Kraków: Our Polish Sabbath

In the Symposium, Plato puts the following words in the mouth of Alcibiades: “Drunkards and children tell the truth.”¹ When drinking alcohol, people seem more inclined to say what they honestly think or feel. Can drinking also reveal something about a person’s character? Some people when they drink become aggressive, for example, or weepy and sad. Is there something analogous to be said of fear, that is, can the way a person behaves when frightened reveal something about his or her character, something significant?

Sukiennice and Main Market Square as seen from St. Mary’s Basilica, Kraków, Poland [Jorge Lascar]

October 20, 2018, the Sabbath: A learning session, lunch, and a stroll in the center of Kraków.

Beth and I attend a learning session at the JCC taught by Rabbi Avi Baumol. The weekly portion is Genesis 12.1 – 17.27, Lech Lecha. In the course of the class, one of the questions Rabbi Baumol explores is the behavior of the patriarch Abraham in the following episode recorded in Chapter 12:10-13:

And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was sore in the land. And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife: ‘Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon. And it will come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they will say: This is his wife; and they will kill me, but thee they will keep alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister; that it may be well with me for thy sake, and that my soul may live because of thee.’

One of the great things about the Bible is that it discusses its men and women with their faults as well as their virtues, even the greatest of them. It reveals them in their humanity, in the sometimes grayness of their actions. It does not paint them only in black or white, not only as paragons of virtue or exemplars of evil. I am speaking here of the text itself, not the writings of the commentators, who sometimes struggle with gray.

Rabbi Baumol tells us that while some commentators attempt to justify Abraham’s behavior in this instance, there is at least one notable exception, Nachmanides, the Ramban. In his Commentary on the Torah, Ramban writes: 

Know that Abraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life. He should have trusted that G-d would save him and his wife and all his belongings for G-d surely has the power to help and to save.²

Rabbi Baumol gives us much to think about. 

And then, he gives us much to eat. We enjoy a tasty lunch with our fellow learners. He tells us that he used to teach without having lunch afterward. But he convinced the administration that there would be more students if food were served. I’m certainly glad that he talked them into it.

After class, Beth and I stroll to the center of Kraków. What a beautiful city this is! Our primary destination is Kraków’s Market Square.³ There is a light breeze as we walk to the Square and it is misting. We enter the square from Sienna street. We see directly in front of us the magnificent Cloth Hall. We turn right and begin our walk around the square.

We stop in front of St. Mary’s Basilica. It is a Gothic church completed in 1347. It’s almost four o’clock. We decide to wait to hear the bugle call that comes from the church every hour. The bugler never plays the tune entirely.  Playing only part of the tune is done in memory of a 13th-century bugler who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm for the Mongol attack on the city.

Next, we walk the length of the Cloth Hall, formerly a marketplace, now a shopping arcade. It is bustling with shoppers. We retrace our steps in the Hall, exiting from the same place we entered, and resume our circuit of the square. Occasionally we are passed by tourists riding in open horse-drawn carriages.

We stop briefly to view the Town Hall Tower. The Town Hall was torn down in 1845, and the Tower is the only part of the original building still standing. 

Heading back to Sienna street to make our way home, we pass by St Adelbert’s Church. We peek in through its open doors. 

Back in our room, we pray Mincha, enjoy a light third-meal, then recite the evening service. Beth has brought candles and spices for Havdalah. In the dim light of the candles, we say goodbye to our Polish Sabbath.

Note: Since it was the Sabbath, Beth was not able to carry or use her camera to photograph any of the things we saw in the Square. To give you some feel of the place, however, I’ve included an excellent photo of the square taken by Jorge Lascar.

Next time: Beth and I say so long to Kraków in a walk along the Vistula.

¹Michael Joyce, trans., Symposium, in Plato: The Collected Dialogues (Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey, 1989), 569.

²Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel, trans., Ramban (Nachmanides): Commentary on the Torah (Shilo Publishing House, Inc: New York, N.Y., 1971), 173.

³The historical information in this section is from Main Contributor Teresa Czerniewicz-Umer, Krakow: Eyewitness Travel (DK Publishing: New York, N.Y, 2018), 92-99.

Photo by Jorge Lascar: [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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