Weekly Chasidic Story #794 (s5773-23 / 1 Adar 5773)
The Haunted House
The ten followers of Rabbi Joel Baal-Shem did as he had instructed. Hundreds of Jews and non-Jews crowded outside, waiting to see what would happen.
Connection: Weekly Reading–see Ex. 25:8
In the city of Posen, Reb Boruch Batlan (the great grandfather of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Chabad) lived as a tenant in the multi-dwelling house of the goldsmith Avigdor Tuvia and his wife Gittel. These two, though they gave muchtzedaka (“charity”) and helped many, were not refined people; he played cards, drank and used bad language, and his wife also spoke in an unrefined way and would curse when angered. People trembled in fear at her curses, for they were known to materialize.
In the year 5442 (1682), Avigdor Tuvia and his wife passed away, without children. Neighboring residents began hearing wild screams and drunken laughter coming out of the apartment the couple had lived in. Stamping and dancing feet would shake the house. Reb Boruch and family moved to another area, because they were unable to fall asleep at night.
On his next visit to his Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel, the Baal Shem of Zamostch, he told him about the haunted house in Posen and about its past residents Avigdor Tuvia and Gittel. Reb Yoel Baal Shem said that the only way to drive the demons from the house, was to turn it into a “Beis Medrash” Hall for Torah Study.
The Baal Shem then gave clear directives: Ten of the Baal Shem’s disciples should fast the following Sunday, read the Torah passages for fast days that begin Vayechal at the beginning of the Mincha Afternoon prayer at the end of the day, and then spend the night learning Torah continuously. The following morning, five Torah scrolls, each wrapped in a tallis, should be carried by two students each, and they should march from the shul to the goldsmith’s house. At the door, they should call out to the demons, telling them, “Leave the house; make way for the holy Torah.” They should then go inside and say certain chapters of Psalms, even if the demons had not yet exited. A prayer minyan should be convened there three times a day, and Torah classes for young and old should be organized. “Then everything will be in order,” concluded Reb Yoel Baal Shem.
Meanwhile, the Mayor of Posen, who was friendly to the Jews, came one evening to see for himself. When he heard the sounds of screaming, drunken singing and wild clapping of hands and banging on tables, he recoiled in horror. Being a devout Cristian, he hurried to ask the bishop for a special prayer to remove the demons from the town. The bishop called together his priests, and they walked in a procession, carrying their crosses and icons, until they reached the house where they sprinkled water on the walls and closed their eyes, mumbling a prayer.
The apartment was on the first floor and had four windows facing the street, where the priests were standing. Suddenly, the windows flung open and terrible faces popped out with blood-curdling yells, so frightening that some priests fainted and many of the onlookers fled in terror.
That Sunday, the ten followers of the Baal Shem did as he had instructed. Hundreds of men and women, both Jews and non-Jews, crowded outside, waiting to see what would happen. Unafraid, the disciples called out three times for the demons to leave. When the noises from the house did not stop, they broke down the door and entered. At that moment, every window pane was shattered, as the weirdest collection of evil-looking creatures flew out in a stampede, as if fleeing for their lives.
They left a sickening smell in the room which they had just occupied, and a stinking smell pervaded the atmosphere. But as soon as the special minyan entered the room the smoke disappeared, taking the awful smell with it.
For six weeks, everything went smoothly, but then the terrifying sounds were heard once again, this time coming from the cellar. The neighbors, who had been enjoying the relief, were horrified to once again hear loud barks and noises, giving them no peace by day or night. One tenant, a dealer in furs, was an opponent to the Baal Shem, and denied the miraculous nature of the demons’ departure the month before. Now that they had returned, he was delighted. When the neighbors suggested inviting the Baal Shem himself to resolve the matter, he became furious and declared he would fight to prevent this.
One day soon thereafter, a customer came to see some fur skins, so the dealer sent his son with the customer down to the cellar, where his pelts were stored. As soon as they moved to open the cellar door, it flew open on its own, and out jumped the most frightening creature they had ever seen. The customer turned white as snow, and the son lost his mind. They both ran screaming into the street, eventually fainting from fright. When they came to, the son had to be tied with rope to keep him from damaging himself or others. Now, even the opposing tenant did not object to have the Baal Shem come and get rid of the demons.
The Baal Shem traveled to Posen and arranged three Rabbinical Judges for a Torah trial he intended to instigate with the demons. It was to take place in the newly established Beis Medrash in the apartment. The room was prepared with a special area for the demons sectioned off by heavy furniture and curtains.
The Baal Shem called out for the demons to appear, warning them not to hurt anyone. As soon as the demons made their presence felt, the Baal Shem began, “I have called you to a trial according to the laws of the Torah, for you have exceeded the limits the Creator has set, by coming among humans.”
The response was strange incomprehensible sounds. At the instructions of the Baal Shem, the head of the rabbinical panel stood up and decreed that one of the demons be granted the capability to speak clearly.
“We have every right to come here,” the representative demon began their defense. “We were created by the curses of Avigdor Tuvia and his wife, Gittel. As they have no living children and we are their spiritual inheritors, their house rightfully belongs to us. We left the upstairs apartment only because the light of the Torah scrolls was too dazzling for us to tolerate.”
The demons then began to roar and hiss loudly, terrifying all those present. The Baal Shem called out loudly, “I command you, in the name of the Holy Name that emerges from the verse (Psalms 91:7), ‘A thousand may fall at your [left] side and ten thousand on your right, but it shall not reach you,’ that you be silent immediately and remain hidden from human eyes. And you are to cease emitting your nasty odor. I bind you to obey the decision of the Rabbinical Court.”
The shul became absolutely silent and the demonic figures vanished from sight. The rabbinical judges ruled after a few moments of consultation that, as non-humans, the demons had no legal right to the property. Yoel Baal-Shem promptly ordered the intruders to depart peacefully without harming anyone or anything, and instructed the townsmen to recite the Ketores “Incense” passages from the sacrifice sections of the daily prayers, and then to convene a minyan for the Afternoon Prayer.
The demons were never seen or heard from again.
Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from Lma’an Yishme’u #101 and Memoirs of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 2, section #98-99.
Connection: Weekly Reading-consider Ex. 25:8.
Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem of Zamostch (1613-1688?) studied five years with great success under Rabbi Joel Sirkes (the “Bach”) and another five years under Rabbi Eliyahu Baal Shem of Wurms, the great kabbalist and founder of the “tzadikim nistarim” – “the secret righteous” movement, whom he eventually succeeded. He in turn passed the mantle to Adam Baal Shem, who designated Israel Baal Shem Tov as his successor, under whom the movement became revealed in 1734 and eventually known as the “Chasidim.”
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.