There is a well-known story about cantonists. Turns out, it is more well-known than I though: there are at least three versions, naming three different rabbis as participants :)

YU version


There is a story told of Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, the Rabbi of St. Petersburg, when it was the capital of Czarist Russia, and who was affectionately known throughout the Jewish world of his time as Reb Itzele Peterburger. He was wont to recall with much effect his most unforgettable Yom Kippur.

St. Petersburg was closed to all Jews except for a select few who by virtue of wealth and/or celebrity were granted special permission to live there. Even for this small privileged group certain parts of the city were off bounds save for the canton­ists who were allowed to reside wherever they willed because of their lifelong ser­vice in the Russian Army.

The cantonists represented a sorry Jewish chapter in nineteenth century Russia. They were the young Jewish lads who were snatched from their parents when only 9 and 10 years old and were forced to serve in the Czar’s army for stints of thirty, forty and fifty years. And the only synagogue in that part of St. Petersburg was the one built by the cantonists. One year, Reb Itzele Peterburger, who was one of the leg­endary disciples of Reb Yisroel Salanter, who founded the Mussar movement, that powerful moralist strand still profoundly felt in the fabric of our religious life today, incredibly found himself on the eve of Yom Kippur in that part of town. Unable to return to his own home he had no place to daven except in the cantonist synagogue!

And so he prayed there - on Kol Nidre night and the day of Yom Kippur itself. When they reached Neila - the closing prayer of that solemn day, Reb Itzele asked the congregation if they would allow him to lead the Neila service. Although they held him in the highest esteem, they explained to him that they have a tradition of long standing that that honor is reserved for the oldest cantonist among them. In that case I withdraw my request. Quite properly you must maintain your tradition. Whereupon the gentleman upon whom this honor fell went up the Bima.

But just as he was about to begin, he turned to Reb Itzele and asked his permis­sion to say a few words before he began Neila. to which the Rabbi quickly assented. At Neila, even as during the entire day of Yom Kippur, we ask principally for three things, the cantonist declared, Bani, Chayay U’Mezonai. We ask for children, for life and for sustenance. But for us cantonists these have little meaning. Army reg­ulations don’t allow cantonists to marry so we don’t have children. And what kind of life do we have, forcibly sundered as we were in childhood, from hearth and home, and, most importantly, from the observance of our faith and sent to serve in the remotest areas of our motherland to suffer the brutal cold of winter and the stifling heat of the summer? Finally, sustenance doesn’t mean much to us either. We’re not now in a position to become entrepreneurs amassing great wealth and for our daily bread all we have to do is go to the army commissary. So ending in a peroration the cantonist wondered, What does a cantonist have to ask for when we say Neila?

He paused for a moment and without answering directly began intoning the Kaddish which introduces Neila: YISGADAL V’YISKADASH SHMAY RABBA -Magnified and Sanctified His Great Name and, he paused, again, powerfully con­veying what a cantonist prays for on Neila is just that - may G-d’s great name be magnified and sanctified. That is all that is left for the cantonist to do and for what a cantonist prays!

Larry Domnich/Abraham Lewin version


The concluding Neilah prayer on Yom Kippur, represents the final chance through fervent and impassioned prayer to appeal to the mercy of the Almighty. One short prayer at one particular moment on one Yom Kippur at Neilah encapsulated a tragic era in Jewish History, and moved an entire congregation to tears. Abraham Lewin, the author of a book in Yiddish entitled, Kantonisten, (Cantonists) related an incident on Yom Kippur involving a Cantonist in a synagogue in an unnamed Russian city.

The Cantonists were child-recruits in the Russian military. The Russian Tzar, Peter the Great, devised the system in which young men were drafted to serve in the military for prolonged terms. Tzar Nicholas Pavolovich (1827-1855) used this system as a vehicle to force Jewish children to accept Baptism. The children were literally stolen from their homes in the shtetles and forced to serve long extended terms as trainees and then as soldiers when they reached the age of eighteen. They faced severe pressure by all means including torture to accept baptism. Prior Russian Tzars may have repeatedly failed to induce the Jews of the Pale Settlement to abandon their faith, but Nicholas was determined to enforce his will upon the children.

The fact that this particular Cantonist entered a shul on Yom Kippur indicates that he most probably had never succumbed to the enormous pressure to accept Baptism. Had he undergone Baptism, he would have been officially listed as a Christian and prohibited from ever entering a synagogue during the reign of Nicholas.

Levin relates that the congregation appointed the Cantonist to lead the Neilah (concluding) prayers – the most hallowed moment of the year. This was a great honor, especially for a guest. The gesture clearly demonstrated one of great admiration for the man who tenaciously held on to his faith at all costs.

The soldier of Tzar Nicholas made his way to the front of the shul. Having forgotten almost all the religious training he had received as a child including the ability to read Hebrew, he could not recite, nor lead the Neilah prayers. However, before the congregation, he expressed a powerful prayer from the heart, which shook the entire congregation. He proclaimed, “Father in Heaven, what shall I pray for? I can not pray for children for I never got married and have no hope to raise a family, I am too old to start anew. I can’t pray for life, for what value is such a life? It would be better for me if I died. I can not pray to be able to make a living since Nicholas provides for my daily food. The only thing I can pray for is, “Yisgadal VeYoiskadash Shmei Rabah” meaning “May your name be blessed forever” (from the Kaddish).

When hearing these words, the entire congregation wept. They wept over the plight of the poor individual and his difficult life of travail. They also wept for the tens of thousands of other Cantonists who were forced to endure the same hardships, as well as their families, and communities who were forced to endure the losses of so many of their sons and brothers. Many Cantonists had died from the rigors, or had accepted Baptism, others were simply lost in Siberia hundreds of miles away from their homes. All Jewish communities of Russia were faced with the Tzars’ quotas of providing recruits.

The Tzar issued the orders, the leaders of each town’s Kahal (Jewish communal organization) which for the most part perceived non-compliance as not an option, provided the recruits, and the Chappers (kidnappers) did the dirty work of the Kahal for a fee. Many Kahal leaders could not simply argue that they had no choice. It was the poor, who were the recruits, and many Kahal officials profited from payments from the wealthy for their sons’ exemptions. How demoralizing and traumatizing that era was for the Jews of Russia! That too was no doubt part of Nicholas’ strategy. All Jews who lived under the Tzar’s rule were no doubt effected by the horrors of this era.

On Yom Kippur, at the moment of Neilah, a congregation was confronted with the horrors of that era by the heartfelt words of a true hero. A hero who was one of thousands who stood against Nicholas and displayed a type of heroism unusual for adults, let alone children. In his own words, he added untold significance to that moment of Neilah. He reminded the congregation of the sinners, and the many heroes of that era. On that Yom Kippur day, the moment of Neilah was truly one of reckoning and regret for all those present.

[Larry Domnitch is the author of, “The Cantonists”, to be released by Devora Publishing Company in the spring of 2004.]

Tuvia Bolton version


Reb Mordechai, a follower of the third Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866) had been dispatched by his Rebbe to wander the countryside of Russia, journeying from town to town and inspiring the Jews scattered there with the teachings of Chassidism.

But one day – it was the day beforeYom Kippur – he arrived at some town in the middle of nowhere only to hear that all its Jews, about one hundred altogether, had left the day before to the city of Vitebsk to pray in the large synagogue there on the Day of Atonement. Suddenly, only a few hours away from the holiest day of the year, he found himself without a minyan – the quorum of ten Jews required for communal prayer.

“You won’t find any Jews here, Rabbi,” one of the townspeople told him. “But about two hours away there’s a small village of Cantonists. They’re a strange bunch, but that’s the closest thing to Jews you’ll find around here now.”

(The Cantonists were Jews who, by decree of Czar Nicholas I, had been snatched from their families when they were young children for a 25-year term of “service” in the Czar’s army, where every cruel means had been employed to force them to abandon Judaism. The few that survived were so emotionally and psychologically destroyed, when they left the army decades later, that they were never able to live normal lives. So they lived together in little villages, apart from the rest of the world.)

Immediately, Reb Mordechai started walking, but after over an hour he still saw nothing. No… wait! There seemed to be something on the horizon.

Sure enough, there it was. There were only a few old wooden houses, but this must be the village he was looking for.

The first resident that saw that the rabbi enter the village called everyone else, and in no time they were all lined up with shining faces, taking turns shaking the newcomer’s hand.

They were overjoyed. Such an honor to have a real rabbi as their guest!

Suddenly they stepped back, formed a sort of huddle, and began whispering to one another. Then they fell silent, looked again at the rabbi, and one of them stepped forward in great humility, cleared his throat, and announced:

“Excuse me, Rabbi, but we would be very honored if His Excellency the Rabbi would please honor us with leading the prayers of Yom Kippur.”

All the others stood staring at the Rabbi with wide pleading eyes, nodding their heads beseechingly.

Reb Mordechai nodded in agreement, and the joyous hand-shaking ritual was repeated once again.

“We only have one stipulation,” the man continued. “That one of us leads the closing prayer of the holy day, Ne’ilah.”

An hour later, in the solemn atmosphere of Yom Kippur, they were all seated in their little shul (synagogue), listening to the beautiful heartfelt prayers of the Chassidic rabbi, Reb Mordechai.

A very special feeling overcame Reb Mordechai. He had never quite experienced a Yom Kippur like this. He had never been in such a minyan; comprised of Jews each of whom had been through hell, things that he could never even dream of experiencing, only for the sake of G-d. And although he had studied all the holy books and they knew nothing, he felt dwarfed by these simple folk.

His soul flowed into the prayers, and it seemed to him that he had never sung so beautifully in his life. First Kol Nidrei, then the evening prayer. On the following day, he prayed the other three prayers, and read twice from the Torah.

But finally, at the end of the day, came their turn; it was time for Ne’ilah.

Reb Mordechai stepped back, took a seat in the small shul with everyone else, and waited to see what was going to happen. Why did they want this prayer for themselves?

One of the Cantonists rose from his chair, took a few steps forward and stood at the podium, his back to the crowd.

Suddenly, before he began to lead the prayers, he started unbuttoning and then removing his shirt.

Reb Mordechai was about to say something, to protest: You can’t take your shirt off in the synagogue!

But as the shirt fell from the man’s shoulders, it revealed hundreds of scars; years upon years of deep scars… each one because the man refused to forsake the G-d of Israel.

Reb Mordechai gasped and tears ran from his eyes.

The Cantonist then raised his hands to G-d and said in a loud voice.

“G-d… Send us Moshiach! Redeem the Jewish people now!

“I’m not asking for the sake of our families, because we don’t have any families.

“I’m not asking for the sake of our futures, because we have no futures.

“I’m not asking for the sake of our livelihoods or our comfort, or our children, or our reputations, because we don’t have any of those things either.

“We’re just asking: Assey l’maan shemecha – Do it for Your sake!”

And then he put on his shirt and began the prayer.