Weekly Chasidic Story #807 (s5773-36 / 4 Sivan 5773)
Following the revelation of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov on 18 Elul 1734, as a great Jewish leader and mystic, many of the Jewish community, especially in Poland, became followers of the Chassidic path of Judaism. Twenty-six years later, the time arrived all too soon for the Baal Shem Tov to pass on to the next world.
For Passover 1760, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, came to visit his Master, the Baal Shem Tov. On the afternoon preceding the festival, Seventh Day of Passover, Rabbi Pinchas was feeling weak and decided not to go to the mikveh, as was his custom.
The next day during his morning prayers, he had a premonition that the Baal Shem Tov would soon pass away. Rabbi Pinchas began to pray more intensely, begging that the Heavenly decree against the Baal Shem Tov be lifted. But he felt that he was unable to affect the decree and started to deeply regret that he had not gone to the mikveh before the holiday.
Interestingly, after morning prayers, the Baal Shem Tov asked Rabbi Pinchas if he had gone to the mikveh on the previous afternoon. When he answered he had not, the Baal Shem Tov replied, “It’s too late to correct that now.”
* * *
After Passover, the Baal Shem Tov fell ill. However, he did not tell his followers and continued to pray before the ark. Whoever among his close followers might have been able to effect changes with their prayers, he sent on missions to other communities. Rabbi Pinchas, knowing of the Heavenly decree against the Baal Shem Tov, did not return to his home but stayed on in Medzibuz.
Previously, on the eve of Shabbat Hagadol, the Sabbath preceding Passover, the Baal Shem Tov had sat down to write a last will and testament addressed to his disciples. He concluded it with the words, “I write this today because last night my [heavenly] master and teacher [Ahiya of Shilo-a biblical prophet,] revealed to me that this is my last eve of Shabbat Hagadol….”
Seven and one half weeks later, on the eve of Shavuot, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov called his personal scribe, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh, and dictated to him some final revisions and amendments to an earlier, detailed will, ordering among other things that all his books and manuscripts be given unto “my disciple and peer, the Prince of Torah, Rabbi Dov Ber [the Magid of Mezritch,] son of Rabbi Abraham, except for all the books in Yiddish which belong to my G-d fearing daughter Adele.”
He reaffirmed article 18 of his original will to the effect that his copies of “the commentaries of Gersonides on the bible, and the book Neveh Shalom [a 15th century philosophical-homiletical work, with Kabbalistic overtones composed by Rabbi Abraham Shalom] both with my marginal notes and annotations, are to be given unto my disciple, dear to me like a son, the Pillar of fire, Rabbi Jacob Joseph Hacohen [of Polnoy].”
* * *
On Tuesday evening, the [first] night of Shavuot, all of the followers of the Baal Shem Tov gathered with him to spend the night in Torah study, as is the custom. The Baal Shem Tov expounded on the Torah portion of the week and the meaning of Shavuot.
In the morning, he sent for his closest followers to gather in his room. He told Rabbi Leib Kessler and several others to arrange for his burial. Because they were members of the Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) and were knowledgeable in signs of illness, he showed them the signs on his body and explained how the soul emanates from each part. Then, he told them to gather a minyan to pray with him. Before they began, he said, “Soon I shall be with the Holy One, blessed be He.”
After the prayers, Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka went to the Study Hall to pray for his Master. Later, the Baal Shem Tov said, “He petitions in vain. Maybe if he could have entered in the Heavenly gate where I was accustomed to enter, his prayers would have helped.”
When the shammesh (attendant) of the Baal Shem Tov entered his master’s room, he heard the Baal Shem Tov saying, “I grant you these two hours. Do not torture me.”
The asked, “Rebbe, who are you talking to?”
The Baal Shem Tov answered, “Don’t you see the Angel of Death? Before, he always ran from me. Now that he has been given control over me, he stands straighter and laughs at me.”
Later, during the festival day meal, he asked his attendant to put mead in a large glass. Instead, the shammesh put it in a small glass. The Baal Shem Tov remarked wryly, “‘Man has no power on the day of death,’ even my attendant does not obey me.”
After the meal, many of the town’s people, who did not know of the Baal Shem Tov’s condition, came to see him. As always, he delivered a discourse of Torah to them.
All of his close disciples were sitting in the room of the Baal Shem Tov while he lay in his bed. He gave them a sign. “My friends, when I leave this world, both clocks in this room will stop.”
He asked for a large cup of water and a basin to be brought to him. While he was washing his hands, His followers saw the hands of the big clock stop. They stood in front of it so that the Baal Shem wouldn’t see that it had stopped.
He said to them, “My friends, I am not concerned for myself because l know that when I leave through the door of this world, I’ll immediately enter into the door of the next world.”
The Baal Shem Tov then sat up in his bed and told them to gather around him. He spoke words of Torah, explaining about the column upon which one ascends from Lower Paradise to Upper Paradise, and how this was so in each of the Four Worlds. Then he described the World of Souls, and expounded the order of worship. He instructed them to say with him, “Let the pleasantness of the L-rd our G-d be upon us” [Psalms 90:17].
He lay down and sat up several times. Meanwhile he concentrated on mystical kavanot (intentions) until they could not distinguish the syllables of his speech.
Finally he lay down and told them to cover him with a sheet. Then he began to tremble as when he said the nineteen blessings of the Amida prayer. Slowly he became quiet.
They saw that the small clock had stopped. They waited for a long time but he didn’t move. Then they put a feather under his nose to detect his breathing, whereupon they finally had to accept that he had passed away.
A Rabbi Jacob of Medzibuz, reported that Rabbi Leib Kessler of the Burial Society saw the departure of his soul as a blue flame rising.
Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the rendition of Tzvi Meir HaCohane (Howard M. Cohn. Patent Attorney) on //besht.com, and supplemented from other written and oral sources, mainly “The Great Maggid” by J. I. Schochet (Kehot).
Editor’s note: So ends Part 1. Part 2, “The First Shavuot Yahrzeit of the Baal Shem Tov,” will be the subject of a future mailing, with G-d’s help.
Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer (18 Elul 1698-6 Sivan 1760), the Baal Shem Tov [“master of the good Name”], a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed the Chassidic movement and his own identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 1734. He wrote no books, although many claim to contain his teachings. One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava’at Harivash, published by Kehot.
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.