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The Ba’al Shem Tov’s Torah Innovations

Sometimes, when the Ba’al Shem Tov would convey a Torah teaching, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonne (known as the Toldot Yaakov Yosef after his book), the Ba’al Shem Tov’s foremost and famously scholarly disciple would shout out in the middle, “In the Ari’s writings (Rabbi Isaac Luria, who had passed away more than one hundred years before the Ba’al Shem Tov was born) it is written otherwise!”

Once, on Shabbat eve, the Ba’al Shem Tov was learning a Torah teaching which included something from the Ari’s teachings. The Ba’al Shem Tov awakened Rabbi Ze’ev Kitzes, who was sleeping there, so that he could be witness to the way that the Holy Ari was learning the teaching with the Ba’al Shem Tov, in case the Toldot would shout that that is not what is written in the Ari.

And that is exactly what happened. The next day, when the Ba’al Shem Tov was repeating the Torah teaching, the Toldot shouted out, “That is not what is written in the Arizal’s teachings!” The Ba’al Shem Tov called upon Rabbi Ze’ev Kitzes to testify that this is how he heard the Ba’al Shem Tov learning with the Holy Ari.

Sippurei Maran Harama”ch, p. 26


In a different story, similar to the story above, it is told how one of the students of the Ba’al Shem Tov fell asleep and saw the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Ari debating between them over a Torah teaching, until ultimately the Ari conceded to the Ba’al Shem Tov. That story shows us the loftiness of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings – that even when he changes what is written in the Arizal, he is correct. Our story above, however, depicts a different type of situation: Both the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Toldot Yaakov Yosef (who was wondrously brilliant) learned the teachings of the Ari. But only the Ba’al Shem Tov was profoundly attuned to the depth and truth of those teachings[1].

The reason for this is that there was a great difference in the manner in which the two tzaddikim learned Torah. The Toldot learned what was written in the book, and thus he shouted, “In the Ari, it is not written thus!” The Ba’al Shem Tov, on the other hand, studied with the Ari himself, heard his words with his own ears and saw him with his own eyes. As a result, he had a better understanding of the teachings.

This is as the sages teach us, “Whomever relates something he heard, in the name of the person from whom he heard it said, should see as if the speaker is standing before him.”[2] The Ba’al Shem Tov, following the tradition of the Torah’s inner dimension, would indeed see the teacher whose teaching he was learning. The holy Zohar too consistently uses the phrase, “Ta chazei” (תָּא חָזֵי), which means, “Come and see” and serves as invitation to the person learning it to actually see the source of its words. This in contrast with the invitation commonly found in the Babylonian Talmud, “Ta shma” (תָּא שְׁמַע), which means, “Come and hear.” The Talmud focuses on the more exoteric teachings of Torah and is described by its sages[3] using the verse, “He has seated me in darkness, as the dead of the world.”[4]

The Toldot is not the only scholar who discovered that there is a different way of understanding the teaching, more authentic and vital than what he originally understood. A similar situation is also related about the Rav the Maggid of Mezeritch, the great disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov[5].

This was not a shortcoming of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s two great disciples. It was the general condition of the Torah world, which, prior to the appearance of the Ba’al Shem Tov, was embedded in limiting and distancing constraints. Those constraints did not allow for illuminating, vital Torah study.

The Ba’al Shem Tov came to inject freshness and vitality into the service of God and to reveal the newness of the Torah so that the same old teachings could revisit the scholars with a completely new understanding. As the sages teach that in future, “’A [new] Torah will come from me’—an innovation in Torah will come from me.”[6]



[1]. A different wondrous story tells us that once, in a soul-ascent, the Ba’al Shem Tov was learning the holy Zohar together with the Arizal. They debated over a particular passage and went to ask the author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who said that the Arizal was correct. But the Ba’al Shem Tov maintained that his interpretation was correct and insisted on asking the Shechinah [the Divine Presence, that was the subject of the teaching] itself. The answer came that the Ba’al Shem Tov was correct.

In the spirit of this story, we can also explain our story differently. It is not that the Ba’al Shem Tov was more attuned to the words of the Ari than the Toldot, but that he was more attuned to the source of the teaching than even their author, himself. As we know that the Arizal did not write his books, but rather that they were authored by Rabbi Chaim Vital and additional disciples, we can say that perhaps the Toldot was more attune to the teachings of the authors of the books, but the Ba’al Shem Tov cleaved to the source of the teachings, the way that the Ari himself had understood them.

[2]. Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 1:5.

[3]. Sanhedrin 24a.

[4]. Lamentations 3:6.

[5]. In another story (appearing in Or yisrael Vol. 1), the Ba’al Shem Tov shows the Maggid how his understanding of a passage in the Zohar is superficial compared to the depth and vitality of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s explanation of that passage.

[6]. Vayikrah rabbah 13:3.

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