“A person was wrapping himself in his Tallit …” (Gemara Niddah 5b)

Once, a new groom wished to make a completely fresh start in his religious practice. He yearned to connect to God through his day-to-day Mitzvah observance, starting with donning his Tallit the day after his wedding. But there was so much he could consider when putting on his Tallit, and he was unsure where his Kavanah (intense concentration) should be: should he be focusing on remembering God, on recalling all of His Mitzvot, or specifically the Mitzvah of Tzitzit? He finally decided to ask Rav Yisrael Salanter what he should think of while fulfilling this Mitzvah, and the response was: “First and foremost, be careful not to smack your friend with the Tallit accidentally!”1

On his way to get water for Netilat Yadayim, a student passed through some rooms in which people were sleeping. “Netilat Yadayim is a Mitzvah instituted by our Sages,” commented Rav Yisrael, “but robbing others of their sleep is forbidden by the Torah.”2 On another occasion a disciple began davenning a spirited Amidah whilst standing by the open window on a hot day. Rav Yisrael scolded him for blocking the air for the other people in Shul.

Further common cases of misguided religious observance, where insufficient attention is given to others’ sensitivities, arise during the Amidah where a congregant obstructs the exit, a slow davenner blocks passage of other congregants, or those finishing take large steps backwards without checking not to stand on someone’s foot. Yet another classic scenario can occur when the Torah is brought out. It is certainly praiseworthy to kiss the Torah, but if one is likely to push or shove others on the way then the act of kissing the Torah is obviously overridden by the requirement not to risk harming our fellow Jew.

It happened once that Rav Yisrael Salanter was unable to be present when his Shemurah Matzah was being baked. Knowing that he took the greatest pains to observe all the finer points involved in the baking of the Matzah, his disciples had undertaken to supervise for him in his absence. They asked for his instructions. What should they be most careful to watch? Rav Yisrael ordered them to be especially careful not to distress the woman kneading the dough in their zeal, since she was an unfortunate widow, and they would thereby transgress the prohibition: “You shall not oppress a widow.”3

Once, Rav Yisrael Salanter and his friend Rav Mordechai Meltzer were walking through the narrow streets of Vilna. They stopped and entered a Shul to join in the Minchah service. Rav Mordechai poured a copious stream of water over his hands while Rav Yisrael, by contrast, merely moistened his hands, hardly using any water at all.

Astonished, Rav Mordechai inquired: “Do you not, Sir, observe the custom of washing before praying?”

“Indeed, I do,” replied Rav Yisrael. “But I see here that the Shul is frequented by a limited number of worshippers. Visitors do not usually come here. The Shamash certainly intended to provide just enough water for the regular worshippers. If we waste a large quantity, the deficiency will be felt by one of the congregants. He will upbraid the Shamash and withhold the few pennies that he normally gives. Consequently, we would be guilty of denying the Shamash his livelihood.”4

1.       Torat Rabbi Yisrael

2.       Zaitchik, Sparks of Mussar p21

3.       Shemot 22:21


4.       The Mussar Movement, Volume 1, Part 2, p219-221

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