The Berlin prison

Thursday, 16 July, 2015 - 11:17 am

The Berlin prison, Purim, 5759 (1999). I was learning in the Chabad Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, and my friend and I were sent to read the Megillah and bring the joy of the holiday to every Jew. That is how we – Shlomi Beitsch (today Rabbi Shlomo Beitsch, the Rebbe’s Shaliach in Maryland) and myself – found ourselves in the Berlin prison, looking for Jews.

Seven Jewish prisoners had been collected from the various wings into a big, empty room. They all said that they had been condemned for tax-related crimes, even the one who came in with handcuffs and was accompanied by two guards…

They were seven, we were two; one more and we would have a Minyan. One doesn’t have to have a Minyan for the Megillah reading, but in the laws of the Megillah it says, “One must search for ten, and if it is impossible to read it in the presence of ten, then one reads it alone.” So we began to pester the officials in a Chabad-like way, to search for one more Jew in their lists. But they didn’t find any. “So just let me take a walk through this floor,” I asked. “Maybe there’s someone anyway.” “Aber Schnell”, they said, allowing it.

I went out, accompanied by a warden, and roamed around. Suddenly, I heard “Shalom!” in Hebrew. I looked for the cell where the voice must be coming from, but no – the speaker was standing right in front of me, smiling and asking me in Hebrew, “Ma Shlomcha?” – “How are you?”  He was neither handcuffed nor guarded – for he was not a prisoner, but rather a prison guard!

I can still see his figure, with his embarrassed smile, and remember my discomfort in seeing a Jew in the uniform of a German jailer…

I can also still see the surprised faces of the prisoners, when I came in with the guard and said, “Done! We have a Minyan!”

Beyond that, I remember the moment at which we all suddenly realized that there is a deep connection between a guarded, handcuffed prisoner, two young rabbis and one jailer in a prison in Berlin – this human mosaic is what put us together and made us form a Minyan.

When they asked us, “Why did you come? Why did you choose to celebrate Purim with us in the prison?” I told them the simple truth: It’s not us – it’s the Rebbe. The Lubavitcher Rebbe commanded us to bring Purim to any Jew wherever he is. We are only his agents.


If they would have learned the Rebbe’s commentary on this week’s Parasha, they would have understood us a bit better.

In the laws of the unintentional killer and the Ir Miklat (city of refuge), it says, “And the assembly will rescue the killer… and shall return him to his city of refuge… he shall dwell in it until the death of the High Priest.” In other words, the unintentional killer escapes to the city of refuge, lives his life there, but only there. He can leave the city of refuge only after the death of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest.

What is the connection between such a person and the High Priest? The Rebbe explains, based on Rashi’s commentary, that part of the Kohen Gadol’s role is to pray for every Jew that he should not come to kill unintentionally. If there is a situation in which a Jew degenerates to the point of killing someone, that means that the Kohen has not refined him enough. The death of the Kohen atones for his generation, and therefore the killer may then leave the city of refuge.

In this speech, which the Rebbe gave on this Shabbat in 5734 (1974), he added and emphasized not just the reason, but mainly the very fact that there is such a polar connection. Even an accidental killer, who is at the bottom of society, is very much connected to the Kohen Gadol, the holiest and most elevated person. One influences the other, and, as mentioned, the Kohen is responsible, because he should have prayed for the simple Jew that he not get to the point of killing another person.

When the Rebbe asked and commanded that we reach every Jew, everywhere, he spoke from a feeling of deep responsibility towards his People. You could see and feel the true connection and caring for every person, whether he be a handcuffed prisoner or a busy warden.


Shabbat Shalom,


Zalmen Wishedski

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