#121 (s5760-21/ 26 Shvat 5760)


They started to make fun of the founder of the Chassidic movement, the holy Ba'al Shem Tov.


When the Ba'al Shem Tov ["Besht"] began to teach publicly in 1734, he was opposed by certain rabbinic leaders. They had several reasons. Jewry was still shaken by the recent spiritual havoc created by the false-messiah movement of Shabbetai Tzvi, which owed much of its pseudo-theology to distortions of Kabbalah. The BESHT's charismatic leadership and Kabbalah-based doctrine made them apprehensive about his legitimacy. Further, the BESHT's insistence on every Jew's ability and obligation to establish a relationship with G-d, regardless of his level of scholarship, led them to fear that the BESHT denigrated the need for in-depth Torah study. There were other points of disagreement, but these were the basic ones. Also, false accusations and distorted reports further widened the chasm between the fledgling movement and the rest of European Jewry. Nevertheless, there were rabbis from the "opposition" who recognized the BESHT's greatness, as this eyewitness report from 240 years ago by Rabbi Yaakov Kaidener, a well-known scholar and author, demonstrates.

When I was working as a teacher in Yanova (near Kovna), the esteemed chief rabbi of Dubrovna, Chaim Mordechai Margolius (d. 1823), author of Sha'arei T'shuvah (a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch), lived nearby. On one of his occasional visits to town, the citizenry came to greet him. He repaid our display of honor by sharing with us some of his original insights in Torah.

Afterwards, the conversation turned to the ways of the Chassidim, and some of those present made snide remarks about several of the great Chassidic rabbis. Eventually they started to make fun of the founder, the holy Ba'al Shem Tov [1698-1760].

At this point Rabbi Margolius became upset and burst out, "My brothers and friends! I beg of you! Stop this talk! Let not my ears hear such things about this holy angel and precious man! True, I am also one of those who oppose the ways of Chassidism, as is known. You saw that I said nothing till now. Nonetheless, we in these parts do not oppose the holy BESHT, G-d forbid. On the contrary: in our eyes, he is just as great as the holy ARI of Zefat!"

When the crowd heard this, they were amazed. They asked, "Rabbi, please tell us who he really was, for we are confused. If he was so great, why does everyone have such a low opinion of him? And were not his ways unlike those of the great men of the past?"

The rabbi replied, "Your are right; his ways were strange, and his teachings were strange. Nevertheless, there is no need to be startled by this at all. Even if there could be found a misquoted verse in his sermons, it would still be forbidden to entertain any doubts about his words, for all the letters of the Torah were given into his hands from above, to do with according to his will.

"This can be compared to a great and exalted king who had a beloved only son, whom he loved as much as his own life, and out of this great love gave him all his precious treasures. Once, the king's ministers came to him and said, `Our lord king! May you and your son live forever! We know that the king gave his son all the precious treasures, and who can say anything about what the king does; especially since he already did it. Moreover, his son is worthy of this due to his great wisdom and good deeds. But, we cannot understand why your son is arranging the treasures of the king differently than the king--literally from one extreme to the other!'

"The king answered, `I gave him these treasures and they are his to do with as he pleases. Besides, I am confident that he is sufficiently wise so as to not cause any harm, and that nothing improper will come from his hand.'

"Exactly the same is known to us about this holy man, the Ba'al Shem Tov. Let me tell you something about his wondrous knowledge of Torah, and you will know that my words are true.

"Once he expounded on the passage in the Talmud [Shabbat 81b]: Rabbi Chisda and Rabbah bar Rabbi Huna were traveling in a boat. A certain woman said to them, 'Let me sit between you.' They did not let her. She uttered an incantation and stopped the boat. They said an incantation and released it.

"Rashi explains that the incantation she voiced was the name of a certain power of impurity, and that the incantation they uttered in return was the name of a pure power. The BESHT questioned, `It makes sense that the Talmud did not say explicitly what this woman uttered, since it was an impure name, but why not tell us what the rabbis said, so that we would know the incantation to recite in order to counteract witchcraft? After all, there are several pages in the Talmudic tractate Gittin devoted to incantations for various maladies.'

"The BESHT's answer was that witchcraft is nullified by pronouncing the verse 'You shall not allow a witch to live' [Ex. 22:17], having in mind the hidden meanings hinted in it. He then proceeded to expound on the mysteries of this verse, and said that through these meditations any type of witchcraft in the world can be counteracted.

He then said that Rabbi Chiyah and Rabbah bar Rabbi Huna also used this verse and these meditations to thwart the witchcraft. Thus, when the Talmud states that 'she uttered an incantation,' it means a name of an impure power. The Talmud seems not to specify what they said because the correct text is not 'they uttered an incantation ["milta"/mem-lamed-tof-alef],' but 'they uttered milat'-- without the alef at the end of the word--which is the initials of this very verse: Mechasheifa lo techaye, 'You shall not allow a witch to live.'

"After we heard this, we went to great lengths to find ancient copies of the Talmud. Eventually we found a very old one, from the earliest days of printing. Sure enough, the Besht's words were borne out: her 'incantation' was printed with an alef, while their 'incantation' was without one, but with the two lines ["] between the last two letters indicating that it is to be read as an abbreviation.

"Thus we were privileged to see that his words of Torah are those of the Torah of Moses from Sinai!

"So, my brothers and friends, do not do this evil any more of belittling this holy and awesome man, who is the prince of the Torah. For the Torah of Truth was in his mouth, and he caused many to return from sin, for he was an angel of the L-rd of Hosts!"

[Translated and freely adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from Sipurei Hassidim pp.107-109.]

Biographical note:
Rabbi Yisrael, the Baal Shem Tov ("master of the good Name") ,
a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed the Chassidic movement and his own identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 1734. He passed away on the festival of Shavuot in 1760. He wrote no books, although many claim to contain his teachings. One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava'at Harivash, published by Kehot.

Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

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