Editor’s note: It is an age-old custom to devote more time during the month of Elul to prayer and the reciting of Psalms. The founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, instituted the custom to read three extra chapters of Psalms each day, beginning from the first of Elul until Yom Kippur (including 36 chapters recited on Yom Kippur itself)—thereby concluding the entire book of Psalms. In this connection, we bring you the following story:

The Baal Shem Tov displayed a remarkable affection for simple, pious folk. This approach was widely known, and was a major reason for the tremendous number of simple Jews who became his devotees in a short while, as many accounts attest.

However, his greatest disciples, who were tzadikim (righteous and saintly) and gaonim (Torah geniuses), could not accept this approach. True, the Baal Shem Tov frequently sent them to learn traits like sincerity, trust, simple faith, faith in sages, faith in tzadikim, love of Israel and the like from simple Jews. Still, they could not appreciate the Baal Shem Tov’s regard for ordinary people, and certainly could not emulate him in this.

It was the practice that guests ate two of the Shabbat meals at the Baal Shem Tov’s table, but one meal—the second, noontime meal—was reserved for the inner circle of disciples, the “sacred fellowship,” while guests were not admitted, even to observe from a distance. One summer Shabbat, between 1753 and 1755—when the circle of disciples included brilliant and renowned men like the Mezeritcher Maggid and the Rav of Polnoah—an incident occurred that thoroughly perplexed and confused the disciples.

A large number of guests came for that Shabbat, including many undistinguished people like farmers, artisans, cobblers, tailors, vintners, gardeners, stockmen, poultrymen and small merchants. At the Friday evening meal, the Baal Shem Tov showed extraordinary affection for these people. He poured of the remains of his kiddush wine into the cup of one; to another he gave his own kiddush cup to recite the kiddush; he gave pieces of the loaves of his hamotzi to several; to others he gave of the meat and fish of his portion. He showed other gestures of friendship and regard for these guests, leaving his disciples not a little perplexed.

The guests knew that they could not attend the second Shabbat meal, which was reserved for the inner group of disciples, so after their repast they assembled in the Baal Shem Tov’s shul, and—being totally uneducated, barely able to go beyond simply reading Chumash and Tehillim (Psalms)—they all started chanting Tehillim.

When the Baal Shem Tov sat at the table for the second meal, he arranged the disciples in a deliberate order, characteristic of the meticulous system governing everything he did. In a short while he started to hold forth, “saying Torah,” and all of the disciples felt a tremendous G‑dly delight in their master’s teaching. It was customary that they sang at the table, and when they saw the obvious cheery mood of the Baal Shem Tov, they were even more pleased, filled with a sense of gratitude and happiness for G‑d’s favor to them, granting them the privilege of being among the disciples of the saintly Baal Shem Tov.

It occurred to several of them that now it is so delightful, without the crowd of simple people who have no idea what their master is saying. Why, they thought, does he display such affection for these people, pouring from his cup into theirs, even giving his cup to one of them?

These thoughts still flitted through their minds, and the Baal Shem Tov’s expression changed. He became serious, immersed in his thoughts (devekut), and without a shift in this mood he began to speak.

“Peace, peace, to the far and the near,” he quoted. Our sages observe that “where the penitent stand, the perfect saints cannot,” stressing perfect saints. He explained that there are two paths in G‑d’s service—the saint’s and the penitent’s. The service of simple people is similar to the penitent’s, the simple person’s humility of an order with the penitent’s remorse and resolve.

When the Baal Shem Tov concluded they resumed singing. Those disciples who had been questioning their master’s open affection for simple people realized that he was aware of their thoughts. His exposition of the qualities of the simple, equating them with the superiority of the penitent over the saint, was obviously addressed to them.

During the songs he was still in his deep devekut, and when they finished singing he opened his eyes, intently examining each disciple. Then he told them to each place his right hand on the shoulder of his neighbor, so that the disciples sitting around the table would be joined. The Baal Shem Tov sat at the head of the table.

He told them to sing certain melodies while in this position of union, and after the songs he told them to shut their eyes and not open them until he tells them to. Then he placed his right hand on the shoulder of the disciple to his right, and his left on the disciple sitting there. The circle was closed.

Suddenly the disciples heard songs, melodies, interlaced with moving pleas, touching the very soul. One voice sang, “O, Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe),” and launched into a verse of Tehillim, “The sayings of G‑d are pure sayings . . .” Another sang, “Ai, Ribbono Shel Olam,” and another verse, “Test me, G‑d, prove me, purify my heart.” A third introduced his verse with a spontaneous cry in Yiddish—“Tatte hartziger (heartful father) . . . Be gracious to me; I trust in You and I shelter in the shadow of Your wings.” A fourth voice: “Ai gevald, zisser foter in himel (sweet father in heaven), Let G‑d arise; His foes will scatter; His enemies will flee.” Another voice was anguished. “Tyerer tatte (precious father), A bird has a home; a swallow a nest.” Still another pleaded, “Lieber foter, derbarmdiger tatte (dear father, merciful father), Bring us back, G‑d who helps, erase Your anger against us.”

The disciples hearing these songs of Tehillim trembled. Their eyes were still shut, but tears coursed down their cheeks. Their hearts were shattered by the songs. Each of the disciples fervently wished that G‑d help him to serve Him in this manner.

The Baal Shem Tov removed his hands from the shoulders of the two disciples, and the group no longer heard the songs and Tehillim. Then he told them to open their eyes and to sing a number of designated songs.

“When I heard the song of Tehillim,” the Maggid later told Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “my soul just spilled forth. I felt such a longing, such blissful love (ahavah b’taanugim), that I had never yet been privileged to feel. My boots were soaked with the perspiration and tears of teshuvah from the inwardness and depths of the heart.”

When the Baal Shem Tov stopped singing, an instantaneous hush fell over the group. He sat in deep devekut for a prolonged time, then looked up and said, “The songs you heard were the songs of the simple Jews saying Tehillim with sincerity, from the recesses of the heart and with simple faith.

“Now, my pupils, think carefully on this. We are only the ‘edge of truth’ (sefat emet), for the body is not truth and only the soul is truth, and it is only part of the essence, and so is called the ‘edge of truth.’ Still we do recognize truth, and feel truth and are affected by truth, affected deeply. Consider, then, how G‑d, who is perfect Truth, regards the Tehillim of these simple people . . .”