Mysteries of the Besht

Exactly 250 years after the Baal Shem Tov’s death, we still know nothing about where he came from, or who he was before age 36. But a critical reading of his last moments, recounted by eyewitnesses, provides a look at the true nature of the father of Hasidism and how his followers have kept his legacy alive until today.

David Assaf
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David Assaf

It happened on the first day of the Shavuot holiday 250 years ago, May 23, 1760 ‏(or Sivan 6, 5520, by the Jewish calendar‏), that Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov ‏(master of the good, or divine, name‏), died. His death marked the passing of a holy teacher who gave Judaism and Jewish culture what eventually became known as the Hasidic movement.

His character has engaged historians and students of religion since the days of Simon Dubnow, considered the father of scholarship on the Hasidic movement. “Through the fog we see the historical figure of the one who created the Hasidic movement,” writes Dubnow at the beginning of his book “History of Hasidism,” published 80 years ago.

Dubnow did not doubt the Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht for short, had the “look of a living person influenced by his surroundings and influencing it.” However, for dozens of years the absence of empirical evidence has cast a shadow over Hasidic research. This absence created a wide open door for forgers who distributed letters that the Besht had supposedly signed and even his portrait ‏(which was actually a picture of Rabbi Samuel Falk, the Baal Shem of London‏).

Illustration of Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer, known as Baal Shem Tov, on his deathbed on Shavuot eve in 1760.Credit: Eran Wolkowski

All these were sold for lots of money, were published in many places and used to adorn books and decorate sukkahs.

Huge strides have been made over the last few decades in researching the Besht and yet we still do not know for sure when he was born nor where. We don’t know the location of the mysterious “holy community of Okup” and whether the Besht was really born there or if he just spent time there as a child. We do not know a thing about his parents and teachers; his childhood and adolescence are shrouded in secrecy, “as though a trusted hand saw to cover up his tracks,” noted writer Eliezer Steinman.

Only when he began with his magical, mystical and public activities, in the middle of the 1730s, did he slowly begin to reveal himself as the impressive figure we imagine him as today. He met kabbalists and distinguished people like himself; students, admirers and opponents; women and common people; Jews and gentiles. He healed and made miracles, prayed with unparalleled devotion, was sated by the kabbalah’s “wells of wisdom” and taught his disciples what became known as “Torat Habesht”‏ (the Besht’s teachings‏).

Besht guesses

“A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth,” Ecclesiastes‏ writes at the opening of chapter seven of the book named for him. In the Jewish tradition and especially in Hasidism, no attention was usually paid to one’s birth date. The day one died was the one considered important and worth commemorating since it involved various religious laws and traditions, including visits to the person’s grave, recitation of the kaddish prayer as well as other special prayers to which mystical concepts were added.

Thus the Besht’s date of birth remains a mystery. Not just the day or the month but even the year in which he was born is a matter of guesswork, based on traditions rather than documents and reliable sources.

Oddly, Hasidim and researchers of Hasidism seem to have a consensus that the Besht was born in 1700. Oddly, because this date is not based on any hard facts but on “legends that were added to history,” as Dubnow puts it.

In January 1699, a peace agreement ending the war between the Habsburg Austrians and the Ottoman Turks was signed in Karlowitz, Serbia and the region of Podolia ‏(which the Ottomans controlled‏) was liberated and returned to Polish rule.

Dubnow concludes that the Besht was born “after the country calmed down,” which means around 1700.

If we add to this the hagiographic tradition that the Besht emerged from hiding and become famous as a healer and religious teacher only when he was 36 years old, then we can also set the date of his revelation at around 1735-1736.

“At night he was told he was 36 years old and in the morning he made his calculation and it was proven right ... and people would travel to him from all over the place for [healing],” recounts one version of “Shivhei Habesht,” a book of stories about the Baal Shem Tov. It therefore seems that the date of birth has some importance, even though the Besht himself did not know it and had to calculate it.

But questions about the Besht’s birth date remain. Chabad Hasidim accepted a later and totally unfounded tradition, moving his date of birth to 1698 and even setting an exact date according to the Hebrew calendar, Elul 18, 5458, ‏(or August 25, 1698‏). Needless to say, most Hasidic communities did not buy this tradition and continued to go by the year 5460. Moreover, about a decade ago historian Adam Teller convincingly showed that in 1733 the Besht was invited to serve as a Baal Shem ‏(a miracle worker‏) in Slutsk in present-day Belarus.

This means that already by then he was famous and that his public activity began in 1732. And the confused historian will ask himself again: Should we deduct 36 years from this new date and by that reach the Besht’s “true” date of birth, or perhaps forgo the tale as a historical source?

Stopped clocks and baited breath

But if his date of birth is still unknown, there is no question about the day he died. Various sources have verified it.

“I shall write a bit about his passing away,” begins a description of the Besht’s final days. It was based on an eyewitness account and published in “Shivhei Habesht.”

The emphasis on the ascetic word “a bit” reflects the shock that the Besht’s followers and devotees felt when he passed away. The translation by Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz, titled “In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov” describes it in the following manner:

“On the Passover before that, the rabbi, our teacher Pinhas of Korets, visited with the Besht, and Rabbi Pinhas felt a little weak .... After Passover the Besht was sick with diarrhea, but in spite of that he gathered his strength and went to pray before the ark. He did not say anything about it to his students, who were known to have powerful prayers, and he sent them elsewhere. ... On the eve of Shavuot all his followers gathered to spend the night saying prayers, such as the redemption prayer of the Ari [Rabbi Isaac Luria], God bless his memory. The Besht said Torah before them concerning the Biblical portion of the week and the giving of the Torah. In the morning he sent for all his followers to gather and he told Rabbi Leib Kessler and someone else, I have forgotten his name, to handle his burial. Because they were members of the funeral society and needed to know about diseases, he showed them the signs on each of the members of his own body, and he explained how the soul emanates from this member and from that member. He told them to gather a minyan [prayer quorum] to pray with him. He told them to give him a prayer book and he said: ‘Soon I shall be with God, blessed be He.’

“After the prayer, Rabbi Nahman of Horodenka went to the beth-hamidrash ‏(study hall‏) to pray for him. The Besht said: ‘He shouts in vain. If he could have entered the gate where I was accustomed to enter, his prayer would have helped.’ At that moment the soul of a dead man came to him asking for redemption. He scolded him, saying: ‘For 80 years you have wandered, and you have not heard until today that I am in the world. Get out, wicked one.’ He immediately said to the servant: ‘Rush outside and shout for everyone to clear away from the road because I angered him and he may hurt someone.’

“And so it was that he hurt a maiden, the daughter of the shammash [custodian].

“The servant returned and heard the Besht saying: ‘I grant you these two hours. Do not torture me.’ The servant said: ‘Who are you talking to, sir?’ He said: ‘Do you not see the Angel of Death who always ran from me ... Now that they have given him control over me his shoulders have broadened and he feels joyous.’

“Then all the people of the town came to see him on the holiday, and he said Torah to them. After that, during the meal, he told the servant to put mead in a large glass, but he put it in a small glass. The Besht said: ‘Man has no power [on] the day of death,’ [Ecclesiastes 8:8], even the gabbai [the synagogue’s manager] does not obey me.’
“Then he said: ‘Until now I have done favors for you. Now you will do a favor for me.’ Then he went to the toilet and the servant wanted to follow him. He asked him: ‘Is today different from any other day that you want to follow me? What do you see in me?’ And he did not go after him.

“He also gave a sign that when he passes away the two clocks will stop. When he washed his hands the big clock stopped and his followers stood around it so that he would not see it. He said to them: ‘I am not concerned about myself because I know clearly that when I leave through this door I immediately enter another door.’ He sat on his bed and he told them to gather around him. He said Torah to them about the column on which one ascends from lower paradise to upper paradise, and how this was so in each world. He described what it was like in the world of the souls, and he interpreted the order of worship. He told them to say, ‘Let the pleasantness of the Lord our God be upon us.’ He lay down and sat up several times. He concentrated on kavvanoth [mystical intentions] until they could not distinguish the syllables. He ordered them to cover him with a sheet, and he began to tremble as one saying the eighteen benedictions. Then slowly he became quiet and they saw that the small clock had stopped. They waited for a long time. Then they put a feather under his nose and they realized that he had passed away.

“I heard all this from Rabbi Jacob of the holy community of Medzhibozh, who passed away in the Holy Land. The rabbi said that Rabbi Leib Kessler saw the departure of his soul as a blue flame.”

Clearly the storyteller wanted to remember every detail and was honest enough to acknowledge that someone “whose name I forgot” was also there. How lofty and how human is this scene. The great man was about to die, he knew these were his last moments and there would not be another opportunity. His disciples surrounded his bed, trying to absorb every word and every movement and he mustered his strength and did not forget his duties as a teacher.

Not only his pupils but also the town folk of Medzhibozh of Podolia ‏(now Medzhybizh in Ukraine‏) came to bid farewell and he taught them Torah and kabbalah and topical matters of the day such as the customs for Shavuot eve.

He taught them the secrets of the human body and the secrets of the column which is a sort of ladder that links the various levels in paradise.

Throughout all that, the mundane and the spiritual are mixed, the diarrhea and the toilet on the one hand, and on the other the mystic column in the center of paradise and the blue flame when his soul departed.

There was even a spark of bitter irony toward the recalcitrant servant who disobeyed him and brought the requested mead in a small glass while in the background are the two clocks, the big one and the small one, ticking away the Besht’s last moments, and his disciples’ heartrending and futile attempts to hide the big clock that stopped and in the end a conciliatory acceptance that leaves those who are about to be leaderless with some hope and security: “I am not concerned about myself because I know clearly that when I leave though this door ‏(this world‏) I immediately enter another door ‏(the next world‏).”

Just as the Besht conducted himself during his lifetime, so did he at the moment of death. During the short period in which he was at death’s door some of the basic components of his religious character were demonstrated.

Here is the spirit of a dead person, a sinner who comes to the Baal Shem Tov and asks for a last minute “correction” and the Besht sends him away angrily, just as he did in his early days, before his revelation, when he scolded a dybbuk who spoke through “a crazy woman:” “Won’t you shut up?” ‏(as quoted in “Shivhei Habesht”‏).

Then his aching body begins to “shake and tremble as one saying the eighteen benedictions,” and one cannot avoid recalling his mode of devoted prayer that even in normal times scared the people who watched him.

Wolf Kitzes, one of the Besht’s close disciples who was surely at his bedside, once looked as his teacher prayed and saw his face “burning like torches, his eyes protruded and did not move as though he was dying,” ‏(“Shivhei Habesht”‏).

Finally the small clock stopped too, the outpouring of the prayer stopped and they no longer heard the syllables of his speech. Nevertheless, the pupils still waited − perhaps a miracle would occur and the mentor’s eyes would open and perhaps everything would return to normal. But it was in vain. They waited and the feather placed under the dead man’s nose did not flutter. The Besht died like every mortal being.

Graveside chats

We do not have any description of his funeral or burial and one can only try to guess the reason. Was it because the grief, the sorrow and sense of missing and loss were so great? Or perhaps because someone still believed everything might be reversed, was disappointed and could not find the strength to tell us that no miracle happened?

The Baal Shem Tov was buried in the old cemetery in Medzhybizh, the town in which he spent his last two decades. His grave immediately became a holy site attracting friends and disciples who sought a physical site where they could commemorate him and through him attain mystical understanding of the soul’s ascendance.

His great grandson Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, who was born in Medzhybizh in 1772, said that when he was a child, he “always used to run to the Besht’s grave and ask him to help him to get near the blessed God; he used to go there at nights,” according to “Shivhei Haran.”

He testified that “all the pious men were in Medzhybizh, since it was the site of the Besht of blessed memory, and most of them lodged in his father’s home, where he heard many tales from the tzaddikim [righteous people] and that awakened him toward the blessed God.”

Pious people who moved to the Land of Israel also went to the grave before departing on their journey, where they allegedly got the Besht’s blessing of farewell and some even “conversed” with him.

In 1764, four years after the Besht’s death, his pupil Nahman of Horodenka went to the grave and, according to “Shivhei Habesht,” “when he returned from the cemetery he was full of joy and said: ‘The Besht instructed me to go to the Holy Land.’ Rabbi Yosef of Kaminka was very surprised. ‘And where did he talk to you?’ he asked. Rabbi Nahman was also very surprised and asked: ‘Did you not see him talk to me and stand by me?’”

And there were politics there too.

The Besht’s grandson Rabbi Baruch of Tulchin was famous for his bad temper and his excessive ego. On a Shavuot eve, as recounted in “Butzina Denehora,” he traveled to Medzhybizh, went to his grandfather’s grave and immediately returned home. Right after Shavuot he came for the second time, and again went to the grave. When his brother Rabbi Moshe Haim of Sudilkov asked him why he had done so he answered: “Because I was informed from heaven that if I want I will get the Torah on Shavuot with thunder and lightning, just like Moses got it on Sinai. I went to the Besht’s grave and asked him for the power to get the Torah. I returned home, got the Torah on Shavuot with thunder and lightning and now I see that I am powerless so I asked my grandfather, the Besht, that they take it away from me.” Baruch considered the Besht’s grave a source for assuming authority and a pretense for leadership and it is no coincidence that he chose to go to his grandfather’s grave precisely on the eve of Shavuot, the anniversary of his death.

Not only righteous men visited the graveside. Common people did so too in search of salvation. The surprisingly simple headstone bearing only the dead man’s name in black ink and a simple, wooden shed covering it has turned the place into a sacred site.

Ethnographer Avraham Rechtman, who toured the Podolian towns on the eve of World War I, noted in “Yidishe Etnografye un Folklor” a marvelous story in Medzhybizh that is characteristic of the world of old Hasidism, even if untrue. Before he died, the Besht ordered a headstone not be placed over his grave and his disciples honored his request. They treated the grave as a holy of holies, and believed anyone who touched it would die.

Over the years the rains disturbed the people who came to pray at the graveside and then a devout Hasid, a simple carpenter, decided he must at least place a roof over the grave. He knew how dangerous it would be to defy the Besht’s commandments.

It took him more than a month to build the structure at his home, and all that time he did not cease fasting, praying with much devotion and immersing himself in ritual baths.

When the Hasid completed the preparations, the Besht appeared in his dream and warned him that his life was in danger. In the early morning the carpenter woke up and with the help of three peasants placed the construction, quickly and gently, over the holy grave. When he washed the sweat from his face he felt a great sense of joy and satisfaction, but when he returned home he was exhausted.

He understood what was awaiting him, washed his hands, wrapped himself in shrouds, summoned his wife and children and told them his end was near. They cried but he began saying the vidui, the confession said prior to death, with much enthusiasm. He faced the wall and died in purity.

The weather damaged the shed whose builder paid for it with his life but it remained in place until the eve of World War II. It was desecrated during that war by people searching for gold and treasures. Its stones were stolen for construction and wild weeds, thorns and thistle covered it.

Only in the 1980s did Jewish activists in the then-Soviet Union begin restoring the destroyed cemetery and marking the gravestones. All that time the site kept its popular and modest character. When Ukraine gained independence, almost 20 years ago, the road to holy Hasids’ graves were paved again and new pilgrims began to frequent the remains.

The earthly town of Medzhybizh is not much different from the earthly Jerusalem or Bnei Brak. A good intentioned Haredi entrepreneur and his association called Derech Tzadikim refurbished the gravestones, poured cement over them, covered them with marble and over that built an ostentatious, grotesque and ugly “tent” that is completely out of place in the calm rural area.

The Baal Shem Tov Hall there contains a synagogue and a study house, a ritual bath and facilities to host Hasidic rabbis and their thousands of followers who come to pray and stay there.

But it totally contradicts the modesty of the past and stresses the shabbiness of the present. And the local non-Jewish peasants, who sell cheap wood or copper toys to pilgrims, watch the whole scene with satisfaction, making a living from the Jews and their dead.

David Assaf is a professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University