New Musings on an Old Question
by Dovid Sears
The classic collection of early Chassidic stories, Shivchey HaBaal Shem Tov, preserves several oral traditions about the Baal Shem Tov’s origins. Among them is the tale of how a great kabbalist known as “Rabbi Adam” (this name itself being the subject of much speculation) left deathbed instructions to his son to go to the village of Okup, the home of “Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer.” Upon finding the rabbi, the lad should give him a certain profound kabbalistic manuscript, which the dying sage entrusted to him, and then ascend to the “Yeshivah shel Ma’alah,” the Heavenly Academy.
Faithful to his mission, Rabbi Adam’s son (who had evidently inherited some money as well as kabbalistic manuscripts) made his way to Okup, where he was soon recognized as an esteemed talmid chokhom and honored guest. However, when he inquires about “Rabbi Yisrael,” he is met with blank stares. The only person named “Yisrael” in the village is a young orphan who sleeps in the shul at night, helps out a bit as a shammes (custodian), and is a ward of the community. Ever watchful, Rabbi Adam’s son discovers that the lad secretly arises every night at chatzos to study the Torah until just before the first minyan begins to arrive before dawn. He leaves a page of the arcane manuscript on the sleeping boy’s chest one night and, from a hidden vantage in the dark, observes how Yisrael wakes up, finds the wondrous folio, and how his face lights up while reading its contents. Then he reveals himself to the youth and tells him the whole story about his father’s deathbed request.
A reluctant Yisrael is persuaded to take his new benefactor under his wing as a disciple. At night in a little hut in the woods they study by candle-light various holy books, including both the theoretical and practical Kabbalah. These works contain formulae for summoning various angels. Once, however, Rabbi Adam’s son in his desire to bring down the Prince of Torah makes a big mistake. “We have brought down the Sar shel Eish, the angel who presides over fire!” Yisrael exclaims. “Warn the townspeople that a fire is about to break out!’
Rabbi Adam’s son does so and is roundly celebrated as a hero and a baal ruach ha-kodesh, one who posseses Divine Inspiration.
However, he remains determined to contact the Prince of Torah, and cajoles Rabbi Yisrael into cooperating with him – and the next time they fail puts their own lives in jeopardy. “ We must both remain awake until dawn, when the Angel of Death will depart” Rabbi Yisrael tells him with alarm. “If either of us falls asleep, even for a second, he will lose his life!” They maintain their vigil until just before dawn, when Rabbi Adam’s son begins to doze off—and immediately perishes.
This is a more or less a synopsis of what it says in Shivchey Baal Shem Tov. However, I once saw a version of the story – which, of course, I can’t locate at the moment – that describes the passing of Rabbi Adam’s son with the words “immediately something like two threads of flame entered his nostrils, and he died.”
When in the midst of writing this essay I sent out a cyber cry of distress, Dr. Alan Brill sent me back an email that the version I seek may be found in “Gabriel's Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales” by Howard Schwartz, p. 326. That’s not where I first saw it, which was many years ago, long before this book was published. But evidently Mr. Schwartz was familiar with the same source.
Presuming that this is a how the original story was told, at least by some, most contemporaries of the Baal Shem Tov would have instantly recognized this phrase as a quote from Rashi’s commentary on the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon who brought a fire offering of their own initiative into the Mishkan and perished at the hand of Heaven (see beginning of Parshas Shemini.) Thus, the story implies that Rabbi Adam’s son was guilty of a similar sin, in that he ventured into sublime realms for which he lacked the right passport and visa.
Perhaps this detail of the story has another meaning, as well. If our theory is correct, it may unlock the mystery of how “Rabbi Yisrael” acquired the title “Baal Shem Tov,” Master of the Good Name.
This unusual nickname has long puzzled scholars and laymen alike. Some explain that a practical kabbalist of that period was commonly known as a “Baal Shem,” one who had mastered the secrets of Divine Names and their miraculous powers. Some of these fellows were surely charlatans, hence the term “Baal Shem Tov”—the “good” Baal Shem, who was not a “bad” one like some others. Or maybe the name means that he was a master of the “Good Name,” as opposed to the names used in black magic. Or maybe the name simply means that he possessed a “good name,” in that he was a man of exemplary character. There are other theories, too.
However, the truth may lie in another commentary of Rashi, this time on a well-known mishnah in Pirkey Avos—Chapter 4, Mishnah 13 (or 12 in some versions). “There are three crowns: the crown of royalty, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of Torah. But the crown of a good name is more exalted than them all.”
Rashi comments that an example of this is Daniel and his companions, who were known for their virtuous deeds. Therefore, when they were tossed into the fire, they miraculously emerged unharmed. By contrast, Rashi adds, Nadav and Avihu were sons of Aharon and had received the holy oil of anointing (shemen mishchas kodesh), but they were killed by fire when they entered the holy precincts to offer “strange fire” on their own initiative. This is Rashi’s proof that the crown of a good name trumps that of the priesthood.
This may have suggested the name “Baal Shem Tov” to some of Rabbi Yisrael’s followers after the story of the death of Rabbi Yisrael’s son began to get around.
Like Nadav and Avihu, Rabbi Adam’s son attempted an avodah, a spiritual service, for which he was not sufficently prepared. Therefore he died a similar death, as suggested by the description of two “threads of flame” entering his nostrils. But like Daniel and his companions, Rabbi Yisrael was immune to this fate due to his merits—his “good name.” Thus, he became renowned as the “Baal Shem Tov.”