The first two defining stories about R’ Salanter occurred on Yom Kippur, and
they both underscore his ability to discern and stick to first principles
despite misunderstandings that might have brought on.
Because Yom Kippur is so holy and fraught with personal import, consequence,
and meaning, most of us concentrate on our own spiritual needs then and pull
away from other things. And we’re likely to be absorbed in the specific
requirements of the Holy Day without giving thought to other, likewise
So we’re told that on one Yom Kippur eve R’ Salanter didn't appear in the
synagogue, which surprised and perturbed many. What had happened was that
he'd heard a baby crying when the baby's mother left him to pray, so R'
Salanter stayed with the baby until the mother came back, and prayed there
himself. The point is that rather than concentrate on his own needs (i.e.,
to pray in a congregation, to illustrate to others there the sobriety of the
moment, and frankly, to please his congregants), R’ Salanter chose to
concentrate on someone else’s needs, which is an exceedingly important
principle in Mussar.
For, while the religious demands of the day are vitally important as far as
each individual is concerned, others’ needs -- in this case, those of an
utterly dependant baby -- very often matter more. The larger issue that R’
Salanter was underscoring then is that if we’re only to care for our own
needs on the holiest day of the year, how dare we demand that G-d Almighty
care for our needs?
The other Yom Kippur tale taught a lesson about first principles, too.
Cholera is a dread and terribly incapacitating disease, and it was rampant
one particular year in that area of Europe where R’ Salanter and his
congregants lived. Anyone who suffered from it could easily become
seriously, mortally ill; and one had to replenish fluids and nutrients to
replace those lost in the course of the illness in order to get well.
But on Yom Kippur? To eat and drink when, as everyone knows, the Torah
forbids that? Wouldn’t it be in our best interests to fast then anyway, and
to pray that G-d have mercy on us?
R’ Salanter took another tact. In order to prevent tragedy and forestall the
rapid deterioration of those who’d be exposed to cholera, R’ Salanter forbad
his congregants from fasting that year (to ensure their resistance to the
disease), he ordered that the prayer service be shortened (so no one would
tire himself out and be more susceptible to it), and he ordered that people
hold services in the open air rather than in the synagogue (so that no one
come into close contact with others and thus not to spread the disease). In
fact, after the Morning Prayer R' Salanter himself ascended the pulpit with
a piece of cake in hand, said Kiddush over wine, and ate and drank in
Knowing full well that actively avoiding a danger to one’s life trumps
nearly everything else according to the Torah, as most observant Jews know,
still and all the stark application of that in the course of the Holy Day of
Yom Kippur seemed to belittle the moment. So some people looked askance at
what he did. But R’ Salanter knew that what needed to be done and what
mattered most of all rather than what we’d ordinarily be expected to do had
to be done, so he set out to do it despite appearances.