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A Tzaddik’s Tear

A Tzaddik’s Tear

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Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), the ''Chafetz Chaim''
Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), the "Chafetz Chaim"

About 30 years ago, an American rabbi visiting Miami, Florida gave a lecture on the life and accomplishments of the famed "Chafetz Chaim" (Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan, 1838-1933). He described the life of the great sage who lived a humble life as a shopkeeper in the village of Radin, in Poland, yet was recognized throughout the Jewish world as a great scholar, tzaddik (righteous person) and leader.

There was another story the rabbi wanted to tell, but he hesitated, for he only knew part of it. As he stood at the lectern, he thought for a moment and then decided that he would tell it anyway. He rationalized that even an unfinished story about the Chafetz Chaim would have a meaningful message.

He began to relate an incident about a teenage boy in the Chafetz Chaim's yeshiva who was found smoking a cigarette on Shabbat -- the sacred day of rest. The faculty and student body were shocked, and some of the faculty felt that the boy should be expelled. However, when the Chafetz Chaim heard the story, he asked that the boy be brought to his home.

At this point, the rabbi interrupted the narrative and said, "I don't know what the Chafetz Chaim said to the boy. I only know that they were together for a few minutes. I would give anything to know what he said to this student, for I am told that the boy never desecrated the Shabbat again. How wonderful it would be if we could relay that message -- whatever it was -- to others, in order to encourage them in their observance of Shabbat." The rabbi then continued with his lecture.

After his talk, the hall emptied of everyone except for one elderly man, who remained in his seat, alone with his thoughts. From the distance, it seemed he was trembling, as if he was either crying or suffering from chills. The rabbi walked over to the elderly man and asked him, "Is anything wrong?"

The man responded, "Where did you hear that story of the cigarette on Shabbat?" He did not look up and was still shaken. "I really don't know," answered the rabbi. "I heard it a while ago and I don't even remember who told it to me." The man looked up at the rabbi and said softly, "I was that boy." He then asked the rabbi to go outside, and as the two walked together, he told the rabbi the following story:

"This incident occurred in the 1920's when the Chafetz Chaim was in his eighties. I was terrified to have to go into his house and face him. But when I did go into his home, I looked around with disbelief at the poverty in which he lived. It was unimaginable to me that a man of his stature would be satisfied to live in such surroundings.

"Suddenly he was in the room where I was waiting. He was remarkably short. At that time I was a teenager and he only came up to my shoulders. He took my hand and clasped it tenderly in both of his. He brought my hand in his own clasped hands up to his face, and when I looked into his soft face, his eyes were closed for a moment.

"When he opened them, they were filled with tears. He then said to me in a hushed voice full of pain and astonishment, 'Shabbat!' And he started to cry. He was still holding both my hands in his, and while he was crying he repeated with astonishment, 'Shabbat, the holy Shabbat!'

"My heart started pounding and I became more frightened than I had been before. Tears streamed down his face and one of them rolled onto my hand. I thought it would bore a hole right through my skin. When I think of that tear today, I can still feel its heat. I can't describe how awful it felt to know that I had made the great tzaddik weep. But in his rebuke -- which consisted only of those few words -- I felt that he was not angry, but rather sad and fearful. He seemed frightened at the consequences of my actions."

The elderly man then caressed the hand that bore the invisible scar of a precious tear. It had become his permanent reminder to observe the "holy Shabbat" for the rest of his life.


Biographical note: Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan (1838-1933), popularly known as "the Chafetz Chaim" after the title of one of his many influential books, was one of the most important and beloved rabbinical scholars and leaders of the 20th century. His other works include Mishna Berura, an authoritative, almost universally accepted compendium of Jewish Law, and Shmirat HaLashon, about proper and improper speech.


A master storyteller with hundreds of published stories to his credit, Rabbi Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder of Ascent of Safed, and managing editor of the Ascent and Kabbalah Online websites.
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Anonymous July 14, 2015

To: RG San Francisco The mitzvois are G-D's command to us when we do them we please G-d. We don't necessarily understand how these small things like as you say pushing a button on the elevator are pleasing to G-d but that's the fact and we aren't G-d and will never be Him so we don't understand how our small things could be big for him. Reply

Gary Bauer December 1, 2014

The Tzaddik's Tears This holy man conveys more good motives through his tears to keep the Sabbath holy than 1,000 volumes of scholarly cerebral writ could ever convey! I will make a copy of this story and treasure it. Reply

David LA October 31, 2014

To RG I would like to congratulate you for living a life of blessing and is good you see them. I love the point you made because you emphasize the bottom line of creation:
freewill , G-d forbid if people will not be keeping commandments and suddenly the were stricken with lighting or pest and vice versa if we were keeping Shabbos and Kosher every Jew we will see an angel giving us a $10,000 check. This will kill Freedom, that's why you can see tons of Orthodox people with financial difficulties, marital problems and not always good children as you and like some of my relatives they eat pork and shrimp and the have lower cholesterol levels than me. However this what makes a JEW different , you are enlightened response has been challenged every generation, yes is not new modern ideas, The Greeks did it thousands of years and this continues, not new at all. However an animal eats, reproduces, makes money and enjoys the ride but a Human is sent down to learn emunah, to get to know Hashem Reply

Sigal Sydney September 19, 2014

Fractured Life I agree wholeheartedly, for those jews who have a family that observes the shabbat, who were taught from a young age, the wisdom, the knowledge, the beauty, the respect, the respite on the shabbat is glorious!

I was never taught to be observant, I have been going to Chabad now, sometimes with my christian husband, sometimes not, my 13 year old son just did his barmitzvah only because it was please me and my grandparents and refuses point blank to go to shule. I still go and most of the time feel hurt and lonely that I am unable to have the family unity that the others do on shabbat. Do I desert my family? I have been told do what makes you happy and they will follow. I light the shabbos candles on a friday night, and that is it. I know it is circumstance that brings me to the present. I honor what I am learning and not blame anyone - I swallow my loneliness and learn with pride - Baruch Hashem Reply

RG San francisco September 4, 2013

Mitzvot I guess in order for me to agree or even understand what you are explaining I have to adhere to the fundamental principals of religion, which I can't say I do :).

I believe in time and place for everything in life. We have evolved as civilization and we have to do the same as Jews otherwise, we will be left behind. I believe and preach all the principals of the 10 commandment that are common sense things, but I can't even agree to keep kosher, because these are the rules that have been developed due to necessity many years ago and don't apply anymore. Things like not doing certain things on Shabbat, like pushing a butting on the elevator are just outright silly, and so on...

That's what I am trying to say here (with all due respect).

Thanks! Reply

Yisroel Cotlar Cary, NC September 4, 2013

Re Mitzvot are more than traditions. Its more than culture. These are G-d's commandments. This is the way we connect to G-d. Our souls yearns for this connection.

We were sent down to this world for more than just "not getting in trouble" or "being good people." We have a very specific mission to accomplish and that happens through looking at our roadmap, the Torah and its Mitzvot. Reply

RG San Francisco August 30, 2013

Don't get it I am not observing anything and I live a good and proud life. My kids don't observe anything and still respect their parents, and are good and successful people. Why do we need to follow all these ancient traditions that have no merit anymore? Reply

Paul S Pavelich San Marcos, CA July 19, 2013

Ruth's Song Ruth, the words to the quoted song made your point very well and I enjoy reading ALL your comments. However, ascribing that song to the rolling stones I believe is in error. The song; "Words" was written and recorded by the Bee Gees. Just something that was bothering an old musician. Please continue your fine comments. I enjoy hearing your voice and a prolific one at that. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma April 19, 2013

an invitation to Shabbat in an Orthodox Household I read this today, when we have all been shedding a lot of tears, as Boston has experienced sheer horror, and as I write Boston is actually shut down, as there is a hunt for the remaining killer who has already maimed and murdered so many post Marathon. The people who have come forward to help the victims, the police, those still working hard to keep us all safe, well their works are holy,and I salute them all.

I have spent other Shabbats in Orthodox homes because I come from a greater family that is Orthodox and those Shabbats are beautiful. This does not make me become Orthodox, but rather I can celebrate their customss, beliefs, without having to be them. I feel we need to learn to honor each other, as there is great diversity, even in the Jewish community, and I have difficulty believeing G_d says, Orthodoxy is the only way to go.

I believe in goodness of heart, in doing unto others, all those old fashioned values and that is, what Hillel said, in saying the rest is commentary. Reply

Bracha Queens, New York April 18, 2013

Beautiful and very heartfelt. One of the major questions of today, is though, why don't we have such great people among us nowadays? The Lubavitcher Rebbe is not alive, and he didn't have any children to pass down the inheritance of being the Moshiach of the generation to anyone. There are no great sages today, and the whole world is surrounded by sadness and the very noticeable impatience of the Jews, after 2000 years, finally return to the Holy Land. Reply

Kim Dixon Shetland Islands, UK January 24, 2013

A Tzaddik's Tear Almost brings me to tears. As a gentile I am profoundly moved by anyone who loves and fears HaShem as much as that, Jews have a great responsibility thrust upon them - anyone who takes this to their heart and influences others for the Good is so tremendous. If we only knew how much our actions bring us closer or further from HaShem we would be so careful... May we all strive to be as close to HaShem as this great Tzaddik. Reply

rut USA January 22, 2013

A Tzaddik's Tears This is a powerful story. Beautiful and moving. I have been trying to follow Shabbat on my own for the past six years. And only on the past three years it has become more, and more meaningful. As I go alone in following the Commandments of Hashem, because of my past ignorance on the ways of my ancestors, Hashem has been blessing me in many ways. But, there is still a way to travel in this spiritual path that He has set for me. Being raced in another religion, and sort of, being asigned as an intervenient in prayers for my family and all my people, Israel. I feel this way because of the love Hashem, blessed be He, has placed in my heart. Shabbat, in the loneliness of my home, is a very special day of dedication in prayer and service to our Master, and King. His presence fills our heart and soul during Shabbat. Someday we will ALL be together on Shabbat praising our King of King and L-rd of L-rd as we did in His Holy Mountain with Moshe. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma May 26, 2011

what is, Proper? I do not judge others for the ways they worship, nor do I say to others, my way is the right way. The world, as it was created, as it is, has many people within, and they do worship in many ways, and some do it without calling it worship. It's just how they are. They get up, look at the dawn, and say, this is beautiful, but there are no words for this. They just feel it, and they are grateful to be alive for this, just this, if not everything else.

I enjoy stepping into other homes, and experiencing "their way", but there is no one who can tell me, that my way, is not AS beautiful, as profound, or as deeply meaningful as a relationship that is personal.

I do not proselytize and say, be as I am, and you will experience what is more lovely and I do not feel, being Orthodox is my way. I also do not feel God is not deeply in my life as I am. In fact, I can prove, by way of a life, that I am beloved. I feel it. Every single day.

I write here because I love to share and to share love. Reply

Anonymous Far Rockaway, NY May 23, 2011

Reply to Ruth Housman Ruth, certainly you should not have been humiliated by others, that was very wrong. But Shabbat can be extremely beautiful when kept properly. It is so much more than just a bunch of things you are not allowed to do. There is the whole concept of completely resting the body and the soul, and having one day a week devoted to spiritual matters instead of to the ordinary concerns of the world. Why don't you contact your local Chabad house and find out about really experiencing a Shabbat with an Orthodox Jewish family? You may be pleasantly surprised by the great food, wonderful company and marvelous insights. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 24, 2011

a Rip in the universe When we rip our clothing in the agony of loss, of bereavement, I do deeply feel those tears, are also tears, meaning the universe is weeping. When a holy person cries, those tears must have reach, because that person feels with all their heart and soul, and that person, whatever their beliefs, if they are holy, then they are walking on sacred ground. They feel something that is very profound, very deep. I think it interesting linguistically that RIP also stands for Rest In Peace.

I see a story, that only the Divine could have written, that encompasses all of our lives and for me, this story is about love.

There is a song that goes, It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away (The Rolling Stones)

there is a still small voice yearning to be heard Reply

Yocheved Seattle, WA January 18, 2011

This message is so powerful! When I first became observant, I was still smoking. A friend of mine told me this story in a sweet, helpful way, with no rebuke.

I never smoked on Shabbos again, and eventually quit all together, with G-d's help. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 18, 2011

more than, just, a coincidence This is a powerful story.

Personally, as a child I was totally humiliated in spending time with my very Orthodox relatives in New York. No one told me about the rules regarding Shabbat among the very religious, and I grabbed a book and my purse, en route to the synagogue and was roundly chastised as being really stupid, an uneducated young woman because the things I carried were wrong.

I was astonished to see an African American man come into the apartment and turn on the lights. I felt, if this is religion, if this is about G_d, I want no part of this. If he was allowed to do something "they" could not do, and that was all right, it seemed hypocritical to me. I still feel this way.

I don't think it's work to turn on a light. I think all turning on of lights is a holy act, at any time of day or night.

As to cigarettes on Shabbat, all I know of cigarettes is that they are really bad for us all. How much of a sin is this?

And I feel G_d's LOVE constantly! Reply

Anonymous Hoboken, NJ USA January 17, 2011

A Tzaddik's tear Powerful message! Thank You, it will force me to think more about my actions. Reply

Anonymous paranaque, pilipines January 16, 2011

Tzaddik's Tear thank you for this very nice story. it touches my soul. Reply

Sarah Brooklyn, New York via jewishgardens.com January 16, 2011

The power of a tear I cried throughout.
I wish today's generation had teachers that taught them the beauty of our rich heritage with so much love and cars. Reply