Weekly Chasidic Story #1016 (s5777-35/ 3 Sivan 5777)

Laughing Below, Dancing Above

When Shabtai the bookbinder arrived, the Baal Shem Tov asked him, "Please tell us what happened in your home on Shabbos night."

Connections: Seasonal--SHAVUOT is also the yahrzeit of the Baal Shem Tov

Laughing Below, Dancing Above

Once, while the Baal Shem Tov was sitting at the Shabbos night dinner table, he suddenly started to laugh heartily. After a few minutes, the Rebbe started laughing again. A short while later, the Rebbe laughed a third time!

The disciples who were present that night couldn't imagine what could cause their Rebbe to burst into such laughter, --and three times, no less!--but they didn't dare to ask. However, Saturday night, after the Havdalah ('end of Shabbos") ceremony¸ they asked one of their veteran members, Rabbi Ze'ev-Wolff Kitzis (who was also the Baal Shem Tov's brother-in-law), to query the Rebbe about this seemingly strange behavior. They knew it was his custom to visit the Baal Shem Tov at his home on Saturday nights while the Rebbe was smoking his pipe.

The Baal Shem Tov's response was to tell him, "Why don't you and the rest of the chevreh (the group of his close followers) accompany me on a journey now, and I will reveal to you what made me laugh."

The Baal Shem Tov then asked his gentile coach-driver, Alexi, to prepare the wagon and horses for a trip. The excursion lasted the entire night.

As the sky began to lighten, they arrived at a large town, which they soon found out was Apta. After praying in a local synagogue, the Baal Shem Tov went over to the leader of the congregation and asked him to send for Reb Shabsi the bookbinder. "And tell him to please bring his wife too," he added.

When they arrived, the Baal Shem Tov addressed Shabsi, "Please tell us what went on in your home on Shabbos night. Don't leave out anything."

Shabsi's jaw dropped in shock. After opening and closing his mouth several times, he began. "Rebbe, I'm sorry. If I've sinned, please instruct me how to rectify it." Then, after a glance at his wife, he related what happened.

"All my life I worked binding books, and thank G-d, it supported all my needs. My custom was that every Thursday I buy everything needed for Shabbos, and had everything ready for Shabbos long before midday on Friday. At midday, already dressed for Shabbos, I go to shul. There I review the weekly reading and read Song of Songs until it is time for the Mincha (afternoon prayer) and Welcoming the Shabbos prayers. Then I go home, pour a cup of wine and recite Kiddush.

"This was my practice for more than forty years. Lately however, since I became old, I don't have the strength to work as much. As a result, I slowly became impoverished. I rarely have the means to buy everything we need for Shabbos. Still, I maintain my custom to go to shul at midday on Friday, already prepared for the holy day.

"This past Friday was especially difficult. I had no money at all to buy anything for Shabbos. When midday came, I told my wife that I nevertheless was going to go to shul as always, and I asked her to promise not to go to the neighbors to borrow anything for Shabbos-no oil for lighting candles, nor food nor wine nor flour to bake challah. Even if they offered to give she should not take. I felt in total agreement with the statement of our sages, 'It is better to make Shabbos like a weekday, than to be dependent on others.'

"I went to shul as usual and learned and prayed, yet feeling uneasy knowing that my house was dark and empty of anything for Shabbos. After completion of the Shabbos night prayers, I waited till everyone else left before I set out for home. I didn't want to answer their questions if they should notice through our window that no candles were burning.

"I was still a short distance from home when I noticed that there was bright light coming from my front window! I could barely trust my eyes. I knew there was no oil or candles in the house.

"I felt bad, realizing that my wife certainly wasn't able to stand up to the test and had gone to the neighbors to borrow candles. And perhaps food too!

"When I went inside, I saw the table was set beautifully, and the whole house smelled of delicious food! For a moment I became angry; I had told my wife to promise me that she wouldn't borrow anything, and clearly she didn't keep her word.

"Nevertheless, I decided I was not going to say anything so as not to cause any arguments and thereby spoil the peace and harmony of Shabbos. I understood it must have been difficult for her.

"Instead, I sang Shalom Aleichem and Eishes Chayil (the two traditional pre-Kiddush hymns) as usual. However, when my wife brought over the wine for Kiddush and covered the beautiful challahs, I was unable to hold back, and I asked her as gently as I could why she broke her promise.

"Did she surprise me! She stated that she didn't break her word. She quickly explained that after I left for shul she didn't know what to do: there was no food to prepare and she had already cleaned the house. So, she decided that instead of sitting idle, she would busy herself cleaning out the storage chest and refolding the old clothes in it.

"Inside the chest was an old coat, and in its pockets she discovered a pair of matching gloves that had been missing for many years, on which the buttons and decorative flowers --the fashion decades ago--were made of pure silver! She snipped them off and rushed to a silversmith in the marketplace, who willingly purchased them for a tidy sum. With the money, she went to the nearby stalls of the food and beverage sellers, and purchased everything we could possibly need for Shabbos, in her excitement sparing no expense.

"Hearing this, I also became excited, and very happy and grateful. I recited Kiddush with great joy. We washed our hands and said the blessing for bread over the two fresh challahs, and as soon as I finished chewing my first bite, I thanked my wife for what she had done, and when she served the gefilte fish I told her how lucky we were to have such a blessing from the Creator, that He saved us from poverty and taking charity and enabled us to honor the Shabbos properly.

"In our joy, we both got up and danced energetically like a young chatan and kallah (bride and groom) on the day of their wedding! After a while we sat back down and ate chicken soup and roasted meat and other delicious foods.

"I couldn't contain my great happiness, though, so I took her by the hand and we danced again! Finally, we got tired. We returned to the table and ate a rich selection of fruits and desserts, which led to our getting up and dancing a third time! We were so happy and so thankful to G-d for how he helped us, that dancing seemed to be the only way we could show Him our joy and gratitude!"

The elderly bookbinder completed his words by repeating, "Rebbe, I'm sorry. If I've sinned, please instruct me how to rectify it."

The Baal Shem Tov beamed at Shabsi, and turned to the eagerly listening chasidim. "Each of the three times Reb Shabsi and his wife danced around the Shabbos table last night, the angels in heaven too rejoiced and danced! This was what delighted me and made me laugh three times."

Turning back to Shabsi and his wife, Perle, the Baal Shem Tov addressed the woman directly. "In the merit of your great Shabbos efforts and the extraordinary rejoicing of you both, you are to be granted a special blessing. Would you like that you live the rest of your days in great wealth, or do you want a blessing to have a child in your old age?"

Perle answered instantly. "Would good will riches do us? We are old, in our sixties, and childless. Rebbe. Please bless me and my husband to have a good son." Shabsi nodded his head vigorously at hearing her choice.

The Baal Shem Tov said "Amen," and declared that by this time next year, Reb Shabsi and his wife would have a son. He also said that he would attend the brit milah circumcision ceremony and be the sandek (the man who holds the baby on his lap during the physical circumcision), and that their son would be a bright light for them in the World of Truth.

And that's what happened. Before twelve months, the elderly couple had a baby boy! Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov was the sandek at the brit, and they named the infant 'Yisrael' after him.

This child grew up to be a great Torah scholar and a leading chasidic rebbe in his own right. He was none other than Rabbi Yisrael, the famed 'Maggid ("Preacher") of Kozhnitz'!

Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles, from the delightful book, Why the Baal Shem Tov Laughed, by Shterneh Citron (Aaronson), with some additions based on the lengthier rendition in the Hebrew classic, Sipurei Chasidim, by the great scholar, Rabbi S. Y. Zevin, and a few supplementary biographical notes from Chasidic Masters by Aryeh Kaplan (Moznaim).

Biographic Note:
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 Yisroel Haupstein [5497 - 14 Tishrei 5575 (1737 - Sept. 1814 C.E.)], the "Maggid" (preacher) of Kozhnitz was a major disciple of the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lyzhensk and, along with the 'Seer' of Lublin, the main spreader of the Chasidic movement to Poland-Galitzia. He acquired his position in Koznitz at age 28, and lived there for the rest of his life, known for his passionate prayer and many miracles. He is the author of the chassidic-kabbalistic work, 'Avodas Yisrael' and fifteen other kabbalistic books. His miraculous birth to an elderly couple is the subject of a famous Baal Shem Tov story.


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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