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Sunday, 29 October 2017

148) LETTERS OF THE BAAL SHEM TOV IN ENGLISH FOR THE FIRST TIME.

PART 13.
Letters from the Cherson Geniza.


INTRODUCTION:

What follows is my English translation of some of the letters which were found in the Cherson Geniza in southern Ukraine around 1917. They are alleged to be copies of letters written by the Baal Shem Tov and his students dating back to the mid-1700’s.

Through this collection of what may be called the ‘Cairo Geniza’ of Chassidism, we are afforded an unprecedented window into the early Chassidic movement - its characters, its hopes, fears and aspirations. We see a very human component to what is usually characterised purely as an other-worldly and mystical society.

I am not aware of any other translations of these letters, and my intention here is solely to present their content in English, for those who are interested in a behind the scenes look at early Chasidism.

I have tried to present each of the individual translations of the documents as accurately as I can - but the footnotes are my personal interpretation (and sometimes speculation) of the events, based on research into the personalities and history of that time.

Many, outside of Chabad and Rudzhin believe these letters to be forgeries. They may be. But I have found them to be so incredibly intriguing that I hope they are not. See Why I Believe the Letters of the Cherson Geniza man not be Forgeries.

For an analysis of the fascinating history and controversy surrounding these letters, see KOTZK BLOG 123.

The translations which follow are my own and I take full responsibility for any inaccuracies.

This is Part 13 in my series of translations and the others can be viewed by scrolling down to the previous posts.

INTRODUCTION TO THIS SERIES:

The following letters, dated 1741-1747, deal with some of the behind-the-scenes reality of the early Chassidic movement.



  • Amongst other issues, we read the little-known notion of how the Baal Shem Tov faced significant opposition from within his newly founded movement. This is a fascinating revelation because one generally only hears about the opposition from without.



  • It seems as if he was widely suspected of departing in some way from the ‘holy path’[1] from some of his closest followers including his brother-in-law, R. Gershon Kitover. See Documents 217 and 345.
  


  • We further read in Document 217, the suggestion that the Baal Shem Tov based his mysticism on the teachings of R. Moshe Cordovero. This, if correct, is quite significant as it is widely accepted that his teachings were primarily based on the teachings of the Ari Zal!



  • There is also intriguing correspondence from the Baal Shem Tov to, and about, his wife who refused to join her husband on his journey to Poland. See Documents 114, 238 and 103.



  • Then, once again there is the thorny issue of the ‘secret writings’ which is referenced to again in Document 139. For more on this see See KOTZK BLOG 129.



  • Finally, there is an interesting ‘psak’ or ruling from the Baal Shem Tov as to who qualifies for certain charity funds. See Document 223.

THE LETTERS:

DOCUMENT 114:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to his wife confirming he has sent money to her and informing her of how it is to be distributed:


B”H

Sunday (Parshat) Bereishit 5501 (1741). Brod.

To my wife[2], Mrs Rachel Leah[3], may you live.

Receive through the agency of this messenger, the amount of 25 New Rubles[4].
(Distribute them as follows:)

5 New Rubles shall remain with you for household expenditures.

The other (20 Rubles) shall be distributed among the poor on Thursday of this week because Thursday is the anniversary of the passing of my father, the rabbi who is resting (in peace), may his memory be a blessing.

And I too will also distribute whatever is left with me.

From your husband who is awaiting all good. Selah.

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer from Telusk.

.........................................................................................................................................................

DOCUMENT 217:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to the rabbis and Chassidim of Yasi assuring them with an oath that he did not depart from the holy path in any way, nor did he succumb to heresy:



B”H

Tuesday (Parshat) Miketz 5501 (1741). Telusk.

To the exceptional Rabbis, who walk on the good path and who are truly (G-d) fearing, and to the Chassidim, all of whom dwell in the holy community of Yasi – may G-d be with you (and) may you live.

In order not to further any (more) defamation (of my character) concerning (untrue rumours) of my conduct which (has always been nothing but) the holy path, and for the sake of peace – I (hereby) write this letter to your honours.

And I swear on my life of my head that this path (which I have chosen) is not distorted nor does it contain any heresy, Heaven forefend.

Instead, it is simply a holy path which ascends to G-d.

(This new path) is based on the views and Kabbalah of the Ramak (R. Moshe Cordovero 1522-1570)[5] of blessed memory.

And I trust that G-d, blessed be He, will enlighten the eyes of those who rise up against me so that they will see the truth and sincerity within my heart.

From your beloved who seeks your welfare and hopes only for peace,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem from Telusk.

..........................................................................................................................................................

DOCUMENT 139:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to his brother-in-law, R. Gershon Kitover, asking for the manuscripts which he (R. Kitover) had confiscated from him while he was in hiding:



B”H

Sunday (Parshat) Shemot 5501 (1741). Lvov.

To my brother-in-law, the brilliant and holy rabbi, the truthful one, holy and awesome, beyond all praise etc., our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi  A(vraham) Gershon, n”y.

Surely you remember, honourable rabbi, that when I was still in hiding, you took many handwritten manuscripts (away from me) saying, and I quote: “What are you doing with these?”

However, right now it is important for me (to have them back): firstly because honourable matters are written in them, and secondly (they reference the idea of) a lottery, one for G-d the other (for Azazel).

Therefore, please be willing, honourable one, to please, please, send back (to me) the original writings, or at least copy them (for me) and send them (back) to me.

I trust (you will honour my request).

From your brother-in-law who requests your well being with love,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem from Telusk.

(P.s.) For G-d’ s sake watch over my son, my precious Tzvi, may he live, with open eyes.

..........................................................................................................................................................

DOCUMENT 345:

Letter of assurance from the Baal Shem Tov to his brother-in-law R. Gershon Kitover, that while the former was in hiding, he never strayed from the path[6]:



B”H

Sunday (Parshat) Vayelech 5502 (1742).

To my dear brother-in-law, the brilliant rabbi, the holy one, the light that shines to the earth and to those who dwell thereon, etc. etc. etc. Mr A(vraham) Gershon, n”y.

I was shocked (to hear) the voices of many thousands (who all accused me) of G-d forbid, departing from the (Torah) path I was raised on (as a child), while I was in hiding.

Heaven forefend to say such a thing.

I never departed from the path, nor did I turn aside right or left, Heaven forefend.

For just is the path of G-d, the righteous will walk in it. Amen, so may it be Your will.

From your brother-in-law who loves you,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem from Telusk.
...........................................................................................................................................................

DOCUMENT 218:

Receipt from R. David Lakis for charity funds:


B”H

I received in cash, from R. Greshon Kitover, may he live, 100 Adumim (which is) money (for the poor of) Eretz Yisrael - on this day of Hoshana Rabba 5502 (1742) in Ladmir.

These are words of the insignificant,

David Lakis.

..........................................................................................................................................................

DOCUMENT 223:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Moshe of Dalin informing him that those visiting from the Land of Israel do not qualify for charity designated for the poor of Israel, even if they plan to return to Israel:


B”H

Sunday (Parshat) Vayeishev 5502 (1742).

To my student and friend, the holy rabbi and gaon etc., our teacher the rabbi, Moshe, n”y, speaker of truth from the holy community of Dalin.

After inquiring after your wellbeing, (I wish to inform you that) I looked into all the sources which you, holy and honourable one, pointed out to me – but (I cannot agree with you) because according to my weak mind one should not redirect the monies of R. Meir Baal Hanes, may his memory be a blessing, (which is only intended for the poor of Eretz Yisrael) even to distribute them to those from Israel who are currently living (visiting) here, even if they intend to return (to Israel).

You are (therefore) obliged, honourable one[7], to send the money (directly) to Eretz Yisrael, may it be rebuilt and re-established[8].

There it will be distributed by the (charity) coordinator – (or, if you choose instead) send it (directly) to a specific (needy) individual.

From your rabbi and friend, who seeks your wellbeing with love,

Yisrael Baal Shem of Telusk.

..........................................................................................................................................................

Document 53:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Shlomo stating that he was waiting for latter’s arrival even though he didn’t really need him:



B”H

Thursday (Parshat) Vaetchanan. Yasi, Moldavia[9] 5502 (1742).
To the rabbi, the holy Maggid, Mr Shlomo, n”y.

Today I arrived here in the holy community (of Yasi), thank G-d, and I am waiting for you, honourable and pure Torah personality[10], for two, are better than one.

And even though it was revealed to me from Heaven that I do not require your help in holy matters, because, thank G-d, my assistance will come from Heaven – however, because of your great honour, I shall await your arrival. Enough said.

May G-d, blessed be He, judge us favourably. Amen, so may it be His will.

From the one who loves you and requests your wellbeing at all times,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem from Telusk.

..........................................................................................................................................................

DOCUMENT 238:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to his brother-in-law, R. Gershon Kitover requesting his help in convincing his sister, the Baal Shem Tov’s wife, to go with her husband to Poland:


B”H

Tuesday (Parshat) Eikev 5502. Akop.

To my brother-in-law, the holy and awesome rabbi, famous gaon etc., our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi A(vraham) Gershon, n”y.

Heaven is, in no uncertain terms, putting pressure on me to leave the city of my birth and the place where my ancestors dwelled, may their memories be a blessing – and to travel to the land of Poland.
(However) my wife, your sister, may she live, refuses (to agree to) this.

Therefore, I request from you, honourable and holy one, y”n, to assist me by writing a letter (encouraging) her to acquiesce to my will which is certainly the will of G-d, blessed be He.

From your brother-in-law,

Yisrael Baal Shem of Telusk.
..........................................................................................................................................................

DOCUMENT 103:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to his wife requesting she pack everything up and join him in Brod (Poland):


B”H

Tuesday evening (Parshat) Eikev 5503 (1743). Brod.

To my wife, Mrs Leah Rachel, may you live.

Take all the vessels of the house and come here because it was revealed to me from Heaven (that I must) travel from here.

And this will be the 39th of the 42 journeys which I have to rectify and elevate.

Greet your brother, my brother-in-law, the holy rabbi, n”y, if he (happens to be) in your home and let him also read this letter.

From your husband,

Yisrael Baal Shem.

..........................................................................................................................................................

DOCUMENT 215:

Letter from R. Zev Wolf Kitzes to the Baal Shem Tov asking him to help him do teshuvah (repentance):



B”H

The Fast of Gedalya 5504. Ostroa.

To our teacher and rabbi, the holy one, may you live forever.

The (holy) days have arrived[11] and I haven’t yet even began to do teshuvah (repentance).
(I know of the teaching) that the one who comes (tries) to be purified is helped by Above, and that this is a great principle but I do not have the strength (to even try).

Help me, honourable and holy one, our master, teacher and rabbi – and I will become pure.
(From) the despised one,

Zev Wolf son of Kitzes.

(Enclosed) is a pan[12] of (the amount of) twice Chai (18).

..........................................................................................................................................................

DOCUMENT 350:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to his colleague R. Mordechai the Tzadik telling him that his teacher appeared to him in a dream and told of a lofty soul about to descend to this world. Did R. Mordecai know who this soul might be?


B”H

Erev Sukkot 5507 (1747).

To the honourable and holy one, beloved of G-d and beloved of my soul, the hidden rabbi, Mr Mordechai the Tzadik, n”y.

Tonight I saw my teacher and rabbi in a dream and he told me that that this year the land was to be illuminated when an extremely lofty soul would descend (to this world).

He also informed me that he was going to tell you as well (about this soul).

So I request of you to inform me immediately if you do know who this holy soul is who will descend this year from Above, and in which country (will he be born).

This is very important to me. Enough said.

From your colleague who loves you,

Yisroelik of Akop.

Send your letter (of reply) through an exceptionally trustworthy messenger.
(From) the abovementioned.

..........................................................................................................................................................

DOCUMENT 15:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Chaim Rappoport telling him not to worry about the Baal Shem Tov taking a very dangerous path because he already took the most dangerous path of all during the time he was hiding:



Tuesday (Parshat) Lech (Lecha) 5507 (1747). Sudilkov.

To the holy rabbi, the famous gaon, who is proficient in (both) the revealed and hidden (Torah). The holy lamp[13] etc. Our teacher the rabbi Chaim haCohen Rappoport, Head of the Court of the holy community of Lvov.

After inquiring after your wellbeing as if fitting for your stature[14], I wish to inform you, honourable Torah personality, that I received the writings of your holy hand.

And I was very happy when I saw explicitly[15] how (as you informed me) my words had made an impression.[16]

However, regarding that which you, elevated one[17], have written that this path (I have chosen) is a dangerous one, Heaven forefend – I would retort to you, honourable Torah personality[18], that in my winter years (when in hiding) I really did walk a dangerous paths upon which no man had ever walked.

And, thank G-d, I paved a straight path upon which even a yeshiva student of only one day could tread without stumbling, Heaven forefend.

Therefore, do not fear (for me) because G-d, blessed be His name, will help and save us from the fowler’s[19] snare etc. Enough said.

By this,

I remain your beloved who requests your wellbeing forever, with faithful and eternal love,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem from Telusk.

..........................................................................................................................................................






[1] There is no reference at all to exactly what these suspicions were. It is highly likely, as we have pointed out previously, that it may have involved allegations of Sabbateanism.
[2] Literally; the most important (person) in my home.
[3] In Document 236 the Baal Shem Tov’s wife is recorded as being Leah Rachel.
[4] My assumption is that Ru”ch is an abbreviation for Ruble Chadash. The Ruble has been the currency in Russia for the past five hundred years.
[5] One would have imagined that the concepts the Baal Shem Tov espoused were more rooted in the Kabbalah of the Ari Zal?
[6] See Document 217 for a similar assurance from the Baal Shem Tov that he did not stray.
[7] C t”r is an abbreviation for Kevod Torato, which means honourable Torah personality.
[8] T”v is an abbreviation for Tibaneh veTikonen, which means may it be rebuilt and re-established.
[9] Moldavia was the historical principality between the Eastern Carpathian Mountains and the Dniester River. It was founded in 1346 and lasted until 1859.
[10] Ctr”h is an abbreviation for kavod Torato haTehorah, which means honourable and pure Torah personality.
[11] This letter was written on the Fast of Gedalya which is the day after Rosh haShana.
[12] Rectification appeal.
[13] Bu”k is an abbreviation for butzina kaddisha, which means holy lamp.
[14] Literally: those who sit on chairs, i.e.: office bearers.
[15] I believe the expression b ch”sh could be a printing error and should read bechush, explicitly.
[16] Literall: yielded fruit.
[17] Roma”l is an abbreviation for rom maalato, which means elevated one.
[18]I would assume that the bet in this abbreviation is a printing error and should a caf.
[19] I.e.: a hunter of fowl.

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