Among the most important duties of the community rabbis of old was to help women whose husbands were presumed dead to establish their widowhood and remarry. This required a great deal of wisdom, for should the deadbeat husband be alive, the woman’s remarriage would be a sin and her children mamzerim (bastards). On the other hand, to help a “bound” woman remarry whenever possible was surely a great mitzvah, and even shaky evidence of death was carefully considered.

The following account was related to Rabbi Yosef Kadanir by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Zolkind, rabbi of Daugavpils (Dvinsk), Latvia.

In his youth, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (later known as the Tzemach Tzedek) was a student under my tutelage for about three months.

Years later, after he assumed the leadership, it was my turn to ask for his guidance. Any difficult questions that I was approached with, complex monetary cases or other cases which I was unsure of, were immediately sent to him via mail. Usually, he would respond in a timely fashion.

Once, a woman came to me, seeking permission to remarry several years after her husband had disappeared without a trace. I looked into her case and found much reason to assume her husband was long dead. However, something held me back. I didn’t want to proceed based on my reasoning alone, so I found myself writing a letter to Rabbi Menachem Mendel.

To my surprise, no answer arrived within the expected timeframe. Surely he must have been busy with serious communal matters and had no time to respond, I thought.

Once again, I put my opinion in writing and begged him to respond as soon as possible, as the woman was sitting by my doorstep all day, her wails tugging incessantly at my heartstrings. But I still received no answer.

I wished to leave the matter alone, but the woman’s cries continued from day to day. I wrote a third letter, imploring the rabbi to study the issue for even a short while, or at least explain why he had not responded to my previous letters.

But no letter arrived. Never had this happened before.

A few days later, fire ravaged our town. Curious to see the aftermath, the woman walked over to the site and found her husband standing close to the wreckage as well! After recovering from the shock of their unhappy reunion, the two came to me, and the husband gave his wife the divorce she so desperately sought.

“What are you doing here?” I asked the husband.

“In reality, I have nothing to do here,” said the man. “I was some miles away from here when I began walking in the direction of Dvinsk for no particular reason.”

After that incident, Rabbi Menachem Mendel once again resumed his prompt correspondence through mail as always.

From Sippurim Noraim, p. 173.