scholars join them. The Kesav Sofer summoned his son, Rabbi Shim'on Sofer, and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.
When they were all assembled, the mysterious guest said, "I know you have five daughters of marriageable age. Each one needs a thousand kroner for dowry money and another thousand kroner for wedding and household expenses. That is 10,000 kroner. To put your business back on its feet, you need another 10,000 kroner."
He then took out a check, wrote the woman's name on it, inscribed it for 20,000 kroner and signed it! Before handing it to her, however, he asked the two young scholars to sign on the back as witnesses to the transaction. He also asked them to take out their personal notebooks so he could sign in each a sample of his signature, in case the signature on the check would be challenged. Turning back to the woman, he told her that she should present the check at the government bank when it opened at nine o'clock and they would honor it. Then he left, as suddenly as he had come.
At nine the next morning the widow was at the bank. When she showed the check to the teller, he said that for such a sum he had to see the manager. He presented the check to the manager, who looked at it and fainted! As soon as he gained consciousness, he asked the woman, "Please tell me how you got this check."
She told him of her difficulties and the sudden appearance of her benefactor. She explained about her husband and his practice of daily ma'aser, and of the kaddishes she had arranged for him and for those souls who had no one saying kaddish for them. She added that two rabbis were official witnesses. The banker contacted the yeshiva to ask that Rabbi Sonnenfeld and Rabbi Shimon Sofer come to his office.
They came and confirmed all that the woman had said. The banker then said that he would personally honor the check, as it was drawn on his own family account, but that his wife had to endorse it, too. He sent for his wife and asked her to bring the family photographs with her.
Although the banker was a Jew, his wife was not. When she arrived, the banker spread out the photos on his desk. He asked each of the three separately to identify the man who gave the check. Each one confidently picked out the same man.
The banker announced, "The man who gave the check is my father, the previous bank manager. But he has been dead for ten years! Last night he appeared to me in a dream. He said that he had been saved from purgatory by the kaddishes that this righteous woman had arranged, and rebuked me for not having fulfilled my obligation towards him by reciting them myself. Consequently, we must now help her. He said that he would give her a check for 20,000 kroner.
"I woke up frightened. In the morning I told my wife the dream. When the check was shown to me at the bank, I knew then that the dream was true. I will pay the 20,000 kroner and I will add another 20,000 of my own, because you fulfilled my obligation and helped my deceased father's soul with the kaddish you arranged."
He continued, "I fully regret my lapse from Judaism. I see that our G-d is true and He gives to all their just reward. Henceforth I will fulfill His commandments."
The man's wife declared that she wished to convert and live in accordance with Jewish law. "Please guide us," they begged the rabbis.
The first thing the woman did when she received the 40,000 kroner was to give 10% of it to the yeshiva. Soon thereafter, her business prospered again. Her five daughters were married to prominent, G-d-fearing Torah scholars.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network