By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5TJT.com
Most people know of Rav Yisroel Salanter zt”l as the founder of the Mussar Movement. Yet there is another aspect of Rav Salanter that is not so well known – he was also an active shtadlan – and was the force behind the repeal of the Cantonist Decree as well as an activist in battling a disease similar to COVID-19, teh Cholera Epidemic of Vilna in 1848. [The above picture is an adjusted photo of Rav Salanter’s son, Rav Yitzchok, but with features changed to reflect his Talmid’s description]
The Cantonist Decree for Jewish children was made on August 26th, 1827 (Sept.7, 1827 according to the Gregorian Calendar) and was signed by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia twenty months after he became Tsar. It was officially called the “Statute on Conscription Duty.” Essentially, it required that Jews also perform military service, but at a higher recruitment rate than the gentile population and from a younger age. Jewish boys from the ages of 12 to 25 (but sometimes as young as 8) were taken at the rate of 4 recruits per 1000 Jewish residents. In total, about 84,000 Jewish were taken.
It was the responsibility of the leaders of the Kehillah to deliver the recruits and some adopted some very vile means of doing so. There were people called Chappers who literally kidnapped children to place the in the hands of the Tsarist army.
Rav Yisroel could not stand this government sanctioned kidnapping and near-forced conversion to Christianity and made every effort to put a stop to it at the highest level of government. He created a special committee to attempt to repeal this most vile of Decrees.
A secret meeting was held in the summer of 1851 during the market of Zelwa (held each year from July 25th for 4 weeks – it lasted until the end of the 19th century). Money was raised secretly to fund a mission of deputized shtadlanim. Eliyahu Levinson of Kratinga, a wealthy student of Rav Salanter, donated 1100 rubles of his own funds toward this effort. Counting inflation this would have a modern approximate value of $22,000. The attendees of the meeting sent Rabbi Elchanan Cohen to St. Petersburg to work toward this goal and to act on the groups behalf. Rav Yisroel Salanter was the main force behind it and worked with Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector on it as well.
In 1852, the group had the Gomel petition presented which asked the Tsar to repeal the yet higher draft rate. The group met again that year in Bobruisk and chose two wealthy shtadlanim to go to St. Petersburg with large sums of money for purposes of helping convince government officials to try to influence the Tsar and with letters from attorneys. These two individuals were Meshulem Feivel Friedland of Dvinsk and Nissen Katzenelson of Bobruisk.
Try as they could, however, those behind all of these efforts did not see fruit with Nicholas I. He died in February of 1855. Nicholas I’s son, Alexander II took over as Tsar.
On August 26, 1856, after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, Tsar Alexander II, in response to appeals by the Jewish community, removed the horrifying clauses of the Cantonist Decree. It took three years to fully implement. When Rav Yisroel heard that the conditions were abrogated, he declared a Yom Tov.
In 1848, the Cholera Epidemic spread to Vilna. Rav Yisroel Salanter, at great expense, rented a 500 bed hospital to take care of the sick. He convinced doctors to treat them at no charge. He also organized a group of Yeshiva students to act as first responders to help treat the victims. He issued numerous psakim as well as to how to act during the epidemic.
Most people, however, relate to Reb Yisroel Salanter as the founder of the Mussar Movement, but his contributions also included the spreading of Yeshivos too. One of his Talmidim opened up the Yeshiva in Kelm, where many of the great Baalei Mussar started and launched and affected other Yeshivos. The Alter of Novardhok was also a Talmid of Rav Salanter who launched hundreds of Yeshivos. The Alter of Kelm’s talmid was Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel who started the Slabodka Yeshiva. From Slabodka (and Kelm) emerged Rav Yeruchem Levovitz, the primary influence on the Mir Yeshiva, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Yaakov Ruderman, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Dovid Liebowitz, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, and many more. Slabodka subsequently moved to Hevron in Eretz Yisroel and taught the great majority of the leaders of Lithuanian Yeshivaleit.
No Reb Yisroel Salanter, no Kelm. No Kelm, no Slabodka. No Slabodka, no great Yeshivos of America. Rav Yisroel Salanter was clearly a one-man Agudath Israel organization and more.
The author can be reached at yairh[email protected]