In the city of Vilna there was a street that was off-limits for Jews. A seminary for budding young priests dominated the cobblestoned street, and any Jew who was caught walking there by its students risked being beaten to within an inch of his life. Jews got around by taking long detours or by praying silently in the dark of the night, running as fast as their legs could carry them. Only two Jews, a tailor and his sixteen-year-old apprentice, lived on the forbidden street. The tailor juggled two different jobs. Besides sewing and mending the priests’ clothing, he managed a small restaurant on the first floor of his home. Because of his usefulness, the young priest made the tailor an exception and allowed him to stay.

It was a wintry night, one that covered the city with snow and buffeted it with icy winds, forcing a small funeral procession to make its way toward to the cemetery with great difficulty. Freezing and desperate to finish the burial, the funeral party turned onto the forbidden street instead of circling around it and delaying their return home, hoping that the pitch-black darkness and inescapable frost would hide them from the windows of the notorious seminary. Or so they thought. They barely reached the middle of the street when a gang of seminary students ambushed them from the shadows with flying fists and kicks.

Scared to death, the small funeral party scattered, leaving the dead body in the middle of the street, surrounded by the seminary students.

Although it was warm and cozy inside his house, the tailor’s apprentice felt a chill run down his spine as he watched with horror the brawl that unfolded outside. Quickly, he threw on some clothing so that the students would not recognize him, and after shouting to the tailor that he was going out, he raced outside and leapt into the fight. Under the cover of the dark street, he pummeled any student that happened to be under his fist. He left many of them bruised and bleeding. Overwhelmed, the students fled, abandoning him and the body. The apprentice lost no time and hoisted the body over his shoulder, running all the way to the cemetery to perform the burial. Cold and alone, and with just a shovel, the apprentice buried the body and returned home. No one, despite the students’ rage and the government’s unsuccessful inquiry, knew who the mysterious fighter was, and for the next few years the incident remained a mystery.

It was, ironically, the apprentice’s own fault that his secret was revealed. His misstep happened during the seminary students’ visit to the small restaurant run by the tailor, their warm retreat away from school and a chance to enjoy food and some gossip.

That day, the apprentice was occupied with serving their food, busily bustling back and forth to and from the kitchen. Although the apprentice never listened to their conversations, the mention of the incident that had occurred a few years earlier caused him to strain his ears. Broaching the topic, the students’ excited chatter instantly turned moody. For them, the incident and the lack of police progress was a source of annoyance. No one at the table held back from angrily venting his speculations for the hundredth time. The indistinct and forced arguing, emphasized by finger pointing, persuaded the apprentice that he was suspected, and he collapsed on the floor, immobilized by fear.

The clatter silenced the students, and they stared at the unconscious apprentice. Perhaps he knew something about the incident that had frightened him into unconsciousness?

They tied him up and imprisoned him in a dark and imposing fortress. At first, they pleaded with the apprentice to divulge his knowledge, promising to let him go if he did. The apprentice ardently refused, sensing that his confession would be his death. Their pleas grew into intimidations of torture, and then they finally began inflicting their sadistic threats. Every man has a limit to how long he can withhold information under torture, even the tailor's apprentice.

From behind his prison cell bars, the apprentice stared at his unexpected and bizarre visitor. Although it had been a few years since the apprentice had last seen him, and under odd circumstances, the dead man that he had buried with his very own hands stood in front of him, waiting.

“I have come to return the favor for your kindness and unselfishness,” the dead man spoke. “Come. I’ll take you on my shoulders. This way, I can rescue you.”

The apprentice climbed on the dead man’s shoulders, and the pair sprinted out of the stronghold unobserved. They continued in this manner, their journey spanning the countryside for a long time before the dead man dropped off the apprentice in an unfamiliar city. The apprentice did not know anyone there, but in need of a job, he eventually started working as a waiter, employed by one of the local Jewish restaurant owners.

Meanwhile, back in Vilna, the strange disappearance of the apprentice from the stronghold was soon discovered. The police, who had been summoned by the students to question him, found an empty cell. It was like the apprentice had vanished into thin air.

As was common throughout Europe at the time, Vilna had enacted a particular law regarding the height of its buildings: the church had to be the tallest building in the city. The city council permitted buildings that were built before the law was legislated to remain standing. But any building built after that had to be destroyed or shortened.

This was the source of a disagreement between the church and one of the wealthy residents of Vilna, the latter claiming to have begun the construction of his building before the existence of the law. Both sides bickered for some time without finding a resolution. Exasperated, the wealthy man decided to travel to the capital to try to persuade the princes and dukes there to support his side. On his way there, the wealthy man stopped in an unfamiliar city and couldn’t believe his luck when he saw the tailor’s apprentice there. The wealthy man quickly concocted a plan. Why continue his journey to the capital to doubtfully influence the officials when it was possible to reveal the location of the church’s fugitive? As the ultimate reward, the church would certainly drop their charges against him.

Giddy, the wealthy man returned home and immediately informed the church of the suspect’s location. Guided by the wealthy man, a group of policemen set out to the city. But before their arrival, the dead man once again visited the apprentice and told him what awaited him. Rather than facing his captors again, the apprentice followed the dead man to a different country, abandoning Lithuania altogether.

This time, he lived in safety and security for the rest of his days.

Our patriarch Jacob called the burying of the dead “a true kindness,” true because one expects no payment or even thanks from the beneficiary. The tailor’s apprentice never imagined in his wildest dreams that his selfless moment of kindness to the dead would result in his own escape from death.

Adapted from Shemout Vesippurim Vol. 1, page 289