Ten years ago, I visited China for the first and so far only time. The purpose of the trip was to attend the dedication celebration of a Torah scroll a friend of mine had purchased for the Chabad of Pudong (Pudong is the commercial district of Shanghai). But I had a few important secondary objectives as well. See as much of the most populated city in the world as possible. Find a place that can make a decent custom wardrobe at an indecently low price. Find a string of black pearls for my wife.
The primary purpose of the trip worked out incredibly well. I spent Shabbos with my friend at Chabad of Shanghai with hundreds of Jews from all over the world. The Sefer Torah dedication, held on Sunday in a five-star hotel in Pudong was beautiful, warm, sacred, and uplifting. It was well worth the trip.
The secondary objectives were not exactly met. When a city holds over 20,000,000 people, you can’t even catch a fraction of its vastness. And while I ventured off the tourist track multiple times, I left with the distinct feeling that there was still so much to be explored. I did get a bunch of custom shirts and suits at an indecently low price, but soon after I returned home, I learned that their quality standard was not exactly on par with Savile Row. Even in China, you get what you pay for. But the black pearl necklace did happen.
The concierge of my hotel sent me to a wide five-story building in the heart of Shanghai. From the outside it appeared nondescript, although you could easily note the multiple cameras and guards all over the building clearly indicating that this was no cubicle farm. Inside was a massive jewelry mall, with each floor dedicated to a different genre. Gold on the bottom floor, precious gems on the second, pearls on the third, diamonds on the fourth, etc. I headed straight for the third floor and walked out into pearl heaven.
Hundreds of stalls, all stocked with nothing but pearls vied for my attention. Some of them were beautifully appointed with marble floors, glass display cases with LED lighting showcasing their finest wares, and rich wood cabinetry. Some of them looked like they crawled out of some my Bubby’s basement, cheap rickety tables holding up their product on simple black tablecloths. But even the flimsiest of stalls held more pearls than most kings and queens had five hundred years ago.
Most of the stalls had sales people standing outside trying to entice the customer to come in and check out their products. The sales people were all holding small scissors which I soon learned were used to show the authenticity of their product. They would show you how they scratched away a layer of pearl, and there was still more pearl underneath, proving that this was no fake plastic bead covered in shiny paint. (It reminded me of when I was in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, in the leather section. Every stall merchant was standing outside their shop, showing you that their leather jackets were real by lighting a fire underneath them. Evidently, fake leather melts when you hold a flame to it and real leather just shrugs it off.)
In each stall there were hundreds of trays that were specifically shaped for the pearl market. The trays were made of plastic coated in black velvet, and each one had about twelve long grooves, and in each groove a strand of pearls would be placed. In this way, you could look at multiple strands side by side, and decide which one you wanted. The trays were separated by quality and size. Here’s a quick guide on pearl purchasing in case you are interested.
We all know that in diamonds, the four C’s are what determine the cost of a diamond: Carat, Clarity, Cut, and Color. In pearls, there are five main components to look at:
Luster- how shiny a pearl is, how well it glows in the light, both at the surface and below surface level
Surface Perfection – Every pearl has some blemishes, they occur when sea particles drift into the oyster making the pearl, but the fewer the blemishes, the more uniform the surface, the higher the value
Shape – generally the more round a pearl the more valuable, however in recent years other shapes such as perfect ovals, teardrops or button shapes have gained traction.
Color – Obviously pure white is valued over off whites or mottled, however there are many rare colors such as pink, gold, green or black that are more valuable than white
Size – Obviously, the bigger the better. Sizes range from 3mm in diameter to rare monster sizes like 18mm, but to find high quality pearls any bigger than 15mm is extremely rare
I was looking for a necklace made of Black Pearls, often known as Tahitian pearls because they are usually cultivated near the island of Tahiti. Tahitian pearls are rarely truly black, but are usually a dark charcoal grey with pink or green undertones. They are more rare than regular pearls, but because the oysters they come from, the black lip oyster, are usually significantly larger than regular oysters, the black pearls often come in larger sizes than white pearls.
On the pearl floor, almost every stall had black pearls, but a few stalls specialized in rarer colors, and it was here that I found myself haggling over, and eventually buying a black pearl necklace at a fraction of the price I would have paid for it back in the US. Mission accomplished, it was time to head back to the hotel. Interestingly, because I don’t speak any Chinese and most cabdrivers don’t speak a lick of English, the way you find your way back to any hotel is by giving the cab driver a business card from your hotel, and they take you home, by reading the address on the card.
So let’s review. On the third floor of some nondescript building in Shanghai, you can find millions of pearls. Literally. Here’s the math: The average strand of pearls (8-10mm) has about 40 pearls on it. The average tray of pearls in this market had 12 strands on it, or 480 pearls. The standard stall had at least 300 trays, or 144,000 pearls. There were at least eighty stalls on the third floor, so figure there was somewhere north of eleven million pearls in one building in Shanghai. (Please don’t forget the diamonds above, or the gold below!)
Now, this may not seem remarkable to you, but let’s remember that for most of history, pearls were the rarest of gems. A strand of perfectly matched round pearls was literally priceless, and considered to be an item of incomparable beauty. At the height of pearl fever, during the Roman Empire, the historian Suetonius wrote about how Vitelius, a Roman general, financed an entire military campaign by selling one of his mother’s pearl earrings. When looking at mosaics and paintings from ancient civilizations, pearls are featured more prominently than any other gem.
One of the most famous legends of the ancient civilizations tells of how Cleopatra, the queen and ruler of Egypt, tried to convince Marc Antony, the Roman general, that Egypt had such a rich heritage and wealth that it was beyond conquest. She wagered Marc Antony that she could make the most expensive dinner ever held. When Antony arrived, the table was set with two empty plates, and beside each plate was a golden goblet. In the goblet was wine (or according to some sources vinegar), and Cleopatra took a pair of pearl earrings, removed the pearl from one of them, dissolved it in the wine and drank it. She then offered the second pearl to Antony, who had just watched horrified at the destruction of a pearl worth 30 million sesterces, or close to a million ounces of fine silver (today worth about $15,000,000), and he politely declined his dinner, ceding the win to Cleopatra.
In Judaism, when describing the Aishes Chayil, a great Woman of Valor, we say (Proverbs, 31:10), “A woman of valor who can find, for her price is beyond pearls.” And even wisdom itself, that most rare of commodities, is described in terms of its value vs pearls, (Proverbs 3:16), “It is even more precious than pearls…” Not a word about diamonds or rubies, just pearls.
The Muslims also revered pearls, the Koran itself describing paradise as a place filled with them, “”The stones are pearls and jacinths; the fruits of the trees are pearls and emeralds; and each person admitted to the delights of the celestial kingdom is provided with a tent of pearls, jacinths, and emeralds; is crowned with pearls of incomparable lustre….” You kind of get the feeling that they liked pearls.
So how did pearls go from being the absolute hottest item on any king or queen’s birthday wish list to becoming something you can find by the million in some nondescript building in Shanghai? (I didn’t spend much time on the diamond floor, but I don’t imagine they had eleven million diamonds!)
The simple answer is that we learned how to make them. For hundreds of years people have tried to make pearls using everything from crushed fish scales and ammonia, to sticking molds into oysters, to crushing tiny pearls into powder, combining them into one big pearl and then baking it in the belly of a large fish. (Yes, I did say that, you did read right.)
But it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that two people figured out the trick. Biologist Tokichi Nishikawa and carpenter Tatsuhei Mise both figured out a way to culture pearls, which was quicker and more reliable than natural pearls. They decided to patent it together, and called it the Mise-Nishikawa method. But much more importantly, that patent was bought Kokichi Mikimoto, who started life as the humble son of a noodle maker, and he pushed cultured pearls to where they are today. Flamboyant and charismatic, he convinced merchants the world over to accept cultured pearls as equal to natural ones. In addition, he never ceased experimenting with better methods to make pearls, and he finally settled on a method that today is still the gold standard.
Here is how pearls are created. An oyster is put into a bath of warm water to relax, and then it is pried open. A slight incision is made in the flesh of the oyster, and into it is inserted a seed. The seed is usually a perfectly rounded piece of mollusk shell, sometimes along with a piece of tissue from a mollusk. The oyster finds this to be quite the irritant. (I would be pretty irritated too if someone stuck a perfectly rounded piece of mollusk in my body!) To protect itself, the oyster begins coating the seed with layer after layer of nacre, a substance it secretes naturally and usually uses to build its shell. The oysters are put back in the water for a few years, and by the time they are harvested, a nice little round pearl is sitting in its flesh. It is harvested using surgical instruments, and then a new seed is dropped in, and rinse, wash, repeat.
Cultured pearls today are of incredibly high quality, often closer to perfect than natural pearls. Natural pearls, contrary to popular belief are not created around sand. Sand is everywhere in the ocean and if oyster had to create pearls around every piece of sand they get in their shell, they’d be popping out pearls like a popcorn machine. Sand they just shove out. Nasty little parasitic bugs on the other hand, they get in and hold on tight. That’s when the oyster starts covering it over and snuffing out its buggy little life. But bugs are usually not perfectly rounded, and because of that, natural pearls are rarely round. In addition, cultured pearls are farmed in waterways under very protected conditions so that there are less blemishes on their surface, all leading to cultured pearls being more beautiful than natural ones. Thus, Mikimoto, the company started by the noodle makers son, is still today the world’s leader in pearl jewelry.
So how does this make me a better a human being? By understanding that you are an oyster. Sometimes G-d cuts you open and inserts an irritant. It can be a really annoying co-worker, a child who is rebelling, a sudden economic downturn, a mother-in-law, a broken leg, a mean boss, or the failure to get into the school you really wanted to get into. You can view this as a terrible thing and wonder why G-d is doing this to you. You can complain about it, make a bath full of pity and soak in it each day, or you can say, G-d is trying to help me make a pearl, let’s see what beauty I can build on top of this
G-d is good, that is the fundamental belief that we proclaim every time we say the Shema statement. Ha-shem Elokainu Hashem Echad essentially means the following: Whether I see G-d interacting with the world in what appears to be kindness (Ha-shem), or whether it appears that G-d is being very strict and judgmental (Elokainu), it is all really just one and the same, G-d interacting with us in kindness (Ha-shem Echad). If G-d is good and G-d controls everything that happens to me, that means that everything happening to me is good. I don’t see it now, but I just forge on creating beauty on whatever Ha-shem gives me, and before long my life is filled with beautiful pearls.
Like pearls, what we cultivate and culture is far more beautiful than anything we get naturally. The luster and glow of a life slowly and joyfully built on top of the hardships Ha-shem sends our way, is indeed the rarest of gems.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha we read about how Joseph, now the viceroy of Egypt, reveals his true identity to his brothers. He then sends them back to Israel to their father Jacob, with the request that the whole family move down to Egypt where Joseph will be able to support them throughout the seven year famine. However part of the message that Joseph sends back to his father seems strange; “G-d has made me a lord over all of Egypt” (Gen 45:9).
Understandably, Joseph is trying to persuade his father to come down to Egypt, but does he think that telling his father of his vast power is going to impress Jacob? Does he think that Jacob will be more inclined to move his holy family to a country filled with materialistic pagans just because his son has a good job and lots of power?
Rabbi Yaakov Neiman (of blessed memory), answers this question with an important lesson. What Joseph was trying to show his father was not the great power he had, but his perspective on that great power. When the average person gets a raise or a promotion, they will usually attribute it to their boss, the Human Resources department, or more often, their own hard work. “I got the raise for closing a major deal.”
Joseph, on the other hand, shares none of these illusions. When he describes the incredible promotion he got, he makes it abundantly clear that he recognizes how he got his job. “G-d has made me a lord over all of Egypt” takes on a whole new meaning when we understand that the stress is on the first part of the sentence. Now Jacob would see that despite his meteoric rise to power and despite being immersed in a culture whose leaders usually made deities out of themselves, Joseph was able to maintain his faith and recognize that everything comes from G-d. Hopefully, once Jacob would see that one could retain their Jewish beliefs and perspectives in Egypt, he would be willing to move his family down to Egypt.
This message resonates today more than ever. People are being hired and fired, promoted and demoted in a chaotic economic environment the likes of which we have never seen before. It is important for us to recognize who is the Ultimate Boss, the One who really decides our career path, and Whom we should talk to when we need a bit of career help, or to give thanks for our success.
I have a close friend who truly exemplifies this idea. Six months ago, he joined one of the oldest and largest insurance companies in America. Since then he has devoted himself to his work with incredible zeal and has actually shattered all of the company’s records for an employee’s first six months. He has already won the coveted Rookie of the Year title, and will soon be going to the company’s annual conference where he will be awarded at the company dinner and given the honor of addressing thousands of employees in the industry.
The other day (as he was trying to sell me another policy), we were talking about his upcoming trip and his speech. He told me that he not only plans on proudly wearing his kippah at the dinner, but that in his speech, plans on thanking G-d for his incredible success and acknowledging that his accomplishments were possible only through G-d’s help. The Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) that this speech will bring about is immeasurable. In a room filled with thousands of people whose motto is “In Green We Trust,” the most successful of them will remind everyone Who truly determines our success.
Our forefather Joseph blazed a pathway for us, teaching that, despite the prevailing culture’s perspective on success, we can maintain our perspective. We need to follow him down that road to the ultimate success; a life lived with an awareness of G-d and all He does for us!
This week’s parsha, Vayigash, starts off at the charged moment where we left off last week. Yosef’s special silver goblet had been “found” in Binyamin’s sack, and he was hauled back to the palace to become a slave. The ten other brothers are not willing to see their brother taken. They follow him down, and stand to plea before Yosef. Notably, it is Yehuda who speaks with Yosef because he was the one who guaranteed Binyamin’s return. Yehuda launches into a long explanation as to why it is imperative that Binyamin be allowed to go back to his father. He explains that if Binyamin doesn’t return, their father is liable to die from the anguish.
At this point, Yosef decides that it is the right time to reveal himself to his brothers so he orders all the Egyptians out of the room (so that they not witness the brothers’ humiliation upon realizing the enormity of what they had done). Then he says, “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” The implication is – why were you not concerned with our father’s health when you sold me and let him think I was killed by a wild animal? The brothers were so disconcerted that they couldn’t speak. But Yosef was not one to rub salt in old wounds. As soon as he saw that his brothers were contrite, he consoled them, telling them that selling him was all part of a divine plan so that he would be able to support the family throughout the remaining years of the famine.
Yosef asks that his family come down to Egypt where he would provide them with fertile land and food. Pharaoh seconds the motion. Yosef sends the brothers back with bountiful supplies and special wagons which were symbolic of the last Torah lesson Ya’akov gave Yosef. These wagons were meant to show Ya’akov that Yosef was still on the straight and narrow.
Ya’akov hears about Yosef’s situation, and he sees the wagons indicating his son’s spiritual position, and his spirit is revived. On the way down to Egypt, G-d comes to Ya’akov at night and tells him that He will be with him, and will make sure that his descendants come out of the land of Egypt.
The Torah then recounts the lineage of Ya’akov’s progeny. It also mentions that Ya’akov sent Yehuda ahead of him to Goshen (possibly the first Jewish ghetto ever), the place the Jews inhabited in Egypt to set up a Yeshiva. He did this because he recognized that the only way the Jewish people would be able to maintain their Jewish identity in Egypt is if they have significant Jewish education, a realization that rings very true today.
Ya’akov and Yosef have a tearful reunion after a 22 year separation. At this momentous occasion, Ya’akov recites Shema, indicating that every joyous occasion should be experienced with G-d. When the family goes to meet Pharaoh, Yosef instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh they are shepherds, as this way he will leave them alone (whereas had they told him they were warriors he would try to draft them). Pharaoh and Ya’akov share pleasantries and bless each other.
The parsha concludes by telling us how Yosef managed Egypt during the famine. He was the only person who had any grain, so everyone sold him their land. He told everyone they could have land as long as they moved (this way his family wouldn’t feel out of place when they settled in a new place), and that they had to give one fifth of their crops to the Pharaoh as tax. Back then they didn’t charge a Social Security tax, and today they shouldn’t either because there is very little likelihood that I’ll get the benefits by the time I retire, what with the S.S. crisis. But that’s a discussion for a different time. That’s all folks!
Quote of the Week: The best way out of a problem is through it. – Samuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: The trunk of the African baobab tree can grow as large as 100 feet in circumference.
Funny Line of the Week: The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part of the face!
Have a Nifty Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham