Shabbas and the Chofetz Chaim

My grandfather, Louis Finkelstein heard this story in 1926 and again in 1950 from Rabbi Abraham Kalmanowitz, a disciple of the Chofetz Chaim.

This was a favorite story of my grandfather's. I wrote it up for publication in A Jewish Journal at Yale in 1983, and my grandfather reviewed it carefully at the time. For more information about R. Kalmanowitz see the letter dated June 16, 1981, in my Collection of Letters


During the First World War, the town of Radin was taken by the Germans. The Chofetz Chaim was forced to leave his yeshiva there. In travelling east with his students, he came to a Russian town called Rovno, where he stayed for some time.

One day, the elders of the town came to him, and asked whether he would officiate at the dedication of a cemetery. The Chofetz Chaim was not enthusiastic.

``Dedicate a cemetery?'' he said. ``I've never done it; it's not the custom in Lithuania.''

``It's not a big deal,'' they assured him. ``You mark off the boundaries with a string, you make a speech, and it's dedicated.''

``Still, it's not one of my customs, Can't you find someone else to do it?''

``Yes, but ... This is the problem. The whole town of Rovno is shomer shabbas1 except the barbers. Now, if you come to the dedication of the new cemetery and you state that no mchallel shabbas2 can be buried there, then the barbers will be obliged to become shomrei shabbas, because they won't allow themselves to be buried outside Jewish ground.''

The Chofetz Chaim was troubled. ``It's true,'' he said, ``that according to the strict law you're not supposed to bury m'challelei shabbas next to shomrei shabbas. But nobody keeps that law --- how can you refuse to bury a Jew in Jewish ground?

``All right,'' they replied, ``but the barbers will still be m'challelei shabbas.''

This was not acceptable to the Chofetz Chaim either; Jews would be m'challel shabbas on his account! He turned to one of his students, ``I can't tell them they can't be buried. I couldn't get the words out of my mouth. You go dedicate the cemetery.''

The student went, but he was intimidated and unimpressive. He made a short speech, and, in passing, he quoted the relevant passage of the law, ``One does not bury the wicked next to the righteous.''3 No one got the point.

After the dedication, the town elders came back to the Chofetz Chaim, furious. ``Your student ruined us!'' they cried. ``This was the opportunity to make all of Rovno shomer shabbas, and it's gone. Nobody knew what he was talking about.' The Chofetz Chaim turned to Rab Kalmanowitz. ``You know how to speak,'' he said. ``Go talk to them.''

The following Shabbas Rab Kalmanowitz spoke in shul. He told them about the holiness of a Jewish cemetery and about the holiness of the Shabbas. He reminded them of their saintly ancestors buried in the old cemetery. He concluded, ``The Law states that the wicked may not be buried next to the righteous. Is it conceivable that our ancestors would have permitted their cemetery to be desecrated by the burial of a Sabbath breaker among them?''

``No!'' answered the crowd.

``Shall not the new cemetery be as precious and holy as the old?''


``Will you allow a m'challel shabbas to be buried in the new cemetery?''

``No!'' answered the crowd. And so it was established.

The next day the Chofetz Chaim looked out the window, and say some men approaching. ``You'd better hide,'' he told Rab Kalmanowitz. ``I think the barbers are coming for you.''

But the Chofetz Chaim was wrong; they had come to ask a favor of Rab Kalmanowitz. They were seven of the nine barbers. Rab Kalmanowitz's eloquence had persuaded them all to be shomrei shabbas. But the president and secretary of the barbers' union were not won over, and, until they were, none of the other barbers could afford to take off shabbas, because of the competition. Could Rab Kalmanowitz persuade the two holdouts?

Rab Kalmanowitz went over to the other barbers and began a passionate speech about the merits of keeping Shabbas. He had a weak heart, though, and in the middle of his speech, he fainted. When he came to, all the barbers were hovering anxiously over him . ``We didn't know that this was a matter of life and death!'' said the president of the barber's union. ``If it's so important, we'll become shomrei shabbas.''

Rab Kalmanowitz got up. ``Let's go to the Chofetz Chaim and tell him so,'' he said.

When the Chofetz Chaim saw the barbers coming, he rose to greet them. He explained to them that it was a rare honor for him to be among them. Almost everyone, no matter how pious, he said, occasionally unwittingly broke some part of the Shabbas law. But since these men had just repented, all the Sabbaths that they had broken were considered for them as if they had kept them flawlessly. He asked them to bless him. So each of the barbers blessed the Chofetz Chaim.


A number of years later, Rab Kalmanowitz was travelling through Lithuania and stopped at an inn. When he got to his room, he found he was sharing it with the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim was in the room, praying in Yiddish, which he used for personal prayer. ``Lord of the Universe,'' he cried, ``have mercy on Shana Malka! She's your daughter. It is your glory to have mercy on your children and forgive their sins. If she has broken Shabbas in the past, let her live, so that she may atone and keep it in the future!''

When the Chofetz Chaim saw Rab Kalmanowitz was with him, he was very much relieved. ``Rab Kalmanowitz,'' he welcomed him, ``you're just the man I need.''

``Last night I went to shul here,'' he explained, ``and a man came up to me. He told me that his wife Shana Malka was having a difficult time in labor, that her life was in danger, and he asked me to pray for her. I told him my prayers are not especially favored, but I gave him money so that he could call the Yeshivas in Slobodka and Mir, and there they would pray for his wife. This morning he came to me, told me that his wife was worse, and asked me again to pray for her. So I have been doing my best to pray.''

``As I prayed, I tried to think, why is this woman suffering in this way? I thought of the Mishnah 4

על שלש עברות נשים מתות בשעת לדתן: על שאינן זהירות בנדה בחלה ובהדלקת הנר

For three sins, women die in childbirth: for carelessness in purity, in taking challah5 and in lighting the Shabbas lights.

Women are generally very careful about purity. Taking challah is so simple and automatic that a pious woman would not make an error. But Shabbas! The laws of Shabbas are many and complicated. It is difficult to perform all the laws of Shabbas as they are set down, and very easy to bend a law here or ignore a regulation there. Surely, the woman is suffering for some negligence with respect to Shabbas.''

``But now that you're here, Rab Kalmanowitz, it will be all right. For you have a great merit of Shabbas keeping. Because of you, the whole town of Rovno keeps Shabbas, so you have the merit of many men keeping Shabbas for many years. And I want you to give the merit you gained from that to Shana-Malka, so that she'll recover.''

When he heard this, Rab Kalmanowitz was appalled. ``Rabbi, consider what you are asking,'' he said. ``I'm no great Tzaddik. My good deeds are few and my sins are many. If I give up the merit I gained in speaking to Rovno, what will I point to when I am judged in the world to come?''

The Chofetz Chaim jumped up, furious. ``A woman is dying, and you're worried about the future world?'' he exclaimed. Rab Kalmanowitz thought he would be apoplectic. So he gave in and spoke as the Chofetz Chaim directed: ``Any merit that I have of Shabbas keeping, whether that I kept Shabbas or that I inspired others to keep Shabbas, I give over to the woman Shana Malka, so that she may live.''

When this was done, the Chofetz Chaim returned to his prayer. ``Master of the World,'' he spoke. ``Before I was asking that you spare this woman. Now we're on different terms. I demand that you spare her. You see that Rab Kalmanowitz risked his share in the world to come in order that she could recover. And he doesn't know here. He's never met her. She's your daughter. You feel for her, and it will cost you nothing to cure her. Have mercy!''

Later in the afternoon, Rab Kalmanowitz suggested that they make inquiries about the woman. ``Stay where you are, Rabbi,'' answered the Chofetz Chaim. ``You have done what you can. There is no need to indulge your curiosity.'' Rab Kalmanowitz was rather annoyed, for he might have to leave town without finding out whether his sacrifice was accepted.

But that evening, the husband came to the Chofetz Chaim. His wife had given birth, and mother and son were well. The husband wanted the Chofetz Chaim to be the sandek.6 The Chofetz Chaim answered that the cure was due to Rab Kalmanowitz and that he should be the sandek.

Then the Chofetz Chaim began to question the husband. ``Tell me, is your wife careful about purity?''

``How can you ask, Rabbi?'' he answered. ``She's a pious woman!''

``Does she take out challah?


``Is she careful about the Shabbas candles?''


Then the Chofetz Chaim inquired carefully about one detail and another of Shabbas. Eventually he asked a question at which the husband hung his head, a detail of which his wife was negligent. The Chofetz Chaim turned to Rab Kalmanowitz. ``I told you it was Shabbas,'' he said. Then he told the husband that he would send him a copy of the Mishnah Brurah,7 and made him promise that henceforth he and his wife would observe Shabbas in the full letter and spirit of the law.


1. Shomer shabbas: Sabbath keeping.
2. M'challel shabbas: Sabbath breaker.
3. Sanhedrin 47a
4. Mishnah Shabbat 2.6.
5. Taking challah: When baking bread, it is customary to take out a small part of the dough and burn it. This is called ``taking challah''.
6. Sandek: The godfather, who holds the baby at circumcision.
7. Mishnah Brurah: A code of Jewish law by the Chofetz Chaim.