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The Power of Pickled Tomatoes

The Power of Pickled Tomatoes

A great sage and leader of American Jewry teaches a lesson about small acts of caring.

by R. M. Grossblatt

It is impossible to say enough about Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg, who died two years ago on the 17th of Tammuz. He was a gifted scholar and mentor for many. He answered questions day and night, comforted those in need, and invoked the name of God at gatherings all over the world.

At his funeral, one speaker after another praised his unselfish service. I agreed with every word I heard that somber day on the campus of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. Then one of his students said something that confused me.

"He never asked anything of us," he said, "because he didn't need anything."

What about the pickled tomatoes, I thought.

Seven years ago, Rabbi Weinberg was visiting his family for a simcha in Atlanta. On Friday afternoon, I came to the house where he was staying and asked his daughter, my dear friend, "Do you need anything for Shabbos?"

"No, thank you," she replied. "We have everything."

Then I asked another family member.

She also shook her head. "Thanks anyway."

I started walking toward the door when I heard a low, deep voice that stopped me. "You can get me something."

I turned around and realized that Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, was asking me to buy him something for Shabbos. I could hardly believe it.

"Of course!" I said, trembling with excitement. "What would the Rosh Yeshiva like?"

"You can get me pickled tomatoes."

"Pickled tomatoes?" I repeated. "Anything else?"

"Just pickled tomatoes," the rabbi said and smiled.

Hurriedly, I left the house, got in my car, and floated to the supermarket. I was on an errand for Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, a man who was respected not only in Baltimore and Atlanta but all over the world. And I was going to help make his Shabbos special by providing the pickled tomatoes.

After I picked out the most expensive kosher pickled tomatoes I could find, I rushed back to the house to fulfill the rabbi's request. For a rabbi like this, I bought not one, but two jars of pickled tomatoes and left them at the door. During the next few years, each time Rabbi Weinberg was in Atlanta, or I was in Baltimore, I tried to deliver two jars of what I thought must be his favorite food.

Once when I was out of town, I sent my oldest son. When Rabbi Weinberg opened the door and saw my son standing there clutching two jars of pickled tomatoes, he laughed loudly.

Laughter and joy were a big part of the Rabbi Weinberg's demeanor, especially at the end of a serious conversation. He'd always lift his voice and practically sing out a blessing over the phone. I had many serious phone conversations over the years, as Rabbi Weinberg and I developed a relationship, partly due to the pickled tomatoes.

Then Rabbi Weinberg got sick. I bought several get well cards, but every time I read them at home, I decided not to mail them. Finally, I realized that an ordinary get well card wasn't appropriate for a beyond-ordinary rabbi. But I wanted him to know that I cared. So I called a good friend in Baltimore who delivered two jars of pickled tomatoes from me to my rabbi -- for the very last time.

Last year, as his first yartzeit was approaching, I thought about his funeral and the student's comment that Rabbi Weinberg never asked for anything. Why had he asked me for the pickled tomatoes?

I recreated the scene in my mind from years before: visiting my friend, Rabbi Weinberg's daughter, on Friday afternoon, hoping that she might need some help for Shabbos. But she didn't; neither did anyone else. Rabbi Weinberg asked for pickled tomatoes.

In the middle of a family gathering, he reached out to help a fellow Jew.

Now I understood. He didn't need them. I was the one who needed something.

Rabbi Weinberg, in his wisdom, sensed that I needed to be needed. So in the middle of a family gathering, he reached out to help a fellow Jew.

Did Rabbi Weinberg really enjoy pickled tomatoes on Shabbos? I'll never know. What I do know is that this rabbi was more special than I realized. As the student said at the funeral, he never wanted anything for himself, only for the Jewish people.

Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, answered our questions, strengthened our belief in God, and made us feel needed. May his memory be for a blessing.

July 7, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 17

(17) Terry, July 21, 2008 1:40 AM

One day late

What an amazing story to help understand what true greatness is. Rabbi Weinberg often spoke that spirtuality is in the daily, mundane tasks. And we see he truly lived this.

I'm sorry I only saw this one day after his yahrzheit.

May his memory and teachings be a blessing for all.

(16) Anonymous, August 7, 2001 12:00 AM

One story can glimpse the beautiful depth of a torah personality

Having had a close relationship with the Rosh HaYeshiva in daily matters as well as in studying together for a long time, this story truly shows us the beautiful synthesis which his studying and unending involvement in torah paraleled his every mannerism. Those interested would enjoy looking at the Rambam(Maimonedes) which Rebbe was so fond of learning and quoting. In Hilchos Talmud Torah (Laws of Torah Study)(Chapter 5 Section 8) Rambam says that any Rabbi who withholds his student from serving him has stripped the student of a kind deed and throws off of him the fear of G-d. Why such a harsh result? Rebbe would ask. He only held back one oppurtunity of doing a mitzva? Because if you feel rejected and UNNEEDED by your mentor in godly matters, then all of these things result. The Rosh Hayeshiva zt"l truly absorbed and lived out this lesson in his every being. Truly a loss that will never be fully comprehended!

(15) Anonymous, July 17, 2001 12:00 AM

Thank you for allowing me to share my article with you. Each response letter was precious to me and reminded me that so many lives have been touched by Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg's (zt"l)kindness.

I particularly appreciate the words about his rebettzin, Mrs. Chana Weinberg. May she live to 120 and continue her worthwhile work in visiting the sick, caring for the elderly, and being a refuge for the battered and homeless. She continues to do the work the she and the late Rosh Yeshiva dedicated their lives to.

(14) Kevin Hudson, July 14, 2001 12:00 AM


I'm in tears. Beautiful

(13) michael levine, July 12, 2001 12:00 AM

The story made me feel very warm about being Jewish

I was going to say that the story made me feel good about my Judaism - but I do feel good about it and proud as well. Rabbi Weinberg (though I never met him or even heard of him until now)was indeed a living example of something most Jews need to strive for -menschlichkeit. He understood! This story reminded me of another rebbe - an ancestor of mine - the Vilna Gaon. He too understood!

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