4.J.2 Hassidic Legends, presented by Haviva Pedaya

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Hassidic Legends



47. Rabbi Jacob Joseph Recognizes the Greatness of the Besht 

            I heard this from the famous Hasid, the wise rabbi of the holy community of Polonnoye, who was the head of the court in the holy community of Shargorod. When he had heard that the Besht had come to the holy community of Mohilev, since then he was not yet a Hasid, he had said to himself: “I will go there also.”

            He traveled so that he would come to the Besht before the morning prayers on Friday. When he arrived he saw that the Besht was smoking a lolkeh. This seemed strange.

            “Afterwards, during the prayer, I wept as never before in my life, and I realized that it was not my weeping.

            “Later, when the Besht traveled to the land of Israel, I was left desolate until he returned. Then I began to travel to him and remained for some time with him. The Besht used to say that it was necessary to elevate me. After I had been with him for about five weeks, I asked, ‘When, sir, will you elevate me?'”


48. Rabbi Jacob Joseph Is Expelled from Shargorod 

            The rest of the account I learned from the rabbi of our community, our rabbi and teacher, Gedaliah, God bless his memory. He told me that he heard from the rabbi of Polonnoye that the Preacher was the first to follow the Besht. He came on Sabbath Eve to Jacob Joseph in the holy community of Shargorod, and he asked the rabbi if he could stay with him over the Sabbath. The rabbi did not refuse him. The Preacher asked him if he could have a minyan in his house to pray. The rabbi gave him permission to do so, but he himself went to the synagogue. On the Sabbath when the Preacher went to preach, he asked the rabbi to come to the sermon, and his sermon portrayed the rabbi thoroughly from head to toe. The rabbi said to himself: “He must be a prophet – otherwise how would he know my thoughts?” And so he joined him. The rabbi immediately asked the leaders of the community to come to the third meal, and they were surprised since they knew that he was not one of the Hasidim. But later on when the rabbi persisted, the people of the city began to quarrel with him, and they became his worst enemies. The controversy increased more and more, until they banished him from the city on a Friday and he had to observe the Sabbath in a village.

            The Besht was not far away. When he perceived the whole affair he said to his followers: “Let us go to such and such village. I know that the rabbi of the holy community of Shargorod is in great sorrow. We will be with him to observe the Sabbath and ease his sorrow.” And so they did.

            The Preacher was with them as well. On the Sabbath after the Musaf prayer the Preacher watched the rabbi grieving. He said to him: “Do not feel sorry. I heard a herald announcing that one of your enemies will be killed. Another will die while on the road. And the entire town will be burned down.”

            When the Besht heard these words he shouted at the Preacher and said: “Fool. You, too, hear heralds?” and the preacher became quiet.

            The rabbi went to the holy community of Raszkow and they accepted him as a rabbi for the second time. It was there that he undertook upon himself many acts of repentance. He was very rich and had about sixty thousand [golden coins], and he distributed all his wealth. He returned all the fines that he had received and all the fees from transactions about which there was the slightest doubt. He threatened with excommunication any one from whom he had received money improperly who would not come to him to take back the money. As a result he became a poor man.


from: In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov [Shivhei ha-Besht]: The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism, trans. and ed. Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz

(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1970), pp. 61-63


32. The Melamed’s Dream

            In the holy community of Medzhibozh there was a rich man who was not yet in sympathy with the Besht, and he employed a melamed for his children, a very learned man, knowledgeable in every way, who also kept away from the Besht. And the rabbi [the Besht] wanted very much to attract him to the worship of God, since good fortune was waiting for him. But the Besht wondered how it would come about as the melamed kept far away, especially since his employer watched him very carefully.

            Once on a Friday night, the melamed dreamed that he was strolling all over the holy community of Medzhibozh, and he saw a wonderful palace, which was elaborately decorated in every conceivable way. He was fascinated by it, and he could not have his fill of staring at it. The more he looked the more wonderful thongs he saw. Afterwards, he realized that all this decoration was carved into the building itself, which made it all the more amazing, considering the splendor of the craftsmanship and the design. And when he took pains to concentrate on the beauty of the craftsmanship, he was astonished because every minute space contained wisdom and skill as had never before seen in the whole world. His heart perceived the great wisdom, and he was attracted to it with all his soul. And he told himself that since the outside of the palace was so ornate the inside would be even more so. Indeed it must be incomparable. When he approached the window to look inside, behold, he saw the Besht was saying torah. He was filled with excitement and he wanted to reach the innermost section of the building. He ran toward the door, but when he wanted to get in the attendant pushed him aside and did not let him enter. He felt deeply grieved. Nevertheless, in spite of all this, his strong desire to listen to the living words of God was so great that he stood at the window and heard all the Besht’s holy words.

            He woke up and it was a dream. He began to repeat the torah that he had heard, and it was sweeter than honey. He repeated it twice and three times, but since it was only midnight he fell asleep again.

            In the morning when he got up from his bed, he realized that he still remembered the dream very clearly, but the torah had slipped from his mind altogether. He grieved about the loss until he was so beset with despair that he did not know how he managed to pray. At breakfast he sat bewildered.

            His employer said to him: “Why is this day different from any other? If you had a bad dream we will change it to a good dream before three people who will say ‘All Merciful!'”

            He did not answer a word.

            Perhaps he would have gone to the Besht by himself, but he recalled that in the dream the servant had rebuffed him, and he was afraid that it would be so in reality as well and that he would endure disgrace and shame. And he grieved greatly all day.

            At the third meal the Besht ordered: “Go to the house of that wealthy man and tell the melamed to come here.” They were greatly amazed by it.

            When the messenger opened the door and said to the melamed, “The Besht invites you, sir, to come to him,” he immediately leaped over the table and ran without his overcoat like a madman. Then he heard all the torah that he had heard at night, and he immediately fainted.

            When he caught his breath again the Besht said to him jokingly: “If you had heard new things, you would have reason to be so excited, but this is not new since you heard all this last night.”

            And he understood that what had happened was from God, and he followed the Besht wholeheartedly and he became a truly righteous man.


from: In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov [Shivhei ha-Besht]: The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism, trans. and ed. Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz


(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1970), pp. 46-48 



The Story of the Maggid of Mezhirech


…  How did the Rabbi, the Great Maggid, become close to the Baal Shem Tov?  The Maggid fasted seven or eight times consecutively from one Shabbat to the next, and was very ill.  Once R. Mendel from the holy community of Barr came to the holy community of Torczyn and stayed with the Parnas-Ha`hodesh [leader of  community] called unter shteibl [the back room], and R. Mendel went into the corridor to see the owner of the house, and he heard the words that the Maggid was studying with one of his students.  And his words pleased him, and he went to him and saw that he was very sick.  And he said to him:  Have you not heard that there is a Baal Shem Tov [Master of the Good Name] in the world?  Perhaps your honor will travel to him and he will heal you.  And he answered:  “It is better to trust in the Lord than to trust in men” [quotation from Ps 118:8].  And when R. Mendel came to the Baal Shem Tov he spoke the praises of the Maggid and said:  I was in the community of Torczyn and I saw a beautiful vessel.  The Besht said:  I have seen him [i.e., known of him?] for a number of years, and I have longed for him that he should come to me.


Now, there a number of different versions as to how the Maggid came to the Besht, but I heard that those who were close to him pressed him that he should travel to the Besht.  And when he came to the Besht he found him sitting on his bed and reflecting;  and he greeted him, and the Maggid asked him to heal him, and the Besht rebuked him and said:  My horses don’t eat matzot.   And the sweat poured down from him because of his weakness and he went outside and sat on the stoop in front of the house in order to rest.[1]


And he went outside and sat on the stoop in front of the house to rest, and he saw a certain man, young in years, and called him to himself and said to him:  Please, go to the Besht and tell him, why does he not fulfill the verse, “you shall love the stranger.”  Now the young man mentioned was R. Yaakov of Hanipol,[2] and he had pity for him and went into the Besht, and was afraid to speak to him.  So he acted cleverly:  he walked to the end of the house and turned [as if] to go out and leave, but while going he said:  A certain person, filled with black bitterness, is sitting in front of the house, and asked me to say to your honor:  Why have you not fulfilled “you shall love the stranger,”  and he left the house.  Immediately the Besht gathered together ten people and went out to him and pacified him.


And he wished to heal him with words, and I he heard from Rabbi Gershon of the community of Paulitz that the Besht went to him for about two weeks, and sat opposite him and recited Psalms, and thereafter the Besht said to him:[3]  I would like to heal you with words, because it is a [form of] healing that lasts, but now I must deal with you with medicinal remedies.  And he gave him a place to live, and he gave him twelve gold coins every week for his expenses, and the above-mentioned R. Yaakov and R. Eliyahu went to him all the time to visit them;  and at times they engaged in pilpul of Talmud and Tosafot, but he was unable to go to the Besht because of his weakness. 


[1]   Shivhei ha-Besht, §37


[2]   According to another version it was R. Zeev Wolf of Kitzis


[3]   The Hebrew text has the word אילו (“if”), which is evidently a misprint, that I have amended  here to אליו (“to him”)

  • Lesson Summary

The final session for 2012, led by Dr Haviva Pedaya, focused on the mystical or even ‘magical’ qualities of teachers in our traditions who have the ability to transform their disciples through extraordinary insights about their true needs.

Using several stories from the hagiographic accounts of the life of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement in Judaism, she demonstrated that one of the methods of the truly great teacher was to wait until the student/ disciple was really ready to learn before embarking on any instruction. Sometimes the period in which the student was discovering and uncovering his (or her) own need for guidance was very protracted. In that time, the teacher would not interfere in the process of discovery but would remain available for the time that the student was truly ready to learn.

Another element of the master teacher was to know what individual lessons the student needed to learn. In many cases, these can be practical lessons in interpersonal relations. Until a person has perfected his interpersonal relationships, he cannot enter the world of spiritual learning and the truly great teacher will not accept him as a student.

In some of the stories in which the Besht (Baal Shem Tov) appears, we see that he has an ability to enter into dreams and communicate through them, or certainly to know of them and interpret them. In these cases, the stories are limited in their applicability to ‘ordinary’ teacher-disciple relationships. However, there are messages that can have a universal application: about the need of the potential student to put his trust in God and in His teachers – a form of submission; about the intersection of perfecting moral behavior and readiness to undertake mystical learning.