How Did the Ba’al Shem Tov Observe the Days of Awe?

David Biale Hasidism A New History book coverIsrael Ba’al Shem Tov, also called the Besht, is known as the legendary founder of the Jewish movement of Hasidism. During his lifetime, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the Besht and his followers practiced a mystical, pietistic Judaism. Hasidism: A New History, by David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński, pieces together what is known about the Besht’s life and spiritual practices in order to examine his role in the development of what became Hasidism.

Like other holy men known as ba’alei shem, or masters of the name, the Besht was a shaman who used practical applications of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, to communicate with the divine, perform healing acts on earth. He tried to use his ability to communicate with heavenly powers to avert disaster for his community—not just the Jews in his own area, but the Jewish people everywhere. On rare occasions, he visited heaven in what was called an aliyat neshamah, or “ascent of the soul.” These events tended to occur during the High Holidays, also known as the Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The Besht claimed that on Rosh Hashanah in two different years he ascended to heaven. During each ascent, he learned of an impending catastrophe that would befall the Jewish community, and attempted to avert it.

    For on Rosh Hashanah 5507 [1746] I performed an adjuration for the ascent of the soul, as you know, and I saw wondrous things in a vision, for the evil side ascended to accuse with great, unparalleled joy and performed his acts—persecutions entailing forced conversion—on several souls so they would meet violent deaths. I was horrified and I literally put my life in jeopardy and asked my teacher and rabbi [Ahiah the Shilonite (I Kings 14:2)] to go with me because it is very dangerous to go and ascend to the upper worlds. For from the day I attained my position I did not ascend such lofty ascents. I went up step by step until I entered the palace of the Messiah where the Messiah studies Torah with all of the Tannaim [the rabbis of the Mishna] and the righteous and also with the seven shepherds. . . .

—cited in Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov, 2nd ed. (Oxford and Portland, OR, 2013), 106-107

    And on Rosh Hashanah 5510 [1749] I performed an ascent of the soul, as is known, and I saw a great accusation until the evil side almost received permission to completely destroy regions and communities. I put my life in jeopardy and I prayed: “Let us fall into the hand of God and not fall into the hands of man.”

—ibid., 107

These mystical experiences were sometimes precipitated by his entering a self-induced trance. One of these trances, which occurred on Yom Kippur, is described in the Shivhei ha-Besht, a book of hagiographical stories about the Besht published over fifty years after his death:

    Before Ne’ilah [the final prayer of the Yom Kippur liturgy] he began to preach in harsh words and he cried. He put his head backward on the ark and he sighed and he wept. Afterward [when] he began to pray the silent eighteen benedictions, and then the voiced eighteen benedictions … the Besht began to make terrible gestures, and he bent back- ward until his head came close to his knees, and everyone feared that he would fall down. They wanted to support him but they were afraid to. They told it to Rabbi Ze’ev Kutses, God bless his memory, who came and looked at the Besht’s face and signaled that they were not to touch him. His eyes bulged and he sounded like a bull being slaughtered. He kept this up for about two hours. Suddenly he stirred and straightened up. He prayed in a great hurry and finished the prayer.

—Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome Mintz, In Praise of the Ba’al Shem Tov, The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism, (Lanham, MD, 2004), 55. Translation slightly modified.

Are you observing the Days of Awe this year? The gates of heaven are open, just as they were to the Ba’al Shem Tov two hundred and fifty years ago. You can learn more about how eighteenth-century Jewish mysticism developed into modern Hasidism in Hasidism: A New History. A sweet new year!