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The Baal Shem Tov's Journey to the Land of Israel
The story of the Baal Shem Tov's journey to the land of Israel is told by Hasidim at the Baal Shem Tov's seudah at the end of Passover. The following version is taken from Siach Sarfei Kodesh, a book of Breslov teachings and narratives.
Years ago, I also heard this story told by a number of Hasidim, particularly the rebbe of Skulye. How well and clearly I recall those tellings is doubtful. Here, I add in brackets those parts I heard that contradict or add to the version found in Siach Sarfei Kodesh.
[There was once a Jew who had no money. His wife urged him to go to the Baal Shem Tov and ask for a blessing. The Jew went to the Baal Shem Tov. But once there, he was so spiritually uplifted that he forgot to ask for the blessing. When he returned home, his wife asked him if he had gotten the blessing. "No," he said, "I forgot." So his wife told him to go again. The Jew again went to the Baal Shem Tov. Again, he was so spiritually exalted that he completely forgot to ask for the blessing for money. When he came home, his wife asked him if he had gotten the blessing, and he had to admit that he had not.
His wife told him, "Go again. And if this time, you do not get a blessing from the Baal Shem Tov, I am going to leave you."
So the Jew went to the Baal Shem Tov again. After spending Shabbos there, as he was taking his leave, he recalled that he had to ask for a blessing for money. He told the Baal Shem Tov, "I am ashamed to ask, but I am requesting a blessing for money."
The Baal Shem Tov told him to travel to Istanbul, and that he would become wealthy there.
The man came home and gave this news to his wife. Being a good, pious wife, she told her husband, "If this is what the Baal Shem Tov told you to do, then go and do so."
And so the man left his family behind and set out for Istanbul.
When he entered the city, he did not know how he would make a living. But he heard a town crier announcing that a certain accountant had died, and another accountant was needed. The man thought to himself that it is not too hard to add up figures. And so he went and got the job. And so for many months, he worked as an accountant, making a meager living.
Early in the spring, this man was passing through the market square of Istanbul. He saw that a vendor had a fruit that had only now come into season. Because it was the first fruit of the year, it was very expensive, whereas in a few weeks, the price of the fruit would go down drastically. Still, the Jew decided to buy it now, so that he would have the opportunity of making a shehechiyanu blessing in thanks to G-d for all the good that G-d had done for him. And so he bought this very expensive fruit.
All the vendors in the market square worked for one Turk. When this man saw the Jew buy that expensive fruit, he was very surprised. He knew who the Jew was and what he did for a living, and that he earned a meager salary. Where had the Jew gotten the money to buy such an expensive fruit? The Turk decided that he would follow the Jew and confront him. Once he learned where the Jew had gained so much money, he would stab him to death.
And so the Turk ran ahead and lay in wait, in one of the winding alleys. When the Jew passed by, the Turk leaped out with a knife in his hand.
The Jew was terrified. He was sure that he was going to be killed. The Turk asked him where he had gotten the money to buy such an expensive fruit.
The Jew explained that although he made a meager living as an accountant, when he saw this fruit, he bought it so that he would have the opportunity to praise G-d with a special blessing.
The Turk found this answer very pleasing. He told the Jew, "Come with me."
In great fear, the Jew accompanied the Turk. He thought that the Turk was taking him somewhere to kill him. They passed through many alleys, and gradually came into the wealthy section of Istanbul. Once there, they came to the wealthiest street in Istanbul, and then to one of the houses on that street. The Turk took the Jew into house and then told the Jew to descend into the cellar. Now the Jew was ceratin that he was about to be murdered.
But when they came down into the basement, the Turk showed him a room filled with silver vessels, and another room filed with golden vessels.
The Turk told the Jew, "No one else knows that the house contains this wealth. And I have no relatives. When I die, this house will be put up for sale. Only you know how much it is worth, so you make sure to buy it." And he let the Jew go.
One day, as the Jew was passing through the marketplace, he heard an announcement that that Turk had died. Immediately, the Jew went to his employer and borrowed enough money to buy the house. He bought the house, paid back his employer and now, with the riches hidden in the basement, became one of the wealthiest people in Istanbul.
Meanwhile, the Baal Shem realized that he is a "great light" in the world. Were he to get together with the man who was the "small light," the moshiach could come. He realized that the "small light" lived in the land of Israel. And so he set out for the Holy Land. The "small light" was the holy Ohr Hachaim (or, perhaps, the Ramchal).]
The Baal Shem Tov had the custom of not keeping any money from one day to the next. And when he travelled to the Holy Land, he kept that custom, concerning himself only with that day's expenses. In this way, he travelled from town to town and from city to city, not worrying about anything but covering the day's expenses. He placed his trust in G-d to take care of all his needs as he travelled from place to place.
He was accompanied on this trip by his daughter Adel and his shammash, Rabbi Hirsch Sofer. And they travelled from city to city and from town to town, until they arrived on the eve of Passover at the city of Istanbul.
Meanwhile, in Berlin there lived a very wealthy Jew, who had no children--God have mercy!--for many years. The news of the Baal Shem Tov and his wonders came to his ears. This man's friends counseled and urged him to travel to the Baal Shem Tov and ask him for a blessing to have children.
And so he prepared a carriage with good horses and took a great deal of money, as is the custom of the wealthy. And he travelled with his wife to Mezhbozh. As soon as he arrived, he learned where the Baal Shem Tov lives. But the members of his household told him that the Baal Shem Tov had just now he had set out on his way to the land of Israel.
The wealthy man learned the direction he had gone in and went after him. But when he arrived at that town, he was told that the Baal Shem Tov had just left. And so did this couple follow the Baal Shem Tov from place to place until they too came to Istanbul on Passover eve.
The wealthy man rented a fine room on the upper story of a hotel, and prepared for a lavish seder. Then, having done that, he went to look for the Baal Shem Tov.
He considered that in a great city like Istanbul it would ber hard to find the Baal Shem Tov. So he went to the harbor to ask if anyone had seen the Baal Shem Tov arrive or knew where he is staying.
When the Baal Shem Tov had arrived in Istanbul, he had gone to the same hotel--except that in his great poverty, he rented a small room in the hotel basement. [He was not known to the local Sefardi Jews; or perhaps his reputation was known, but he wanted to travel incognito.]
[Meanwhile, what of the wealthy Jew? He had heard that the Baal Shem Tov had come to Istanbul at Passover time. But this Jew turned deeply ungrateful. It was below his dignity, he decided, that such a wealthy man as he should consort with a man as impoverished as the Baal Shem Tov.]
The Baal Shem Tov's daughter, Adel, kept asking him, "What will we do for the Passover seder? Where will we eat?," and so forth.
Her father, the Baal Shem Tov would only reply, "G-d will help!"
He went to the synagogue and stayed there. As for Adel, in her great faith in the words of her father, she ceased to worry. And she went to launder the clothing they would need for Passover at the seashore. [Or she was very distressed, and cried as she laundered the clothing.]
Now the wealthy man approached Adel and asked if she had seen the Baal Shem Tov arrive.
She replied, "Yes, the Baal Shem Tov has arrived. In fact, he is my father. We are staying at such-and-such a hotel on the bottom floor."
The wealthy man rejoiced to hear this. He told Adel to accompany him back to the hotel, and that she and her father should come to him for the holiday. He had already prepared the best things for the seder for them as well.
When Adel returned, she joyfully told her father of the miracle that G-d had provided them with: that He had prepared them a fine place to make the seder. But she saw no change in her father's expression.
After the evening prayers, the Baal Shem Tov immediately entered the wealthy man's room. Saying nothing at all to anyone, he conducted the seder according to his custom.
Then, after completing the first half of the seder, he turned to the wealthy couple and told them: "I know why you came here. And you have already been helped." As soon as he said those words, his soul rose with great cleaving to G-d. The others saw him undergoing a great strain, but they had no idea what it was about. He would periodically relax, and they heard him burst out, "If so, I will serve Hashem yisborach without the world to come!" Then they saw joy and great light on his face. [At some point, they saw red lines streak across his forehead.]
He awoke from his mystic union and told that at the time he blessed them to have children, a great opposition arose against him in heaven. This couple was barren [from the days of Creation] without any possibility of having children. Now, because of the Baal Shem Tov's blessing, nature would have to changed for them entirely.
Because of this opposition, [the Baal Shem Tov was punished with heavenly strokes--and those were the streaks they had seen on his forehead. And] it was decreed above that the Baal Shem Tov would completely lose the reward of the world to come. When the Baal Shem Tov heard this, he replied joyfully, "If so, I will serve Hashem from now on without the reward of the world to come. In this way, I can serve Him without any ulterior motives. When it was seen in heaven how he is so totally dedicated to serve G-d with such selflessness, it was decided that he would in fact be rewarded with the world-to-come, and that this childless couple would also have children. And this was the reason his face had shone with joy and great light.
der with awesome feeling, making no small talk. When he arrived at the words, "L'oseh niflaos gedolos levado--Who makes great wonders alone," he repeated the word, "alone," many times with great feeling.
Meanwhile, the sultan had, with the counsel of his ministers, sealed a decree of death against the Jews in a very cruel manner: they decided to kill all the Jews on one day, on the first of Passover. And the ministers entered into a vow to reveal this to no one, so that the Jews would not attempt to block this decree.
However, one of these ministers liked the Jews. In shock, he came on Passover eve to the Jewish communal leader, the parnas, and revealed this decree to him in great secret. He told the parnas, "If the sultan learns that you know of this decree, my life will be in great danger. I have no advice to give you. I only came to inform you. tell you, so that you may know of this decree. Perhaps you will find some way of dealing with it."
The parnas called the city rabbis and took counsel with them. They decided that since the sultan's mother likes the Jews, they would go to her and take speak with her regarding the best course of action.
Immediately following the seder, the parnas and the city rabbis went to the house of the sultan's mother. As they went, they passed the Baal Shem Tov's hotel. They heard him repeating over and over again, "Who does great wonders alone." They said to each other: "If that Jew knew of the terrible decree that threatens the Jews of this city, he would not be so ecstatic."
When they came to the mansion of the sultan's mother at such a late hour, she was very shaken. She understood that this must be an urgent business. She received them graciously, and they told her of the decree that her son had made against the Jews of the city. They cautioned her to use great wisdom in trying to nullify the decree, so that her son should not know that they had come to her.
With the mercy of G-d, she formulated an plan. She went immediately, in the middle of the night, and awoke her son from his sleep.
She told him that her husband, the deceased sultan, had come to her in a dream with great trepidation and told her that he has no rest in the world of truth, because by tomorrow morning, there will not remain even a remnant of his children and grandchildren. They will all be destroyed forever.
The sultan's mother asked her son, "What terrible thing has occurred in the kingdom as a result of which our family will suffer such a terrible decree of destruction?"
Her son, the sultan, began to enumerate various sins for whose sake this heavenly decree might have been commanded. But every time, she would reply, "No, No. It doesn't make sense that because of that sin, such a terrible decree should be commanded against our family."
Finally, he told her about decree to kill all the Jews tomorrow, in one day. As soon as the king said that, she turned to him and cried out, "Certainly, certainly! It is because of this that heavebn has commanded this decree against our family." She angrily told him, "Are you starting up with the nation of the Jews? Do you not know that whoever has started up with them did not come out unscathed? Go, quickly rip up the decree, without delay, so that no one will ever know that such a decree existed!" In his fear, the king immediately took the decree and tore it up in her presence.
She then returned home and told the parnas and the city rabbis who were waiting for her in her house that the decree had been nullified. They could return home and tell the Jews to thank G-d for His good mercies, which He himself had carried out for them without their knowledge.
When they returned, after the passage of a few hours, they again passed the hotel of the Baal Shem Tov. And they heard how he was still at that section of the Haggadah, repeating the words, "L'oseh niflaos gedolos levado"--"alone." Now they heard him reciting these words with greater joy and happiness than when they had gone to the sultan's mother.
The next day, the rabbis went to the synagogue and told the congregants of the awesome miracle that had taken place that night. In passing, they told of that unusual Jew who had repeated over and over again the words "l'oseh niflaos levado." The Baal Shem Tov spoke up--because they did not recognize him-- and told them, "If not for that Jew, this great miracle would not have occurred at all."
[Meanwhile, the sultan had an advisor who was a secret Christian. Had anyone known of his religion, he would have been immediately killed. This advisor hated the Jews. And so he told the king that the Jews despise him. As proof, he told the king to pay a visit to the wealthy Jew and he would see for himself.
And so on the seder night, the sultan ordered the Jew to come to his palace and engage in business. The Jew was very fvrightened, but he sent back a essage that he could not, because tonight he was very busy. So the sultan, accompanied by his retinue of royal soldiers, paid a visit to the wealthy Jew. The wealthy Jew was conducting his seder. He got up and invited the king in. The Jew's matzah cover was encrusted with jewels.
"You see," the advisor whispered to the king, "the Jew shows more respect to some dry wafers than he does to you."
The king returned to his palace in wrath. Again he sent his royal soldiers in their carriage to the Jew's house. The Jew could hear the bells of the carriage ringing and again he stepped out. The soldiers arrested the Jew.
Only now did the wealthy Jew remember the Baal Shem Tov, and he wanted to plead with him for help.
He asked the soldiers, who were taking him to the palace, to conduct him by way of the Jews' section. In this way, he would pass the hotel where the Baal Shem Tov was staying.
As they passed the hotel, the wealthy Jew looked up and saw the Baal Shem Tov outlined in the window. The Baal Shem Tov did not even look down, but he kept repeating in a sing-song voice, "L'oseh niflaos levado, ki le'olam chasdo!"
At the palace, the king informed the Jew that by tomorrow he would be killed and the rest of the Jews of Istanbul would be expelled from the city. And he sent the Jew back home. Again, the king's royal carriage with the wealthy Jew passed the window of the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov was still standing in the window, not looking down, and chanting over and over again, "L'oseh niflaos levado, ki le'olam chasdo!"
Now as it happened, the sultan's mother liked the Jews. The reason for that was as follows: many years past, her husband had been sultan (the father of the current sultan). He liked to dress up as a common man and walk amidst the people. One day as he was walking in the market, a number of men grabbed him. They kidnapped him and took him to their hide-out.
At the palace, the sultan's disappearance caused great consternation, but the news was kept secret, so that there would be no public unrest.
But they did not know how to ransom him safely. And so the kidnappers kept him for many days. One day he told them, "As long as I am here, you can still make some money off of me. I happen to be an extraordinary rug weaver."
And so the kidnappers gave the sultan a loom and yarn. The sultan wove a small rug with some letters woven into a corner, which could only be seen when one held the rug horizontally before one's eyes. The sultan told the kidnappers, "This is a very precious rug, but only a real expert can recognize it. Go to the market and ask for a very high price. Most people will laugh at you. But when you find a real expert, he will gladly pay."
And so the kidnappers brought the rug to the market place. Whenever they offered the rug for the price the sultan had set, people laughed at them. Finally, they came to a Jewish merchant. When the merchant heard their price for the rug, which was not very well-made, he realized that there was something strange. Examining the rug from all angles, he saw the letters woven into the rug. He agreed to pay for the rug, and asked for more such material.
And so the sultan made rug after rug, which the Jewish merchant bought. When the Jewish merchant realized that the rugs were spelling out the sultan's name, he informed the palace. The palace sent soldiers to trail the kidnappers, and they freed the sultan. In thanks, the sultan gave the tailor a pass that would allow him to enter the palace at any time and confer with the sultan.
In time, the sultan died and his son took over. And the Jewish merchant died as well.
Now, this terrible and dangerous seder night, the son of that merchant had a dream. In his dream, his father came to him and told him that he must go immediately to the sultan's mother. He must tell her to inform her son that his beloved minister is really a secret Christian.
In his dream, the son of the merchant saw how a brick over the doorway contained the pass to the palace. And he saw G-d's name floating in the air. G-d's name floated through the streets until it came to a certain courtyard of a house and stood upon a great rock in the courtyard. The name struck the rock, and it opened up, revealing a secret monastery. (Or, crosses flew forth from it.)
The son of the merchant woke up. He broke open the brick and found the pass. With this pass, he went to the palace. Seeing the pass, the soldiers let him in to speak to the present sultan's mother. When she heard the man's story, the sultan's mother went with him to see her son, the sultan. She told her son that this Jew claimed that the sultan's favorite minister was really a secret Christian.
The merchant's son led the sultan through the streets, along the path that he had seen the name of G-d follow. He came to the courtyard of the house, which was the minister's house. They came to the great rock and struck it. It opened up, and the secret monastery was discovered.
In rage at his minister, the sultan had him executed and his anti-Jewish decree revoked. The sultan chopped off the finger of the minister on which the signet ring was, and gave the ring to the Jew.
When the king returned to the palace, he summoned the wealthy Jew. Again, the royal carriage with the bells went to the Jew's house and summoned him. Again, as they passed the hotel of the Baal Shem Tov, they could see the Baal Shem Tov not looking down, but still chanting, "L'oseh niflaos gedolos levado, ki le'olam chasdo!"
The Jew was brought to the palace and informed that the decree had been revoked. The wealthy Jew would live and the other Jews would not be expelled from Istanbul. This time, when the wealthy Jew was escorted back home, the Baal Shem Tov looked down at him kindly.
The Jew went to the Baal Shem Tov and abjectly apologized for having ignored him. He asked the Baal Shem Tov what he was doing here. When the Baal Shem Tov told him that he was on his way to the land of Israel, the wealthy Jew said that as soon as the first days of the holiday were over, he would provide the Baal Shem Tov with passage. And so he did.]
The couple wanted to give the Baal Shem Tov a great sum of money for the blessing he had given them. However, he did not agree. Instead, he only asked that they give him, Adel and Rabbi Hirsch passage money for a ship going to the land of Israel. This the couple did. And they immediately acquired berths in a ship travelling to the land of Israel.
The Baal Shem Tov spent no time in the city. On the morning of the first day of chol hamoed, he continued on his journey, boarding the ship to the land of Israel.
As they sailed, there was a storm at sea. The ship was in great danger, and people began to throw all their possessions overboard to lighten the ship so that it would not be capsized.
The Baal Shem Tov said that he knew why the sea is so stormy. It was because there was a decree of destruction from above against either his writings (because above, it was not desired that they should be revealed), or against Adel, his daughter. Adel said that she is ready to give her life in order to save her father's writings. She was lowered to the water. But she signalled that she should be lifted back up. She told her father that it would be better if he were to throw his writings into the sea, because one day she would have a grandson (Rabbi Nachman of Breslov) who would write seforim even finer than those of her father, the Baal Shem Tov.
And so they took her back on board and threw the Baal Shem Tov's writings into the sea. And the water grew calm.
Then they saw that they were close to an island. The captain piloted the ship toward the island, and everyone disembarked in order to get some rest after their difficult journey.
[Once there was a king who was very ill. The Baal Shem Tov said that he would heal him if he could have anything he wanted. The king agreed, and the Baal Shem Tov healed the king. To get his reward, the Baal Shem Tov then entered the king's library and took down a manuscript. The king said, "If I had known that you had wanted that, I wouldn't have given it to you. But since you have asked for it now, I cannot refuse you." This was an original manuscript of Tehillim, written by Dovid Hamelech himself.
[When the sea was raging, the Baal Shem Tov realized that heaven did not want him to continue to the land of Israel. He knew that to stop the storm, he would have to either cast his daughter into the sea or the manuscript of Adel. Adel volunteered to go into the sea. Reb Hirsch lowered her into the sea and the sea calmed down. He raised her up, and the storm returned. This happened three times. Finally, they threw the manuscript of Tehillim into the sea--for the teachings of her father (or of Chasidus) would in addition be revealed in the world. Reb Hirsch stretched out his hand, which stretched out miraculously long, and brought Adel back into the ship. He grasped her arm very strongly and she always had a mark on her arm after that.
And soon afterwards they came to an island.]
As the Baal Shem Tov, his daughter Adel and his shammash Rabbi Hirsch walked around the island, they were suddenly attacked by murders called Eidemakes, who wanted to kill them. These murderers tied them to the ground. [They were captured by cannibals who tied them to a tree.]
Rabbi Hirsch cried out to the Baal Shem Tov, "Rabbi! Why do you remain still?"
The Baal Shem Tov replied, "My mind is closed. I do not know a thing."
And when the murderers came close and sharpened their swords in order to slaughter them, Rabbi Hirsch again cried out to the Baal Shem Tov, "Rabbi! Why do you remain still?"
The Baal Shem Tov again replied to him, "I do not know a thing. Perhaps you know something?"
Rabbi Hirsch replied, "All I know is the alphabet. The Baal Shem Tov cried to him, "Say it! Say it!"
And Rabbi Hirsch began to recite the alef beis.v [The Baal Shem Tov repeated the letters one by one after Rabbi Hirsch, until his powers came back. He broke their bonds and they fled. This occurred on the seventh of Pesach.]
Suddenly, they heard a carriage from afar. The murderers were frightened and fled. And soon, a wagon with men arrived. When the men saw these people lying on the ground, they freed them and lifted them onto the wagon.
[The Baal Shem Tov realized that G-d did not want him to go to the land of Israel, and so he returned to Mezhbozh.]
They brought them back to another ship, which was anchored close to the island, and they continued on their way to the Holy Land.
The ship lost its way. On the eve of the seventh of Passover, the passengers saw that it had accidentally returned to Istanbul.
Now the Baal Shem Tov decided not to continue to the land of Israel.
In consequence of these events, it became the custom in all the communities of Israel who follow the path of the Baal Shem Tov to arrange a meal on the seventh of Pesach to give thanks to G-d for the rescue of the Baal Shem Tov and his return in peace from his journey.
And in telling the story, Hasidim would conclude: The ship captain was no doubt Elijah the prophet.
Siach Sarfei Kodesh II
All translations and original material. Copyright 1998