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Sparks of wisdom

Appearance: One Saturday night, as Rabbi Joseph Jozel was making Havdalah, shots were being fired in his yard. But his hand did not tremble, and not a drop spilled from the cup he was holding.

Deed: A deadly typhus epidemic spread through Kiev, attacking the yeshiva students as well. One morning Rabbi Joseph Jozel was found cleaning the yeshiva toilets.

Word: “A person should give up his whole future for today, so that he will not waste all his todays for one tomorrow.” — Rabbi Joseph J. Hurvitz, disciple of Rabbi Israel Salanter

A PERSON sweats over an article or a book — it’s published, and no one notices.

A person turns out an article or a book almost as an afterthought — the writing goes quickly and is soon forgotten — and everyone notices.

Something like this happened to the late Rabbi Ephraim Zaitchik, who published many large tomes on ethical, Musar thought.

It would be wrong to say no one noticed, but his heavy tomes certainly did not make a splash.

Somewhere along the way he turned out a slim volume. It’s all of 4” wide and 6.5” high, with 251 pages. It fits into a breast pocket.

This collection of maxims, anecdotes and incidents has made a splash.

It’s called Sparks of Mussar: A Treasury of the Words and Deeds of the Mussar Greats (Feldheim).

“Musar” is the movement founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) to emphasize the ethical and spiritual sides of halachic Judaism.

Here are excerpts from the late Rabbi Zaitchik’s slim but powerful book:

Rabbi Israel Salanter’s appearance: His appearance was awesome. He was graced with beauty, but it was wisdom and fear of G-d that lit up his pure face. When he was sunk in thoughts of Torah or Musar, his body seemed to leave its physical state, and his face burned like a torch. At such times he looked like an angel of G-d and people feared to approach him. Whoever did not see it with his own eyes cannot imagine it.

He never allowed an artist to draw his face.

Rabbi Israel’s deeds: As a young married man in Salant, Lithuania, Rabbi Israel used to sit in an attic and study Torah. His in-laws would send his meals with his wife’s little brother. Every morning the boy brought him coffee and cake, until Rabbi Israel said to him, “In the study hall there are poor old men who have difficulty chewing. Please bring the cake to them. I can eat bread.” Knowing that his family would never agree, Rabbi Israel made up with the boy to  keep it a secret. From then on, for many years, Rabbi Israel sent his cake daily to the poor old men, while he himself ate black bread.

Rabbi Israel’s words: One of the richest and most respected citizens of Kovno, Lithuania, lost all his money until he was left without a piece of bread. At the funeral the people of the city lamented, “This man died of hunger.” But Rabbi Israel objected. “He did not die of hunger, but of pride. The deceased should have taken charity and not allowed himself to die of hunger.”

Rabbi Israel had three main disciples: Rabbis Simcha Zisl Ziv, Isaac Blazer and Naftali Amsterdam — each with his own appearance, deeds and words.

Rabbi Simcha Zisl’s appearance: Even in the most terrifying moments, no trace of confusion or fear was seen on him. He always retained his calmness and composure, his clarity of thought, and his presence of mind.

Rabbi Simcha Zisl’s deeds: A few days before his death, he asked to have all his clothing laundered. Since after his death his clothes would be given away, he wanted to be sure that the poor would receive the clothing clean and pressed.

•     •     •

The innkeeper of a small town was delighted when Rabbi Simcha Zisl, accompanied by another scholar, came to her inn. She served them a lovely meal and waited on them most graciously. In her excitement over receiving such holy guests, she told them while serving about her cows and geese, her chickens and potatoes. The other scholar kept his head in a book the whole time and paid no attention to the woman’s idle chatter. But Rabbi Simcha Zisl listened attentively, responding and asking questions as if he were interested in every detail.

Before leaving, the guests wanted to pay for the meal but the innkeeper refused to accept money. “Should I lose the merit of this mitzvah,” she explained, “for a little bit of money?”

After they were well on their way, Rabbi Simcha Zisl turned to his companion and asked, “Aren’t you concerned that you transgressed the prohibition against stealing? You ate and drank, but did not pay?”

“What do you mean?” responded his companion. “We offered to pay her for the meal!”

“True,” said Rabbi Simcha Zisl. “But you saw how much satisfaction the woman derived from speaking to us, yet you refrained from paying attention to her conversation. Thus you benefited from her meal without giving anything in exchange.”

Rabbi Simcha Zisl’s words: “Either one invites and receives guests, or one is reduced to becoming a guest.”

Rabbi Isaac Blazer’s appearance: Rabbi Isaac used to get so excited when he spoke in public about the Days of Awe that his clothes became drenched with sweat and he had to change three times.

•     •     •

In the mincha prayer of erev Shabbos, Rabbi Isaac would be overcome with longing for G-d until the tears poured from his eyes.

Rabbi Isaac’s deeds: Late in life, he married a young widow with four children of her own, and she subsequently bore him children.

Rabbi Isaac made every effort to please her. At night, when the baby cried, he would not allow her to get out of bed. Despite his age, he himself rose to take care of the baby. On erev Shabbos he would help her prepare for Shabbos, and he considered that a big mitzvah.

In Jerusalem, where the residents drew their water from a cistern near the house, a neighbor once spotted Rabbi Isaac drawing the water himself to spare his wife the trouble. The neighbor hurried to help.

“What made you come to help me?” asked Rabbi Isaac.

“I want to do a mitzvah,” replied the neighbor.

Rabbi Isaac responded, “I, too, want to do a mitzvah.”

•     •     •

At weddings, Rabbi Isaac was the life of the party. He danced on tabletops, sang, and composed rhymes in order to fulfill the mitzvah of making the bride and groom happy. Even at the Jerusalem chupah of Rabbi Naftali Amsterdam and his second wife, who were both in their seventies, Rabbi Isaac did the same.

When asked whether so much rejoicing was called for on this occasion, he answered, “In the Halachah of rejoicing with a bride and groom, there is no difference whether the couple are 20 or 70.”

Rabbi Isaac’s words — silence: Rabbi Isaac participated in an assembly of preeminent Talmudic scholars in St. Petersburg. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1820-1892) asked a difficult question in the name of his son Rabbi Chaim that touched off a heated discussion. Brilliant explanations and arguments flew back and forth.

Finally, Rabbi Soloveitchik amazed the assembly with two explanations — one of his son, and one of his own.

Rabbi Isaac had sat through the storm without opening his mouth, as if he had no idea what was flying. Rabbi Soloveitchik decided to check up on this “great man” who gave the impression of being so ignorant. Arriving home, he opened Rabbi Isaac’s Talmudic work Pri Yitzhak to see what kind of scholar the author was. To Rabbi Soloveitchik’s surprise, he found in the book both his son’s question and the two explanations he had give at the assembly.

“How great,” he exclaimed, “is Rabbi Isaac’s humility!”

Rabbi Naftali Amsterdam’s appearance: For fear of haughtiness, Rabbi Naftali refused to wear elegant clothing. In order to subdue his heart he wore the garb of common folk and completely disregarded his appearance.

Highly displeased, his wife went and complained to his rebbe, Rabbi Israel, who summoned Rabbi Naftali. “Gemilus chesed [being kind to others],” Rabbi Israel told his disciple, “means doing the wish of another.” And he convinced Rabbi Naftali to consider his wife’s wishes.

Rabbi Naftali’s deeds: If the student asked a question, Rabbi Naftali did not answer immediately. Pretending it was difficult for him to understand, Rabbi Naftali would go over the question several times until the question answered itself.

If the student made a mistake, Rabbi Naftali would not embarrass him by correcting him right away. Instead, he would review the material slowly until the student realized himself he had been mistaken.

Rabbi Naftali’s words: A Jew once came before him asking for the “permission of a hundred rabbis” necessary to take a second wife without divorcing the first. In the course of talking, the man spoke badly of his wife. Rabbi Naftali interrupted him and asked, “Have you already received the permission of a hundred rabbis to violate the prohibition of leshon ha-ra, speaking ill of others?”

Sparks of Mussar — from Feldheim: If you like humanity-based spirituality, get this book.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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