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The Sabbath Question In Sudminster
by [?]

I

There was a storm in Sudminster, not on the waters which washed its leading Jews their living, but in the breasts of these same marine storekeepers. For a competitor had appeared in their hive of industry–an alien immigrant, without roots or even relatives at Sudminster. And Simeon Samuels was equipped not only with capital and enterprise–the showy plate-glass front of his shop revealed an enticing miscellany–but with blasphemy and bravado. For he did not close on Friday eve, and he opened on Saturday morning as usual.

The rumour did not get round all Sudminster the first Friday night, but by the Sabbath morning the synagogue hummed with it. It set a clammy horror in the breasts of the congregants, distracted their prayers, gave an unreal tone to the cantor’s roulades, brought a tremor of insecurity into the very foundations of their universe. For nearly three generations a congregation had been established in Sudminster–like every Jewish congregation, a camp in not friendly country–struggling at every sacrifice to keep the Holy Day despite the supplementary burden of Sunday closing, and the God of their fathers had not left unperformed His part of the contract. For ‘the harvests’ of profit were abundant, and if ‘the latter and the former rain’ of their unchanging supplication were mere dried metaphors to a people divorced from Palestine and the soil for eighteen centuries, the wine and the oil came in casks, and the corn in cakes. The poor were few and well provided for; even the mortgage on the synagogue was paid off. And now this Epicurean was come to trouble the snug security, to break the long chain of Sabbath observance which stretched from Sinai. What wonder if some of the worshippers, especially such as had passed his blatant shop-window on their return from synagogue on Friday evening, were literally surprised that the earth had not opened beneath him as it had opened beneath Korah.

‘Even the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath was stoned to death,’ whispered the squat Solomon Barzinsky to the lanky Ephraim Mendel, marine-dealers both.

‘Alas! that would not be permitted in this heathen country,’ sighed Ephraim Mendel, hitching his praying-shawl more over his left shoulder. ‘But at least his windows should be stoned.’

Solomon Barzinsky smiled, with a gleeful imagining of the shattering of the shameless plate-glass. ‘Yes, and that wax-dummy of a sailor should be hung as an atonement for his–Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.’ The last phrase Solomon suddenly shouted in Hebrew, in antiphonal response to the cantor, and he rose three times on his toes, bowing his head piously. ‘No wonder he can offer gold lace for the price of silver,’ he concluded bitterly.

‘He sells shoddy new reach-me-downs as pawned old clo,’ complained Lazarus Levy, who had taken over S. Cohn’s business, together with his daughter Deborah, ‘and he charges the Sudminster donkey-heads more than the price we ask for ’em as new.’

Talk of the devil—-! At this point Simeon Samuels stalked into the synagogue, late but serene.

Had the real horned Asmodeus walked in, the agitation could not have been greater. The first appearance in synagogue of a new settler was an event in itself; but that this Sabbath-breaker should appear at all was startling to a primitive community. Escorted by the obsequious and unruffled beadle to the seat he seemed already to have engaged–that high-priced seat facing the presidential pew that had remained vacant since the death of Tevele the pawnbroker–Simeon Samuels wrapped himself reverently in his praying-shawl, and became absorbed in the service. His glossy high hat bespoke an immaculate orthodoxy, his long black beard had a Rabbinic religiousness, his devotion was a rebuke to his gossiping neighbours.

A wave of uneasiness passed over the synagogue. Had he been the victim of a jealous libel? Even those whose own eyes had seen him behind his counter when he should have been consecrating the Sabbath-wine at his supper-table, wondered if they had been the dupe of some hallucination.