In our previous letter, we discussed the practical path of halacha - the path which enables us to serve as a spiritual model. Without a proper knowledge of halacha, however, a person may develop a spiritual perspective which is not in harmony with Torah - the Divine Teaching. For example, one may feel an overwhelming desire to do a certain mitzvah and mistakenly conclude that it is permitted to violate a Torah prohibition, such as stealing or violating the Shabbos, in order to do this mitzvah. According to the Talmud, such a mitzvah is invalid, since it resulted from a sin; thus, someone who steals a palm branch in order to fulfill the mitzvah to have the palm branch on the Festival of Succos has not fulfilled the mitzvah at all (Tractate Succos 31a).
In this spirit, it is written, “When a brazen thief utters a blessing, he mocks the Compassionate One (Psalms 10:3). The Talmud (Bava Kama 94a) explains this verse as referring to someone who stole wheat, ground it into flour, and kneaded it into dough, then took off the required tithe for the Kohen (priest) and recited the blessing for the tithe. The Creator is very displeased with this blessing, for not only did this person sin by stealing, but he or she had the audacity to pronounce the Divine Name over something acquired dishonestly.
A proper knowledge of halacha and its priorities will help us to develop a spiritual approach which is in harmony with the Divine Teaching, and the following stories can serve as examples:
1. Rav Yisrael Salanter was a leading 19th century sage who founded the Mussar movement which was dedicated to the study and renewal of Torah teachings and halachos regarding ethical behavior and character development. One early morning, a disciple of Rav Yisrael passed through a room full of sleeping people in order to get water for the ritual washing of his hands. Rav Yisrael later rebuked him, saying: “Washing the hands when you wake up is a mitzvah instituted by our sages, but robbing others of their sleep is forbidden by the Torah!” Rav Yisrael was reminding his disciple that the Torah's prohibition, “You shall not rob” (Leviticus 19:13), includes a prohibition against “robbing” someone of his sleep.
The disciple needed to realize that his action was mistaken for two reasons: It was wrong to violate this prohibition in order to wash his hands; moreover, the mitzvah to wash one’s hands upon awakening is a rabbinic mitzvah, while robbing others of their sleep is a Torah prohibition and therefore takes priority.
2. During his wanderings, Rav Yisrael arrived one cold winter day at an inn together with a rabbinical colleague. The colleague opened the door and waited for Rav Yisrael to enter first. Rav Yisrael hurriedly closed the door and explained: “Here we have a doubt as to who should honor whom. But leaving the door open lets the heat out of the house, and that is definitely robbery. This prohibition cannot be pushed aside even by the positive precept of honoring a Sage.”
3. The sages of the Mussar movement were not part of the Chassidic movement; nevertheless, Rav Yisrael Salanter was greatly respected by the Chassidim. When Rav Yisrael went to Warsaw to visit the great Chassidic Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Meir, the leader of the Gerer Chassidim, the Rebbe honored him greatly, and when Rav Yisrael left, the Rebbe escorted him to the street. Word quickly spread among the Chassidim that a great man had come to town. When Rav Yisrael stepped into the synagogue to doven Mincha - pray the afternoon prayers – the building became filled to capacity with Chassidim who wanted to see him.
How disappointed they were that this righteous sage from Lithuania dovened as quickly as any ordinary person and was one of the first to finish the main Shemoneh Esrei prayer! Seeing their wonderment, Rav Yisrael explained: “I saw that many people had stopped work on my account. The shoemaker left his awl, the tailor his needle, the blacksmith his bellows. If I were to draw out my prayers, I would be guilty of causing Jews monetary loss.”
4. A disciple of Rav Yisrael
Salanter invited him for a Shabbos
meal. Rav Yisrael replied: “I never
agree to be a guest anywhere before
I know how the house and the table
are run.” The disciple assured Rav
Yisrael that his house was run in
accordance with all the extra
stringencies: “The meat, which is
glatt kosher (a stricter standard of
kashrus for meat), is bought from a
G-d revering butcher; the cook is a
righteous, modest woman, the widow
of a Torah scholar, and my wife
supervises every detail of the
kitchen. At the table on Shabbos
evening we speak words of Torah,
learn the Code of Halacha, and sing
the traditional Shabbos songs. As a
result, the meal lasts until a late
After Rav Yisrael had heard all the details, he agreed to accept the invitation - but only on the condition that the Shabbos meal be shortened by two hours. Having no choice, the disciple accepted the condition.
That Shabbos evening, the disciple rushed the meal. They ate one course after another, and before an hour was up, they were ready to say the blessings after eating. At that point, the host turned to Rav Yisrael and asked: “My Teacher, what fault have you found in the conduct of our table?”
Instead of answering, Rav Yisrael
asked to have the cook come in.
“Please forgive me,” he said to her,
“for tiring you this evening and
causing you to hurry and serve one
course after another without a
break.” The cook answered:
“Blessings on your head! If you
would only be our guest every
Shabbos evening! Our meal usually
lasts until very late at night, and
I am so tired from working all day
that I can hardly stand on my feet.
Thanks to you, tonight I am free to
go home early and rest.”
Rav Yisrael turned to his disciple and said: “The answer of this widow is the answer to your question as well. Your conduct of the table is truly praiseworthy - but not at the expense of others!”
5. Rav Yisrael used to hasten to make the Kiddush – blessing of sanctification - over the wine on Shabbos evening because the housekeeper, who had worked hard all day preparing the Shabbos delicacies, was surely hungry, and it was not right to keep her waiting. But once, on the night of the Passover Seder, just as he and his family were about to sit down at the table, an urgent message came. One of the city's Jewish notables had been imprisoned by anti-Semitic officials and was in grave danger. Rav Yisrael left the table and hurried out to arrange his release. After many hours, he finally succeeded in freeing the prisoner. Then he returned home and began the Seder.
When asked why on this night he was not concerned about the housekeeper's hunger, he replied: “Tonight was a case of saving a life, and in such instances all Jews, men and women, are obligated to give their all in order to help!”
May the Compassionate One guide us in our study and fulfillment of the halacha, so that we can serve as a proper model of the Divine Teaching.
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
P.S. The above stories can be found in the recommended book, “Sparks of Mussar” by Rabbi Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik (Feldheim Publishers: www.feldheim.com ). This work is about certain leading sages of the Mussar movement, including Rav Yisrael Salanter, the Alter of Kelm, Rav Yitchak Blazer, Rav Naftali Amsterdam, the Alter of Novhardock, the Alter of Slobodka, and the Chofetz Chaim. It is a treasury of short stories and teachings - “sparks” of Mussar – which can illuminate the mind and inspire the heart.