Fifty years ago, on Sukkot of 5727 (1966), the Lubavitcher Rebbe recounted this extraordinary tale:
Once a group of leading Yeshivah scholars in Poland visited Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov in his Sukkah. After closely inspecting the structural design of his Sukkah, these yeshivah scholars unanimously declared it unkosher.
But the Baal Shem Tov maintained the validity of his Sukkah. Finally, the Baal Shem Tov opened his hand. Inside lay a small piece of parchment. The yeshivah scholars took the parchment and found it to be a note (from heaven) saying: “The Sukkah of the Baal Shem Tov is kosher.” The note was signed by the archangel Metatron.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe then asked an obvious question: why did the Besht build his Sukkah in such a questionable manner. Then the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the Baal Shem Tov build his Sukkah in this somewhat unkosher way; in order to find merit within the Jewish People.
Knowing that many Jews who did build a Sukkah, didn’t build it according to the strict halakah, the Baal Shem Tov built his Sukkah in the most lenient manner possible, in order to validate every Sukkah built with a good heart, and thus declare the practice of the majority of less observant Jews to be within the spirit of Jewish observance.
The moral of this story is less about the kosher status of one man’s Sukkah than it is about the role of Jewish leaders. The Baal Shem Tov was trying to impress upon the ultra-orthodox yeshivah scholars of Europe, who were constantly seeking to make the laws stricter and stricter, that a true Jewish leader must be willing to make not just material, but also spiritual, sacrifices for his people.
Rabbis must be ready to compromise their own lofty, strict, religious standards for the sake of uplifting all the Jewish People, as Psalm 37:31 says: “The Torah of his God is in his heart”. This applies both to the less observant Jewish masses and the more observant elite leaders.
This insight explains why a rich and learned man like Reb Ephraim of Brody, a leader of the Jewish community, whose son Rabbi Avraham Gershon of Kitov, was head of a rabbinical court in Brody and a recognized authority in Talmud and Kabbalah, wanted his daughter Hannah to marry a synagogue janitor and ritual slaughter who had never graduated from a yeshivah.
Because the first husband Ephraim had selected for his daughter, a young man highly recommended by his own son Rabbi Avraham Gershon, was very strict, pious, and the best student in a very famous yeshivah. Yet this illui (a young Talmud genius) turned out to be a harsh, narrow minded, self righteous, overly judgmental person, who did not listen to or respect his wife.
It soon became evident that the illui was a failure as a husband, and Reb Ephraim paid him some money to divorce his daughter Hannah and leave town.
Now, Ephraim of Brody told his daughter Hannah, he was determined to find for her an open minded, kind, positive and flexible mentch; who enjoyed encouraging people to worship God through joy, and who respected woman.
Unfortunately, long time study in a yeshivah did not usually stress these mentchlike qualities and Ephraim was determined to avoid making another mistake like his first one.
One day Ephraim met a young man, newly arrived in Brody from a near by village, praying with great joy and enthusiasm.
Ephraim talked for a long time to the young man, Israel ben Eliezer, and learned that Israel ben Eliezer was truly an open minded, kind, positive and flexible mentch; one who enjoyed helping and encouraging people, and respected woman very much. This was the kind of man Reb Ephraim wanted for his daughter Hannah.
As a young man, Yisra’el ben Eliezer (c.1700-1760) apparently worked at a variety of jobs, including ritual slaughterer, elementary school teacher, and circumsciser. He had learned rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic and, though not a Talmudist, had become conversant with rabbinic literature.
He also set himself to learning both practical and contemplative Kabbalah from such mystical, ascetic types as Mosheh of Kitev. At the same time he started learning about herbal remedies, even from non-Jews.
His wife, Hannah, as I have already pointed out, was a divorcée (a fact rarely mentioned in Hassidic accounts) and the sister of the prominent yeshivah scholar Gershon of Kitev (always mentioned in Hassidic sources).
Sometime in the 1730s, Yisra’el ben Eliezer began calling himself a Ba’al Shem or a Ba’al Shem Tov; interchangeable terms meaning that he was a “master of God’s name,” which he could use for healing and theurgic purposes. Ba’al Shem Tov, in its abbreviated form, Besht, became the title, and even the name, used by most people who knew of him.
The Besht was best known denoting his skills as a healer—one Polish source refers to him as a Ba’al Shem doctor—and his general qualifications as a figure who could mediate between this world and the divine spheres in an effort to help people solve their health, financial, and social problems.
The Besht had a charismatic personality, great self-confidence, a sense of humor, a clever intellect, and the conviction that he had a key role to play as a leader of the people of Israel, working for their redemption and that of the Shekhinah (the divine presence).
The Besht began to attract disciples in the 1740’s. Many of these men were rabbis or yeshivah students who were discontented with the cold, arid, ridged atmosphere of most yeshivot.
The Besht’s attraction to disgruntled yeshivah Jews, and even to those already studying Kabbalah theory, was that he had instituted many reforms within traditional, mystical, ascetic Hassidism.
These reforms paved the way for its transformation, primarily following his death, from an elitist asceticism to a popular spiritualism, and even more important, from a collection of small religious fellowships to a mass movement that would revitalize Orthodox Jewish life.
Perhaps most important among these reforms was the Ba’al Shem Tov’s insistence that the path to communion with God lay not in years of full time study of Talmudic texts or in suffering frequent acts of asceticism, but in singing, dancing and the joy of emotional prayer.
If prayer was the key element of sacred activity, then intellectual academic study was not required. Learning, piety and wisdom could better be achieved through being inspired by listening to Midrash Aggadah and tales of miraculous events and stories of saintly men and women.
Indeed, for two to three generations after the Besht’s death no Hassidic Tsadik maintained a Yeshivah.