In the early years of the Chassidic movement, non-Jewish landowners would frequently imprison their Jewish tenants for failing to pay their debts. The Baal Shem Tov showed great concern for these poor families, and with boundless determination, he traveled from town to town, encouraging fellow Jews to contribute towards this great mitzvah of pidyon shvuim — “ransoming captives.”
Once, after a week of arduous efforts, the Baal Shem Tov succeeded in collecting the sum necessary to redeem a family imprisoned by a particularly stubborn landowner who had refused to release the family until he received every penny owed to him. It was not until Friday afternoon that the Baal Shem Tov was able to amass the entire sum and thus, the members of the family were set free only a few short hours before Shabbat.
“Stay with me for Shabbat,” the Baal Shem Tov offered. “You will not be able to make it back to your town in time for candle lighting.”
Needless to say, the poor family was more than willing to accept the invitation. At the Shabbat meal, the Baal Shem Tov turned to the man he had ransomed. “So, what news have you heard today?”
The man looked up in wonder. “But Rebbe, what news could have reached the pit in which we were imprisoned? But now that you mention it, I have just recalled a strange experience I had while in prison.
“All week long, we would hear pitiful moans and wails coming from a corner in the pit where we were held prisoner. Each Friday afternoon, however, the crying would cease, only to be replaced by shrieking laughter that pierced our ears.
“This went on for weeks. My family and I were terrified to approach the nook where the noise came from, and we just huddled together in our corner.
“This week, however, the crying was louder than usual, as was the deafening laughter which took its place. Knowing that we were to be freed shortly, I perked up enough courage to shout in the direction from which the voiced emerged, ‘Who are you?’
“A voice responded from the far end of the pit. ‘We are unholy spirits whose existence depends on flaws in the behavior of a certain righteous ascetic Jew. He refrains from eating all week long, breaking his fast only on Friday. He prepares a mug of milk in the morning, setting it aside to drink when he concludes his morning prayers.
‘All week long, we are overwhelmed by the power of his righteousness. This is why we wail. Every Friday, however, we cause one of his household members to accidentally spill the milk and rouse the anger of the holy man. It is from this display of anger that we derive our power and existence.
‘This week, he was determined, more than ever, not to succumb to the folly of anger. Realizing that his expression of anger could negate all the spiritual achievements he had attained during the week, he resolved to prevent himself from being provoked. He decided to lock the closet in which he put the milk and to give no one the key.
‘That is why we were so upset this week,’ the voice explained. ‘We did not know how we would be able to rouse his wrath. However, we were not prepared to give up so easily. This morning, one of us appeared as a woodcutter, knocked on the tzadik‘s door, and offered his wife a bundle of wood at a bargain price.
‘Her purse was in the same closet as the milk and she requested the key from her husband. Anxious not to keep the woodcutter waiting, she knocked over the milk jug in her haste. Sure enough, the tzadik exploded in rage and thus, we had much to celebrate today.’”
The crowd of people at the Baal Shem Tov’s table listened in amazement to this strange story. Suddenly, one of his disciples fell down in a faint. He was known to fast the entire week.
Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from “From My Father’s Shabbos Table” (pp. 15-16), Eliyahu Touger’s excellent selection and translation from the first two volumes of Rabbi Yehuda Chitrik’s 4-volume series, Reshimat Devorim.
Connection: Opening verses of parshat Kedoshim.
Rabbi Yisrael, the Baal Shem Tov [“master of the good Name”], a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed the Chassidic movement and his own identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 1734. He passed away on the festival of Shavuot in 1760. He wrote no books, although many claim to contain his teachings. One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava’at Harivash, published by Kehos. An ongoing online translation of Sefer Baal Shem Tov can be found on www.baalshemtov.com.
[Yerachmiel Tilles is the director of the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. His mailing list of 800+ weekly stories (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now in its 16th year. Ascent is a seminar-retreat center and hostel in Tzefat—call 972-4 692-1364 or in Israel 1-800 30-40-70.]