(photo credit: buyitinisrael.com)
Shivhei Habesht (In Praise of the Besht) is the earliest collection of stories
about Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (Besht, ca. 1700-1760). The work includes some
250 hagiographic tales and was first published some 54 years after the hero’s
death. This time lapse, understandably, calls into question the historicity of
Shivhei Habesht, or at least the veracity of the details depicted. Nevertheless,
the work became a staple of the later hassidic milieu and largely reflects the
hassidic narrative of the Besht, and is therefore a significant – if not
historical – composition.
One tale relates how the Besht traveled to the
city of Brody. The night before he reached Brody, he stayed in a nearby inn but
was so frightened he could not sleep. During the night, his fear was so great
that his knees knocked against each other and his scribe, Rabbi Zvi, was
awakened by the noise.
“Why are you afraid?” asked the scribe.
Besht explained that his rabbi – according to hassidic tradition, the prophet
Ahiya the Shilonite – had come to him and asked: “Who is more worthy – you or
Abraham our father, may he rest in peace?” Puzzled, he Besht asked: “What is the
point of such a question?” Ahiya continued cryptically: “You will go to the holy
community of Brody and they will honor you greatly. If, Heaven forfend, you are
not strong, you will lose all that which you have heretofore
The Besht explained that this warning was what had made him
When the Besht arrived in Brody, the wealthy people of the
community, dressed in their finest garments, came out to welcome him.
Besht’s response was surprising: He began to play with the horses, stroking them
and patting them. He acted like a wagondriver, that is, someone familiar with
horses but rarely learned and generally of a lowly status in the
The Shivhei Habesht narrator concluded the tale by noting:
“Now you know the extent of the Besht’s fear of sin.”
The tale tells of
fear of sin, but neglects to relate which potent sin so scared the Besht. What
was the iniquity that could cause the Besht to lose all his spiritual
achievements? And how are we to understand Ahiya’s comparison between the Besht
and Abraham? The answer may lie in a later source that recounts the Besht’s
response to a similar circumstance.
Rabbi Ya’acov Ketina (d. 1890), a
hassidic rabbi in the town of Huszt – then in Hungary and today in Ukraine –
authored a short work entitled Rahamei Ha’av (The Mercies of the Father),
dealing with character refinement. Under the heading “Kavod” (honor) he related
The Besht once arrived in a certain place and was accorded
great honor. The Besht told his hosts: “Know that when we honor somebody, that
person’s deeds are examined in Heaven to see whether indeed the person is worthy
of that honor. Thus we are, in fact, doing a disservice by honoring someone; for
who needs to be scrutinized by the Heavenly Court? “In truth, however, a person
who has been granted a wise heart by the Almighty, as soon as that person is
honored, he or she immediately considers repentance, examining deeds and
reconsidering wayward conduct. In that circumstance we do such a person a favor
when we accord honor, for that honor precipitates repentance.”
to the first tale: the Besht, it appears, feared the honor that he was to be
accorded in Brody, lest such heaping amounts of honor trigger an examination of
the Besht’s conduct. When Ahiya asked the Besht whether he was greater than
Abraham, he was querying whether the Besht deserved honor befitting our
forefather Abraham. Indeed, the Besht was so aware of the pitfalls of honor and
wary of the sin of pride that he sought to counter the perception in Brody by
acting as a wagon-driver.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes
Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.