The written history of Tzfat is full of stories from the past – tales of characters who lived in the Old City, which served as the stage and the setting for special stories. Each of these stories teaches us a special lesson about life. The following story took place in the 16th century, the Golden Age of Tzfat Kabbalah, a year after the passing of Ha’ari (1572) the greatest of the Tzfat kabbalists.
It was the year 1573 in Tzfat. In the Old City there lived an old and humble man, who made his living as a tailor. He was a simple Jew who did not belong to any group of scholars, but he was known to be a man of good deeds.
One night, while he was saying the tikkun hatzot prayers at home (a special prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem), the house suddenly filled with a precious, marvelous light. The man looked around him, wondering where this fabulous light came from. Suddenly he noticed an impressive figure with a long white beard down to his chest and a bright white robe, a shining light surrounding him. “I am Elijah the prophet,” the guest introduced himself, “I have been sent to you from the worlds above to reveal when the Messiah will come, but on the condition that you reveal to me the good deed that you did on your Bar Mitzvah day. That good deed illuminated all the worlds above with a light of sanctity and special joy, and I would very much like to know what caused this.”
“I am sorry,” responded the man, “but I can not reveal what that deed was. I did it in honor of my Creator and I do not want anything in return.” Further attempts by Elijah to extract the details of the deed failed, and he returned to the heavens as he had come.
Garden of Eden
In the court of the heavens it was nevertheless decided that because of the man’s lofty deed on his Bar Mitzvah, he would receive a special gift, one that not every man enjoys. It was decided that Elijah the prophet would be revealed to him every night and would teach him the secrets of the Torah and the Kabbalah. And so it was.
For several years the man enjoyed the nightly visits of Elijah the prophet, and the rare experience of learning the secrets of the Torah from him.
A few years later, the man died, at a grand old age. His lofty soul entered into the special hall in the Garden of Eden – the Hall of the Fathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Like the Fathers, the good deeds of this Jew were all in the name of the Lord. He practiced extreme modesty and never asked for anything in return for his deeds.
After studying and examining the history of the soul of the man, the heavenly court decided that despite all his virtues and the marvelous things that his soul had enjoyed in life –good deeds, pure intentions and studying with Elijah the prophet – one main thing was missing before it was fully rectified – it was missing revelation. The Jew of Tzfat did the good deeds in total modesty and did not reveal them to anyone. Nor did he share the secrets of the Torah that he learned with Elijah with anyone, or tell them of Elijah’s nighttime visits to his home.
Therefore, the court of the heavens decided that this soul must undergo another incarnation in the world, in order to rectify the matter of revelation.
(It is known, as taught by the greatest of Tzfat kabbalists, Ha’ari, that souls are returned for another incarnation in order to correct and complete matters left undone in the former life). The soul of the Tzfat Jew returned to the world about 150 years later. It came down to the world with a single purpose – to reveal and to be revealed.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov
Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hassidic movement, was born on the 18th (hai) of Elul 1768, in the city of Tluste near the Carpathian Mountains in central Europe. As a child and young man, he often spent time in seclusion in the forests and mountains, where he experienced inspiration and uplifting spiritual insights.
On his 26th birthday, his teacher and master, Achiya HaShiloni, the famous Biblical prophet who was also the teacher of the prophet Elijah, was revealed to him.
For ten years, the Baal Shem Tov studied with Achiya HaShiloni, learning the secrets of the Torah and the inner meanings of the Kabbalah, until his 36th birthday. On that day, Achiya HaShiloni made a stirring revelation to the Baal Shem Tov.
“From this day on, you must reveal yourself and tell the world what I have taught you” Achiya Shiloni told his student.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov was in shock and deeply sorrowed.
He was experienced in the practice of the hidden righteous and the kabbalists who acted in Europe in small groups, in great modesty. The concept of “revelation” was foreign to him and alien to the ways of the hidden kabbalists.
Achiya HaShiloni revealed to his student that his soul was the reincarnation of the Jew who had lived in Tzfat in the late 16th century, whose soul had come back to earth for the purpose of revealing and being revealed.
When the Baal Shem Tov heard about the origin of his soul and its special mission in the world, he accepted the task and began revealing and disseminating the teachings of Hassidism, which exposed and discovers the inner dimensions of the Kabbalah and the secrets of the Torah.
The Rise of the Soul
Thirteen years later, on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Baal Shem Tov was granted a special rising of the soul, in which his soul reached the hall of the Messiah in the supreme worlds. Seeing great joy there, he asked the Messiah when he would come, the Messiah replied, “When your springs are disseminated, when your teachings and secrets are revealed to the entire world.”
The story of the origin of the soul of the Baal Shem Tov in the Tzfat Jew of the 16th century and its reincarnation in the world, and the story of the rising of the soul, is told by the Baal Shem Tov himself in his letters, which were widely publicized and printed in several books.