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Ba’al Shem Tov: Torah from Simple Jews

Translated from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s trilogy on the Ba’al Shem Tov, Or Yisrael, volume II. P. 191.

The hidden tzaddikim and the disciples of our master, the Ba’al Shem Tov, were wanderers. They traveled from town to town and from village to village. Wherever they found themselves, they connected with the simple folk and spoke of the virtues of the vendors in the marketplace and the laborers.

The hidden tzaddik, Reb Kehat, a preeminent disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, was once in the marketplace. He mingled with the vendors and came upon a group of horse merchants. He heard one of them say to the other:

“In Psalms it says, ‘Be not like a senseless horse or mule….’[1] The horse thinks that you are putting a bit in his mouth so that he will not forget how to chew, but you should not be senseless like that. You must understand!”

When Reb Kehat related this conversation to the Ba’al Shem Tov, he very enthusiastically sang a melody, with tremendous cleaving to God.

(Sefer Hasichot 5702, p. 3)


Those familiar with the holy Zohar know that the deep secrets of the Torah were revealed to its sages specifically when they were on the road. A teaching in the Zohar will oftentimes be introduced with a statement similar to, “Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yossi were traveling along the road.”

The roads of the world act like arteries or veins that connect the body’s organs and channel inner vitality throughout. A person who is seeking the inner essence of reality can take his cue from the sages of the Zohar and embark on a journey. When the clear boundaries of the places inhabited by people become blurred and unclear, the senses become more aware of what is concealed in the depths, beneath the surface.

There are of course sages who do not travel—who spend most of their lives situated in one place. Sages like these, who lead a settled life, can be said to reflect God’s immanent light, the light that the Zohar refers to as “the light that fills all worlds” (אוֹר הַמְמַלֵּא כָּל עָלְמִין), which is revealed in an orderly, incremental manner. Conversely, the sage who sets out on journeys connects with God’s surrounding light (אוֹר הַסּוֹבֵב כָּל עָלְמִין). Light means revelation and God’s surrounding revelation equalizes all that is great and small. Thus, its effect (in the form of sparks) can be found in the middle of the marketplace, entwined with the horse merchant. “From God are a man’s steps established, and He desires his way.”[2] When we go out on a journey with this intention, God guides and directs the steps of our feet, directing them to every place that the Almighty desires we go.

To attain the surrounding light, (סוֹבֵב, pronounced “sovev”) one must get around (lehistovev, which originates from the same root as sovev). In Aramaic, to “get around” is sechor sechor. The repeated-verb form connotes an identification with the circular motion, because a tzaddik who wants to draw down energy from the surrounding light must himself engage in circular motion.[3]

The Ba’al Shem Tov had disciples who conducted themselves according to this understanding and were both travelers and merchants; a “merchant” (סוֹחֵר) is a socher, another root that stems from the same root as “get around.” On all their journeys, they sought fine merchandise. There is no finer merchandise for a wandering tzaddik than a spark of holiness waiting for him specifically to come and return it to its source. When one hears holy words uttered in the middle of a foreign, physical reality and transforms it into an important Torah teaching, one brings redemption to the world.

The Power of the Pomegranate

When we hear a Torah teaching from a simple Jew—in this case, a horse merchant—it can be likened to a non-fruit-bearing tree suddenly producing luscious, sweet fruit. Indeed, the sages tell us,[4] “What is the source that in the future, even non-fruit-bearing trees will produce fruit? The verse that reads, ‘And the tree of the field will bear its fruit.’”[5] The value of the word that means “its fruit” (פִּרְיוֹ) is the same as “pomegranate” (רִמּוֹן), alluding to the declaration, “Even the empty individuals among you are full of good deeds, like a pomegranate [is full of seeds].”[6] The stress in this statement is that simple Jews are likened to the pomegranate

The Land of Israel was blessed with Seven Species of produce, “A land of wheat and barley and grapevine and fig and pomegranate, a land of oil-producing olives and honey,”[7] which correspond to the seven emotive sefirot, in order:














date palm

Thus, the pomegranate corresponds to the sefirah of acknowledgment (hod), which lies just below might on the left axis. Whatever is situated along the left axis has the power to reject and discard that which is detrimental and negative on a practical, day-to-day basis. Among the body’s physical systems, acknowledgment corresponds to the immune system, which fights off harmful forces and intruders and eliminates them from the body.

The simple Jews who are compared to the pomegranate play a critical role in the well-being of the communal Congregation of Israel. Their simplicity and earnest faith in God and the Torah deter evil. It is specifically these people who safeguard the clear, pure identity of the nation and do not allow foreign influences to take root in its midst. In comparison, Torah scholars are complex individuals, and their sense of self is much more dominant. Without the stability and support they receive from simple Jews they can fail and fall much more easily.

The sefirah of acknowledgment, to which the simple, earnest Jews correspond, is obviously related to serving God out of a sense of thanksgiving. Acknowledging the truth is the basis and foundation of the service of God. We begin every morning by giving thanks to God, “I give thanks before You” (Modeh ani lefanecha). The word “give thanks” (מוֹדֶה) has the same numerical value as “base” (אֶדֶן), like the bases used to insert the wooden walls of the Tabernacle into and upon which the entire structure stands. So too, the entire structure of the Congregation of Israel stands upon the simple, earnest Jews.

Remaining Distant from Godliness

The entire verse in Psalms 32 with which we began reads, “Be not like a senseless horse or mule whose movement must be curbed by bit and bridle; they come not near you.”

The horse merchant insisted that submission and external self-coercion will never help if a person lacks any sense of internal submission, self-discipline, and a true will to separate himself from evil and to come close to good. The animal soul innately interprets everything that happens to it according to its needs and nature. It has the disposition of a slave who sees anything that he is not forcibly prevented from enjoying as permissible[8]—a libertine and indiscriminate view of life. Hence, despite the bit placed in the horse’s mouth to allow the rider to control its movements, the horse thinks that the bit is something for it to chew on—a self-serving object meant to ensure that it will not forget how to eat.

If a person is not able to transcend life dominated by his or her animal soul, the result is described at the end of the verse, “they come not near to you.” In spite of the education that he received and all the external efforts, which like a bit and bridle were meant to help him reign in his innate character, he or she will not truly succeed in coming close to God. If, however, he applies himself to truly understand the meaning of life and the importance of serving God then even superficial actions serve a purpose and will bring his animal soul close to Divinity.

[1]. Psalms 32:9.

[2]. Psalms 37:23.

[3]. Tongue in cheek, we can say that the tzaddikim who conduct themselves with the surrounding light might seem to be dizzy (which in Hebrew is secharchoret, same root as sechor). They experience lofty revelations of Godliness, which impact them strongly. But they themselves do not suffer, because a tzaddik who is worthy of conducting himself with the surrounding lights has the talents and the presence of mind to thrive through these revelations. It is usually the people that come in close contact with these tzaddikim that get dizzy from the surrounding lights and revelations, because they do not necessarily have the presence of mind to fully comprehend that tzaddik’s actions.

[4]. Sifra Bechukotai Parasha alef.

[5]. Leviticus 26:4.

[6]. Berachot 57a.

[7]. Deuteronomy 8:8.

[8]. See Gittin 13a (עַבְדָּא בְּהֶפְקֵירָא נִיחָא לֵיהּ).

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