One mitzva leads to another. The following happened in
the days of the Gaon of Vilna.
It was erev Pesach. The preparations for the seder
were in high gear. The Gaon of Vilna would be spending the
festival in a small town near Pinsk, but, oblivious to the
activity around him, he was occupied in his study. On his
calendar, erev Pesach was a regular day, and as soon
as he finished his short preparations for the coming
festival, he headed for the beis midrash.
It was deserted. Not a single soul seemed to be there.
Suddenly, however, the Gaon spied someone ensconced in a
hidden corner, enveloped in tallis and
tefillin, studying with great fervor. He was unaware
that the godol hador was standing nearby, staring at
him, wondering that one could be so engrossed in study when
everyone was so busy with preparations.
After a few seconds, he approached the man and asked, "Please
tell me what you are doing here at such a time?"
The man recognized the famous figure and leaped up in awe. In
a small, fearsome voice, he replied, "I really have no
permission to tell my story to a soul, but you are surely an
I used to be an incorrigible sinner. I was an informer and
worked for the government. Due to my slander, many people met
their deaths. Once, on the thirteenth of Nisan, I was walking
along when I saw an old man lying in the market, helpless. He
was enveloped in a worn straw mat and was weeping as if his
heart would break. The Jewish spark in me suddenly flickered
up and I approached him and asked why he was weeping. He
reminded me that it was erev Pesach but despite all of
his efforts, he had not succeeded in raising money for matzos
and other necessities for the coming festival. My heart went
out to him and I gave him five rubles. I saw his eyes light
up and his spirit revive. I know that the sum I gave him was
enough for him to celebrate the festival with his family in
Not long after, I learned that the old man had died and I
forgot all about him. I continued plying my profession as a
Several years later, on erev Pesach, I was in a
similarly difficult situation. I did not have enough money to
feed my family. With no other resort, I wrote a letter
slandering my fellow townsmen. The money I expected to
receive for my work would suffice to sustain me and my family
for a long time to come. I reread the letter, signed and
sealed it, and went off to search for the chometz in
my possession, as I always did each year.
As soon as I entered one room whom should I see but the old
man, standing before me. He grasped me firmly and said, "Do
not dare to deliver the letter you wrote against your fellow
townsmen. It was decreed in the heavenly court that if you
did so, you would forfeit everything in the World to Come,
and would never be allowed to repent. Since you revived me
and my family in my time of need through your generous five
rubles, I asked permission to come here and reveal the decree
to you before it was too late." Having spoken his message, he
I stood transfixed, thoroughly overwrought. But I soon
rallied and scolded myself. "What a foolish dreamer you are.
How silly of you to take note of an old man." I resolved to
go ahead and deliver the letter but while I stood there,
thinking my thoughts, the old man appeared before me again.
He pleaded with me, "Think again before you act. Watch out!
Go and tear up the letter and present yourself before the
rabbi and ask him to prescribe a course of teshuvah
for you before it is too late." Having spoken, he again
disappeared. I could not help being convinced now, at his
second appearance, and took his words to heart. I tore up the
slanderous letter I had written.
Early the following morning I went to the rabbi of the town.
When he saw me, he began trembling. I realized that he
thought I had come with a threat or some evil plan, but I
hastened to calm him. In a weeping voice, I said, "Don't be
afraid of me, Rebbe. I have come to ask you to show me how to
repent. I wish to atone for all my sins."
Upon seeing that I was sincere, he thought for a few moments,
then said, "If you really mean what you say, go away to a
city where no one knows you and remain there for seven years.
Stay in the beis midrash and do not cross its
threshold all the time. Do not worry for your sustenance; it
will be provided."
That is what I did. That very day I traveled and came here. I
stayed here for seven years. The kind townspeople saw my
plight and made sure to bring me food each day.
The last day of those seven years was erev Pesach. The
townspeople must have been very preoccupied with their own
affairs, for they forgot to bring me food and I had not
eaten. As I was sitting here, an old man suddenly entered the
beis midrash. He was dressed in a purple robe and his
white beard flowed down his chest. When he saw me, he
approached and asked if I had already eaten that day. I
complained bitterly that the townspeople had forgotten me and
that I had not tasted anything all morning. "Very well, then,
I have something for you," he said, and took out a piece of
fresh bread that smelled heavenly.
wI was alarmed because I knew that the time for eating
chometz had already passed, and I said so. The old man
took out a watch and showed me that it was still permissible
to eat bread. "But I have no water to wash my hands," I
He replied that when there was no water to be had, one was
permitted to wrap the bread in a piece of cloth and eat
without washing hands. I refused. I didn't want to be so
When he saw that I was persistent, he said that he would go
and fetch me some water, and he left. As soon as he had gone,
the old man whom I had helped so many years before appeared
before me and rebuked me. "Sinner!" he said angrily. "Are you
not aware that that man is Satan, himself? He is trying to
trip you up. Take the bread and lay it on the ground at
"I did so. It became soiled and unfit for eating. The old man
then said to me, "For this you will have to remain her
another seven years," and he disappeared.
"Those seven years are up today."
This awesome story can be found in the manuscript
frontispiece of the Rav Alfas Book of Halochos, Vol.
III, printed in Amsterdam in 5591 (1831). It was apparently
copied from an older source. On the binding of this
sefer are the words, in handwriting: "This Alfas set
of eleven volumes was purchased from my own money. [One was
given to me by my father-in-law and the rest was bought by
money gathered and given to me by my father.] In honor of my
purchaser, Mr. Zalmam of Warsaw, for the price of one hundred
and twenty groschen. Signed: Shmuel Menachem ben R' Aharon
This story was printed in the Bais Yaakov Journal
(Hebrew) in 5722 by Yaakov Malachi Hakohen.