March 2, 2009


From “In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (Shivchey Baal Shem Tov),” translated by David Ben-Amos and Jerome Mintz (Jason Aronson). We have changed the translator’s term “Besht,” which is an acronym, to the full name “Baal Shem Tov.” (In Chassidic circles, the term “Besht” is never used.) We have also added explanatory comments in parentheses.

The Secret Manuscripts and Rabbi Adam's Son

Rabbi Adam [leader of a fraternity of hidden mystics] prepared a dream-question: To whom should he hand down his manuscripts? He was told to hand them down to Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer of the city of Okopy [Yiddish: Okup]. Before his death he commanded his only son: “I have manuscripts here which hold the secrets of the Torah. But you do not merit them. Search for the city called Okopy, and there you will find a man whose name is Israel ben Eliezer. He is about fourteen years old. You will hand him the manuscripts, for they belong to the root of his soul. If you will be fortunate enough to study with him, then so much the better."

And so it happened that after our teacher Rabbi Adam passed away, his only son, a distinguished, eminent scholar, perfect in every virtue, traveled with a wagon and horses from one city to another until he arrived at the city of Okopy. He stayed with one of the elders of the community, who asked him: "Where do you come from and where are you going? Collecting money doesn't seem to be your object."

He answered him, "My late father, God bless his memory, was a well known righteous man, and before he passed away he ordered me to marry a wife here in the holy community of Okopy. I must fulfill his will."

Immediately the whole city was in an uproar, and several marriages were proposed to him because he was admired by everyone. And he settled a marriage contract with a wealthy man.

After his wedding he began to search for the man that he was seeking. But he found only Israel, who was an attendant in the beth-hamidrash (study house). After watching him closely, he realized that his outer appearance did not reveal his inner qualities. Perhaps this was the person he was seeking. He said to his father-in-law: "There's so much confusion here in your house that it's hard for me to study. Please have a small partition prepared for me in the beth-hamidrash where I'll be able to study regularly. 'The prayer is to be recited where there is song’ (Berakhoth 6a). His intention was to be with Israel all the time in order to learn his true character. His father-in-law did not hesitate to fulfill this request because he was very dear to him. He commanded the Baal Shem Tov to serve his son-inlaw, the rabbi, and promised to pay him for this. And he did so.

Once, at night, when everyone was asleep, Rabbi Adam's son pretended that he also was asleep. He watched the Baal Shem Tov rise and study and pray at his customary place. He observed this happening once and then again. During the third night, while standing and studying, the Baal Shem Tov fell asleep. The son of Rabbi Adam got up and took one folio of the manuscripts, put it before the Baal Shem Tov, and then again pretended to be asleep. When the Baal Shem Tov woke up and saw the folio in front of him, he was deeply stirred. He studied it and then concealed it in the inner fold of his garment.

The son of Rabbi Adam did the same thing again during the following night, until he had made certain that this was the man that his father had commanded him to hand over the manuscripts. He called him over and said: "My master and father, God bless his memory, left me these manuscripts and ordered me to give them to you. Here they are before you. But please, my master, let my soul be dear to you and allow me to study with you."

He answered him: “I grant you this on one condition: that no one besides you will know about it and you will not reveal it by your behavior. You must continue to order me to serve you as you did before.” And so it was.

Afterwards, the Rabbi's son told his father-in-law: “I desire more seclusion. If it is possible, obtain a separate house for me outside the city where I can study the Torah and pray.” And he did so. He asked his father-in-law to hire the boy, Israel, to stay with him and to serve him whenever he would need to send a message. And he did so, because Rabbi Adam's son was a very respected man. When the people of the community saw that our teacher Israel was studying with Rabbi Adam's son, they said that it was probably on account of Israel's father that Rabbi Adam's son came here to care for Israel. It seemed to them that Israel was behaving in the right way. And so they gave him a wife; however, the days of this wife were numbered and she died.

When they went to their house of solitude, they studied the Gemara, the commentary of Rashi, the Tosaphoth, the writings of the legal codifiers, and all the Holy Scriptures. In the above mentioned manuscripts there was both Divine Kabbalah and Practical Kabbalah.

Once, Rabbi Adam's son asked the Baal Shem Tov to bring down the [angel known as the] Prince of the Torah to explain something to them and the Baal Shem Tov refused him and said, "If we err, God forbid, in our kavvanah [meditative intentions] it can be dangerous. We lack the ashes of the red heifer [used in the Holy Temple to cleanse one from ritual impurity]."'

But Rabbi Adam's son urged him every day until he could not refuse him. They fasted hafsakah [uninteruptedly] from one Sabbath to the other, and they properly immersed themselves in the ritual bath; and at the end of the holy Sabbath, they concentrated on some particular kavvanoth. Immediately, the Baal Shem Tov shouted, "Oh! We made a mistake. The Prince of Fire" will descend and will probably burn the whole town. Now, since you are regarded by everyone as a pious man, go immediately to your father-in-law and to the others in the city and tell them to save themselves, because the town will soon be in flames.” And so it happened. Then all the people thought of Rabbi Adam's son very highly and considered him a holy man and a miracle worker.

After a long time he again urged the Baal Shem Tov to bring down the Prince of Torah, but the Baal Shem Tov refused. But he urged him for several days until the Baal Shem Tov felt compelled to do his will. They kept hafsakah fasts as they did before.

On the night of the holy Sabbath, when they concentrated on certain kavvanoth, the Baal Shem Tov cried: "Oh! Both of us are condemned to death tonight because of what we have done. There is [only] one way we can escape. If we can gather strength to stand and concentrate on the kavvanoth the entire night without sleeping a wink, then the verdict will be postponed! Sleep is of the nature of death (Berakhoth 57b), and if we but doze, God forbid, the Evil One will overcome us and control us completely."

They remained awake the whole night. Before the morning light, Rabbi Adam's son could not restrain himself and he dozed a little. When the Baal Shem Tov saw this, he ran to him quickly and made a loud noise, but Rabbi Adam's son suddenly fainted. They tried to awaken him, but it was no use. They buried him with great honor.