It’s an old joke from WWII. Hitler went to a palmist who studied the Führer’s hands, carefully looking for some sign of the future. She looked up at him finally, pointing to a small line, saying, “mein Führer, you are going to die on a Jewish holiday.”
His curiosity piqued, he asked, “Which one?” She answered, “Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday.”
It didn’t quite work that way. Adolph Hitler, unlike the vast majority of us, chose the time of his death. On the Christian calendar, it was 30 April, 1945, 61 years ago by the reckoning of that calendar. By that time, the Russian army was already inside of Berlin, closing in on the bunker that Hitler had made his headquarters in the final days of his struggle. According to most records, the death was by suicide, after he married a long time mistress, Eva Braun. The wedding ceremony took place in the early afternoon, and he shot Eva Braun around 3:00 p.m. and himself around 3:30. He had left instructions with his aides who remained with him in the bunker in Berlin. He wanted a “Viking” funeral, after the tradition of the Norse warriors who were burned after they died.
It was a hard request to fulfill. The bunker was under bombardment by the advancing Russian army and shells were falling all over the place. In the late afternoon, Hitler’s body was taken outside the bunker and put into a shell pit. Gasoline was poured over the body and it was set alight. Hitler’s aides stood for a few minutes, saluted and retreated into the bunker before they themselves were killed by the bombardment.
Given that the fighting continued for a few of days, it is likely that Russian shells hit the burning gasoline and the body in the pit, keeping it burning into the night past sundown, but this I do not know for sure.
But I do know for sure that the suicide took place on the 17th day of the month Iyar on the Hebrew calendar, in the year 5705. Also, I know for sure that when the sun set that day, Jews prayed Arvít, marking the arrival of a new day, the 18th day of Iyar. This day is a Jewish holiday, a holiday called La”g b’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the ‘Omer between the holidays of Passover and Sh’vuót, the “holiday of Weeks”. The ‘Omer was a grain sacrifice offered daily first at the “Mishkan”, the sanctuary of the L-rd, and then in the Temple of Solomon and later, the Temple of Nehemiah. This Biblically commanded sacrifice was how the time was marked between Passover and Sh’vuót.
It turned out that after the destruction of the Temple of Nehemiah, which had morphed into the Temple of Hordos (Herod), there was a rebellion against the Romans led by Shim’on bar Kokhba, who was originally declared the messiah by Rabbi Akiva, z”l. His students were soldiers of bar Kokhba and they apparently lacked sufficient respect for one another. A plague broke out among them during the counting of the ‘Omer that lasted until the 33rd day of the counting of the ‘Omer — when it stopped. Rabbi Akiva declared a day of celebration and so it has remained among us. It is likely that the “Viking” funeral of Adolph Hitler continued into the beginning of the Jewish holiday, La”g b’Omer.
There is an eerie mirroring of events in our celebration of La”g b’Omer in Israel. We gather wood and pile it high all over the country, and celebrate La”g b’Omer with bonfires in the night that last until morning. The whole country smells like one of Smokey the Bear’s nightmares.
Coincidence, right? Maybe not.
Our rabbis, explaining how to determine whether one is obliged to seek out the owner of a lost item, use this analogy to explain their holding. The lost item has to have some mark of ownership. If it lacks a mark of ownership, like a coin, one is not obliged to seek out the owner. Finders keepers, losers weepers, in other words. But not all the time. If you find one coin on the road, you can keep it. If you find two coins on the road, even relatively close to one another, you can still keep them. But if you find three coins stacked one on top of one another, even on the road, you are obliged to seek out the owner. The stacking is a mark of ownership, the rabbis say.
Lacking advanced mathematics to explain the concept or any understanding of the laws of statistics, the rabbis also had laid out a concept of probability. Given the high unlikelihood that a person would stack coins one on top of another and leave them in the road for no purpose, the finder was obliged to seek out the owner. It was the unlikelihood of the event that was the mark of ownership.
Looking at events in history through the eyes of the Jewish calendar, one can see the concept at work.
1. Joseph Stalin either suffered a stroke or was poisoned on Purim 5713 (1953). Before he died, he had laid plans to murder off the Jews in the USSR. His death buried the plans.
2. Ten major Nazi criminals were hung at Nürnberg on the holiday Hoshana Raba in the year 5707 (1946). The holiday Hoshana Raba is traditionally the day that G-d begins to execute the judgments he had sealed on Yom Kippur (Day of Judgment), particularly judgments concerning Jews. In every scroll of Esther, three letters are found that are small and one that is large. The three small letters (zayin, taf, shin) add up to the number 707, and the large one (vav) has the numerical value of six. They occur in a list of Haman’s ten sons, whom Esther had requested the King to hang – after they had been killed! The six is the sixth millennium, the 5,000’s on the Hebrew calendar – the 707 is the year. The last of the ten Nazis to die, Julius Streicher, screamed before his death, “Purimspiel (Purim play) 1946!”
3. The first Gulf War ended the day before Purim in 5751 (1991) and started up again 12 years later the day after Purim in 5763 (2003).
4. The Great War began on Tish’a b’Av 5674 (2 Aug. 1914). This war set into motion the events that led to the holocaust and the events that led to the reestablishment of a Jewish state after 1,300 years. Tish’a b’Av is both a day of disaster for the Jewish people (the Temple was destroyed twice on that day) and is also said to be the “birthday” of the messiah, signifying his coming.
5. The day that independence was declared here, 5 Iyar 5708 (15 May 1948), was a Friday. The Portion of Prophecy read the next day in the synagogues included this from the prophet Amos (Amos 9:11-15):
On that day I will erect David’s fallen booth, I will repair their breaches and repair his ruins and I will rebuild as in days of old. So that they will conquer the remnant of Edom for My name is upon them – the words of Hashem Who brings this about.
Behold – days are coming – the words of Hashem – when the plower will encounter the reaper and he who treads upon the grapes will meet the one who brings the seeds; the mountains will drip with wine and the hills will melt (with fat). I shall bring back the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild desolate cities and they will and plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit. I shall implant them upon their land; they will not be uprooted again from their land that I have given them, says Hashem their G-d.
Not three coins found in the road stacked one upon another, but five. A wise man will not scatter them, snorting “coincidence.” He will examine them carefully, that he might seek out their Owner.