Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

18 Teves 5766 - January 18, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Many-Layered Problem

by T. Tzvielei

A fable about a little-white-lie that grew and grew. The Hebrew version of this story won first prize in an open contest for amateur writers.


Avigail Itzkowitz smoothed the see-through bag of the dry cleaner. Then she examined the frockcoat inside it.

"M . . . m . . . m. It's spotless," she told herself. "But then why shouldn't it be? Binyomin wore it only at the wedding, and during sheva brochos, two months ago."

But now, a week before Succos, they had decided that it should really gleam, in honor of yom tov.

She thought about Succos excitedly. She had always been actively involved in the preparations for the visits of her married brothers and sisters on yom tov, and during Chol Hamoed had taken charge of her nieces and nephews. Now she looked forward to spending yom tov at the home of her in-laws, which had become her second home. It was a wonderful, warm home, and she felt like a family member there. But still, she wasn't fully familiar with the many fascinating aspects of its management.

For example, she didn't know how their succah looked, and whether they would decorate it with standard, store-bought decorations, or with original creations. But what really bothered her was what to bring her mother in-law in honor of the holiday.

This problem received added concern because her mother-in- law wrote a weekly cooking column in a prestigious chareidi newspaper, and had published a number of cookbooks that Avigail had received as gifts during the period between her engagement and the wedding. Avigail ruled out the possibility of bringing her mother-in-law a fancy cake, because at the Itzkowitzes, a fancy cake was six- layered and/or multi-colored and Avigail didn't feel that she was capable of making such cakes at that point.

Avigail didn't understand why simple one-bowl cakes or yeast cakes wouldn't do. But having to consider the sophisticated tastes of the Itzkowitzes, she decided to forgo the idea of a cake.

"So what should we do?" she asked Binyomin.

"How about a kugel or a salad?" he suggested. But that idea was quickly rejected.

"It's supposed to be a surprise," she replied, "and I won't be able to plan what salad to bring if I can't discuss it with your mother in advance."

Avigail's mother suggested that she bring flowers, or a nice, practical dish. But Avigail claimed that such gifts weren't in vogue today, and that mothers-in-law valued homemade products much more than store-bought ones.

And so, a week before yom tov, Avigail found herself still in a quandary. Actually, she was sorry that she had to bring anything at all, because coming without a gift would have spared her many a headache.

She postponed the decision, but as all know, at zero hour, one always has to make some sort of a decision. And that is what happened.

Two days before yom tov, Avigail determined that she had to decide. And then, she had a brainstorm.

Shoshana Miller, her next-door neighbor, was great at baking — even a professional. Avigail had often seen Shoshana's notices in the local newsletters advertising the elegant cakes she baked for simchas.

"Maybe I'll order a cake this time," Avigail mused. The more she thought about it, the better she liked the idea, wondering how she hadn't thought of it beforehand.

That day, she ordered a fancy cake which would meet all of the criteria of the Itzkowitz family. "But it shouldn't be too fancy," she told Shoshana. "After all, it's just a visit and not a bar mitzvah."

Shoshana did a beautiful job, and made a gorgeous and impressive nut cake, which wasn't overly fancy. Avigail was delighted and very happy with her decision.

When the cake was wrapped, Avigail told Binyomin: "It's best not to say that I didn't bake it myself."

"What's the problem?" Binyomin asked. "When someone brings a gift, no one expects him to manufacture it himself. You wanted to bring a nice cake and your neighbor is a professional baker. So you ordered one from her. What counts is that there's a cake!"

Despite Binyomin's logical claim, Avigail still felt that it would be better if the fact that she had ordered it would be kept secret.

In the beginning, everything was perfect, and Avigail couldn't have dreamed of a better response.

On yom tov morning, the elegant cake was brought to the table and Avigail reaped heaps of compliments. All of the Itzkowitzes married children and their families were there that day. Avigail's in-laws sat at the head of the table and her mother-in-law didn't stop praising the cake. "Its so beautiful that it's a pity to eat it," she exclaimed. "But then, it's delicious too. I think that it's better than all the cakes whose recipes I published in my columns. The blend of ingredients is superb."

Avigail accepted the compliments humbly, smiling shyly but not forgetting to send a warning glance to Binyomin, who understood precisely what she meant.

"Where did you get the recipe?" her mother-in-law asked quite routinely, not understanding why Avigail was blushing.

"My neighbor gave it to me," Avigail replied. (That was true, it really was her neighbor's recipe, besides her baking.)

"My sisters-in-law and I are planning a sheva brochos for my sister, next month," Avigail's sister-in-law Shevi added. "Such a cake would add a lot to the simcha. Can you give me the recipe?"

"If you want a precise recipe, call me after yom tov," Avigail stammered. Then to herself she added: "I hope you forget, because who knows if Shoshana will agree to give me the recipe? Actually, I doubt if she'll refuse. But what if she does? What will I do then? Hashem will help."

"How much sugar did you use?" her-mother-in-law asked right then. "Minda, my widowed neighbor, would be happy to get such a cake, but her sugar intake is limited. How many cups does it contain?"

It took Avigail a few moments to answer. At last she said: "About half a kilo. But I think you can use less too. I don't want to endanger your neighbor's health."

Then eight year old Bentzy, a grandchild, asked for more, and Mrs. Itzkowitz began to cut him a slice. But suddenly, the knife hit a hard object, preventing her from slicing any more. Making a quick calculation, Mrs. Itzkowitz reasoned that she couldn't remove the object on the sly, because everyone would notice. But then everyone had noticed!

After a few moments of silence, she consoled Avigail, saying: "It can happen to anyone. It even happened to me once."

But when she removed the object from the cake, the shock which overcame everyone at the table was simply unexpected. She had never thought that she would take a ring out of the dark cake — and not just a ring, but a genuine diamond ring, and one which was not the one she had bought Avigail in honor of her engagement. Avigail spontaneously felt her own ring — and stared with total disbelief at the crumb-covered ring which had been salvaged from the cake.

"That's not your ring!" Binyomin's mother said with surprise. "I remember exactly what we bought you.

"Here. It's on my finger," Avigail showed her. "Don't worry, I didn't exchange it."

"Nu?" everyone asked.

"I have no idea whose it is," Avigail stammered. "Perhaps it was in the flour."

"But you sifted it," her sister-in-law asked.

"Of course, of course. Maybe its from the sugar," Avigail said, as she caught her mistake.

"That's the only possibility. It couldn't have been in the other ingredients," Binyomin's mother said decisively. "The nuts are chopped, and its too bulky to hide in a chocolate bar or to pass through a sifter. It surely didn't gush out of the water faucet. It could only have fallen out of the sugar bag, provided that you spilled the sugar into the cake directly from the package.

The wonder ring went from hand to hand, and all fingered and examined it excitedly. As Naomi, the world-wise sister-in- law held it. She said unequivocally: "It's a real diamond. Not a fake. And it seems large."

The men began to discuss the fate of the ring from an halachic aspect and to wonder if the laws of hashovas aveidoh applied to it, and whether it had to be returned to the sugar factory. Binyomin tried to keep quiet.

But then a clever grandchild reminded everyone of the story Yosef Mokir Shabbos, and excitedly told Binyomin: "Perhaps it fell into your cake because you honor Succos so much."

"After yom tov, we'll ask a rov what to do, and then we'll know if you can keep it," Binyomin's father concluded. "But don't count the hours," he added with a smile.

As far as Avigail and Binyomin were concerned, the hours flew by too quickly. They knew that when the truth became known, they would be in a pickle

"I'm already in a muddle over the recipe for Shevi," Avigail mused. "But when can I do? If the clock's hands catered to those who don't want them to move, they would never move."

Immediately after havdoloh, Binyomin's father called a rov. Just by looking at Binyomin's father's expression, it was obvious what the rov had ruled. The assumption that the ring had fallen into the cake from one of the ingredients didn't make sense. Since the owners of the ring had surely lost hope of ever finding it — surely not in one out of thousands of bags of sugar or chocolate bars — the laws of hashovas aveidoh didn't apply here. And this meant that it belonged to Binyomin and Avigail.

It's difficult to describe the mood that prevailed at that point. To have $1,000, more or less, fall into your lap isn't a simple matter. But what could they feel when it was impossible to rejoice since they knew that the ring belonged to the neighbor, and that it was not a found object. Their faces expressed their feelings, and the mother-in-law noticed it.

"You still don't know the value of money," she said. "Otherwise you would . . . " She tried to find a suitable expression, " . . . be happy like everyone else," she continued. "You can buy the air conditioner you're saving up for, or the table and chairs for the living room which we didn't buy you, or anything else you wish. "

"Nu, its mammesh min haShomayim," Yisroel, Binyomin's older brother added. "My father-in-law has a good friend who deals in diamonds. He'll give you a good price."

"Yes," Avigail's mother-in-law nodded. "We bought the diamond you're wearing from him too. It was really worthwhile. Sell it to him, and use the rest as you wish. Ah, but Avigail, you still didn't call your parents to tell them the good news. Call them now."

Avigail tried to figure out what to do quickly. "It's impossible not to call. It would look strange. I can say that the line was busy, and then the matter will die down," she told herself. Then she slowly dialed her parents' number and, after one ring, hung up.

"It's busy," she said.

But she forgot to take into consideration the fact that Racheli, her inquisitive sister, whenever there was an unanswered call, used the service to call back(*42) and would ask whoever answered, "Did you call us?"

Then the receiver would be passed to her. She could only hope that her in-laws wouldn't pry too much.

She told her mother the tidings, and tried to sound festive and excited. When her mother asked whether the ring belonged to the neighbor who had baked the cake, Avigail tried to answer brief "yeses" and "no's." Her mother, though, didn't understand what was going on, and was left with many question marks, while Avigail was left with many exclamation points, which indicated to her to stop the snowball before matters became even more complicated.

Binyomin and Avigail went outside, and marched down the narrow alleys made by the succahs which had stood very close to each other. Together, they inhaled the clear air, which was impregnated with the aroma of green and fresh schach.

"I never thought things would get so complicated. All that lying confused me," Avigail murmured. "I wish I could turn back the wheels. I'm worse off now than I would have been if I had told your mother the truth from the beginning.

"I know that there's nothing wrong with asking a neighbor to help you bake a cake. Like you said, no one expects a person who brings a present to produce it himself. But what should we do now? What should I tell your parents when they ask us to transfer the diamond to Yisroel's friend's father-in-law? It seems obvious that it's Mrs. Miller's ring. It could have fallen into the batter in millions of ways, and even if it was in the sugar bag, it was her sugar, and the ring belongs to her. But your entire family knows about . . . the affair, and what will we tell them when they ask what we decided to do with the ring?"

"Things snowballed so quickly, and gained such momentum that I couldn't control them," she continued. "All I wanted to do was to round out corners a bit, but one "little-white-lie" led to another little-white-lie. One untruth brought another in its wake. Now I'm so deep in the mud that I don't know how to return to the starting point of this maze.

"I was certain that the whole affair would end elegantly, but now I realize that the words shekarim (lies) and keshorim (knots) have the same letters, and that the more one becomes involved in them, the harder it is to untie them. I simply can't tell your family that it wasn't my cake, after all the compliments — and surely not after Shevi asked for the recipe. But on the other hand, I simply can't say anything untrue. I know I'll only get more involved. What should we do?"

"Don't worry," Binyomin said. "We'll return home with an eitzah."

"What's certain," Avigail continued, "is that I'll return home a different person. I see that if one deviates from the truth, the gap grows wider and wider, and that for the sake of the truth it's better to feel a bit uncomfortable in the beginning than to feel horrid afterward. This is the holiday on which we are commanded to be happy, yet I never had such a miserable holiday in my life."

They continued to walk, trampling the brown leaves which had fallen from the trees and trying to search for a good and practical eitzah which was, most important of all, closest to the truth.

But in the end they just went with the truth.

When they opened the familiar door, Avigail's heart skipped a beat. Binyomin's mother greeted them, warmly exclaiming, "I'm so happy you're here. Avigail, my former student — your neighbor Mrs. Miller — called a while ago."

"Nu, there's nothing to lose now. She knows everything," Avigail told herself.

"She wanted you, Avigail. But because you weren't here, and because of the urgency of the matter, she shared her problem with me, and said that she had lost her diamond ring. After searching for it high and low, and reciting a number of segulos for the finding of lost objects, she thought that the ring might have fallen into the cake she helped you bake," her mother-in-law said. "But why are you blushing, Avigail? A neighbor can help a bit. There's nothing to be ashamed of. I also avail myself at times."

Avigail tried to overcome her embarrassment, and to muster the courage to tell her mother-in-law the entire truth.

"She did more than that," she finally said, as she prepared herself for every possible situation. "She baked the entire cake.

"The cake I served when you came to us on your first Shabbos as a kallah was also store-bought."

But all of the scenarios Avigail had imagined might occur, never materialized, such as a rebuking or a snubbing on her mother-in-law's part. Avigail's head didn't spin either, and she didn't think that the earth would swallow her. Instead, she felt closer than ever to her mother-in-law, an attachment which stemmed from the fact that they both loved truth and peace.

"And truth and peace love each other" (Zecharya 8:19).


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