In the city of Krakow, Poland, there lived a rich Jew by the name of Israel who was famous for his stinginess. The local beggars had long since given up trying to knock at his door. All attempts by the trustees of the community’s various charity funds to elicit at least a token contribution from him were met with polite but adamant refusals.

Israel’s utter heartlessness outraged and mystified the Jews of Krakow. From the days of Abraham, charity had been the hallmark of the Jew; in 17th-century Europe, where Jews were subject to frequent confiscations of their property and expulsions from their homes, it was essential to the community’s very survival that those of means should aid their impoverished fellows. How could a Jew be so indifferent to the needs of his brothers and sisters? People started referring to the rich miser in their midst as “Israel Goy,”1 and the epithet stuck.

Years passed, and the rich man grew old and frail. One day, the Krakow burial society received a summons to Israel’s home. “I feel that my days are numbered,” he told them when they came, “and I would like to discuss with you my burial arrangements. I have already had shrouds sewn for me, and I’ve hired a man to recite the kaddish for my soul. There is just one thing remaining: I need to purchase a plot for my grave.”

The members of the burial society decided that this was their opportunity to collect the debt owed by Israel to the community. “As you know,” they said to him, “there is no set price for a cemetery plot. Each Jew pays according to his ability, and the money is used for charitable purposes. Since you are a wealthy man, and since—if you will excuse our bluntness—you have not been very forthcoming over the years in sharing the burdens of the community, we think it appropriate to charge you 1000 gulden.”

The rich man calmly replied: “For my deeds I shall be judged in the heavenly court. It is not for you to judge what I did or did not do in the course of my life. I had planned to pay 100 guldens for my plot—quite a respectable sum—and that is what I shall pay, not a penny more. I’m not asking for any special location or a fancy gravestone. Bury me where you see fit. I have just one request: on my gravestone, I want it to be inscribed ‘Here lies Israel Goy.’”

The members of the society exchanged glances: was the old man out of his mind? They spent a few more minutes at his bedside, hoping to secure at least a modest sum for the community poor, but finally left his house in exasperation.

The entire town was abuzz with this latest show of miserliness by “Israel Goy.” How low can a man sink! Even at death’s door, he’s hoarding his wealth, refusing to share his blessings with the needy.

Israel’s funeral was a sorry affair. It was difficult to even scrape together the needed quorum of ten to conduct a proper Jewish burial. He was buried off to a side, on the outskirts of the cemetery. No eulogies were held, for what could be said of such a man?

The following Thursday evening, the was a knock on the door of the chief rabbi of Krakow, the famed Rabbi Yomtov Lipman Heller (1579–1654, known as the author of Tosefot Yom Tov). In the doorway stood a man who explained that he had nothing with which to purchase wine, candles, challah and food for Shabbat. The rabbi gave him a few coins from his private charity fund and wished him a “Good Shabbat.”

A few minutes later there was another knock on the door, heralding a similar request. A third petitioner followed, and then a forth and a fifth. Within the hour, no less than twenty families came to ask for the rabbi’s aid to meet their Shabbat expenses. The rabbi was mystified: nothing like this had happened before in all his years in Krakow. Why this sudden plague of poverty?

Rabbi Heller called an emergency meeting of the trustees of the community’s charity funds, but they could not explain the phenomenon. They, too, had been deluged with hundreds of requests for aid in the last few hours. The communal coffers had been virtually emptied!

As if on cue, there was another knock on the door. “Tell me,” asked the rabbi after handing a few coins to the latest petitioner, “how did you manage until now? What did you do last week?”

“We bought on credit at the grocer’s,” replied the pauper. “Whenever we needed food and did not have with what to pay, the merchant said it was not a problem—he just wrote it down in his ledger. He didn’t even bother us about payment. But now he says that that arrangement is over.”

Investigation revealed that hundreds of families in Krakow had subsisted this way—up to now. For some reason, none of the grocers, fishmongers and butchers were willing to extend credit any longer to the town’s poor.

The rabbi called the town’s food merchants to his study and demanded to know what was going on. At first they refused to tell him. But Rabbi Heller was adamant. “You’re not leaving this room,” he insisted, “until you tell me what this is all about.”

Finally, the truth came out. For years, Israel had supported hundreds of the poorest families in Krakow. Every week the town’s merchants would present the bill to him, and he paid in full. His only condition was that not a soul, not even their closest family members, should know. “If any one of you breathes a word of this to anyone,” he threatened, “you won’t see another copper from me ever again.”

Rabbi Yomtov Lipman was shattered. Such a special person had lived in their midst, and they, in their haste to judge him, had insulted him and reviled him.

The rabbi announced that the shloshim (30th-day anniversary of the passing) of Israel shall be a public fast day. All adults will neither eat nor drink from morning to evening, and all will gather at the cemetery to beg forgiveness from the deceased.

The rabbi himself eulogized Israel. “You,” he cried, “fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity) in its most perfect form—without taking any credit for the deed, and ensuring that no recipient of your generosity should ever stand ashamed before his benefactor or feel indebted to him. And we repaid you with derision and scorn . . .” The rabbi expressed the wish that when his own time came, he should be laid to rest next to Israel. “We buried you near the fence, like an outcast, but I shall consider it a great honor and privilege to be buried near you!”

The rabbi also instructed that the rich man’s last wish be fulfilled. On the marker raised above the grave were etched the words “Here lies Israel Goy.” However, one word was added to the inscription—the word kadosh, “holy one.” And so the inscription reads to this day on the gravestone adjoining that of the famed Rabbi Yomtov Lipman Heller in the old Jewish cemetery of Krakow: “Here lies Israel Goy Kadosh.”2