“Water!” the invalid rasped in a whispery voice. The astounded doctors, who had given up the unconscious man for dead, were shocked to hear his voice again. The priest, who had taken his final confession, turned pale. Had a miracle taken place?
The doctors quickly initiated treatment. For hours they attended at his bedside. Finally, they saw clear signs of a positive change in his condition. By evening they were able to declare that his situation was no longer critical; he was out of danger.
For another several weeks Bagalo continued to be very weak, and the doctors prohibited him to engage in any of his regular activities. Finally, however, he regained his strength completely. Every trace of the disease had completely disappeared!
All of Spain breathed a collective sigh of relief at Bagalo’s recovery. He was one of the King’s most trusted advisors, with a strong reputation for honesty and intelligence. The king loved to consult with him so much that he had risen to be one of the most important personalities in the royal court.
His advice was especially valued by the monarch in economic affairs. More than once his suggestions had directly resulted in great fiscal gain for the kingdom, and concurrent improvements in the daily life of the people. The king considered Bagalo to be a financial wizard, and was not slow to express his appreciation, as he showered upon him wealth and valuable gifts.
Although everyone was aware of Bagalo’s great wisdom and praised him for it, no one had yet realized that he was really a Jew. This was his great secret. He was one of the anusim [‘forced’-a Marrano], of a family that had been coerced to convert. As far as he was concerned, his Catholic status was for appearances only. He conducted himself outwardly as he had to, while he continued to observe all of the commandments secretly, in hiding.
Lately, though, he hadn’t had much to hide. Whereas previously he had set aside time for mitzvah observance and even for Torah study and thought, his new prominent position in court consumed virtually all of his waking hours. He no longer had time to pray or to study, or even to perform the commandments. His Judaism remained only in his core beliefs, his strong inner faith in his G-d and His people.
From time to time, at moments when he was alone, a heavy sigh would push through his lips. How he longed for Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, for all of themitzvot. How had he allowed himself to become so distant?
But such thoughts could only be indulged for a few moments. Than the heavy pressure of his workload would again take over his time and his thoughts. Thus he conducted his life until he fell critically ill.
The most competent of the royal physicians had been summoned to care for him. They gave him the finest medicines and treatments, at the king’s order sparing no expense, but nothing helped. He became weaker and weaker until finally the doctors felt they had no choice but to declare that his case was hopeless. An important priest was summoned.
Then came his miraculous recovery. After a while, no one recalled that he had been so sick. No one but him, that is. He remembered very well what had happened; he knew and kept to himself what even the most expert of the physicians could not know.
One day Bagalo summoned the priest who had taken his confession. He led him to a private room, locked the door behind them and lowered the window shades. He sat opposite the priest and looked him straight in the eyes. “I remember everything you said to me when we thought I was dying. At the end, after all the prayers, you muttered a few words that I didn’t understand. Those words are engraved in my memory. What do they mean?”
The priest visibly trembled. His face changed colors. He tried to stammer a reply but his teeth were rattling too hard.
Seeing that the other’s distress had rendered him unable to speak, Bagalo continued. “The words were: ‘Shma Yisrael A–noy E–heinu A–noy Echad.‘ Isn’t that a Jewish prayer?”
The priest’s whole body quivered, but no words were forthcoming. “So, you are a Jew?” Bagalo pushed on.
The priest sat frozen, his face registering shock and terror that his secret had been uncovered by the king’s advisor.
“Don’t be afraid; I won’t inform on you,” Bagalo said gently. “Just give me your word of honor that you will be wholehearted in the word of Jesus and you will put aside these Hebrew incantations.”
“No!” roared the priest. “I prefer to die as a Jew. Enough of this double life. This is the moment of truth.” Now that he had recovered himself, the words were quickly tumbling from his mouth. “I am prepared to die, but as a Jew.”
“My brother!” Bagalo cried out, and fiercely embraced his co-religionist. “I too am Jewish. And now I know that you are truly attached to the faith of our fathers. We are one!”
Their shared secret drew the two men to become close friends. They revealed to each other their secret lives. The priest explained that he had entered the clergy for one reason only: to be able to whisper “Shma Yisroel…” in the ear of Marrano Jews on their death-bed, so that their souls would exit in purity.
The king’s advisor related that when he had been at death’s door he had wanted to at least say the Shma. To his distress, he found that he couldn’t remember exactly how it went. Then, suddenly, he heard the holy words being said in his ear! It was as if a gentle breeze had wafted him up and re-invigorated him with new life.
Falling into a deep sleep, he began to dream. He saw an old man, who smiled warmly and spoke. His voice was gentle and melodious. “I am your grandfather. You shall recover from this illness and you shall live, but only on a condition. You must return to a full Jewish life. Therefore, you shall leave this country. Move to the Land of Israel. Upon your departure, take with you the bones of your father and give them a Jewish burial there.”
The two friends planned their escape. They decided that Bagalo should tell the king that during his critical illness he had vowed that if he recovered he would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The king would probably not be able to refuse such a request. He would likely even help him to fulfill it. The priest would arrange for the disinterment of the remains of Bagalo’s father, for the church cemetery was under his supervision.
Thus, the pair was able to abandon Spain. After a series of difficult journeys, the two baalei tshuvah (returnees to Jewish observance) reached the holy city of Tsfat (Safed). There they dedicated themselves to lives of total mitzvah observance, Torah-study and prayer. When, in the course of time, they passed away, both of them were complete tzadikim (perfectly righteous).
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Translated by Yrachmiel Tilles from Sichat HaShavuah