Rabbi Yisrael Salanter took particular pains always to be on time for his lectures. Yet once it had become very late and he had still not made his appearance. Concerned, his students went outside to look for him. When they reached the bridge leading to the city, they noticed him standing deep in conversation with a young woman. They understood that he was occupied with some grave matter and withdrew.
When he finally entered the Yeshivah, R. Israel apologized for being so late, but explained that a matter of life and death had detained him. The students subsequently investigated and finally the details of the incident were pieced together: On his way to the Bet Midrash, he was about to cross the bridge when he suddenly noticed an excited woman rushing towards the river. He stood in her way, stopped her and asked her why she was running. She tried to pass by him and told him to leave her alone. R. Israel grasped her by the sleeve and repeated his request that she tell him what was the matter. Forced to remain where she was, she unfolded her tale of woe.
A short while ago her two children were taken ill, and had died a few days later. So overcome with grief was her husband that he had been unable to work for the past several weeks. They had been forced to hire someone else to drive their wagon, and in this way managed to subsist and cover the costs of the husband's illness. Suddenly the horse died. Their sole means of support was gone. In despair, she had decided to throw herself into the river.
R. Israel talked to her at length. Tenderly and softly he explained to her that God could easily make good her deficiencies. She was still young. A year from now she could bear another child, and so on. Her husband would recover and resume his occupation. As for the loss of the horse, he would send her the money for another the next day. Slowly the woman became pacified and regained her composure. She thanked R. Israel for the goodness of his heart and returned home. A year later R. Israel was invited to attend the Brit Milah of her newly born son.
– The Mussar Movement, Volume 1, Part 2, pages 247- 248.
Visitors entering his room in Halberstadt would find him [Rabbi Yisrael Salanter] with a German book open in front of him, performing physical exercises, following the instructions and diagrams with utmost precision as ordered by the doctor.
As has been previously related, he took up carpentry for a while, because the doctor had so ordered. To him, the commandment to preserve one's life was as binding as any other mitzvah, and doctor's orders important rules of halachah, on the same level as the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch with respect to forbidden and permitted foods, which had to be carried out to the letter.
Once he was seen gazing at the heavens at twilight. He was waiting for the exact moment when the stars would appear. Having apparently been ordered by his doctor to rest from his studies for three days, he obviously faithfully complied. As the third day was ending, however, he stood outside to mark the exact time when the restriction would end. "Just as it is forbidden to delay Torah study for a minute, because of the mitzvah," he explained, "so is it forbidden to begin one minute too early, because of the mitzvah of guarding one's health." -- The Mussar Movement, Volume 1, Part 2, page 192
Someone once told me that he heard his rosh yeshiva say, "The most dangerous person in the world is someone on his way to do a mitzvah." For some, nothing matters but for them to do their mitzvah, no matter what.
One of his disciples had invited him for Friday night dinner. R. Israel[Salanter] had stipulated that he would not dine anywhere till he had satisfied himself that the kashrut was above reproach. The disciple informed R. Israel that in his home all the Halachot were observed with utmost stringency. He bought his meat from a butcher known for his piety. It was truly "glatt" - free of any Halachic query or lung adhesion (sirchah). His cook was an honest woman, the widow of a Talmid Chacham, daughter of a good family, while his own wife would enter the kitchen periodically to supervise. His Friday night meal was conducted in the grand style. There would be Torah discussion after each course, so there was no possibility of their meal being "as if they had partaken of offerings to idols." They would study Shulchan Aruch regularly, sing zemirot and remain seated at the table till well into the night.
Having listened to this elaborate account of the procedures, R. Israel consented to accept the invitation, but stipulated that the time of the meal be curtailed by two full hours. Having no alternative, the disciple agreed. At the meal, one course followed another without interruption. In less than an hour, the mayim acharonim had been passed around in preparation for the Grace after Meals.
Before proceeding with the Grace, the host turned to R. Israel and asked: "Teach me, Rabbi. What defect did you notice in my table?"
R. Israel did not answer the question. Instead he asked that the widow responsible for the cooking come to the room. He said to her: "Please forgive me, for having inconvenienced you this evening. You were forced to serve one course after another - not as you are used to do."
"Bless you, Rabbi," the woman answered. "Would that you would be a guest here every Friday evening. My master is used to sit at the table till late at night. I am worn out from working all day. My legs can hardly hold me up, so tired do I become. Thanks to you, Rabbi, they hurried this evening, and I am already free to go home and rest."
R. Israel turned to his disciple. "The poor widow's remark is the answer to your question. Indeed your behavior is excellent, but only as long as it does not adversely affect others."1
--The Mussar Movement, Volume I, Part 2 pages 226-228