When the cholera epidemic broke out in Prussia in 1831, Rav Akiva, though of an extremely delicate constitution, often spent whole nights at the bedside of the sick. He promulgated various sanitary laws of behavior, urged the people to boil their water, and through other practices of cleanliness, helped reduce the death toll in Posen and its surrounding communities.
This came to the attention of the Emperor, Frederick William III, who sent a special royal order of appreciation to the rabbi. An emissary of the Emperor came to the rav’s house to deliver this letter of commendation.
Upon entering the house, he was surprised to see a large bowl containing torn postage stamps.
“What are these torn postage stamps doing here?” the officer asked.
The Gaon answered, “I receive many inquiries every day from people throughout the country. I usually answer by sending them a letter with the proper reply. But sometimes I hear that one of my constituents may be traveling in the neighborhood of the inquirer. So I give him the letter to deliver personally. However, by doing this I am making the government lose money by not purchasing postage stamps for the letter. Therefore I purchase the stamp and tear it up and in this way the government is not cheated from its share of the delivery of this mail.”
The officer was astounded at such piety, and when he returned to the Emperor he narrated his experiences, pointing out the saintliness of this rav.