11. Pesach Stories
by Miriam Samsonowitz

Pesach in Tza'ana

I was traveling through Yemen having undertaken a self-imposed
golus, and had ended up in Tza'ana during Nissan. Because of the approaching
Pesach holidays, I decided to stay in Tza'ana, and was befriended by a
well-to-do Tza'ana merchant called Yosef Achiri, whose entire extended
family was involved in producing gunpowder.

The Achiris were well-to-do, and they lived comfortably in a
four-room house. Yosef was appalled at the starved, weak state I was in and
my ragged garments, and on the day he took me to his home, he insisted on my
going to the baths and afterwards putting on one of his garments.

I first went to the barber who trimmed my scraggly beard, which
had been untouched since I entered the country. While he was cutting the
edges, the barber sarcastically asked if I had undertaken to become a nazir
Elokim.

After the haricut, I entered the baths, where I remained to
sweat a while. Clouds of steam swirled around the room and I breathed deeply
of the wet, heavy air until my head began to swoon. I felt myself growing
faint, and before I knew it, I had passed out.

The other people in the baths fortunately noticed my faint, and
they excitedly grabbed me by my arms and legs and pulled me out of the
baths. They gave me several thumps on my chest and back which failed to
awake me but, I discovered later, had caused several large bruises. After
the cold air had aroused me, I hastily dressed and returned to the Achiris
in a state of exhaustion. Once at their home, I laid down on a bed and
immediately fell into a deep sleep.

When I awoke, I resolved to travel to the nearby town of Azali
where the great Mari Yichye El Kara lived. I had first met him in the Charaz
mountains where he secluded himself, but I had heard he returned home to
Tza'ana for the Pesach holiday. He was shocked when he saw my withered, gaunt
body and my ragged clothes, and I detected tears in his eyes. "Why are you
worried," I hastened to reassure him. "After all, I'm alive!"

I asked him my questions about the matzos in Tza'ana and how the
Sedorim here were held. "Do not worry," he reassured me. "You can eat the
matza in any home in Tza'ana. Every day they prepare matza anew and it is
warm and fresh, as was the custom of our fathers. There is no requirement
that the matzos be dry and stale because they were baked many days before
Pesach. The sages in Jerusalem themselves declared that our women work with
alacrity and may be relied on concerning the kashrus of their matzos. Every
day we eat warm, fresh matza. What kind of oneg would we have during our Yom
Tov meals without warm matza?" I was dubious.

"Are you sure that women can be relied upon where there is a
question of even the smallest amount of chometz? Does the verse not tell us
'You shall guard the matzos?'"

"Leave us with our fathers' customs!" he rebuked me. "We are not
less stringent than you and we watch our matzos just as carefully. 'Do not
be overly righteous.'"

Mari Yichye gave me three soft matzos which he had prepared for
his Seder night, and then told me, "This is matza shemura from the old crop
which was watched from the time of harvest. Most of the matzos this year
were not made from such wheat because there was a famine this year and they
had to take whatever wheat was available. However, in my family there is a
tradition not to use matzos unless they were watched from the time of
harvest."

The daily baking of matzos during Pesach was a practice I had
never heard of before, coming as I did from the north. But I knew that Mari
Yichye was a great scholar with immense fear of G-d, and so I trusted in his
words. I bid him farewell with "Good, we shall speak again on Yom Tov."

I took the matzos he gave me and trekked back to Tza'ana. A
short time later a messenger arrived with a set of clothes for me, and an
invitation to join Mari Yichye for the Seder night. However, Yosef Achiri,
who had been the first to invite me to his home, refused to give up his
right and I declined the Mari's invitation.

At night I accompanied the Achiri men to the "El Tiri" family
synagogue. After maariv in the Yemenite fashion, we recited Hallel. The
chazon recited half a verse at a time of Hallelukah and the community
continued the second half of the verse after him. Finally the prayers were
finished. We came to the house and sat down on the floor around a low table.
Most of the Yemenite Seder was similar to what Jews all over the diaspora
kept, but there were interesting differences.

The head of the table divided the matza on the Seder plate,
wrapped it in a cloth, placed it on his shoulder, and walked around the
house with it. The others asked him, "Why are you doing this?" And he
replied, "So did our forefathers when they left Egypt in haste."

When they all sat down to recite the Haggadah, they removed the
low table. At the song "Dayenu", the table was returned and everyone held on
to it while lifting it a bit. Then they banged it on the floor and said
"Dayenu!" in a loud voice. This they did for every stanza.

The menfolk translated the Haggadah into Arabic for the sake of
the women and the children. In addition to the Haggadah which is universally
recited, the Yemenites had their own songs and poems which they added at the
end. I must admit that I enjoyed their special kind of matza-it was warm,
soft and didn't have the usual burnt sections which was present in every
matza I had ever eaten until then.

When the Achiris were well into the meal, they brought up solemn
memories of the pillage that had befallen the Tza'ana Jewish community on
Pesach just 40 years before. During the Seder night that year, they drank
the bitter cup of tears which was all the more bitter because the pillage
came on them so unexpectedly.

At the periphery of Yemen in Kedar, which is east of the large
desert, 15 days travel from Tza'ana, the local Arabic tribes joined together
and rebelled against the king in Tza'ana. A large army approached the city
several days before Pesach planning to conquer it and despoil it. The king
was so terrified of the attackers that he feared facing them in battle. He
closed the walls around Tza'ana and didn't permit anyone to leave and enter.

The walls around the city were tall and tightly closed, and he
hoped this would deter them. However, the city of Tza'ana consisted of two
parts-the part where only Arabs lived, which was surrounded by an
impregnable wall, and the part where Jews lived together with Arabs, which
was surrounded by a newer, less sturdy wall. The attackers set up their
tents at a distance from the city, and didn't permit anyone to leave or
enter it.

It was in these tense conditions that the holiday of Pesach
arrived. The Jews had prepared in time for the holiday, but every heart was
full of trepidation since no one knew the plans of the enemy and if they
would succeed in pillaging the city.

In the meantime, there were primitive Jewish Bedouins who had
joined the attackers in their plans. They knew that the wealthy Jewish
community in Tza'ana would be celebrating the Seder night with all their
finery: jewelry and gold and silver vessels. They advised their Arabic
comrades that if they attacked the weaker wall this night, and managed to
enter the city, huge treasures would be theirs.

Incited by their Jewish comrades, the Arabs planned accordingly.
They bribed the external wall guards to let them into the Jewish district,
and in this way easily gained entry to the city. Thus did tragedy descend on
the Tza'ana Jews. They were merrily celebrating the Seder night with all
their finery and delicious foods, when suddenly, fierce soldiers fell upon
them and despoiled them of everything they owned.

The pillagers remained in the Jewish district for the entire
week of Pesach, while they emptied the district like one who takes an orange
and leaves behind an empty peel.

Under threat of death, the Jews had to reveal their secret
hiding-places so they were left penniless. Tthey further suffered the
indignity of having their precious sifrei Torah and seforim taken away from
them.

The king feared to come to their aid, lest the pillagers decide
to attack the second half of the city. The attackers had free run in half of
the city and no one dared to oppose them. The Achiris told me, "Everything
could be replaced, and after several years of hard work, Hashem blessed the
Jews again, and they became rich like before. But their sifrei Torah and the
antique, rare books which had been carried off in booty-nothing could
replace them." Nevertheless, the community did manage to recover some of
these holy articles.

After the attackers left Tza'ana and returned to their locale,
the Tza'ana Jews discovered that the Bedouin Jews who lived among the
attackers had taken the sifrei Torah and holy books from them and sold them
to Jewish communities they passed through on their way home.

The Tza'ana Jews sent messengers to the purchasers of their
pillaged articles, requesting that they have mercy and return their
belongings to them. To help convince them, the supplications were
accompanied by dire threats of excommunication. Many of the Jews who had
purchased the plundered items were frightened and returned the holy books,
but others replied, "We too are Jews and we need holy books to read and
study, and from where can we procure them? We did not steal these holy books
but saved them from the hands of non-Jewish thieves. Therefore, these now
belong to us."