The Chofetz Chaim and Chatzos

The following is excerpted from Rabbi Yissachar Frand’s weekly Parsha email, from Parshas Ki Sisa:

Shabbos Observance and Shabbos Anticipation

I would like to share another story I saw in the Sefer Otzros HaTorah:

A Jew named Rav Simcha Kaplan was a Rabbi in Tzfas. He learned in the Mir Yeshiva in Poland and he recalls the following story. He used to board by a couple who lived near the Mir Yeshiva. One Friday morning, he heard the wife repeat to her husband several times “Make sure you come home early for Shabbos.” He had been living with them for some time and he had never heard this warning from her before. Simcha Kaplan got up, went to Davening, went to the morning learning Seder, he returned home in the afternoon. He saw that the wife was waiting by the window and she was full of anxiety. He asked her, “What are you so worried about?” She says “I’m worried about Shabbos!” He said, “It is not going to be Shabbos for another 4 hours, what are you so worried about?”

She responded with the following story: We were childless for many years. Finally, we had a child. We raised the child, but he was sickly. He did not grow, he did not eat, he was weak, he did not walk until he was much older. He was very frail. We consulted with the doctors here in Mir. They sent us to a specialist in Vilna who told us that the child had a heart problem. The specialist said “There is nothing I can do for this child. He will only live a couple of more years. There is nothing more anyone can do for this child. Do not waste your money. Do not waste your time. You will only have the child for a couple of more years.”

They were heart-broken. Someone advised them that on the way back from Vilna to Mir, they should stop in Radin and ask the Chofetz Chaim for a blessing. This was late in the life of the Chofetz Chaim. He was already very weak and was not seeing people. They were not able to arrange a visit. However, there was a young man who was married to the granddaughter of the Chofetz Chaim who happened to know the woman in the story, the mother of the frail child. She pleaded with this grandson and he was able to get them into see the holy sage.

They told the Chofetz Chaim their tale of woe and begged him to do something for them. The Chofetz Chaim said “There is nothing I can do for you. I am very sorry.” The grandson who had accompanied them to see his wife’s grandfather then yelled out, “but it is their only child!” The Chofetz Chaim said”, “It is an only child? Then I will tell you what to do!” He spoke to the mother and said “I want you to accept upon yourself from this day on that every Erev Shabbos by noon you will have the table already set for Shabbos and have the candles ready to be lit. I want that from the time you light Shabbos candles, nobody in the house will do any melacha [forbidden labor].” (Even though according to the strict law, when a woman lights candles 18 minutes before sunset, other members of the household can still do melacha until sunset.) The woman readily accepted this proposal.

By the time they arrived back in Mir –- a two day journey from Radin – the child was already showing signs of improvement. He started eating, he started gaining weight, and so forth. They brought the child back to the doctor in Mir and he was astounded by the improvement. He insisted they go back to the specialist in Vilna to show him the child and paid for their journey. The specialist saw the child’s improvement and refused to believe that it was the same child.

But this story is somewhat perplexing. Why is it that the Chofetz Chaim only seemed to have mercy for the child when he heard that it was an only child? What if she had 10 other children? Would the Chofetz Chaim not have been sympathetic to the plight of the parents and the sickly child in that situation? Furthermore, what kind of “segulah” is this business of being ready for Shabbos at mid-day, several hours before the halachic arrival of Shabbos? The whole story requires explanation!

I heard an explanation of what this story is all about from Rav Mannis Mandel. Rav Mandel said the Chofetz Chaim was not a Chassidic Rebbe and he was not a miracle worker. But the Chofetz Chaim understood the meaning of a pasuk in Chumash. “And the Children of Israel shall observe the Shabbos (v’Shamru), to make the Shabbos an eternal covenant for their generations (l’Dorosom)…” [Shmos 31:12]

Rav Mannis Mandel explains that the word “v’Shamru” has two meanings. It can mean you have to OBSERVE it (meticulously) or it can mean you have to ANTICIPATE it (as in the pasuk “And his father SHAMAR es haDavar” [Bereshis 37:11]). The Chofetz Chaim interpreted: You want “l’Dorosom” – the preservation of your generations (through this only child). If this child will not live, then you will not have future generations. But the Torah says that if v’Shamru there will be l’Dorosom – future generations. Therefore, fulfill “v’Shamru” according to both meanings. The simple interpretation of v’Shamru is observing it. When you light candles, no one in your house should do any more melacha. But beyond that, v’Shamru also means to anticipate it. From noon on, I want you to expect and anticipate the Shabbos. Therefore, the table must be set and the candles need to be ready.

This is why the woman stood at the window. It was 12:00 o’clock and sunset was not until 5:00 o’clock. She was anxious — where is my husband? What was her problem? The answer is because she accepted upon herself to do more than merely observe the Shabbos. She needed to anticipate the Shabbos as well. That is the interpretation of the story: She fulfilled both aspects of “v’Shamru.” Therefore, they saw in their family “l’dorosom” (future generations).