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The Baal Shem Tov's Mysterious Journey to Leipzig

The Baal Shem Tov's Mysterious Journey to Leipzig


Late one Wednesday night, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov ("the Besht") informed one of his younger disciples that the next morning they would be traveling to the city of Leipzig, where they would be spending the Shabbat.

The disciple was overjoyed. He was flattered to have been chosen by his master and was sure that he would learn many important things on the journey. In addition, this would be an opportunity to visit his parents, who lived in Leipzig.

They set off early Thursday morning. It was a ten-hour journey, so they had plenty of time to arrive before evening. But as they boarded the wagon the Besht turned to the young man and mysteriously said: "Don't count on seeing your parents, we won't have time."

The Besht turned to his wagon driver, Alexi, and told him that after they left the city he could let the reins drop and go to sleep.

The entire duration of the trip the Baal Shem did not stop whispering words of Torah to himself. The wagon moved swiftly and it seemed they were making good time; strangely, however, after some fifteen hours of travel, as night was falling, they still had not reached their destination.

They hitched the wagon to a tree by the side of the empty road. Our young disciple fell asleep almost immediately. When he awoke next morning, the wagon was already moving, but he was certain that the Besht had not slept all night.

After several hours it seemed clear that they were going nowhere and that they probably would have to spend Shabbat in the wagon as well. Suddenly a house appeared in the distance. As they got closer, the young man was overjoyed to see a mezuzah on the door. At least they would have a place to stay.

The wagon stopped before the house. An old woman, beaming with joy, appeared, called to her husband, and greeted the Besht with blessings.

From behind her emerged her husband, an old man with a radiant face who ran toward the Besht and warmly embraced him before escorting him into the house.

"Just wait in the wagon, I'll return shortly", the Besht said to his pupil just before he closed the door behind him.

Fifteen minutes later he returned and they were on their way.

"I thought we would stay here for Shabbat," said the worried young man. But the Besht just told the driver to let the reins drop as soon as the hut was out of sight. A short while later the horses strayed off the road, crossed a field, then entered a forest and stopped. The Besht got out, took a silver cup from his bag, motioned to his bewildered pupil to follow, and after several minutes suddenly stopped and said: "Listen! Water!"

Sure enough, from within a thicket they heard a bubbling brook. They cleared away the vegetation. The Besht dipped his cup into the water, stood to his full height and recited the blessing over water: Blessed are You L-rd our G‑d, King of the Universe, by whose word everything came to being. But what a blessing! It seemed as though the entire forest reverberated with each word the tzaddik uttered. The chassid had never really heard or seen anything like it in his life.

The Besht finished drinking, recited the "after-blessing" with the same deliberate intensity, and then motioned for his pupil to return to the wagon.

It was beginning to hint of sunset. A cool wind blew across the grasses and the young chassid wondered where and how they would spend Shabbat.

He was lost in his thoughts when suddenly he heard the Besht say to the wagon driver "Here, turn down this street!"

He looked up to see that... they were in Leipzig! In fact if they just continued straight they would be in the Jewish section. They could stay with his parents! What a miracle!

But the Besht had other ideas. "Here, Alexi, turn right!"

"No, NO! Not here!" The pupil cried. The street to which his master had directed the wagon driver was the infamous Shillergass, a street lined with taverns adjoining the university. No Jew dared show his face on that street. "If we turn here it will be the end of us!"

But the Besht paid no attention. They turned and after a few moments he told the driver to stop. "Here is where we are staying. But hurry! It's almost Shabbat."

They took their bags and got out in front of a door that had a big sign hanging over it saying "Tailor". The Besht knocked loudly at the door. A small peep hole opened. They heard numerous locks swiftly unlocking and in no time the door opened revealing an elderly Jew dressed for Shabbat with several young men standing in the brightly lit room behind him.

"Come in!" He whispered fearfully. "Who are you? Are you mad? Come in quickly!"

They entered, the old man closed the door and said as he was turning the locks, "You are furtunate that no one was in the street. These people are animals — real animals. They study in their universities but they are nothing but bloodthirsty animals. The sight of a Jew — especially when there is beer or vodka in their blood — turns them into instant killers. They tolerate me here because they need a tailor — otherwise they would kill me in a minute. Who are you? What are you doing here?"

The Besht promised he would explain but because it was very late he wanted to begin to lead the afternoon prayers. The tailor had seven sons and together with the Besht and his pupil they made a minyan (quorum of ten). The Besht began to pray aloud at the top of his voice.

The old tailor was astounded. At first he was filled with fear but then he suddenly felt as though his heart was exploding with love for G‑d. He had never heard such prayer before.

But when the prayers finished the sound of bottles crashing against his door from outside abruptly brought him back to reality. The Besht simply walked to the door opened it and stepped outside to the drunken crowd.

"Kill him! Kill the Jew!" Someone yelled and threw a rock but it missed.

One student ran toward the Besht with an iron bar screaming "You dirty.." Suddenly he froze, his hand paralyzed in midair, screaming with pain. Another student drew a large knife, with the same alarming results. The two of them just stood there screaming and weeping until the crowd dropped their rocks and bottles and began begging the Besht to take away the spell.

The Besht said something, and the paralyzed students fell unconscious to the ground. Their friends carried them away. The mob scattered in fear, leaving only their rocks and bottles strewn in the street.

The Besht returned inside leaving the door wide open behind him and, after washing his hands, began the evening prayer greeting the Holy Shabbat.

Again the room was magically transformed, and all felt as if they were in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the days of King Solomon. A few minutes later, a tall thin man, wrapped in a black cloak, suddenly appeared at the open door. He looked silently around the room, walked to a corner and just stood there, staring at the Besht and his praying.

After the prayers, they sat down to eat the Shabbat meal amidst song and wondrous words of Torah. All this time the tall stranger stood and stared, and the Besht paid him no attention at all.

Only when they finished the meal did the man approach the tailor, asked him when they would be praying in the morning, and left as soon as he got the answer.

"That man," said the tailor to the Besht's pupil, "is none other than Professor Shlanger — one of the most anti-Semitic intellectuals in the country. I have no idea what brought him here..."

The next morning, the professor returned. Again he stood silently staring at the Besht's praying and speaking. He left after the meal, and did not return again.

After Shabbat, the Besht and his pupil bade their host farewell, boarded their wagon and in less than five hours were back home.

"You see, I told you that you wouldn't have time to visit your parents." The Besht said with a smile. The young man, however, was burning with curiosity.

"Who was the old man whose house we stopped at on the way? Why did you wander into the forest to drink a cup of water, and what did we accomplish by spending Shabbat at the tailor's house?" he asked.

The Besht hesitated for a few seconds and then said:

"The man I spoke to is one of the thirty-six hidden righteous individuals in whose merit the world exists. He will be the first to know when Moshiach is supposed to arrive, and that is what we spoke about.

"The reason we stopped in the forest was because I saw that, since the beginning of creation no one had ever made a blessing on the water in that stream. In another few moments it would have been too late — the spring would have died without fulfilling its purpose in the world.

"And what we accomplished in the tailor's house you will know one day."

Twenty years later, long after the Besht had left this world, the disciple happened to be in the city of Minsk when a distinguished looking Jew stopped him in the street and asked him if he had been a pupil of the Baal Shem Tov and if he had ever spent a Shabbat in Leipzig with his master. When the chassid answered in the affirmative, the stranger embraced him and kissed him. "I was the professor who visited you that Shabbat. I was at a turning point in my life at the time, full of unanswerable questions as to my purpose in life. When I heard of how your teacher paralyzed those students I knew I had to see him for myself.

"The sight of his praying and teaching had such a profound effect on me that a few months later I disappeared from the University, moved to another country, and converted to Judaism. I don't know how your master could possibly have known that in a Jew-hater like me dwelled a Jewish soul crying out to be redeemed."

A popular teacher, musician and storyteller, Rabbi Tuvia Bolton is co-director of Yeshiva Ohr Tmimim in Kfar Chabad, Israel, and a senior lecturer there.
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Hans Jonah Leipzig August 19, 2014

Wel, thank you zo much for thuis story. I live in the City of Leipzig. Now my question is about the name of the street. Was is Schillergasse?? Or Schiller street? There is really a chance that this street with the same name still exist.. Blessings Hans/ Leipzig Reply

Sara Los Angeles April 7, 2013

I shared this story on motzai shabbos as per the custom of sharing a story from the holy Baal Shem Tov. Everyone enjoyed.
Thank you, Tuvia Bolton, and thank you! Reply

David Mark Pompano Beach, FL December 28, 2010

The Besht's Journey to Leipzig I appreciate Rabbi (I'm assuming) Yisroel Cotlar's defense of this story, but, for me, there is a remaining, albeit small, point which continues to rankle. "Antisemitism is still alive and we can't forget," he concludes. Can we not extend this tribal battle against antisemitism to a worldwide battle against racism?
Part of being Jewish is always noting the very thin line between mitzvote bain adam laMakom (mitzvote between humanity and G-d) and mitzvote bain adam l'rayayhoo (mitzvote between human beings)-- knowing when to declare our particularity, and when our universality.
I would be very happy to supersede all the stories from the past which allude to Jewish moral or spiritual superiority. We live on a very small planet, and we need to learn to get along with everyone. Reply

Yisroel Cotlar for Cary, NC December 24, 2010

Re: The article hear isn't about emphasizing the hatred. Rather, it simply tells over the story.

On the point your raise:

It's actually quite extraordinary. You'd expect so much of our prayers to mention all the persecution we suffered in the hands of our neighbors. The same with the themes in the Torah. But that just isn't so.

Judaism is about celebrating life and goodness. We are a people that always found a way to move on and focus on what is positive. This is what allowed Jews in every generation to immediately rebound after a tragedy and become successful in a new country. We may have been hated by certain people but we never allowed that to influence the way we thought of ourselves nor the way we related to our new neighbors. Thank G-d we live in times like today with so many kind people around us who respect us.

At the same time, we don't forget the past. It gets mentioned in stories and selected prayers. Antisemitism is still alive and we can't forget... Reply

Sally Laird Cincinnati, OH December 23, 2010

I'm confused by this story. This is about the founder of Chadissism and he has the word Baal in his name. Wasn't Baal the name of the false god worshipped by enemies of Israel? Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 23, 2010

David's comment above I enjoyed this story, as so many of these stories about the Besht are truly great, but I do also perceive what he is saying. It seems that we always, as Jews, seem to believe in OUR Messiah, and that somehow we are better than the rest of the world. Actually we're all in this together. The same G_d who created the Jews created all people, and there are righteous people throughout the world. If thirty-six people hold up the world, I would venture to say some are not Jewish.

We need to be careful. If a Messiah arrives or is already here, that individual, being about truth, will know this is about all of us, together. Not one group being more favored by G_d than another. That cannot be right, and it is not humility that speaks this way. Reply

moish brooklyn, ny December 23, 2010

source is it possible to put up the source of this story Reply

David Mark Pompano Beach, FL December 21, 2010

The Besht in Leipzig I am very happy that the Besht was able to bring out all the holiness amid the impure, but why must this kind of story emphasize how good we Jews are, to the detriment of our gentile neighbors? I have many gentile friends who are sensitive, religious according to the dictates of their faith, and certainly alert (moreso than many Jews) to the needs of repairing this world. As such, can we not decry that old chestnut which declares how holy we Jews are, and how awful are the non Jews (a hateful word, that)? We live on a very small planet, and every human being is made in G-d's image, and, hence, precious-- and not just as a potential Jew-by-choice. Reply

Lucia Victoria, Seychelles December 21, 2010

appreciation of the story I am realy touched by the story.Grateful if u could share some of those prayers with me n the blessings n after blessing. Reply

Shulamit orlando, USA December 20, 2010

The Baal shem tov'd journey just one word AWSOME Reply

mendel chaim ben zeav stony brook, ny December 20, 2010

Bal Shem story What an inspiring story Reply

Dr. A. Poland Palm Desert, CA December 20, 2010

stories of the Baal Shem Tov I love these stories and am very grateful to receive them in the comfort of my home at my computer.

Thank you and Blessings! Reply

Learn about the life and teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century mystic who permanently changed the Jewish landscape.