Monday, March 15, 2010

Chofetz Chaim and the Gerrer Chassidim on Yom Kippur Katan

For Yom Kippur Katan, a story of the Chofetz Chaim.

The day before rosh chodesh, the new month, some have the custom of davening Yom Kippur Katan (a "mini" Yom Kippur - the day of atonement - service). Yom Kippur Katan is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law). The minhag (custom) began in the 16th Century in the mystical city of Tzfas. The hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, and at the beginning of each month we bless the new moon. The commandment is the first in the Torah, in parshas Bo, in which Hashem says to Moshe, "hachodesh hazeh rosh chadashim... - 'this month is the beginning of months,'" and when the Torah uses the lashon (language) of "zeh -'this,'" it means that something is actually being pointed to (for a list of more examples of the word "zeh" refer to "Koidenov and Alexander" on this website). In this case Hashem is telling Moshe that when the moon looks like "this," when it is this shape and size, you are to bless it, and new month begins. And so, since the new month is a time of renewal it was decided that one should do teshuvah (repentance), supplicate toward the heavens and seek atonement for sins and misdeeds committed over the past month, just as we do on Yom Kippur, when we're seeking a clean slate for the coming year, and beseeching heaven to be inscribed in the book of life. In the words of the holy Shela in regard to Yom Kippur Katan, "one must make restitution both in money and in personal acts in order that he may enter the new month as pure as a new-born infant." Some also have the custom of fasting on this day. And now to the story:

The Chofetz Chaim was taking a trip from Radin to Warsaw. Whenever he took a train ride he looked for a fellow Jew to sit next to on the journey so that he could talk with him in learning. The Chofetz Chaim usually presented himself as a commoner. Before he boarded on this occasion he noticed a Jew, and asked him if he was coming aboard that train. It came out that they were both going from Radin to Warsaw. On the train, the Chofetz Chaim found that the man was not particularly learned, but this was no matter of concern for the Chofetz Chaim. As a rule he spoke little when encountering someone he did not know, because he enjoyed learning about people's lives. "From everyone there is something to be learned," was his motto. As soon as the first stop after Radin came, the man bid the Chofetz Chaim farewell, and made for the exit. The Chofetz Chaim called out to him asking if he did not say that he was going all the way to Warsaw. The man responded that he was an ani (a poor man), and that he didn't have enough money to go all the way to Warsaw in one train ride. He explained that he would get off of the train, try to sell some of his little trinkets, and with the little money he was able to make, he would buy a ticket to the next stop where he would repeat the procedure, until he made it all the way to Warsaw.

When the Chofetz Chaim arrived in Warsaw it was the day before rosh chodesh. He began to look for a shul at which he could daven Yom Kippur Katan. He walked into a Shtiebel (small Synagogue), and inquired as to whether they davened Yom Kippur Katan there. It turned out to be a Gerrer shtiebel, and the chassidim responded that no, they don't do so because it is not the Rebbe's custom. And so the Chofetz Chaim told them a story. He told them the story of the man he met on the train on the way to Warsaw, and because of his poverty he was forced to get off at every stop along the way, make a few dollars and refuel in a manner of speaking, and then get back on the train until the next stop, until he made his way all the way to Warsaw. "And so," said the Chofetz Chaim, "the Gerrer Rebbe has the spiritual resources to carry him from one Yom Kippur to the next. But we, the ordinary people, need to make stops along the way. We need to supplicate to Hashem, ask for forgiveness for our sins in the passing month, and do teshuva so that we will gain the resources to make it through the next month unscathed. The stops along the way for this man were necessary for him to regroup and get his bearing, just as the stops at rosh chodesh are a time for us to reflect and ascend to a greater spiritual level so that we can make it all the way to our destination, Yom Kippur itself." The chassidim stood with there mouths gaping, staring at this unknown holy man who had presented himself as an everyman off the street. And the story ends there. But the big question! Did they or did they not daven Yom Kippur Katan? In all likelihood they did not, and the Chofetz Chaim had to go on searching. It is unlikely that the chassidim would have gone against their Rebbe's minhag (custom).

What do you think?

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