It was the year 1848 and there was a very bad epidemic of a disease called cholera in Vilna, Lithuania. Many people were in pain and dying with no one to help them. Cholera came on very suddenly and often people and children died after a few hours. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter went to talk with one of the doctors treating the sick people.

Doctor, I know you are so busy right now taking care of all these very sick people, but I need to ask you a few questions. I also want to offer you help. What can I tell our people to do so that they will not get sick with cholera? People are afraid to care for the sick and those who are ill are left to die alone–often in great pain. Is this a disease that can spread from one person to another just by being in the same room for instance?

The doctor listened to Rabbi Yisrael and then said,

If it spread so easily from one person to another we doctors would have already died. We do not know the cause. Some doctors say people should not eat fish. We see that people who eat or handle fish sometimes get cholera. We suggest that people not eat fish right now. The main way to save the lives of people ill with cholera is to make sure they get enough salty water to drink, so that they will not dry out and die. We also see that the children from poor families who are weak and rundown because they never get enough to eat are most of those who die from cholera.

Rabbi Yisrael then asked,

If this is so, will fasting on Yom Kippur be dangerous for our people? Will fasting make them weak so that they can catch the cholera?

As a doctor, I do worry that if people become weak from fasting they may catch the cholera. I recommend that people shorten the fast this Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Yisrael stood up and said,

I am now going to send as many yeshiva students of mine as I can to help take care of the sick. I would like you to teach them what to do. When can I bring them here? I am so sad to see people running away from taking care of the sick instead of helping them.

Rabbi Yisrael, please, also keep up your prayers to G-d to stop this epidemic, said the doctor.

Rabbi Yisrael left and went to his yeshiva in Zarece to speak to his students.

As you all know, there is a terrible cholera epidemic raging all over Europe, and it is now here in Vilna as well. People are very ill with no one to care for them and they are dying. I am going to send you out to care for all the sick people. The doctors will tell you what you have to do. We have to work fast. You will also have to work on Shabbat. This is pikuach nefesh–saving lives. We are commanded to do this great mitzvah and work on the Sabbath. This is hard work, but your reward from G-d will be great for saving lives.

One of the students stood up and asked:

Our parents may be afraid to let us do this work. What do we tell them?

I will speak to your parents. I will tell them that we are commanded to help the sick and that the doctors who care for those ill with cholera do not get it. Also, the doctors have taught us what to do to protect ourselves. I will tell them to trust G-d to keep you safe from all harm. How many of you are ready to go?” asked Rabbi Yisrael.

Seventy yeshiva students volunteered to do this great mitzvah to take care of sick people and to save lives and not one of them became ill.

Rabbi Yisrael was still worried about the Yom Kippur fast, and he went to see all the chief rabbis in Vilna to suggest shortening the fast, for the sake of pikuach nefesh. However, none of the chief rabbis had the courage to give a halachic decision that people could shorten the fast. Rabbi Yisrael saw that he was alone, so Rabbi Yisrael decided to take on this public role himself. He sent his yeshiva students to put up signs in all the synagogues in Vilna asking people to shorten the fast on Yom Kippur for the sake of saving lives.

Now it was Yom Kippur. The morning prayers were finished in the Great Synagogue of Vilna and Rabbi Yisrael went up to the bimah (platform) where the portion of the Law was read from the Torah scroll.

So that you will not put your lives in danger, you can now break your fast and eat,” said Rabbi Yisrael.

There was a great silence in the synagogue. No one moved and then the people watched in amazement as Rabbi Yisrael held up a cup of wine, made a blessing and took a sip. Then he ate a piece of cake. After this, the Jews of Vilna went home and broke their fast. Many years later Rabbi Yisrael’s son, Rabbi Yitzchak Lipkin wrote that his father was always happy that he was able to save the lives of so many people by telling them to shorten the Yom Kippur Fast.

About this Story

This story is from a book that has not yet been published about the life of Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter by Sandra Yosepha Levin Copyright © 2020. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was considered to be the greatest rabbi of his generation and the founder of the Mussar movement during the 19th century. You can make a donation to help get this book published.

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