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Stories of Tzaddikim and Gedolei Torah
From The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism by Rabbi David Sears

There once was a good, honest man in whose home the holy Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) stayed as a guest. The host served him with great honor. As the holy Ari was leaving to resume his journey, he asked, "How may I repay you for the great love you have shown me?" The householder answered that after bearing several children, his wife had become barren. Perhaps [the Ari] could suggest some remedy so that his wife could bear children again.

The Ari then told the man why his wife had become barren. "You know that there was a small ladder standing in your house, upon which the little chickens used to go up and down in order to drink water from a bowl nearby. Thus did they drink and quench their thirst. Once your wife told her servant girl to take the ladder away. Although she did not mean to afflict the chickens but only to clean the house, from the day she removed that ladder, the chickens suffered greatly and had to endure extreme thirst. Their cries ascended before the Holy One, blessed be He, Who pities all of His creatures. That is why it was decreed that she become barren."

The householder returned the ladder to its former place, the Holy One, blessed be He, caused his wife to conceive, and she bore children again (Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kaidanover, Kav HaYashar 7:20).

It happened in our own generation that our master, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi (the holy Ari), once looked at the face of a certain Torah scholar and told the man that he had committed the sin of causing suffering to animals (tza'ar baalei chaim). Deeply upset, the Torah scholar looked into the matter until he discovered that his wife had neglected to feed their chickens that morning, but had merely let them into the yard and the street to fend for themselves. He earnestly instructed her to prepare kneaded bran and water for them every morning. Then, having rectified the problem, he returned to the Rabbi. When the Rabbi looked at him, he said, "Your transgression has disappeared - what happened?" Then the man explained everything that had transpired (Rabbi Elazar Azkari, Sefer Chareidim 4:1).

Rabbi Israel Salanter, a famous nineteenth century Orthodox Rabbi, failed to appear one Yom Kippur eve to chant the sacred Kol Nidrei prayer. His congregation became concerned, for it was inconceivable that their saintly rabbi would be late or absent on this very holy day. They sent out a search party to look for him. After much time, their rabbi was found in the barn of a Christian neighbor. On his way to the synagogue, Rabbi Salanter had come upon one of his neighbor's calves, lost and tangled in the brush. Seeing that the animal was in distress, he freed it and led it through many fields and over many hills. This act of mercy represented the rabbi's prayers on that Yom Kippur evening (S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe).

[One of those deported to the Nazi death camps] was a poor man who had earned his livelihood by raising chickens: the accomplished Talmud scholar, Rabbi Isaac Rosensweig. He cried out beseechingly from the window of the death train to his tormentors, who had a great laugh and spat at him. How could these "merciful Christians" comprehend the request of this "cruel Jew,"[1] surrounded by his wife and little children, who plaintively begged his oppressors, "Go to my house and give the chickens food and water, for they have not touched food or water for a whole day!" Then Rabbi Isaac noticed his comrade, Rabbi Moshe Yudah Tziltz, who had not yet been summoned by the authorities, standing at a distance. With a great cry he called out to him, "Afflicting animals is forbidden by Torah law! Give the chickens food and water!" (Rabbi Michoel Ber Weismandel, Min HaMeitzar, p. 32).

Once, while traveling from his native Poland to Israel, Rabbi Ephraim of Pshedbarz (1880-1946), author of Oneg Shabbos, entered the barn in which he and several companions were quartered and found a rooster asleep on his bed of straw. A comrade observed that the young scholar left and returned several times during the next hour until the rooster awoke of its own accord and vacated its place. Then Rabbi Ephraim went to sleep. So sensitive to the feelings of others was Rabbi Ephraim that he even placed the comfort of a rooster above his own (Oral Tradition, Chassidei Breslov).

Despite his aura of fear of God, Rabbi Eliyahu [Lopian, author of the contemporary Mussar classic, Lev Eliyahu,] always exuded gentleness and love, not only to other human beings who are "created in the Divine Image," but to animals as well. Once he noticed a lost kitten that had taken refuge in the yeshivah of Kfar Chassidim. Immediately he became this kitten's patron and concerned himself with all its needs. Those who knew about this and witnessed it were amazed at how gently he placed a saucer of milk before the purring kitten every morning, and with what pleasure he watched it take each sip from the milk (Rabbi Aharon Soraski, Marbitzei Torah U'Mussar IV, 165).

When he was a student at the Mirrer Yeshiva, the gaon (master Talmudist) Reb Refoel Dovid Auerbach was a frequent visitor at the home of Chassidic luminary Reb Shlom'ke of Z'vihl (1869-1945). He went on the urging of his father, the gaon Reb Chaim, who was convinced that the greatest miracle-worker of their generation was Reb Shlom'ke.

Once when Reb Refoel Dovid knocked on Reb Shlom'ke's door, he was greeted by Reb Shlom'ke's devoted Chassid, Reb Eliyahu Roth. The latter was the only one in the house, as Reb Shlom'ke had gone out. Reb Eliyahu took Reb Refoel Dovid on a small "tour" of Reb Shlom'ke's humble abode, where grinding poverty and destitution were apparent in every corner. Among other sorrowful sights was Reb Shlom'ke's bed, where row upon row of moths converged.

Reb Eliyahu explained that he had wanted to buy some poison to exterminate the moths, but had been stopped by Reb Shlom'ke, who insisted that spraying them would be an act of tza'ar baalei chayim (causing pain to living creatures). In vain, Reb Eliyahu tried to convince Reb Shlom'ke that the moths might harm him, but Reb Shlom'ke only declared, "I have an agreement with these moths. In return for my not killing them, they do not harm me!" (Memoir of Rabbi Yisrael Hazeh, Sochatchover Chassid and disciple of R. Eliyahu Lopian, adapted from HaModia (English Ed.), Iyar 28 5759/May 14, 1999).

Once on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, the celebrated Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, could not find the key to the chicken-coop and was unable to feed the birds. He did not eat until a non-Jew was found, who broke the lock and fed them[2] (Oral tradition cited in Rabbi Yoel Schwartz's V'Rachamav Al Kol Ma'asav, p. 62).

[Master Lithuanian Talmudist Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, best known as the Chazon Ish, 1878-1953, showed compassion for animals even during his youth.] Once an animal of a non?kosher species fell into a deep pit and was trapped without means of escape. [The young scholar] felt the animal's anguish in his heart. Therefore, he lowered himself into the depths of the pit and set it free (Shlomo Cohen, Pe'er HaDor, Part I, p. 175).

One summer, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector (1817-1896) was vacationing outside Kovno. Every day Rabbi Yaakov Lipschutz took the ferry and brought him all the she'eilos (questions concerning matters of Jewish law) that had come in the mail. Reb Yitzchak Elchanan would immediately write his teshuvos (rulings) and give them to Rabbi Lipschutz to take them back to Kovno and mail them.

One day, Reb Yitzchak Elchanan came chasing after Rabbi Lipschutz who was already on the boat, "Reb Yaakov! Reb Yaakov!"

Concerned, Rabbi Lipschutz ran toward Reb Yitzchak Elchanan and asked what was the matter.

"I forgot to tell you that there is a cat that has been coming around outside the house, and I have been giving it a bowl of milk every day. Now that I am on vacation, no one is taking care of it. Please be my substitute until I return, and give it the milk" (The Story of Rav Yitzchak Elchanan).

At one time it happened that in a certain region there was an outbreak of fatal cattle disease. One old farmer who used to fatten cattle for the market saw that several of his oxen showed dangerous symptoms, and decided to set out to spend Shabbos in Ziditchov [in the court of the tzaddik, Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik, 1804-1872]. On Friday night, when the time came for the tzaddik to deliver his regular derashah (Torah discourse), all the Chassidim present pressed forward, tense and eager, the better to hear his every word. And this old man, though preoccupied with the troubles that brought him there and not really interested in the learned words of the tzaddik, nevertheless pushed his way in as vigorously as the best of them - for was this not a time-honored custom? Reb Yitzchak Eizik now began to expound the verse, "You, God, will save both man and animal" (Psalms 36:7).

As soon as he heard these words, the old farmer said to himself: "The Rebbe no doubt went to the trouble of explaining this verse only for my sake. For sure, God will save both man and animal!"

Returning to his farm, he found that of all his cattle not one had died: the epidemic had ceased (Rabbi Shlomo Zevin, A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Torah, Vol. I, Bo, trans. Uri Kaploun, New York: Mesorah, 1980 ).

In the courtyard of Chassidic master Rabbi Nosson Dovid of Shidlovitz (d. 1865) hundreds of doves nested. Whenever the Rebbe leaned his head out of an open window, they would all flock to him in a great tumult of activity - and he would do with them whatever he would do.

It once happened on Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year), as the Rebbe ascended the raised platform prior to the sounding of the Shofar (Ram's Horn), that a dove flew into the synagogue through an opened window, and perched on the reader's table. The Rebbe gazed intently at the bird, and then asked that a bowl of water be placed in front of it. However, due to the incline of the reader's table, it was impossible do so. Therefore, the Rebbe removed his shtreimel (fur-trimmed hat), and placed the bowl upon it at the proper angle, so that the dove could drink.

At last, the time came for the Rebbe of Shidlovitz to leave this world. However, as soon as his holy soul ascended from the body, an amazing thing happened: all the doves immediately flew away from the courtyard, and disappeared forever. Who can fathom the secrets of the tzaddikim?[3] (Alim L'Terufah, 5 Marcheshvan 5757/1996, citing Tiferes Avos-Biala).


[1] R. Weismandel bitterly alludes to the traditional Christian critique by which Jews and Judaism often were denigrated. In many places, Jewish children still are subjected to the same taunts from their schoolmates about the "Jewish God of Justice" as compared to the "Christian God of Mercy." Due to reformers within both the Protestant and Catholic churches, these anti-Semitic slurs are less frequently encountered today.
[2] As an observant Jew, he was forbidden to break the lock himself, due to the sanctity of the holiday.
[3] R. Moshe of Ujheli, Yismach Moshe, Noach, s.v. "V'hinei HaGaon Baal Tevu'as Shor," pp. 142b-143a, discusses the teaching of the Ari z"l that the souls of tzaddikim sometimes reincarnate as doves or other birds of a kosher species, whereas the souls of the wicked sometimes reincarnate as birds of a non-kosher species. The latter are typically predators (Chullin 59a).

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