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The Ba’al Shem Tov’s Secret Cave

In the year 5584 (1724), when the Baal Shem Tov turned twenty-six, an elderly man appeared to him—his teacher, the soul of the prophet Achiya HaShiloni. He instructed him on how to conduct himself on the 18th of Elul, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s birthday, and how to purify himself in a mikveh. He described a specific location in the Carpathian Mountains, near the town of Kitov, between the first and third mountains, where he would wait for him until he arrived.

The Baal Shem Tov acted according to the elderly man's instructions without informing anyone, not his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon of Kitov, nor his wife. Everyone noticed a change in his appearance and asked him why his face was so pale, but the Baal Shem Tov pretended to know nothing.

Not long after that, the Baal Shem Tov realized that to keep the matter hidden, he needed to move away from the village near Yizlavitch and the surrounding area of Kitov. He rented an inn closer to the Carpathian Mountains, which his wife, the Rebbetzin, managed. This made it possible for the Baal Shem Tov to seclude himself with his hidden master from Sunday to Friday, studying with him in a cave in the Carpathian Mountains.

His wife, the Rebbetzin, prepared six loaves of bread for him, one for each day. On the eve of the holy Sabbath, he took the bag in which the bread was placed, and to his surprise, he found the bag still full of bread. He had been so engrossed in studying with his master that he had forgotten to eat for an entire week…

His master, the Baal HaChai, continued to study with the Baal Shem Tov for ten years until the year 5594 (1734), teaching him the inner secrets of the entire Torah.

Achiyah Hashiloni, Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, the Ba’al Shem Tov

Why was it specifically Achiyah Hashiloni who was the Ba’al Shem Tov’s mentor and teacher?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains why specifically the prophet Ahiyah Hashiloni was the Baal Shem Tov's teacher and mentor based on Kabbalistic sources. It is stated that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a reincarnation of Achiyah Hashiloni. Hence Rabbi Shimon’s teachings, which are famously encapsulated in the Zohar where it is said, "Through this composition, the Book of Zohar, they will go out from the exile with mercy," originate from Achiyah Hashiloni. The continuation of the revelation of the Torah of the Mashiach is found in the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and hence we understand that he is also connected to the same root. Both Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the Baal Shem Tov were introduced to the secrets of the Torah while completely isolated in a cave, detached from the distractions of regular life.

This connection can also be explored through the figure of Elijah the Prophet. Achiyah Hashiloni was Elijah's teacher, the prophet destined to herald the Mashiach and who stands in every generation to clarify matters of Mashiach, and to implant the seeds of his Torah into reality. The teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, which he received from Achiyah Hashiloni, are connected to the initial appearance of the Torah of Mashiach in the world. The doctrine of Chasidut is built upon the ancient foundations laid by Achiyah Hashiloni and developed by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Regarding this Torah, the Baal Shem Tov’s question "When will my master come?” was answered by the Mashiach: “You will know by this: when your teachings become famous and are revealed to the world and your springs spread outward!"

In our story, Achiyah Hashiloni is referred to as Baal HaChai, named after the two highest parts of the soul—Chaya and Yechida. The lights of Chaya and Yechida do not manifest within the inner faculties of the soul but rather surround it from above, creating within it a special inspiration of simple faith and self-sacrifice to fulfill God's will under any condition.

The Light of Inspiration

It is explained in many places that the main innovation of the Baal Shem Tov was related to the "light of inspiration." In all his teachings and actions, he infused into reality higher lights that were previously hidden. The simple faith that characterizes true chasidim, the complete self-sacrifice without calculations and manipulation, are qualities that took root in the soul of those who were nurtured on the Baal Shem Tov's teachings, exposing the soul to the very reality of God Himself.

It is known that Divine light descends from Above in three manners: emanation, enclothement, and inspiration. Emanation is when a cause produces an effect, thus creating a long chain from the highest levels to the lowest depths. Although the connection is continuous, there is a significant distance between the beginning and the end.

Enclothement occurs when the higher realm is clothed within the lower level. The connection is much more vital, yet even after enclothement, the higher realm is not seen as it truly is. It can only be comprehended through the garment, and consequently, its true essence remains completely unknown.

Inspiration occurs when the higher realm is completely present, without having to confine itself to the boundaries of the lower realm. The disadvantage is clear: how much can the lower realm really grasp? However, the advantage is significant: indeed, we do not truly see, hear, or understand, but there is a faint sense that this is an inspiration from God Himself! Is there anything comparable to this in all the worlds of emanation and enclothement?

It is explained that the gap between the three types of illumination corresponds to the differences between three Kabbalistic approaches—the approach of the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero), the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria), and the Baal Shem Tov.

The primary focus of the Ramak is on the order of emanation, constructing a clear hierarchical structure—what is above what and how the lowest levels are connected to the highest source.

The teachings of the Arizal went beyond that, focusing on integration or embodiment—describing how the upper partzufim (countenances) interpenetrate one another, how the higher realms influence the lower ones, acting upon them as they will, and how the breath of life begins to stir within the building blocks of the emanation process.

Upon these levels stood the Baal Shem Tov, advancing further. He approached the fog where the Divine resides—to uncover the mysteries of the disconnection between the upper and the lower realms, to reveal and communicate how truly everything is one, how the supernal is also fully present here.

Image by Alan Frijns from Pixabay

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