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Rabbi Gershon of Kitov: The Sense of Smell

Rabbi Avraham Gershon of Kitov was born in either Kitov or Brod (Brody, Ukraine) to Rabbi Ephraim of Brody. He was a rabbi and Kabbalist in Brody, Galicia, and the brother-in-law of the Ba’al Shem Tov. Initially, Rabbi Gershon opposed the Ba’al Shem Tov and his way and even the Ba’al Shem Tov’s marriage to his sister, Channah. But after the Ba’al Shem Tov was revealed as a tzaddik, Rabbi Gershon became his pre-eminent disciple and his close friend. At a certain point he even moved to Mezhibuzh to tutor the Ba’al Shem Tov’s son, Rabbi Tzvi.

The aliyah (immigration) of Rabbi Gershon and his family to the Land of Israel was the first of the aliyot of the chasidim. It was a bridgehead between the chasidic movement in Eastern Europe and the Land of Israel. On his way to the Land of Israel, Rabbi Gershon stayed in Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey for a period of time, and his scholarship and piety opened the hearts of the Jews of Constantinople and their sages. When he eventually sailed for the Land of Israel, some of the community members joined him, while he remained in contact with others by mail. Rabbi Gershon and his family landed in Acco (Acre) in the Land of Israel in 5507 (1747). He then settled in Hebron for a number of years. On 29 Elul 5509 (1749) he went to visit in Jerusalem and stayed there for approximately two weeks. In a letter, Rabbi Gershon relates that the Ashkenazic Jews of the aliyah of Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid in Jerusalem begged him to remain there as their “rabbi and prince” and had even rented an apartment and study hall for him. Rabbi Gershon refused, saying to himself, “All my life, I have fled honor. Certainly, now this is the work of the evil inclination that is trying to ensnare me with pride.”

Five years later, he did move to Jerusalem and joined the Kabbalist yeshiva, Beit El, where he studied under the holy Rashash (Rabbi Shalom Sharabi). After the passing of his wife on the Fast of Gedaliah 5517 (1756), Rabbi Gershon wrote to the Ba’al Shem Tov that he had decided to journey back to Eastern Europe before Passover, to find a new wife. Apparently, his plan did not materialize. Rabbi Gershon passed away in Jerusalem on the 25th of First Adar 5521 (1761) and he was laid to rest on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.  

Two of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciples were once visiting Rabbi Gershon of Kitov and saw that in the middle of the Silent Prayer, a box of tobacco fell from his grasp. Rabbi Gershon picked the box up and smelled the tobacco. This conduct was very unusual to them, and they asked themselves how he could do so in the middle of the Silent Prayer, when one is supposed to be focused solely on God. As a punishment for their thoughts, it was decreed in heaven that they would not live out the year.

Their rabbi, the Ba’al Shem Tov, saw the decree with his Divine inspiration and wished to nullify it. What did he do? When the students were in his holy presence on the night of Hoshanah Rabbah, he removed all their intelligence from them. When they began to recite the Book of Deuteronomy, traditionally recited in full on the night of Hoshanah Rabbah, they felt incapable of focusing and so just said the verses simply, with no special intentions. The loss of their intelligence was so severe that they practically could not understand the words they were reading.

Later, the Ba’al Shem Tov gave tobacco to all those present in the study hall. These students also took some tobacco. Their eyes were immediately opened, and all their intelligence returned to them. “We see that smelling tobacco is a great thing,” they said, “And why should we think poorly of Rabbi Gershon if by smelling tobacco one achieves such lofty levels of insight?”

The Ba’al Shem Tov immediately turned to them and said: “You should know that because you were critical of the holy Rabbi Gershon, there was a death sentence hanging over your heads. But now that you have taken those thoughts about him back, I saved you.”

In the Zohar, it is told that Rav Himnuna Saba would open his prayers with the saying, “I pray to the master of the nose, to the master of the nose I beseech.”[1] In this statement, which opens the door to understanding the connection between prayer and the sense of smell, there is a deep Kabbalistic secret: It refers to the Seven Rectifications of the Skull (שבעה תקוני גלגלתא) of Arich Anpin (the Long Countenance) in which are enclothed the attributes of Atik Yomin (the Ancient of Days).[2] The seventh and Rectification of the Skull is called the chutma (nose) in which the final attribute—the kingdom of the loving-kindness of Atik Yomin—is enclothed. What does this mean?

The kingdom of Atik Yomin (the Ancient of Days), as its name implies, is the most ancient kingdom of all. Before any creatures were created, the souls of the righteous sat with God, and He ruled over them and consulted with them. He asked them: Should I or should I not create the world? The souls of the righteous (“And your nation are all righteous”[3]) answered in the affirmative, and the world came into being.

Following creation, as well, we turn in prayer to “God my King, from the ancient times”[4] with the memory that God lends great weight to our opinion and request. Prayer that flows forth from this experience is a messianic prayer of leadership of the world and its rectification. Just as it is written about the Mashiach “and he will smell fear of God,”[5] so it is with every tzaddik who experiences God’s kingdom while praying. With self-nullification and recognition of the fact that it is God who rules over reality, the tzaddik makes his requests with a sense of inner partnership with the blessed Creator. For a person like this, even smelling tobacco is an act of fear of Heaven, and nothing prevents him from cleaving to God while he is praying.

In conclusion, we will bring another story about Rabbi Gershon that exemplifies his sense of partnership with God in creation:

The holy Rabbi Gershon of Kitov once spent Shabbat in Tiberias together with the holy Rabbi Nachman of Horodonka.[6] They sat and talked for so long on Shabbat night that the oil in the lamp was almost finished and the flame began to sputter. “What is this?” asked Rabbi Gershon in surprise. And the flame again shone brightly and continued to be lit all night and all the next day of Shabbat until the end of Shabbat. “Enough” (דָי), said Rabbi Gershon, and the flame went out.

The tzaddik, the foundation of the world by whose recommendation the world was created, belongs to the secret of God’s Name, Shakai (שָׁ־דַי), which is an acronym for “For He said to his world, ‘Enough.’” Thus, the tzaddik can control the process referred to in Chasidic philosophy as “substance and extension” (עֶצֶם וְהִתְפַּשְׁטוּת)[7] and can even determine how far a particular reality will extend. The greater the tzaddik, the greater the boundaries of his extension. The pinnacle of extension is the Mashiach’s, whose root is in essential infinity. In the days of Mashiach, the holiness of the Land of Israel will, by his power, extend to all the lands of the earth, until we reach a state of “And God will be King over all the land, on that day, God will be One and His Name will be One.”[8]

Image by M. Maggs from Pixabay


[1]. Zohar 3:130b.

[2]. For an explanation of these concepts see here

[3]. Isaiah 60:21.

[4]. Psalms 74:12.

[5]. Isaiah 11:3.

[6]. One of the earliest disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov who married into the latter’s family. Their most famous common offspring was Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. He was one of the first of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciples to make aliyah to the Land of Israel even prior to 5500 (1740). He was laid to rest in Tiberias on the 2nd of Tammuz, 5525 (1765).

[7]. Substance and extension is one of two fundamental dynamics in Creation, implying the extension of Divine energy and lifeforce from its substantial source. The other is concealment and revelation (הֶעְלֵם וְגִלּוּי).

[8]. Zechariah 14:9.

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