By Avraham ben R. Yissachar Stern
Author of Eidus Biyisrael and Kevutzas Kisvei Aggadah
Which he himself heard from Hasidim and elders
About the Baal Shem Tov and his students
(translated from the Yiddish)
An Introduction to this book of Hasidic Tales, with an explanation by the story-teller of the reason for this book and its purpose
“King Solomon wrote three divinely-inspired works: the Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Which one did he write first? R. Yonasan said that first he wrote the Song of Songs [the ‘Holy of Holies’--Yadaim 3:5], then Proverbs, and finally Ecclesiastes. R. Yonasan deduced this from the way of the world. When a person is young, he recites poetry. When he grows older, he cites proverbs. And when he is old, he speaks of emptiness” (Midrash Rabbah, Shir Hashirim 1).
From this, you might think that Ecclesiastes contains foolish, empty matters—heaven forbid! The truth is, however, that “the older a Torah sage grows, the more knowledge does he gain” (end of Kinim). And we are told that Solomon “grew wiser than any other man” (Kings I 5:11). And so in his old age, he was certainly wise.
So what is this “vanity of vanities” that he speaks about?
We learn from the Kabbalah the great secrets that are hidden and concealed in the seven “vanities” that Solomon refers to (cf. Tikunei Zohar 29). Or, according to its simple meaning, the book of Ecclesiastes is addressed at keeping a person away from the three harmful traits of envy, lust and ego. And so after Solomon has described these “vanities” with all their details, he concludes in the final verse, “the end of the matter will be clear to all: fear God and keep His commandments, for that is the entirety of a human being.”
When you learn Rashi’s commentary on Ecclesiastes and, even more, when you learn through the lengthy Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes, you feel for the first time the great wisdom of King Solomon’s divine inspiration, for he describes every individual [and] the entire Jewish people, as well as the exile and the complete redemption (may it come swiftly in our days, amen, God willing) and the way of the entire world. He explains why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper by referring to the secret of reincarnation. “Therefore, I saw the wicked buried and coming” (8:10). After they are buried, they come back again.
Three leaders led the Jews for periods of forty years: Moshe Rabbeinu, Dovid Hamelech and Shlomo Hamelech [King Solomon]. The letter “mem” has the numerical value of forty, and it has a connection to the Jewish redemption (cf. Sanhedrin 94).
Moshe Rabbeinu, the first redeemer, lay the groundwork for all redemptions. He alludes to them in the Song at the Sea, in quotes from the prophecy of Bilaam and, finally, at the end of the song, “Ha’azinu.” Also, the holy Zohar teaches that the blessings of the sedra V’Zot Habrachah hint that Moshe himself will be the future redeemer.
Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) alluded to this when he wrote, “That which was will be” (Ecclesiastes): “Mah shehayah, hu sheyihiyeh.” The acronym of these words is “Moshe” (cf. Ohr Hachaim on Exodus).
And of course, Dovid (the ever-living King of Israel, chai vakayam) is also connected to the coming of the messiah, as the Gemara learns from the verse, “Dovid, My servant, will be their prince forever” (Sanhedrin 98).
In his time, Shlomo Hamelech was an exemplar of the messianic king. Like a merchant who places a sign before his store that shows the merchandise in the store, [he showed what the messiah would be like]. In his time, there was peace amidst the Jews, as well as in the entire world. All the nations paid allegiance to him, solely as a result of his great wisdom. And so will it be with the messianic king. “The spirit of Hashem, the spirit of wisdom, will rest upon him...no nation will lift the sword against any other nation...”
Therefore, the poet and Kabbalist, R. Avraham Maimon, wrote, “Please, swiftly set up the kingdom of Dovid and Shlomo” (Mistateir, first poem). And that is also why Dovid Hamelech wrote the seventy-second chapter of Tehillim about the two of them together: Shlomo and the messianic king.
Why was this chapter of Tehillim the seventy-second?
The answer is that the true redemption comes from the divine name of seventy-two letters. The splitting of the Red Sea was the climax of the exodus from Egypt. As long as the Egyptians were not dead, the Jews were not yet certain that they would succeed. Thus, the splitting of the Red Sea comprised the complete redemption. And from it came the letter-combination of the seventy-two letter name, which is composed from three verses, “And he traveled...and he came...and he stretched out” (cf. Rashi in Succah 45a and R. Avraham ibn Ezra in his commentary on Beshalach; also, now that we have the Zohar—thank God—we can see this explicitly in the section on Beshalach).
The number forty is mentioned in a statement that “the days of messiah are forty years” (Sanhedrin 99a). However, we do not know how long the days at that time will be. So other opinions are that they are seventy years, three generations, three hundred and sixty five years, four hundred years, the years from the days of Noach till now, or the years from the days of the creation of the world until now. All of this comes to define those forty years.
At the beginning of Shlomo’s forty-year rule, he built the Beit Hamikdash and merited to see the congregation of Israel (which is compared to a bride) united with God (Who is compared to a groom). This was the open manifestation of God’s Presence before the eyes of all the Jews in the Beit Hamikdash. “The cloud filled the house of Hashem, and the cohanim could not...for the glory of Hashem filled the house of Hashem” (Kings I 8:10-11).
At that time, Shlomo composed Shir Hashirim (the Song of Songs), which states, “I held on to him and I would not let go. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. I am my beloved’s and his desire is towards me.” They reached the highest level of union, when “my soul went out when he spoke,” as occurred with Nadav and Avihu on the days that the Tabernacle was completed, “when they came close before Hashem.”
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The Book of the Three Ply Cords
The Baal Shem Tov said, “Three mitzvos are good even without proper intent: Torah learning, charity, and mikveh. Torah learning—even if you lack the proper intent, you are at any rate learning. Charity—even if you lack the proper intent, you are at any rate keeping a Jew alive. Mikveh—even if you lack the proper intent, you are at any rate pure.”
Rabbi Alyeh Naster of Tishvitz once told me a Hasidic tradition that the secret of the mikveh is that “one takes oneself off and one puts oneself back on.” This means that one casts off uncleanness and then clothes oneself in purity and holiness.
Story 1: THREE LEADERS OF THE GENERATION
When the Baal Shem Tov was still hidden, he learned by means of the holy spirit that there were three men who were the leaders of the generation: (1) the author of Tevuos Shor, (2) Rabbi Yitzchak Drabitsher, and (3) Rabbi Ephraim, who was maggid of Brode.
To perform the mitzvah of serving Torah scholars, the Baal Shem Tov went to all three of them.
The Baal Shem Tov called the author of Tevuos Shor the genius of the generation.
Clothed in the garments of a simple person, he served him by lighting his pipe.
The Baal Shem Tov called Rabbi Yitzchak Drabitsher the tzaddik of the generation.
He served him by bringing him tea. Once, when he returned the empty glasses to the kitchen, Rabbi Yitzchak’s rebbetzin asked him, “Why do you trouble yourself?” He replied, “One of the services of the cohen gadol on Yom Kippur was to remove the containers from the Holy of Holies and return them to their place. And he did this while wearing simple clothing.” The rebbetzin understood that he was not a simple man. (Later, the Baal Shem Tov succeeded in drawing Rabbi Yitzchak to his path of serving God.)
The following is a letter that Rabbi Yitzchak wrote to the Baal Shem Tov after the Baal Shem Tov was revealed.
Thank God. The first day of Chanukah 5515 (1744), Drabitsh
To the great man, the man of God, the wonder of the generation, the admor, who daily finds new insights in the law of the Holy One, blessed be He, Rabbi of all Jews in the exile, etc., etc., the teacher and rabbi, Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, may he live.
These are the names of the children of Israel who come to take refuge in the shadow of the Holy of Holies, may he live: Yaakov ben Chayah, Reuven ben Sarah, Chayim Chaikl ben Malkah, Yerucham Fishel ben Menuchah, Avraham ben Kayla. Each has given eighteen gold coins—in all, ninety gold coins [another version adds: and I have given one gold coin—in all, ninety-one gold coins].
These are the words of the smallest amongst his students, Yitzchak ben Rivkah, who lives here in the holy community of Drabitsh, his son Yechiel Mechil, son of Trani.
I [the author] copied this letter from a text in the Kiev Criminal Archive, which I found amidst the manuscripts of Rabbi Israel of Rizhin, who was arrested during the time of Nicholas the First. When the present Russian government took over, it allowed Jews to copy them.
The Baal Shem Tov called the third head of the generation, Rabbi Ephraim, the maggid of the holy community of Brod, the wise man of the generation.
The Baal Shem Tov once said, “The Chacham Tzvi of blessed memory left behind four sons. They all possess the holy spirit. Rabbi Yaakov Emdener, the Ashkenazi, walks about in heaven. But with his holy spirit, Rabbi Ephraim is literally ‘a scholar, who is superior to a prophet’ (Bava Basra 12a).” (In my Sefer Kevutzas Kisvei Aggadah, pp. 60-61, I write about a wondrous occurrence that took place between him and Rabbi Liber of Barditshev).
Rabbi Ephraim had thin blood. He was always cold. So in his house, benches were built along the wall, one above the other, as in a bathhouse, and he used to sit on the highest chair to warm himself.
One winter, the Baal Shem Tov put on a peasant coat and a straw belt, and went to serve Rabbi Ephraim. Coming into Rabbi Ephraim’s house, he found him shivering in the cold. The Baal Shem Tov told him, “Rebbe, may I warm up the fireplace [grube] to warm you?” Rabbi Ephraim answered, “In the house, there are only unchopped logs.” The Baal Shem Tov said, “I know the work.” Immediately, he got a saw and an axe, chopped the thickest log and warmed up the house.
Because of their difficult circumstances, Rabbi Ephraim’s wife sold bagels, fruits and brooms in the marketplace to earn money. This day, she happened to come home from the marketplace. She found her husband talking with the guest and felt the delicious warmth of the house. When she counted the logs, she saw that the biggest one was missing. Considering their poverty, she saw this as extravagant—to burn so much wood at one time? Angrily, she picked up a broom to drive out the guest, for she understood that this was his work. Until that moment, Rabbi Ephraim had pretended to notice nothing, but he continued to speak with the guest as with a simple person, and thanked him for having revived him. But now, when the rebbetzin was about to strike the guest with the broom, Rabbi Ephraim told her: “If you touch him, you will destroy the world. He is a very holy man.” And he took hold of the guest and left the house with him.
Then Rabbi Ephraim told the Baal Shem Tov, “I know that you will be a leader of Israel. Every word of yours, even every thought of yours, is taken seriously in heaven. So I beg you not to be angry at my rebbetzin, for she is embittered by our great poverty. But you must know that one can profit even from a bad wife. One time, I rose up to heaven, where I found the heavenly court judging a Jewish soul. Whenever he was shown the wrong that he had done, he answered, ‘I had a bad wife, and she brought me to all of this.’ The heavenly court was about to accept this defense, but then an accusing angel came and asked, ‘Why did this man obey his wife rather than keep the Torah?’ So I replied to the angel, ‘Have you ever withstood the test of a bad wife?’ My answer pleased the heavenly court, and it delivered a decision that this angel should descend to earth and marry a bad wife. And only afterwards, when he returned to the upper world, would they know what to do with that Jewish soul.
“I knew where this incarnated angel was born and grew up, until he married a bad wife, who caused him to contract a lung disease. He was a pious person. I kept an eye on him. He obeyed me and divorced his wife, so that she would not have to undergo the chalitzah ceremony. [He knew that he was dying; they did not have any children, and so his widow would have to undergo chalitzah with his brother.] He died two weeks ago. Before he died, I told him that he had been the accusing angel. At that point, he was on a high level, and he remembered everything, as he told me. He told me that he would no longer be an accuser—particularly, against a defense of a bad wife.” And Rabbi Ephraim concluded, cautioning the Baal Shem Tov as future leader, “See to it that you defend Jews as much as you can.”
May their merit protect us and all Israel, amen.
Yaacov David Shulman