A surviving letter from the Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1789-1866), offers counsel for combating plagues. The letter is undated, but is preserved in a number of manuscripts. One manuscript has an additional note dating the letter to the Hebrew month of Tammuz 5608, that is July 1848. This would place the correspondence in the period of the third cholera pandemic (1846-1860), which struck the Russian Empire in the years 1847 to 1851. The note also indicates that the letter was sent to two communities in the Russian Empire – Polack and Lyepyel (both in Belarus today).
The Tzemach Tzedek cited his saintly grandfather, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (ca.1745-1812), who emphasized the mystical, prophylactic powers of giving charity. This was especially true given the dire needs of many poor people, who had spent significant sums on palliative or preventative medicine. Consequently, donations should be directed specifically for that purpose, “and through this, great mercies will be aroused in supernal worlds.” After emphasizing charity, the Tzemach Tzedek recalled the midrash that describes how King David saw that many people were dying on a daily basis. Inspired by God, he established the requirement to recite 100 blessings each day as a remedy (Numbers Rabbah 18:21). The Tzemach Tzedek added that even though nowadays it is standard to recite 100 blessings each day – even when there is no plague raging – it would be appropriate to add extra focus on the meaning of each of the words.
The Tzemach Tzedek concluded his letter by returning to charity as a panacea.
Lest we think that the Tzemach Tzedek only demanded such conduct from the Jews of Polack and Lyepyel: A fascinating document indicates that the Tzemach Tzedek dipped into his own pocket when disease raged.
The document is a letter from the Jews of Shchadryn (today in Belarus) dated December 22, 1849, in support of the Tzemach Tzedek who owned the land that the Jews of Shchadryn were farming. The Shchadryn farmers noted that not only did the Tzemach Tzedek not receive any payment from those who worked the land, but that he was funding the purchase of grain and animals and other expenses. Moreover, “in the period of the cholera pandemic, he devoted himself to our assistance, and donated grand sums, both for medicines and for food for the sick.” This was not the first time the Tzemach Tzedek spoke of charity as a means to combat plagues.
Some twenty years before the third cholera pandemic hit Russia, the inhabitants of Orsha (today in Belarus) turned to the Tzemach Tzedek with a plea for spiritual assistance. It was autumn 1827 and Orsha was struck by an unnamed disease, with three or four people dying each day for a number of months. The Jews of Orsha turned to the Tzemach Tzedek and asked him for advice “to instruct us what deed should be done in order to arouse the sources of kindness and mercies.” The Orsha Jews asked the Tzemach Tzedek for any counsel that he might offer, in addition to any charms that he may have received from his grandfather Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (c.1745-1812) or from his father-in-law Rabbi Dov Ber Shneuri of Lubavitch (1773-1827).
The Tzemach Tzedek responded by saying that he was not worthy of the request. Indeed, he was still a young man who had recently celebrated his 38th birthday, and he was yet to assume the leadership of the Chabad Hassidism. His father-in-law still reigned as the head of Lubavitch Hassidim (although Dov Ber would pass away within two months of the Orsha request). Nonetheless, the Tzemach Tzedek did not ignore the request for advice.
First, he recalled that in a similar scenario his grandfather had recommended carrying out a ritual described in the Zohar: To select the 40 most righteous people in the city, divide them into four groups of 10 and send them to the four corners of the city. In their designated locations, each quorum was to recite the passage describing the incense offering. The supplicants were then to go to each person who was on their deathbed and recite biblical verses that describe the end of a plague (Numbers 17:11-15).
Second, the Tzemach Tzedek reminded the Jews of Orsha that according to the Sages, plagues come when death penalties should be meted out according to Biblical law (Mishna, Avot 5:8). Therefore – counseled the Tzemach Tzedek – parents and teachers have a responsibility to make sure the youth are not sinning.
Third, the Sages also note that plagues are a divine response to robbing the poor of the dues granted to them (Mishna Avot 5:9). Consequently – urged the Tzemach Tzedek – it is imperative to increase in charity.
The Tzemach Tzedek continued: His grandfather had waxed on the importance of the number of times a person gives charity, not just the sum total of the donation. Rabbi Shneur Zalman was following the approach of Maimonides, who had explained how repeated good deeds inculcate worthy values. Thus the Tzemach Tzedek suggested an innovative donation practice: Therefore, it is appropriate that anyone who is able will give one coin each hour, and before prayer, such that it will be 18 kopeks on each day. And after that he can give from this charity as he wishes – as part of what he would have given anyway. And someone who is unable [to do this], he should give less than this. In any case, he should give a number of coins on each day.
The coin-an-hour was not a means to expand the amount of charity, rather it was designed to increase the frequency of donation and make it part of every moment of the day.
Having offered three ideas to the Orsha Jews, the Tzemach Tzedek continued with a fourth suggestion: He advised that weights and measures be checked to ensure that transactions were honest.
Fifth, the Tzemach Tzedek warned against talking during the prayer service, encouraging his readers to refrain from chatter from the beginning of each service right through to the end.
Sixth, he emphasized the importance of being truthful as a charm for long life. This linked to his seventh point: Reminding people of the talisman for long life in the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the LORD your God is assigning to you.” (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16).
Out of all of the Tzemach Tzedek’s suggestions, the coin-an-hour is the most innovative. It is strange that when he was faced with the cholera pandemic in 1848, he made no mention of this practice.■
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.