Weekly Chasidic Story #1060 (s5778-29/ 17 Nissan 5778)

Now You See Him, Now You Don't

Once, during Chol HaMoed, Rabbi Gershon Kittover noticed that his brother-in-law the Baal Shem Tov was not putting on tefillin during the morning prayers.

Connection: Seasonal -- Chol HaMoed: the "Intermediate" Days of Passover and Sukkot

Now You See Him, Now You Don't


During the time of the Baal Shem Tov, it was common for travelers to stay overnight at inns. Many of those small inns were leased by Jewish innkeepers from the gentile landowners.

Prior to the revelation of the Besht* as a spiritual giant, he would disguise himself as an ignorant, albeit pious peasant and was simply known as Yisrael. Rabbi Gershon Kittover, his brother-in-law, wanted to help his sister Chana,** the Baal Shem Tov's wife, with their material needs, so he attempted to find local employment for his simple-seeming brother-in-law.
But the Besht proved unsuitable for any work and an embarrassment to Rabbi Gershon, who in his city of Kittov was well known as a famous Talmudic scholar and an expert in Jewish law. In desperation, Rabbi Gershon rented an inn in a small village a good distance from Kittov, where Reb Israel could make a living and support his wife.

When the couple took over the inn, the Besht built a small study house in the nearby forest where he studied all week with his Heavenly spiritual master, Achiya HaShaloni.*** It was during this time that the Baal Shem Tov reached his spiritual perfection.

Rebbetzin Chana tended to the inn. Whenever a guest would arrive, she would send for her husband, and he would return to serve their guests. No one suspected that Yisrael was anything other than a simple Jewish innkeeper.

For the High Holidays each year, the Baal Shem Tov would close the inn and spend the entire month with Rebbetzin Chana in the city of Kittov.

Once during the intermediate days of Sukkot,**** Rabbi Gershon noticed that his brother-in-law was not putting on tefillin during the morning prayers. The fact was obvious to everyone in the Synogogue since the Besht prayed at the front of the synagogue. Feeling once again embarrassed by his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon asked, "Reb Israel, why didn't you put on tefillin today?"

The Baal Shem Tov answered, "I saw an interpretation in a particular holy book in Yiddish that he who puts on tefillin during Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days) is sentenced to death."

Rabbi Gershon became angry that his wife's brother was following the custom of the Kabbalists instead of the prevailing custom of the Jewry of Galicia. He ordered the Besht to accompany him to the Rabbi of the city to discuss the matter.

When they came to the house of the Rabbi, Rabbi Gershon touched the mezuzah at the entranceway and then kissed his fingers, as is the custom. The Baal Shem Tov also touched the mezuzah but didn't kiss his fingers. When Rabbi Gershon saw this, he became even angrier, "Reb Israel, what is wrong with you?"

As Rabbi Gershon and the Baal Shem Tov entered the study of the Rabbi, the Besht removed the concealment of the spiritual luminance of his facial features. The Rabbi saw a great spiritual light shining from the face of his unknown guest and immediately stood up. The Baal Shem Tov then restored his spiritual disguise and the Rabbi sat down.
This happened several times. The Rabbi was bewildered and frightened because Reb Israel first looked like a holy man and then returned to looking like a simple man.

Rabbi Gershon saw the Rabbi's strange antics and wondered what was going on. Then he decided to dismiss it from his mind, and instead explained to the Rabbi about Reb Israel's refusal to put on tefillin and his failure to kiss the mezuzah.

The Rabbi took the Baal Shem Tov aside and asked him, "Who are you? Please tell me the truth."

The Baal Shem Tov disclosed to the Rabbi that in fact he was a holy man but ordered him not to tell anyone what he saw or heard. "You are the first to see my true nature because the time has not yet arrived for me to reveal my spiritual status to others."
"And why did you not kiss the mezuzah?" the Rabbi wondered.
"Because it is not valid."

When they returned to Rabbi Gershon, the Rabbi said, "I have discussed the matters with him. He would not knowingly disregard our customs. He acted in innocence."

As soon as Rabbi Gershon and the Baal Shem Tov left, the Rabbi examined his mezuzah. Sure enough, he found that it was defective.


Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the rendition of Tzvi-Meir HaCohane (Howard M. Cohn. Patent Attorney) on // baalshemtov.com, based upon a story in Shivchei Habesht and its translation in In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov by Mintz and Ben Amos.


Editor's notes:
* An acronym for "Baal Shem Tov".
** Some understand that her name was Leah-Rachel.
*** A Biblical prophet (see I Kings 11:31-39 & 14:13-16), who in the forty generations from Moses receiving the Torah to the completion of the Talmud was the linking scholar between King Solomon and the prophet Elijah, and who was the Heavenly teacher with whom the Baal Shem Tov merited to intensely study with for ten years, learning the secrets of the Torah and the inner meanings of the Kabbalah from his 26th until his 36th birthday.
**** An eight-day holiday that begins five days after Yom Kippur, in which labor is forbidden on the first and last two days but not the four days in-between (unless, of course, one of them coincides with Shabbat).


Biographical notes:
Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer [of blessed memory: 18 Elul 5458 - 6 Sivan 5520 (Aug. 1698 - May 1760 C.E.)], the Baal Shem Tov ["Master of the Good Name"-often referred to as "the Besht" for short], a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed his identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 5494 (1734 C.E.), and made the until-then underground Chasidic movement public. He wrote no books, although many works claim to contain his teachings. One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava'at Harivash, published by Kehos.
Rabbi Avraham-Gershon Kittover [of blessed memory: 5456? - 25 Adar 5521 (1696? - March 1761)], was the brother-in-law of the Baal Shem Tov, of whom he initially disapproved, but after the Besht's revelation to the world in 1734, became one of his most ardent followers. He passed away in Jerusalem, having moved there in 1742 in order to study Kabbalah in the yeshiva of the Ohr HaChayim.


Connection: Seasonal: Chol HaMoed: the "Intermediate" Days of Passover and Sukkot


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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