Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Ba'al Shem Tov

The Ba'al Shem Tov fascinates me. I have loved him since I was little. This magical man who worked miracles and helped others, who was good and kind and humble, who taught the little children before he became great, who understood simple people and respected them; this is the man who I have loved and respected for the longest time. Everything I read about the Ba'al Shem Tov inspires me; what I love best about him is the fact that he believes that the simple people can actually be considered as effective and as good as the learned scholar, that indeed, sometimes their pure and poignant prayers break down the gates of Heaven when those offered up by wiser men fail. I love the idea that honesty and one's intentions are what matters to God, that the purity of a prayer offered by a simple and unlearned person can outrank the holiest thoughts offered by a scholar.

The Ba'al Shem Tov is always able to see the good in people. Chassidut in general is an incredibly uplifting philosophy of life. It focuses on joy, on positivity, on everything that people do well. It offers the ultimate defense to God. No matter what people do, the Besht is always able to look at their actions from a positive angle. How can I not love reading these stories? They make me happy! Everything in them focuses on the good!

Here, then, are some beautiful Baal Shem Tov stories from Tales of the Baal Shem Tov by Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Klapholz.

    Squeezing the Heavens (Volume 2, page 116)

    There was once a draught in the times of the Baal Shem Tov. A fast day was proclaimed and special prayers were said in the synagogue. The Besht noticed one unlearned man among the worshippers who placed particular emphasis in the Kerias Shema upon the words, "And God will restrain (otzar) the heavens and there will be no rain," weeping and bawling as he recited them.

    When the Baal Shem Tov later asked him what his thoughts were as he exclaimed this verse so fervently, the simple man answered:

    "I was beseeching God that he squeeze the heavens (otzar- as in atziras anovim- the squeezing of grapes) so that no rain remains above and all will fall upon the earth."

    It was through this very man's prayers and concentration, explained the Baal Shem Tov, that the people's supplication was answered, for the blessed rains fell soon afterwards.

    The Creator who divines a person's innermost thoughts, desires the service of the heart and was gratified by this simple man's intent, although confused, which had sprung from the depths of his soul.

    (B'er Moshe)
Isn't that beautiful?!

And another story:
    The Chirping Youth (Volume 2, page 123)

    It was Yom Kippur in the Baal Shem Tov's kehilla. A tense atmosphere could be felt, especially in the holy Baal Shem Tov's attitude, for he had discerned an unfavourable sentence written in heaven for his people.

    Pouring out his heart to God, he begged that they be shown divine mercy. The tefilo of 'neilo' he especially prolonged in the hope of interceding in their behalf. His talmidim felt the tension and they too burst into bitter tears and were joined by all the worshippers in the synagogue in a heart-rending service.

    A young villager was present in the congregation. He was a simple, illiterate shepherd who, not knowing how to pray, would follow the chazon's every move, moving his lips in rhythm with his voice.

    When he now felt the intensity of the "neilo" prayers he too was broken-hearted. He helplessly began to utter the sounds that were familiar to him, sounds of cattle and wild animals. The worshippers around him became alarmed and tried to silence him. Several men even got angry with him, and yet others tried to have him evicted from the synagogue. But he held his own, stubbornly insisting:

    "I pray to the God of Israel with the only prayers I know!"

    It was the shammos who finally came to the youth's rescue and restored decorum to the synagogue, telling everyone to continue with his own prayers.

    When neilo was over the congregation could sense that the crisis had passed for the Baal Shem Tov's face now beamed joyfully and he began to express his relief in song.

    That evening, at the meal, the Baal Shem Tov told his followers that he had incurred heavenly wrath by sending people to live in distant villages where they were exposed to the gentiles and their evil ways. Indeed, his messengers had found the state of the villagers spiritually poor and now he and his community were in grave danger.

    "At that moment," recounted the Besht, "the youth's voice reached heaven. His lowing and chirping rose straight upwards and when these sounds were accompanied with the words 'Ribono Shel Olam, have mercy!' they penetrated until the heavenly throne. They caused such satisfaction and pleasure above that the criticism against me and my flock disappeared and our sins were forgiven."

    (Toras Hachassidus)
And then, something very close to my heart, the Ba'al Shem Tov defends the poor villagers against the fire and brimstone mussar speech of a visiting maggid.
    When the time came for the maggid's sermon, all the townspeople assembled in the Beis Medrosh. The maggid went up to the pulpit and began with the words, "There are seven kinds of punishment," translating it into a Yiddish which everyone could understand. The entire congregation burst into tears. The maggid spoke in a dry angry tone, reproving all those who were not God fearing, threatening them with hunger. The crops of the fields, the fruits and the vegetables, would all wither, he warned, after which the Lord would punish their families.

    The audience let out a remorseful wailing. Men and women, old and young, wept with bitter tears. The maggid continued saying that God was liable to punish them with blood, too; at first their chldren and then the parents, leaving orphans and widows, as he had done, Heaven spare us, during the terrible years of 5408-09. When they heard these harsh words a pained cry escaped from all those assembled. Many of them fainted and the panic mounted by the minute.

    The Baal Shem Tov entered the Beis Medrosh in the midst of this commotion. Seeing the weeping and self recrimination, he inquired what the maggid had told them and was deeply touched by the pain of the townspeople. He stood by one of the tables, turned to the maggid and spoke in a loud clear voice.

    "Rabbi, it is stated in the Midrash that Hakodesh Boruch Hu told Moshe Rabbenu to reprove Him, as it were. Who are you then to say harsh words to these townspeople who serve their Creator so faithfully! You should instead reprove Hakodosh Borch Hu, as it were, for not having shown mercy upon His children. And now, that he had indeed shown them Divine compassion by sending them the blessed rains, let them continue to worship him faithfully!"

    "Amen!" shouted the entire congregation.

    Kaddish Derabonon was said after the Drosho and the congregation began saying the Psalms of Shir Hamaalos with joyous fervor.

    (Likutei Diburim)

    (Volume 2, pages 12-13)
That's the story I really love, where he defends the people and points out their goodness and even has the ability to reprove God, as it were, for having withheld the rains! That's fantastic!

How uplifting, how beautiful all of this is! Unfortunately, there are so many people who have been erroneously taught that the only people one can truly respect are the extremely learned scholars who exist on some incredibly high level that bears no relation to reality. But that's not so! The people whom one should respect are those who serve with devotion, love and honesty, those who are sincere and genuine and who serve God to the fullest capacity of which they are capable. Each person has different abilities and capabilities; each person serves God differently! The scholar serves God with his holy intentions and thoughts and the texts that he understands and those who do not know as much also serve him in their own way, whether it be through giving of their time and money to important causes or reciting Tehillim or otherwise connecting with Him.

Of course, the goal is to educate everyone so that everyone is able to achieve a higher understanding of God and serve him in a more thorough way, but it suddenly occurred to me that I might extrapolate from the Besht's teachings. Now, the Besht described how beloved the service of the simple, illiterate and unlearned Jew is to God. In our generation, we do not have illiterate and unlearned Jews. But we certainly have people who have not been taught well and have not been educated appropriately, or those who have been taught but who have a skewed understanding of halakha and religion. But if they are sincere in the way they serve God, if they believe what they have been taught, however flawed it might be, and act out of good intentions, God is the one who will know what they really mean and what they really wish to do, and will understand appropriately.

So! I think I see a way not to judge people, which is wonderful. If you have been taught a certain way and that is all you know, how can I possibly expect you to act differently? And how can I expect you to step outside the box within which you've been raised, and how can I expect you to question things? I can't, of course! What remains to be seen is whether what you have been taught is valid or simply something distorted; if it is valid, well and good, and if it is distorted, you do not know it is distorted and in your confusion, you mean well, and so God will understand. The only question is whether man will understand. And perhaps he can! Perhaps I can, too!

Understand a person's intentions and you will understand him. Understand a person, and you will see what you have in common with him rather than what keeps you apart. And perhaps you will even find a way to show him what it is that he should do differently so as not to hurt you, and others like you. And you will accomplish this through kindness, not through anger. See as they do, live through their eyes, look at the world as they do, and you will suddenly be struck by a blinding flash of insight- of course! This makes sense! And if this is how they see it, this is what I need to do! You have to show people things in a way they understand. But in order to do this, you need to understand them first.

If the Ba'al Shem Tov was able to so love the unlearned, illiterate Jew who yearned to serve God in whatever way he could, surely I can love the person who I see as a poorly educated Jew who too yearns to serve God, albeit perhaps in misguided fashion?

Of course! Why does it take me so long to see these things? Why, because it's easier not to look at it this way and simply to condemn. But condemning accomplishes nothing, whereas understanding can save the whole world.

Oh, hurrah for the Besht! And hurrah for the way he saw people! And hurrah for sudden insights in the middle of the night (amazing that everyone tries to tell me this and I don't comprehend, but suddenly I can grasp it on my own!)

Hurrah for the whole world!


CJ Srullowitz said...

Chana, Beautiful stories! The Baal Shem Tov, lulei demistafina, created the original chassidim (vastly different from what we know today) to bring what he felt was an elitist yiddishkeit down to earth. Simple Jews understood their inherent holiness from his teachings.

CJ Srullowitz said...

Chana, Not sure you saw my comment from your post on the KINS internet gathering.


I know I'm a bit late, lulei demistafina, on this (just saw it before Shabbat), but I think you did a terrific service transcribing and posting it.

Are Rabbis Pelcovitz and Lowenthal (both of whom I know) aware that you did this? I think it would make a great article and should be published. You could send them the transcription for expansion and revision and we can get this out to yeshivot to mail to their parent base.

Again, a terrific job on an important issue.

Matt said...


Show me one source in Torah She'bichsav or Torah She'ba'al Peh which validates praying by making animal noises. The story may be uplifting and optimistic, but is it in line with Torah?

Likewise, the halacha states that if a person has the wrong kavana during the first pasuk of the Shema or doesn't understand the words of the first berachah of the Shemoneh Esrei, then he is not yotzei - regardless of his intentions. An even greater example is the halacha of piggul by korbanos - one momentary deviation from the proper, halachic intent will make the korban pasul. My point, once again, is that the story about the guy who misunderstood the word "otzar" might be beautiful and positive, but is it in line with the Torah?

It's great to be inspired by stories, but it is essential that those stories be in line with the Torah. If we don't care whether or not our inspirational stories are in line with Torah, it seems (from the statistics) that Jesus stories are much more successful at generating inspiration than Ba'al Shem Tov stories.

Chana said...


Thanks! Yes, I love him.

Didn't see your comment; the Rabbis are not aware of this to the best of my knowledge. They do have material of their own that they have given out/ DVDs and the like so I don't think this would be of much use to them, but thanks!


Absolutely! The Chassidic approach is completely in line with the Torah, as is aggadata, the stories I once mentioned to you regarding the fact that King Solomon understood the language of animals and pretty much everything that is not quite rational and opposite the way it seems you naturally think. :-) (I mean that in a good way.)

You seem to believe in a completely halakhic-based Judaism. You might enjoy this post of mine, which explains the importance of aggadah as well.

That having been said, I will try to find you sources explaining the absolute truth of Hassidism and the fact that these stories and tales of miracles are completely in line with the Torah, but simply a different path when it comes to one's worship of God.

Matt said...


I'm afraid I didn't make myself clear, which caused you to interpret my comments as addressing something much broader than I intended. I am not asking for a source for The Chassidic Approach. I'm not even trying to make a point about varying "approaches" to Judaism.

My point was that the stories you mentioned advocate practices which run contrary to the Torah.

For example, one Besht story validates "animal noise prayer," whereas the Torah invalidates such prayer. The other Besht story validates a recitation of the Shema with a misunderstanding of the words whereas the Torah (in certain situations) invalidates such a reading of the Shema. In short, these two stories advocate the message that intent is all that matters to God whereas the Torah clearly states that when it comes to mitzvos good intentions are often not enough.

Just to make sure I am making myself clear, I want to assure you that I would have no problem with a story about a youth who prayed a sincere tefilah - in accordance with the Torah's method of tefilah - and was answered, nor would I have a problem in which a simple Jew performed an act of chesed with a proper intent and he received a reward, even though the action was thwarted.

These stories would be in line with the Torah and would certainly inspire us. The stories you quoted may inspire us, but they also ascribe validity to contra-Torah practices.

Anonymous said...

I always felt the point of such stories had more to do w/ learning from the BS'T outlook, and that's it. Regardless of whether his reasonings/viewpoint in these instances are 100% authentic or not is, from this perspective, irrelevant. His actions, not the secondary characters', show a certain "derech" that we can learn from and try to emulate.

I guess I see where both Chana & Matt are coming from.

SJ said...

Chana, yay for your epiphane! I'm very glad for you. :)

Anonymous said...


There are many different versions of these stories about the Ba'al Shem Tov, which makes me inclined to see them as folklore or parables (for example, in the version of the 'animals noises' story I have heard before, the boy plays a musical instrument).

I would see them as aggada intended to teach a certain outlook, and as such I would not learn halacha from them.

That said, in the version of the 'animal noises/musical instrument' story I heard previously, while the Ba'al Shem Tov approves of the boy's 'prayer' up to that point, he stops him from continuing with it precisely because it violates halacha.

Chana said...


On the contrary, these stories are not contra-Torah but demonstrate these simple Jews' fulfillment of one of the most important mitzvot:

ה וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ. 5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

~Deuteronomy 6: 5

The common interpretation, which we all know, explains that we are to love God through physical matters, that is, through one's possessions and money (Rashi explains this.)

But tell me, what does a simple Jew possess? Does he possess knowledge of the Torah? Does he know these things you know, that his Shema is invalid halakhically or how to read Hebrew in order to pray properly? No! So what is left to him? The language that he knows, his lowing and mooing sounds, his utterly sincere misinterpretation of Shema. These are the "possessions" he has.

And so this is the way he serves God. In fact, the Besht even learned how to love God from the episode with The Shepherd and the Silver Coin.

The idea of intent is of course limited. If you or I, having full knowledge of the halakha, were to choose to make lowing noises as a form of prayer, this would be inappropriate. But the simple Jew? For him, intent is enough because he does not know any better! The simple Jew desires to serve God with whatever he has, whatever knowledge he has, no matter how limited, even if it be the lowing sounds of sheep and cattle. And this demonstrates his love of God and fulfills that mitzvah even if it is not halakhically satisfactory in terms of fulfilling the mitzvah of Shema, say.

CJ Srullowitz said...

Matt, your comment is beside the point. While one would not fulfill obligations such as kriyat shema or birkat hamazon without the proper text, service of God can be accomplished in . Prayer is defined as "service of the heart," and the final word on it is "whether more or less, provided one directs his heart toward Heaven." This last quote is brought as a matter of halachah.

While we are bound by halachah, God is not. He can reward or punish as He sees fit. That's why the story is so beautiful.

CJ Srullowitz said...

in my previous comment the line should have read: "can be accomplished in many ways."

Matt said...


Let me tell you a famous, true story.

There was once a man named Enosh. Enosh and his friends genuinely and sincerely wanted to serve God. Enosh and his friends wanted to worship God in the best way possible. They reasoned as follows: "If servants honor a human king by showing honor to his ministers, all the more so the King of Kings!" And so they proceeded to offer sacrifices and worship the celestial bodies - God's ministers - not because they believed that the celestial bodies were gods or had any independent power, but because they sincerely felt that this was the best way to approach God.

What does Torah She'ba'al Peh say about the practice of Enosh and his friends? - That it is the paradigm of idolatry.

On the surface, this is hard to understand. Aren't the worshippers of ba'al and molech - who denied God and invented their own deities - a better paradigm of idolatry than Enosh and his friends?

This teaches us something about idolatry: the essence of idolatry is inventing our own way of serving God. (Chana, I'm sure you will feel bittersweet when you read this next sentence, coming from me.) When it comes to serving God, we must not rely on our own minds or feelings, but must consult the only reliable source: the word of God.

There is no difference between the simple Jews in your stories and Enosh and his friends in my story: both of them genuinely and sincerely wanted to serve God, and relied on all of their resources - mind and heart - to do so. But since they did not rely on the word of God, their worship was worthless and condemnable.

Matt said...


It is true that the principle you invoke - "whether more or less, provided one directs his heart towards Heaven" - is a halachic principle. However, this principle - as used in halacha - only applies to someone who is engaged in a legitimate halachic practice. For instance, if someone attempted to worship Hashem using the method of worshipping Ba'al Pe'or (i.e. defecation), the Sages would not say "whether more or less, provided one directs his heart towards Heaven."

And if you'll say, "Yeah, but defecation is a method used for idolatry - of course it isn't appropriate to use for Hashem!" Do some research into Egyptian religious practices, and you'll see that one of the methods they used to worship their gods is the imitation of animal noises.

You are also correct that the Sages refer to prayer as "service of the heart," but do not be inconsistent: if you wish to bring a proof from the Sages' name for prayer, you must also accept the Sages' definition of prayer - a definition which does not include making animal noises.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that there is a big difference b/w your Enosh story and Chana's stories about the simple Jew. In your story, Enosh was instituting a new practice for all to hold by. In Chana's story, the simple Jew, in a moment of desperation, used the only method he knew of, to pray to Hashem. (One would assume that after this incident, the Ba'al Shem Tov would see to it that the simple Jew be taught a correct way to pray to Hashem). Enosh's actions were only considered idolatrous once they became an established practice. No-where in Chana's stories does it mention anything about anyone establishing a new practice.

Chana said...


Anonymous makes a good point. But in contrast to your Enosh story, let me tell you a story:

In a fascinating story recorded by R. Moses Hagiz (1671-1751), a simple man in Safed, a former Portugese Marrano, brought bread to the synagogue every Friday in order for God to eat. The synagogue beadle would actually take the bread but the man was convinced it was God himself who was pleased with his offering. After the local rabbi learned about this, he harshly rebuked the man both for his foolishness and for the great sin he was committing by holding an anthropomorphic conception of God. However, when R. Isaac Luria heard of this, he informed the rabbi that, since the destruction of the Temple, God's greatest pleasure was when this simple man brought his bread. Since the rabbi had put a stop to this, it was decreed that he should die, and so it happened.

(footnote 117: Mishnat hakhamim, no 220. R Arele Roth also tells this story in Shomer emunim, i. 95b)

This is from The Limits of Orthodox Theology by Marc B. Shapiro, pages 63-64

Now I've got the Besht and Rabbi Isaac Luria. And Rabbi Isaac Luria's approach stands in direct contrast to your take on Enosh, intriguingly. By the way, there is more than one understanding of what happened by Enosh; the midrash suggests that (similar to what happens later by the Golden Calf), Enosh actually dared to create another "man." Satan entered it and animated it; Enosh therefore succeeded in deliberately misleading people and having them worship idols. (see here) In fact, "by means of the magic arts taught them by the angels Uzza and Azzael, they set themselves as masters over the heavenly spheres, and forced the sun, the moon, and the stars to be subservient to themselves instead of the Lord." So rather than attempting to honor God through serving these spheres, as Maimonides quotes, they attempted to fight and rival God, and this was their sin.

haKiruv said...


Can the soul of a mute person successfully recite Shema in God's eyes?


This was an exceptional post. You had very positive things to say, and in the comments as well tied it together nicely.

Chana said...

Oh dear, Hakiruv, you're playing right into Matt's hands with that comment. No, halakhically, a mute person cannot recite Shema. :-)

That having been said, huzzah positivity!

haKiruv said...


Rather quickly, I concede you're right. I forgot that one is exempt from an obligation if someone can't fulfill it (obviously). But none the less, one still has an obligation to do something to their utmost, which I think is the point of the stories, right? Midrashim on Talmud talk about how deaf/mute people can still conduct communication, even if it's just with hand gestures (business deals, marriage, etc). Although Shema or other blessings can't be done in a halachic manor, it still seems like God would honor that person's blessings just as someone who could fulfill it more easily, if not more.

Jack Steiner said...

I too have always found the Besht to be interiguing.

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...


I guess this is where I part ways with the Besht and Rabbi Isaac Luria. I have nothing more to add to what I've already said (though I'll probably post something about this on my own blog at some point).

I sincerely thank you for sharing these stories with me and stimulating me to think into them. I probably wouldn't have encountered them on my own. Even if I had, I certainly wouldn't have dwelled on them. And even if I had dwelled on them, I would have missed their intended purpose.

I believe that you have approached these stories as they were meant to be approached: to see them as beautiful, inspiring, and delivering lessons that are short and to the point, such as "the purity of a prayer offered by a simple and unlearned person can outrank the holiest thoughts offered by a scholar." Reading your thoughts and impressions has given me a great deal of insight into the style, ideas, and method of these stories - insight I undoubtedly would have missed or dismissed, were it not for your presentation in this post. In this sense, you have taught me quite a lot - even though I disagree with many of the ideas you have expressed in this discussion.

As Daniel pointed out, there are many versions of these stories, and they are told in the vein of folklore rather than fact. For this reason, I assure you that I am not drawing any conclusions about the person of the Besht - only about the impact that these stories have on readers. As far as I am concerned, the Besht was an observant Jew with a flair for storytelling.

Thank you again, and I hope that we will have many more discussions like this in the future.

Anonymous said...

It may be too late to add something to the discussion, but the sincere gesture of a simple person being welcomed by Hashem even though it may not have been mandated al pi halacha has a basis in chazal, who tell the story of the washerman of Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi who it seems committed suicide when he heard of the death of the sage and was invited to olam haba