Why would a rich and learned man like Reb Ephraim of Brody, whose son Rabbi Avraham Gershon of Kitov, was head of a rabbinical court in Brody and a recognized authority in Talmud and Kabbalah, want his daughter Hanah to marry a synagogue janitor and ritual slaughter who was not a Talmudic scholar?
Because the first husband Ephraim had selected for his daughter Hanah, was a young man highly recommended by his own son Rabbi Avraham Gershon, who was very pious, and the best Talmud student of a very famous yeshivah.
Yet this illui (a young Talmud prodigy) 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 Hanah and leave town.
Now, Ephraim of Brody told his daughter, 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 most important, who respected a woman.
Unfortunately, long time study in a yeshivah did not usually stress these ‘mentch’ 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, who he had encountered in the synagogue, and learned that Israel ben Eliezer was truly an open minded, kind, positive and flexible mentch; one who enjoyed helping and encouraging people, and who respected women.
This was the kind of man Reb Ephraim wanted for his daughter Hanah.
As a young man, Yisra’el ben Eliezer (born c.1700) apparently worked at a variety of jobs, including ritual slaughterer, elementary school teacher, and circumciser. 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, Hanah, as I have already pointed out, was a divorcée (this fact is rarely mentioned in Hassidic accounts of the Besht’s early activities) and sister of the prominent scholar Gershon of Kitev (almost always mentioned).
Rabbi Yisra’el and his wife Hanah had two children: a son, Tsevi Hirsh, who never became prominent, and a daughter, Odl (Hodl), whose descendants, including Barukh ben Yeḥi’el of Mezhbizh, Mosheh Hayim Efraim of Sudilkov, and the very well known Naḥman of Bratslav, all of whom played significant roles in the later Hasidic movement.
Sometime in the 1730s, Hanah urged her husband, Yisra’el ben Eliezer, to 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 other purposes.
Ba’al Shem Tov, in its abbreviated form, Besht, soon became the title, and even the name, used by most people who knew of him.
The Besht was at first best known for his skills as a healer; one Polish source even refers to him as a Ba’al Shem doctor.
Soon the Besht was known as a figure who could mediate between this world and the divine spheres in an effort to help people solve not only their health, but also their financial, and social problems.
The Besht always had a warm personality, a sense of humor, and a clever intellect.
The Besht’s wife Hanah. constantly increased his self-confidence, 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 innovations within traditional, mystical, ascetic Hasidism.
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 innovations was his insistence that the path to communion with God lay not in acts of asceticism or studying Talmud all day; but in the joy of emotional prayer.
If prayer was the key element of sacred activity, then intellectual study was not required. Learning and wisdom could better be achieved through listening to Midrash Aggadah and tales of miraculous events.
The spiritual importance of Hanah, to the Besht is evident in the words he said after his wife died, “I thought I could rise to heaven in a whirlwind like Elijah, but now that I am only half a body this is no longer possible.”
How did the Baal Shem Tov experience God’s presence through his marriage to Hanah?
The Jewish mystics taught that the Shekinah- ‘the female presence of God’ rests upon a husband when he makes love to his wife with a sense of reverence, tenderness, adoration and love.
The Shabbat adds holiness and choosiness to these feelings. The key attitude is a sense of wonder and gratefulness that your wife is God’s gift, the chosen source of your blessings, and the most wonderful manifestation of God’s presence.
As the Bible says, “Who can find a capable wife? Her value is far above jewels. Her husband can trust her completely.” (Proverbs 31:10)
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) When they are lovers they are one in the flesh. When they are equal lovers they can become equal in spiritual holiness and share the same crown.
The spiritual importance of Hanah for the Besht, in realizing the highest levels of holiness, and fulfilling several passages of Rabbi Isaac Luria’s Sefer `Etz Hayyim’s concept about the tenth sefirah is:
“The last point, Malkhut… and the peak of her growth, is that she will include all her ten sefirot; and she will be in a face-to-face position with Ze`ir ‘Anppin [God], totally equal, and the two kings will use the same crown.”
This is just one of the many instances in which the equality between the feminine and the masculine divine powers is described as taking place during the daily loving process. It is time the spiritual importance of Hanah for the Besht; and Hanah’s daughter Hodl’s spiritual importance for her children and grandchildren, is recognized by all Jews, and especially Hassidic Jews.