Jewish charity stories in Vilnius: Shimon Kaftan

Jewish charity stories: Shimon Kaftan

It is our second post about charity. You can read the first one here.

In 1835, a rural-looking Jew appeared in Vilna. He always dressed in the same long white coat, which in Russian is called a kaftan. Shimon walked along the Jewish streets of the city with a mug in his hand and proclaimed, “tzedakah saves from death,” “tzedakah saves from death.” He never addressed directly to people passing by, but calmly stood or walked among passers-by and repeated his call, “tzedakah saves from death.” At first, people laughed at him, but it did not hurt him. Soon they began to treat him with sympathy and even with respect. People called him, Shimon Kaftan, because of the clothes he wore both in summer and winter. Only a few knew his real name.

Helping Vilnius Jewish community

The money Shimon Kaftan collected, he used to hand the Yeshiva-Bochurim, elderly, disabled, and sick people. He knew how to find those in need, especially those who were embarrassed to ask for support, and used to bring the collected alms directly to their home. He did not take a penny of that money but earned a living by physical labor. The pennies he collected every day from dawn to night piled up in significant amounts. On Saturdays and holidays, one could see him hurrying off somewhere with a loaf of bread or something else hidden under his kaftan because he found out that someone was starving on Shabbat.

Tzedakah Box in the Synagogue

Shimon ben Yakov Shlisgol (that was his real name) came from a family who rented a tavern in the countryside. His father sent him to the neighboring town, and there, Shimon learned the prayers and the reading Torah. It is not clear what happened to him, but he left his profession and moved to Vilna to devote himself to good deeds. People said that some misfortune claimed the lives of his wife and children, which led him to such a turn in life. He earned his living by working in a small tobacco factory. Even from his weak earnings, he allocated money for tzedakah and Saturday candles, which he used to bring to the synagogue every week.

Shimon Kaftan became exceedingly popular in Vilna and earned great trust. Soon the city began to establish mugs for tzedakah in public places, in taverns, in shops with an inscription “For Shimon Kaftan.” The amounts that Shimon Kaftan collected for the year reached tens of thousands of rubles per year.

Historic memory of a good deed.

Shimon Kaftan was known not only among Jews. And non-Jews often dipped pennies in his mug. In 1858, in one of the Polish magazines in Vilna published a short poem by the Polish poet Vincent Korotinski dedicated to the beautiful image of a Jewish donation collector. The poem was translated into Yiddish by the famous poet Yitzhok Leibush Peretz.

The righteous man died in April 1864. A massive crowd of people gathered at his funeral. People say more than 20,000 followed him on his last journey. Ahead of the procession, they carried his mug and exclaimed, “Tzedakah saves from death.”

check out a Vilnius tour with a Jewish accent.

Jerulita Travel