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The Cantonists' Minyan

The Cantonists' Minyan


Reb Mordechai, a follower of the third Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866) had been dispatched by his Rebbe to wander the countryside of Russia, journeying from town to town and inspiring the Jews scattered there with the teachings of Chassidism.

But one day — it was the day before Yom Kippur — he arrived at some town in the middle of nowhere only to hear that all its Jews, about one hundred altogether, had left the day before to the city of Vitebsk to pray in the large synagogue there on the Day of Atonement. Suddenly, only a few hours away from the holiest day of the year, he found himself without a minyan — the quorum of ten Jews required for communal prayer.

"You won't find any Jews here, Rabbi," one of the townspeople told him. "But about two hours away there's a small village of Cantonists. They're a strange bunch, but that's the closest thing to Jews you'll find around here now."

(The Cantonists were Jews who, by decree of Czar Nicholas I, had been snatched from their families when they were young children for a 25-year term of "service" in the Czar's army, where every cruel means had been employed to force them to abandon Judaism. The few that survived were so emotionally and psychologically destroyed, when they left the army decades later, that they were never able to live normal lives. So they lived together in little villages, apart from the rest of the world.)

Immediately, Reb Mordechai started walking, but after over an hour he still saw nothing. No... wait! There seemed to be something on the horizon.

Sure enough, there it was. There were only a few old wooden houses, but this must be the village he was looking for.

The first resident that saw that the rabbi enter the village called everyone else, and in no time they were all lined up with shining faces, taking turns shaking the newcomer's hand.

They were overjoyed. Such an honor to have a real rabbi as their guest!

Suddenly they stepped back, formed a sort of huddle, and began whispering to one another. Then they fell silent, looked again at the rabbi, and one of them stepped forward in great humility, cleared his throat, and announced:

"Excuse me, Rabbi, but we would be very honored if His Excellency the Rabbi would please honor us with leading the prayers of Yom Kippur."

All the others stood staring at the Rabbi with wide pleading eyes, nodding their heads beseechingly.

Reb Mordechai nodded in agreement, and the joyous hand-shaking ritual was repeated once again.

"We only have one stipulation," the man continued. "That one of us leads the closing prayer of the holy day, Ne'ilah."

An hour later, in the solemn atmosphere of Yom Kippur, they were all seated in their little shul (synagogue), listening to the beautiful heartfelt prayers of the Chassidic rabbi, Reb Mordechai.

A very special feeling overcame Reb Mordechai. He had never quite experienced a Yom Kippur like this. He had never been in such a minyan; comprised of Jews each of whom had been through hell, things that he could never even dream of experiencing, only for the sake of G‑d. And although he had studied all the holy books and they knew nothing, he felt dwarfed by these simple folk.

His soul flowed into the prayers, and it seemed to him that he had never sung so beautifully in his life. First Kol Nidrei, then the evening prayer. On the following day, he prayed the other three prayers, and read twice from the Torah.

But finally, at the end of the day, came their turn; it was time for Ne'ilah.

Reb Mordechai stepped back, took a seat in the small shul with everyone else, and waited to see what was going to happen. Why did they want this prayer for themselves?

One of the Cantonists rose from his chair, took a few steps forward and stood at the podium, his back to the crowd.

Suddenly, before he began to lead the prayers, he started unbuttoning and then removing his shirt.

Reb Mordechai was about to say something, to protest: You can't take your shirt off in the synagogue!

But as the shirt fell from the man's shoulders, it revealed hundreds of scars; years upon years of deep scars... each one because the man refused to forsake the G‑d of Israel.

Reb Mordechai gasped and tears ran from his eyes.

The Cantonist then raised his hands to G‑d and said in a loud voice.

"G‑d... Send us Moshiach! Redeem the Jewish people now!

"I'm not asking for the sake of our families, because we don't have any families.

"I'm not asking for the sake of our futures, because we have no futures.

"I'm not asking for the sake of our livelihoods or our comfort, or our children, or our reputations, because we don't have any of those things either.

"We're just asking: Assey l'maan shemecha — Do it for Your sake!"

And then he put on his shirt and began the prayer.

A popular teacher, musician and storyteller, Rabbi Tuvia Bolton is co-director of Yeshiva Ohr Tmimim in Kfar Chabad, Israel, and a senior lecturer there.
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ruth housman marshfield, ma September 24, 2012

for sake & forsaken I find this a powerfully moving story. I think the duality of meaning in these two words very deep. I think ultimately for the sake of an amazing story that only G-d could write, a story that encloses all life, all aspects if creativity with a Divine Signature, upon the opening of this story , involving consciousness itself, we will perceive we were never forsaken. It's coming. The keys are in the words rhemselves, dancing & deconstructing across Babel. It is an apicalyptic story that is dazzling in its scope, its intelligence and profundity. Reply

Igerne Paris, France April 13, 2010

Thank you Rabbi Thank you for sharing this story with us
There's the whole beauty of Israel in those lines -despite the suffering, despite the wrongs done to us, we remain blissfully happy to be Jews, to be the children of the Holy One Blessed Be He...
We are blissful of being who we are! Reply

an inspired jewess Caracas September 23, 2009

thank you for sharing this One of my favorite stories that gives me chills time and time again. So many lessons to be learned.

We want moshiach now! Reply

Steven Finer Baltimore, MD/USA January 20, 2006

The cantonists Dear Rabbi Bolton,
Thank you for sharing this lesson in bitachon. I have no idea what else to say, only please share moer such inspiring stories of the cantonists with the public. Sincerely, Reply

H. Hudspeth July 29, 2004

I felt humbled after I read this. And then I thought - how fortunate each Jew is because he's a Jew. I imagined asking the majority of Jews if they wished they were members of the gentile world at any time, past or present, and the ' no ' I heard inside of me was so predominant that I could hear nothing else or other.


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