Why is it that in a time of need, some have the custom to give charity for Israel (called tzedakah of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness) and pray, “G‑d of Rabbi Meir, answer me!”

Who is Rabbi Meir and what is the deal with that prayer?


As you describe, when people are faced with a challenging situation and are in need of personal salvation, there is a custom to donate to charity and say, “I pledge this money in the merit of the soul of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness [the ‘Master of Miracles’].” They then repeat three times: “G‑d of [Rabbi1] Meir, answer me! G‑d of [Rabbi] Meir, answer me! G‑d of [Rabbi] Meir, answer me!” This custom is quoted in Keter Shem Tov (from Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov),2 as well as in many other works.3 Indeed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, would often encourage people to give specifically to the charity of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness.4

What exactly is that?

In common parlance, this refers to charity donated to the poor of the Land of Israel, since some contend that Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508–1593) and Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488–1575) issued a decree that any money donated in the merit of Rabbi Meir should go solely to the poor of Israel. Others, however, are of the opinion that since there is no known record that these two illustrious rabbis ever issued such a decree, one is permitted to use monies donated in his merit for other charitable causes (provided, of course, that one didn’t specify a charity at the time he pledged to donate).5

It has become the custom that charities earmarked for the poor in Israel bear the name of “Rabbi Meir Baal Haness.” Indeed, the oldest continuously running charity for the poor in Israel, Colel Chabad, which was established in 1788 by the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, bears the name and is in the merit of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness.

The G‑d of Rabbi Meir

Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (known as the Chida, 1724–1806) explains6 that the source for the custom to call out in times of danger, “G‑d of Rabbi Meir, answer me!” comes from the following incident recorded in the Talmud:

When the Romans found Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon engaging in teaching Torah in public, they barbarically executed him and condemned one of his daughters to a life of shame in a brothel. Beruriah, another daughter of Rabbi Chanina, appealed to her husband, Rabbi Meir, to save her sister.

She said to her husband: “It is a disrespectful matter for me that my sister is sitting in a brothel; you must do something to save her.” Rabbi Meir took a vessel full of dinars and went. He said to himself: “If no transgression was committed with her, a miracle will be performed for her; if she committed a transgression, no miracle will be performed for her.” Rabbi Meir went and dressed as a Roman knight, and said to her: “Accede to my wishes (i.e., engage in intercourse with me).” She said to him: “I am menstruating [dashtana] and cannot.” He said to her: “I will wait.” She said to him: “There are many women in the brothel, and there are many women here who are more beautiful than I.” He said to himself: “I can conclude from her responses that she did not commit a transgression, as she presumably said this to all who come.”

Rabbi Meir went over to her guard, and said to him: “Give her to me.” The guard said to him: “I fear that if I do so, I will be punished by the government.” Rabbi Meir said to him: “Take this vessel full of dinars; give half to the government as a bribe, and half will be for you.” The guard said to him: ‘But when the money is finished, what shall I do?” Rabbi Meir said to him: “Say: ‘G‑d of Meir, answer me!’ And you will be saved.” The guard said to him: “And who can say that this is the case, that I will be saved by this utterance?” Rabbi Meir said to him: “You will now see.”

There were these carnivorous dogs that would devour people; Rabbi Meir took a clod of earth, threw it at them, and when they came to devour him, he said: “G‑d of Meir, answer me!” The dogs then left him alone. After seeing this, the guard gave the daughter of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon to Rabbi Meir.

Ultimately, the matter was heard in the king’s court, and the guard, who was brought and taken to be hanged, called out: “G‑d of Meir, answer me!” They then lowered him down, as they were unable to hang him. They said to him: “What is this?” He said to them: “This was the incident that occurred.” And he proceeded to relate the entire story to them.

They then went and engraved the image of Rabbi Meir at the entrance of Rome where it would be seen by everyone, and they said: “Anyone who sees a man with this face should bring him here.” One day, Romans saw Rabbi Meir and ran after him, and he ran away from them and entered a brothel to hide. Some say he then escaped capture because he saw food cooked by gentiles and dipped [temash] this finger in the food and tasted it with the other finger, and thereby fooled them into thinking that he was eating their food, which they knew Rabbi Meir would not do. And some say that he escaped detection because Elijah came, appeared to them as a prostitute and embraced Rabbi Meir. The Romans who were chasing him said: “Heaven forbid, if this were Rabbi Meir, he would not act in that manner.” Rabbi Meir arose, fled, and arrived in Babylonia.7

But what is the reasoning behind this seemingly strange prayer? Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai goes on to quote the kabbalist, Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano (1548–1620), who explains that the supplicant's intention is that he accedes to whatever the lofty intentions were behind Rabbi Meir's own prayer to the Almighty.8

Children of G‑d

So why do we give charity with Rabbi Meir Baal Haness in mind?

We find a fascinating story in the Talmud in which Rabbi Akiva is questioned on the mere allowance of giving charity:

Turnus Rufus the Wicked asked Rabbi Akiva: “If your G‑d loves the poor, for what reason does He not support them Himself?” Rabbi Akiva said to him: “He commands us to sustain the poor, so that through them and the charity we give them, we will be saved from the judgment of Gehenna.” Turnus Rufus said to Rabbi Akiva: “On the contrary, it is this charity which condemns you, the Jewish people, to Gehenna because you give it. I will illustrate this to you with a parable. To what is this matter comparable? To a king who was angry with his slave and put him in prison and ordered that he should not be fed or given to drink. And one person went ahead and fed him and gave him to drink. If the king heard about this, would he not be angry with that person? And you, after all, are called slaves, as it is stated: ‘For the children of Israel are slaves to Me.’9

Rabbi Akiva said to Turnus Rufus: “I will illustrate the opposite to you with a different parable. To what is this matter comparable? To a mortal king who was angry with his son and put him in prison and ordered that he should not be fed or given to drink. And one person went ahead and fed him and gave him to drink. If the king heard about this once his anger abated, would he not react by sending that person a gift? And we are called sons, as it is written: ‘You are sons of the L‑rd your G‑d.’10” Turnus Rufus said to him: “You are called sons and you are called slaves. When you fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, you are called sons; when you do not fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, you are called slaves. And since now you do not fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, the parable that I offered is more apt.”

Rabbi Akiva said to him: “The verse states: ‘Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you shall bring the poor that are cast out to your house?’11 When do we bring the poor that are cast out into our houses? Now, when we have to billet the Roman soldiers in our homes; and about that very time, the verse states: ‘Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?’”12

The upshot of this story: If we are compared to slaves of G‑d, then there is perhaps a question about the “permissibility” of giving charity. If, however, we are compared to G‑d’s children, then there is no problem.

However, Rabbi Meir states in the Talmud that regardless of our actions, regardless of whether we are deserving, we are always considered His children.13 Based on this, we give charity in the name and merit of Rabbi Meir, who sees us as the “king’s children,” always worthy of receiving charity and always in the right for giving.14

Hope for the Minority

Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira of Munkacs (the Minchat Elazar, 1868–1937) offers another interesting explanation for why we mention Rabbi Meir in times of danger. With regard to various halachot, the presumption in the Talmud is that the majority of sick people continue to live and recover from their illnesses, while the majority of moribund people proceed to die.15

However, Rabbi Meir is of the opinion that we don’t just look at the majority of incidents; rather, we also account for minority cases.16 Thus, according to Rabbi Meir, even if one is in a situation where he may be considered on his deathbed, we still would not consider him destined for death.17

Rabbi Meir Continues to Pray

It is said of Rabbi Meir that before his death, he requested that he be buried in an upright, standing position.18 When the Torah uses the term “standing,” it refers to standing in prayer;19 thus, Rabbi Meir continues to pray for us, especially when we mention his name and donate charity in his merit.20

The Talmud tells us that “it is revealed and known before G‑d that in the generation of Rabbi Meir, there was no one of the Sages who [was] his equal. Why then didn’t the Sages establish the halachah in accordance with his opinion? It is because his colleagues were unable to ascertain the profundity of his opinion.”21 Nevertheless, some commentaries explain that when Moshiach comes, the Torah scholars will finally appreciate the depth of wisdom in Rabbi Meir's rulings, and the halachah will be decided in accordance with his opinion.22 May it be speedily in our days!