Weekly Chasidic Story #720 (s5771-54 / 13 Elul 5771)
The Baal Shem Tov said: “Today a new soul that had not previously occupied a physical body has come into the world.”
Connection: Seasonal – Chai Elul, this Shabbat, is the birthday of both the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe of Chabad
Shneur Zalman was born on the 18th day of Elul in the year 5505 ( September 4, 1745), in Liozna, a small Polish town in the province of Mohilev, lying some 50 miles from the county seat of Orsha, on the highway from Smolensk to Vitebsk.1 His father, Baruch, was a direct descendant of the famous Rabbi and kabbalist, Judah Lowe of Prague (1520-1609), known as the Maharal.2
Baruch married Rivka, the daughter of Avraham, a gardener in Liozna, on Friday, the 17th of Elul, 5503 (1743). When a year had passed by and they had not yet conceived a child, the young couple went to Meziboz to see the Ba’al Shem Tov, to ask him for a blessing.
It was the Besht’s (an acronym for Baal Shem Tov) custom to celebrate his birthday (which was also on the 18th of Elul) every year. At the repast on that auspicious day, the Besht blessed them that they would become the parents of a boy in the following year.
Not even the Besht knew then that the soul which was destined to descend into Baruch’s son was a new and unblemished soul which had never yet been on earth. Such souls are rare, since most souls descending to earth are reincarnations, sent down to make amends for wrongs or omissions in a life which had once, or even more than once, been spent on earth.
The Baal Shem Tov, for who the Heavens were open, had known for some time that a new soul was to descend to earth, since such a soul undergoes a three-year period of preparation prior to its descent (while all other souls require only one year’s preparation). However, the identity of that soul had not been revealed to him.
On Rosh Hashanah of that year (5505/1745) the Besht’s disciples noticed a radical change in the manner of their master. Usually, for him, the solemn “Period of Awe” began on the first day of Elul, the final month of the Jewish year leading into Rosh Hashana, and lasted through Yom Kippur. After, from the termination of the Day of Atonement until after Simchat Torah, it was the “Season of Rejoicing” – a period of sublime joy, when his Divine service was manifestly joyous.
It was therefore most unusual to see the master in a state of obvious rejoicing already during Rosh Hashana. And his joy grew in intensity from the termination of Yom Kippur through Sukkot. The Besht’s disciples wondered what the cause of that extraordinary joy was, but could find no explanation.
Baruch and Rivka spent the entire period of the Holy Days in Meziboz. Before departing for home they saw the Besht again. Their faces were beaming with joy, and when the Baal Shem Tov repeated his blessing, Rivka fervently promised that she would consecrate her son to the dissemination of Torah and the Chasidic doctrine and way of life as taught by the Besht.
Rivka herself was well versed in Jewish learning, which was rare for a woman in those days, and she devoted some time daily to the study of Torah. However, she kept this from her husband. Now, having decided to intensify her sacred studies, she visited Devorah Leah, her husband’s sister and an exceptionally learned woman who was married to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the chief rabbi of Vitebsk, to ask her for guidance as to prayer and study during her anticipated pregnancy.
In due course Rivka was able to tell her husband that she had conceived. Although they were both sure that the Besht knew about the pregnancy through his ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration), Rivka wanted her husband to inform him of the good news in person.
In Adar Sheini, the month before Passover, Rivka encouraged her husband to travel to the Baal Shem Tov. When Baruch arrived, the Besht wished him mazal tov. In the course of their conversation, the Besht suddenly realized -to his great delight– that the child Rivka was carrying was indeed the special soul whose birth he had foreseen on Rosh Hashana.
Without divulging this information to Baruch, the Besht astonished him by instructing him to say the joyous blessing ofShehecheyanu, but without pronouncing G-d’s name.3
* * * * *
On the fourth day of the third week of Elul, on the 18th day of the month, Rivka gave birth in Liozna. On that day, which was his also his own 47th birthday, the Baal Shem Tov displayed an extraordinary elation. He personally led the prayers, which he chanted in joyous melodies. It was clear that he considered it a festive day. During the repast which followed the prayers, the Besht told his disciples:
“On the fourth day of Creation the luminaries were set in the sky. Today, the fourth day of the week, a week in which it is stated in the Haftorah, “Arise, shine forth” (Isa. 60), a new soul descended on earth, a soul which will illuminate the world with the revealed and esoteric teachings of the Torah, and will successfully disseminate the Chasidic way with selfless dedication, preparing the way for the arrival of Mashiach (Messiah).”
On the 25th day of Elul the circumcision took place in Liozna, and the boy was named Shneur Zalman, after Bruch’s departed father. In Meziboz, the Besht arranged a feast and delivered a discourse on the verse “On the eight day his uncircumcised flesh shall be circumcised” (Lev. 12:3), and on Shabbat three days later, gave another discourse. He was clearly in a supremely elated frame of mind. All of which presented a mystery to his disciples and followers.
For the Day of Atonement (5506) Baruch came to Meziboz to be with his master. He had been forewarned not to tell anybody about the birth of his son, nor the name which had been given him. Again, before leaving for home, he received from the Besht a set of instructions as to the discipline which was to surround the child, and the careful watch which was to be kept over him at all times, in particular keeping him away from the eyes and ears of gossipers.
The following year Baruch came, as usual, to the Baal Shem Tov for the Solemn Days. The Besht inquired about the little boy in great detail, and repeated his admonition about taking special care of the child. After Sukkot, when Baruch was ready to leave for home, the Besht again cautioned him to shelter the boy, and not to repeat any of his clever acts or sayings, as most parents are apt to do.
Another year passed by. Once again Baruch made his annual pilgrimage to Meziboz. The Besht gave Baruch further instructions concerning the boy. After nodding his acceptance, Baruch requested permission to bring the boy to the Besht on his third birthday for the traditional “haircutting” ceremony. The Besht agreed, but on the condition that no one besides Baruch, his wife, and his sister Devorah Leah would be told about it. In addition, the young child, his mother and his aunt would have to leave immediately after the Besht cut the child’s hair. He said they should come to him after the Morning Prayers of the 18th of Elul.
When they arrived on the appointed day, the Besht cut off a few locks of hair, leaving peyot (side locks) according to custom, and he blessed the boy with the three-fold Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:24-26). He then sent the visitors home, with his blessings for a safe journey and for the new year.
He also instructed Baruch not to tell his young son about him or about Chasidut. The Besht explained that in order for Shneur Zalman to fulfill his special mission, he must learn about Chasidut on his own and decide for himself whether or not he wanted to become a chasid.4
After they departed, the Baal Shem Tov made his yearly festive meal in honor of his birthday. During the meal he said, “At the age of three, Avraham the Patriarch recognized G-d. Avraham had mesirut nefesh (total self sacrifice) to teach people how to serve G-d.
“On this day, three years ago, a special soul came down into this world. Today, the one who has this new soul will need the total self sacrifice of Avraham the Patriarch to teach Jews how to serve G-d with truth and vitality. When he succeeds in this tremendous mission, his soul will shine until the coming of Mashiach.
“The Accuser, however, was also given strength…to fight him. This is the reason I often cried during these past three years.
“His name in Shneur, which means Shnei Or – two lights – and he will light up the world with two lights: the light of the revealed Torah and light of the pnimiyut (esoteric) haTorah.”
* * * * *
At first, little Shneur Zalman was tutored by local tutors. After several years, his father decided to send him, at age 8 or 9, to study in nearby Lubavitch, under the tutelage of Rabbi Yissachar Dov of Kobilnik, a Torah scholar of note, and one of the Baal Shem Tov’s greatest chasidim.
Rabbi Yissachar Dov had already been told by the Besht who his special student was, and what and how to teach him. He was also instructed not to tell him about the Besht, even though, as a chasid, Rabbi Yissachar Dov visited his Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, a few times a year.
Shneur Zalman studied under his guidance until he reached the age of eleven years. Then his teacher brought him back home, informing the boy’s father that the boy could continue studying on his own. Rabbi Yissachar Dov prepared a program of studies in Talmud and Kabbala for the boy, and also a discipline of daily conduct.
Young Shneur Zalman flourished in his studies. At age 20 he became the youngest of the ‘Chevraya Kadisha’ – “The Holy Brotherhood” of the inner circle of main disciples of the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, Rabbi Dov-Ber, theMaggid of Mezritch. These men would later spread the teachings of Chasidut through Eastern Europe, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman would become known as ‘The Alter Rebbe – the first (lit. ‘Old’) Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch school of chasidism.
1.Lubavitch (“Town of Love”) is also located between Smolensk and Vitebsk. It became the residence of the heads of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in 1814, when Rabbi Dov Ber, son and successor of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, settled there. For over a century (until 1916) and four generations of Chabad leaders, it remained the center of the movement. Hence the leaders of Chabad became known as the “Lubavitcher Rebbes,” and their Chasidim as “Lubavitcher Chasidim.”
2.The genealogy runs as follows: (1) Judah Lowe (Maharal); (2) his son Bezalel; (3) latter’s son Shemuel; (4) latter’s son Yehuda Leib; (5) his son Moshe; (6) his son Shneur Zalman; (7) his son Baruch; (8) Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad.
3.According to Jewish law, one does not say the blessing Shehecheyanu because of a pregnancy. However, due to the momentous occasion of which only the Besht knew, he instructed Baruch to say it. By omitting G-d’s name, it removed the possibility of it being a blessing said in vain.
4.When Reb Shneur Zalman was around twenty, his father and uncle told him about the Baal Shem Tov, but that was only after he discovered Chasidut on his own and had already traveled to, and become a chasid of, the Maggid
Source: Extracted and adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, vol 1: Biography, by Rabbi Nissan Mindel, and supplemented from The Alter Rebbe: Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Laidi, by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon (plus the concluding paragraph from //baalshemtov.com).
Connection: Seasonal – Chai Elul, this Shabbat, is the birthday of both the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Chabad
Rabbi Yisrael, 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 passed away on the festival of Shavuot in 1760. 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 Kehos.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman [18 Elul 1745 – 24 Tevet 1812], one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, is the founder of the Chabad-Chassidic movement. He is the author of Shulchan Aruch HaRav and Tanya as well as many other major works in both Jewish law and the mystical teachings.
Editor’s note: Please note that the title of this piece is nicely ambiguous, referring both to the translation of the name Shneur, and to the two great illuminators of the Chasidic movement who share the same birthday, which falls on this Shabbat.
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.
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