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1804: Exploding Gunpowder Delivers New Purim Celebration in Vilna

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Danzig in the 17th century.
Danzig in the 17th century.Credit: WikCommons

On November 18, 1804, a gunpowder magazine exploded accidentally in Vilna, killing 31 people and destroying a large amount of property. Among those who lost his home and his business was Rabbi Abraham Danzig, a highly regarded rabbinical judge and writer on halakha, Jewish law. Yet Rabbi Danzig and his family were spared from death, and so grateful was he for this that he declared the date of the conflagration to be a “family Purim.” Or, as it specifically was called, he announced that Kislev 15 would from then on be “Pulverpurim” (powder Purim) for the Danzig family.

Throughout Jewish history, there have been a number of times when entire communities or in some cases individual families have been “delivered” from destruction, and which they have marked with local celebrations in the spirit of the original Purim (in which the Jews of Shushan, Persia, rejoiced in being saved from the murderous plans of the king’s vizier, Haman).

In the case of Pulverpurim, the rabbi and his family resolved to commemorate their deliverance each year with a day of fasting, to be closed in the evening with a joyful feast.

No mingling with them moderns

Abraham Yechiel ben Michael Danzig was born in Danzig, then in Russian hands, in either 1747 or 1748. When he was 14, his father, a rabbi from a long line or rabbis, sent him to study in Prague, after extracting from him a promise that he would not “mingle with the moderns” there, a reference to proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment.

After four years of training with the leading rabbinical lights of Prague, Danzig was offered a position as rabbi in Vilna. He turned it down because he felt it was wrong to benefit financially from his Jewish learning, a pledge he succeeded in maintaining up until the day of the explosion, in Vilna, when he lost all he owned. From then on, he agreed to take payment for his work as a dayan, a religious judge.

Danzig is known for his compendiums of legal scholarship intended for a lay readership. The most notable of these was the book “Hayei Adam” (Life of Man), which is also an epithet that attached to the author himself. “Hayei Adam” deals with those parts of the Shulhan Arukh code of Jewish law relating to Sabbath and holiday observance, and the prayers.

So well regarded was Hayei Adam that the great Talmudic scholar Chaim of Volozhin, in general an opponent of digests of Jewish law, made an exception for Danzig’s book, with the proviso that each section of the book be accompanied with cross-references to the Shulhan Arukh, so that readers could pursue further study. 

So popular was “Hayei Adam” among the Jewish public that in Lithuania, at least, small groups organized for the purpose of studying it.

One reason was the book’s popularity was Danzig’s emphasis on ethical teachings, as well as some mysticism.

In another work, “Hokhmat Adam” (Wisdom of Man), Rabbi Danzig dealt with laws related to kashrut, family purity, money-lending, charity and mourning.

Pay or pray?

Though he had a reputation for great ritual piety, Danzig was also known for his concern about ethical behavior. Though his piety was beyond reproach, he was known for his declaration that "an offense against one's fellow being is far more reprehensible than a sin against God."

From this derived his extreme probity about financial matters. He taught his children that it was preferable to miss the proper time of day to pray, if by continuing to work, one would be able to earn the money to pay a worker in one’s employ his wages.

And, when faced with a decision related to money, whether the other party involved in a transaction was Jew or non-Jew, Danzig instructed that one could not rely on one’s own judgment, but rather was required to consult with a wise man as to whether one’s plans conformed with Jewish law.

At the time of his death, in Vilna in 1820, Rabbi Danzig left behind an ethical will, with instructions for it to be published only after he was gone. In it, he asked for forgiveness from anyone whom he had harmed during his life, before laying out his philosophy regarding the proper service of God.

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