Rabbi Avraham Gershon of Kitov was born to his father, Rabbi Ephraim, in Galicia. Rabbi Gershon was known as a Torah genius and great Kabbalist and was one of the members of the famous kloiz (shul) in Brody. After he became aware of the greatness of the Ba’al Shem Tov (who was married to his sister), he cleaved to him and became his disciple. Rabbi Gershon made aliyah to the Land of Israel in 5507 (1747), settling first in Hebron and later in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem he learned Torah from Rabbi Shalom Shar’abi (the Rashash). Rabbi Gershon Kitov passed away on the 25th of Adar Alef 5521 (1761) and was buried on the Mount of Olives.
In the biography of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Shivhei HaBesht (47) the story of the marriage of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the sister of Rabbi Gershon of Kitov is told:
Afterwards, he (the Ba’al Shem Tov) took upon himself not to conceal himself so much. He went to Brody and became a teacher there. He was beloved by all, for he was a Torah scholar and very wise, until the point that the questions and problems of the entire community were determined by him. When there would be a disagreement between people, they would consult with the Ba’al Shem Tov, and he would judge between them. And both parties would be happy with his judgement, for in his great wisdom, he would explain his decision to them on an inner level and it would be accepted by all.
Rabbi Gershon Kitov was the head of the Jewish court of law in Brody. His father, Rabbi Ephraim had a court case with a person in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s community, near Brody. Rabbi Ephraim requested to hold the court case in Brody.
“We have a teacher here who is a great Torah scholar, and he judges with justice” said the second litigant. “Every time that people come before him for a judgement, both parties feel that justice has been done, for he explains the reasons for his decision well. Let us come before him and present our cases and if you are not satisfied then I will accompany you to Brody.” Rabbi Ephraim happily agreed, and they came before the Ba’al Shem Tov.
Immediately when Rabbi Ephraim came before the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Ba’al Shem Tov saw with his ru’ach hakodesh (holy spirit) that Rabbi Ephraim’s daughter was going to be his wife. At the time, it was customary that when an honored guest would come before a learned person, the learned person would bring up a Torah topic and analyze it. The Ba’al Shem Tov discussed a topic in the Rambam with great intricacy and wisdom and explained other topics as well. Rabbi Ephraim felt that his soul was bonding with the Ba’al Shem Tov’s soul.
Following this introduction, the court convened, with each side presenting his case. There were many claims, for they had had many disagreements over the years. In no time, the Ba’al Shem Tov presented the litigants with his decision. It was clearly a heavenly decision. Rabbi Ephraim found it wondrous, and he loved the Ba’al Shem Tov deeply.
In the meantime, Rabbi Ephraim discovered that the Ba’al Shem Tov was looking for a wife. Rabbi Ephraim had a divorced daughter. “Perhaps this match will work out?” he thought. Rabbi Ephraim came before the Ba’al Shem Tov in secret and said to him: “I have heard that your honor needs a wife. Perhaps your honor would like to marry my daughter?”
“That is a fine idea,” the Ba’al Shem Tov replied. “But in this community, I have already received many marriage offers, so we will have to keep this a secret. For I cannot be ungrateful to them after they have done so much for me and have given me great honor. If your honor agrees to this, we will write the engagement contract in private.” “In addition,” the Ba’al Shem Tov continued, “I request that you make the match with me and not with the Torah that I have learned or with my wisdom. For under no circumstances do I wish for you to praise me with all sorts of attributes. Just simply write, ‘Our teacher Yisrael, the son of our teacher Eliezer.”
Rabbi Ephraim, who felt very connected to the Ba’al Shem tov at that point, agreed to all his requests and they wrote up the engagement document. They did not write the name of a place and did not tell anybody about the engagement.
On Rabbi Ephraim’s journey back to his home, he became ill and passed away. His son, Rabbi Gershon Kitov, was informed, and he came to eulogize his father as is customary. Rabbi Gershon was given all the documents that were found with his father, including the engagement contract for his daughter, Rabbi Gershon’s sister, with a man named Yisrael. It was very wondrous to him, for his father was a famous man, and how would he engage his daughter to a simple, anonymous man, without even writing where he lives or the name of his family? Rabbi Gershon related this to his sister, who said. “If it was good in the eyes of our father, surely we should not think ill of it.”
The Ba’al Shem Tov waited until his teaching contract was finished and said to the townspeople, “I will return to my place.” The townspeople tried to convince him to remain, promising him a larger salary, but he refused, for this was not his intention. He left the town, and when he reached the outskirts of Brody, he changed his attire and dressed like a simple peasant, with a short jacket and wide belt. He changed his manner of speech, adopting a gruff tone, and entered the town of Brody, going straight to the home of Rabbi Gershon Kitov. Two courts of Jewish law were in session before him, and Rabbi Gershon was supervising both.
The Ba’al Shem Tov stood at the doorway, and Rabbi Gershon thought that he was a beggar. He took out a coin to give to him, but the Ba’al Shem Tov said, “I have a private matter to discuss with you.” He entered a room with him, and the Ba’al Shem Tov showed him the engagement contract and said to him, “Please bring my wife to me.” When Rabbi Gershon saw the man and his attire and his gruff manner of speech, he became very frightened and could not understand what his father had done. He called for his sister and related everything to her. She once again replied, “As our father has done this, we surely should not think ill of it and certainly this is from God. Perhaps I will bear lofty children from this marriage.” A date was set for the wedding.
Before the marriage ceremony, the Ba’al Shem Tov said that he would like to first speak with his wife, as the sages say, “It is forbidden for a man to marry a woman until he has seen her.” The Ba’al Shem Tov spoke with his wife privately and revealed the truth to her. And he asked her to vow that she would reveal nothing of what he had told her, even if she would suffer hardship and poverty. She willingly accepted his conditions.
Change of Attire and Speech
In this story, as at other junctures of his life, the Ba’al Shem Tov quickly and deftly changes costumes and roles. In his Torah teachings, passed on by his disciple Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonne, also known as Ba’al Hatoldot, he explains that the Ba’al Shem Tov’s conduct in this respect reflected Heaven. God also “changes His attire and manner of speaking” in the way He conducts the world. He speaks to us from within the different situations in our lives and in many, varied personas.
The ability to adopt different personas comes from the attribute of kingdom. The ability to lead and influence those on a lower level requires one to descend to them and speak to them in their language and appear to them in a form to which they can relate. Thus, the inner dimension of the attribute of kingdom is the attribute of lowliness. Even the most honorable king knows that he has to set his honor aside in order to lead, and to be able to skip from his place to a different place with alacrity and ease.
King David, the soul that most strongly expresses the attribute of kingdom, exemplifies this ability: “And I would be lowly in my eyes, and with the handmaidens about whom you have spoken, with them I will get honor” (2 Samuel 6:22). King David’s talent for taking on different personas manifested again in the court of Avimelech when he disguised himself as a lunatic.
The ability to “dress up” shows that even when the costume is excellent, it is not a permanent home for the person adopting the persona. This fits the Ba’al Shem Tov, who came to illuminate the world with the light of God’s essence, above and beyond any specific manifestation. For the person who cleaves to the inherent essence of God, both small and great become equal. From this perspective, to dress and act like a judge and wise teacher is also a costume that is not completely natural.
Another reason for changing attire is because of the impression that it makes. The limits and definitions of the different personas become blurred, and the distance between them is less blatant. The Tanya (c. 32) explains that the Jewish people are literally one essence and that the only thing that distorts this realization is the bodies of Israel, which are separated from each other. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the bodies also include our self-image, which stems from our feeling of existence as a created being, which is not the perspective of the soul.
Thus, to increase love between Jews, the Ba’al Shem Tov acts to break down the partitions that divide between his persona as a judge and his persona as a simple villager. By doing so, the onlooker is aroused to recognize the equality of all the Jews in their essence, which is the true, primary characteristic in both personas.
From this story we understand that the Ba’al Shem Tov changed his attire and manner of speaking from the persona of a judge to the persona of a simple peasant. But for us, being told that that even before he revealed his true self (at age 36), he had served as a judge and had dressed like a Torah scholar, is truly surprising. It seems that when the Ba’al Shem Tov returned to the persona of a peasant, it was not a mere change of costume, but a return to his true, original persona—the persona that he chose for himself. If being a judge means being a person of importance and status, being a peasant means being anonymous.
In his alacrity, the Ba’al Shem Tov would disrobe from one persona and enrobe in the next. When he was a judge, he enrobed himself in a certain image and when he needed it no longer, he disrobed from it and was no longer limited by it. Then he returned to the persona of the simple Jew, his essential persona, which was like a transparent persona upon which he could enrobe in all sorts of different I’s.
According to this, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s request of his father-in-law-to-be to “make the match with me and not with my Torah knowledge and wisdom” takes on added significance. The law in the Shulchan Aruch (Even Ha’ezer 31:2) says: “It was customary to make the marriage betrothal with a ring that does not have a stone” so that the bride will not exchange her focus and thoughts on the ring itself, with the value of the precious stone set in it.
The bride may be thinking about the small amount of money that the ring is worth. But the Ba’al Shem Tov hints that the simplicity within him is worth much more than his wisdom and scholarship. His message was simply, if you make a match with my Torah and wisdom, you will not really grasp me.