Jewish Charity stories in Vilnius: Moses Montifeore

"He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment," said in the Book of Deuteronomy.

It is known that Jewish law encourages charity very strongly. This wonderful tradition was very widespread in the Lithuanian Jewish communities. We want to bring you some charity stories from the Jewish life of Vilnius in the XIX c.

Jewish charity stories: Moses Montefiore visit in Vilnius

In March 1846, Moses (Moshe) Montefiore came to Petersburg from England, a baronet, the former sheriff of London, the world-famous advocate of oppressed Jews. Shortly before that, he managed to save the Jews of Damascus from execution and remove the charge of ritual murder from them.

This time he came to Russia, concerned about the fate of his fellow Jews. He had a recommendation letter from the Queen of England with him, and in St. Petersburg he was received with exceptional honor. He met with some ministers and personally with Nicholas I. After this meeting the Tsar advised Montefiore to travel in the Jewish populated provinces and then submit to him his comments and suggestions. 

Judaism and helping the poor

On his way back home Montefiore visited Vilnius, Warsaw, and shtetls of the Pale of Settlement, and everywhere people enthusiastically welcomed him. The Jews called him the “messenger of God”; rabbis and the most respected people went out to meet him; portraits of Montefiore and his wife accompanying him were printed in huge numbers, which then – for decades – hung in many Jewish houses.

In Vilnius, Montefiore accepted hundreds of Jewish petitioners, who came to him from the outskirts, talking about their hard life and troubles. Montefiore reacted to them with deep sympathy, sharing their grief, promising to use all his strength to improve the situation. He distributed huge sums of money to the poor over the course of a few days …

The local authorities also showed their respect to the guest from England. Montefiore and his wife paid a visit to the governor-general, Sir Moses dressed in a red, gold-embroidered uniform of the English sheriff, and lady Judith with a hat decorated with ostrich feathers. It was difficult to recognize the modest pious couple, who so earnestly prayed the day before in the synagogue …

Jewish folktales

When the famous Montefiore arrived in Vilna, he went to the Great Old Synagogue. It was already late evening, and no one was in the synagogue except Itzele, the shamash (servant). Montefiore examined the temple and drew attention to the decorative windows, on which somebody painted a blue sky, bathed in the sun, and golden clouds.

“Who painted these windows?” asked Montefiore. “Who painted?” Itzele answered, as usual, with a question. “Of course, a Jew.” “Well painted,” said Montefiore. “You would!” replied Itzele. “But, this is a mitzvah.” “A lot of money, probably, these windows were worth,” Montefiore said. “Wow!” said Itzele. “We would have half of that money with you!” Montefiore smiled and gave a silver coin, which he immediately dropped into a tzedakah box with the inscription, “For the candles for the synagogue.”

Power of Tzedakah

And a year later from London came a money transfer in the name of Itzele. In a cover letter, Montefiore wrote: “I learned that the synagogue windows cost eighteen pounds. I send this amount of money to Itzele, and I refuse my half in his favor. Moses Montefiore” (eighteen is a symbolic figure, corresponds to the word ” hai, which in Hebrew means life.) Jewish charity stories tell us how much tzedakah to give. Itzele, having received such a huge sum, first bought a canvas for takhrikhim, paid for a place in the cemetery, and the rest of the money gave to the servants of other synagogues.

The continuation of this theme is in a post about Shimon Kaftan and also about Dvora Ester.