In 1753, there was a terrible blood libel leveled against the Jewish community of Pavlysh in Eastern Europe. Twenty-four Jews were falsely accused of murdering a four-year-old boy and draining his blood to use in baking Passover matzohs.
How utterly ignorant was this horrible lie! Jews never eat blood of any kind, and matzohs are made from nothing but flour and water. Anybody can come to a matzoh bakery at any time, and see for himself that this is the absolute truth. Yet throughout European history, Jews suffered horrible deaths at the hands of Christians who believed such hateful propaganda.
In this particular case, a Jew named Rabbi David escaped and fled to the town of Medzheboz in the Ukraine, where the Baal Shem Tov was living at the time. The Baal Shem Tov re-assured Rabbi David that the false charges would soon be dropped, and the innocent Jews of Pavlysh would be set free again.
But that's not what happened. Somehow, the great Hasidic master's inner sight had failed him in this particular case. Twelve of the Jews were horribly tortured and executed; the other twelve saved their lives by converting to Christianity.
Rabbi David, who was still in Medzheboz, received a letter describing the horrible tortures which the innocent Jews of Pavlysh had endured. He immediately brought it the Baal Shem Tov. As soon as he read the graphic description of this tragic news, the master was stricken with inconsolable grief.
It was already Friday afternoon, and time to begin preparations for the Sabbath. When the Baal Shem Tov went to the mikveh to immerse himself as usual, he wept bitterly. Then he returned to the synagogue and prayed the afternoon prayer with such a heavy heart that his followers could scarcely lift up their heads.
"Surely he will pray with joy again when the Sabbath begins," the Hasidim said to each other. "He knows it is forbidden to mourn this way on the Sabbath."
But the master could not be consoled. He sang Lecha Dodi -- the beautiful hymn to greet the Sabbath Queen -- with a joyless voice and a heavy heart. When he made the kiddush blessing over the cup of wine, he broke down in tears. He washed his hands in the ritual way and sat down at the table, but he was too broken-hearted to break the bread and begin the Sabbath meal. Without saying a word, he got up from the table and went to his room, where he stretched himself out on the floor and remained there in terrible silence.
The members of his household and the guests waited patiently for their teacher to return to the table and recite the blessing on the bread, so they could begin the meal. But the master did not come back. It was getting so late, that the candles were beginning die out. So his wife, Hannah, went to his room and said, "The Sabbath candles are almost out. The guests are still waiting for you to come back to the table and conduct the meal."
Without even looking up from the floor, the Baal Shem Tov replied, "Go ahead and eat without me, then tell them to go home."
After the meal was over, Hannah also went to the bedroom and lay down on her bed. Rabbi David did not go home, but remained in the house and stood outside the door to their room, to see what would happen next. He soon became weary of standing, so he got a bench and sat down by the door to continue his vigil. During all this time, the master lay motionless on the floor, with his arms and legs outstretched.
Around midnight, Rabbi David heard the master say to his wife, "Hannah, cover your eyes." At the same moment, the room suddenly became very bright, and the light shone through the cracks in the walls to where Rabbi David was sitting. He heard the Baal Shem Tov say, "Welcome, Rabbi Akiva, noblest of martyrs." He also welcomed other martyrs whose names Rabbi David did not recognize.
Then the Baal Shem Tov said to the martyrs, "I decree that you shall go and take revenge on the enemy who persecuted you!"
But the martyrs replied, "Don't let such words pass from your lips again -- and may the words of revenge that you already uttered be nullified!"
"But why?" asked the Baal Shem Tov.
"Holy rabbi," they replied, "You don't know your own power. When you upset the Sabbath by grieving so deeply over our deaths, there was a great tumult in Paradise. Because on the Sabbath, the upper and lower worlds are perfectly united, so whatever happens below affects those of us who are in heaven much more that it does on a weekday. Your sorrow caused such an uproar, that we fled from the Heavenly Halls as if we were being chased by the sword.
"When we reached the next higher palace, we saw that everyone there had to flee, too, even though they had no idea what they were running from. Finally we came to an even higher palace, where the angels understood the cause of this great disturbance. 'Hurry!' the angels said to us, 'Go down and quiet the Baal Shem Tov's tears, to restore the Sabbath peace!' And so we have come to you now."
"But you suffered so much!" the Baal Shem Tov lamented.
"Indeed it is true," one of the martyr continued. "All the ordinary suffering which human beings must endure is no more than the skin of a garlic clove compared to what martyrs must endure in order to sanctify the Holy Name of God. Yet we were glad to suffer kiddush HaShem -- martyrdom for the sake of God's Name!"
"Nevertheless, the Evil Urge confused us just a hair and caused us to weaken for a moment -- and for this lapse, we had to spend a half hour in purgatory before we could go on to paradise. Which we did -- and believe me, all the suffering of a lifetime is nothing compared to a half hour in Gehenna!
"Later, after we entered paradise, we began to argue that we wanted to take revenge upon our persecutors. But the angels answered, 'Since your enemies are still alive, if you want to take revenge on them, you must return to earth again.'
"Upon hearing that, we changed our minds and replied, 'Thank heavens we sanctified ourselves and became martyrs for His Name! And thank heavens also, that we had to suffer that terrible half hour in purgatory. Because that half hour makes all of our suffering during the martyrdom pale to nothing in comparison! We are now purified of our sins and have inherited paradise. But what would happen to us if were to seek revenge by being reincarnated again in the world? We might, heaven forbid, commit more sins, which might cause us to lose paradise and return to Gehenna! Surely it is better for us to renounce revenge and not be reincarnated.'
"So you can see," continued the martyrs, "how your actions here on earth have serious consequences in the worlds above. Believe me, your words are heard and your prayers are answered! For this very reason, we now ask you again: please take back your words of revenge, or we may be forced to reincarnate against our wills, in order to fulfill your prayers."
"Very well," said the Baal Shem Tov, "I hereby retract those words. But tell me: why did those who are in heaven mislead me into believing that you would be set free?"
Because, "the martyrs replied, "if you had known the true outcome in advance, you would have prayed a great deal to prevent it, and that might have canceled the heavenly decree. In the end, that could have caused even more trouble than our martyrdom. Therefore, the outcome was hidden from your inner sight."
The vision was ended, and the Baal Shem Tov stood up from the floor. The bitterness was entirely gone from his heart, and the joy of the Sabbath returned once more.
or scroll down and read 3 more stories....
Rabbi Aharon, who was known as the Karliner Rebbe, died young. Reb Shlomo, who was his closest disciple and destined to become his successor, did not want the position of Rebbe. Why not? Because Reb Shlomo and Rabbi Aharon had once been fellow students who sat together as equals at the house of their teacher, the Great Maggid of Mezeritch. So it did not seem right to Shlomo now, that he should take his elder friend's place as Rebbe of Karlin. Besides, Reb Shlomo had seen how the people flocked to a Rebbe day and night, so that he had no privacy or peace.
"I don't want such fame and responsibility," Shlomo said. "I just want to lead a private life as an ordinary Jew."
So the Karliner Hasidim were left without a Rebbe. That is, until the night when Rabbi Aharon himself appeared to Reb Shlomo in a dream and said, "Shlomo, my friend and dearest student, if you will take on the yoke of leadership, you will be granted the power of seeing all the wanderings of souls in their various incarnations."
Reb Shlomo could not resist the great temptation of this offer. To be able to read the past lives of all souls! Still in the dream, he gave Rabbi Aharon his word that he would assume the succession and become the next Karliner Rebbe.
As it was promised in the dream, so it became in the waking world. The next morning when Reb Shlomo awoke, he was able to see the destinies of all human beings on earth. He knew their past lives, their present accomplishments, and all the repairs they needed to make for their souls. It was indeed an awesome spiritual gift!
That very same day, a messenger brought Reb Sholom a kvittel -- a written prayer request -- along with a great sum of money as a donation. The sender was a prosperous merchant, whom we shall call Mr. Geltman. He lay dying and wanted the Rebbe to make a miracle and save his life.
No sooner had Reb Shlomo read the kvittel from Mr. Geltman, than a second messenger arrived with another prayer request, this time from the woman who supervised the homeless shelter near the edge of town. She had come on behalf of a pregnant woman, whom we shall call Mrs. Bettler, who was staying at the shelter. Mrs. Bettler had been laboring in childbirth for several days, but was unable to deliver her child. The midwife could do nothing for her. Could the Rebbe help?
With his newly-acquired mystical insight, Reb Shlomo immediately saw that the soul of the dying Mr. Geltman was destined to be re-born into the body of Mrs. Bettler's unborn child. Alas, the poor child could not be born until the rich man had died!
"So be it," sighed the new Rebbe. "May the will of God be done." Within moments, word of the rich man's death and the beggar child's birth arrived, one upon the heels of the other.
The next day, Reb Shlomo also heard through the grapevine that there was no firewood left at the homeless shelter, and the young mother and her newborn son were in danger of freezing to death. So Reb Shlomo took some of the donation money that Mr. Geltman had sent and used it to buy more firewood. "It really is the boy's own money after all," he said to himself. "So he deserves to benefit from it." Not long after that, he gave the rest of the money to Mrs. Bettler, to be used for the boy's care.
When the boy and his mother were strong enough to travel, they went on their way with the other beggars, going from town to town. Six years later, the Bettlers happened to be passing through Karlin again. At the homeless shelter they heard that one of the sons of the deceased Mr. Geltman would be celebrating his son's bar mitzvah. As was the custom, the poor were all invited to the feast. So Mrs. Bettler and her son went along with the others.
As soon as they arrived at the Geltman house, the six-year-old boy's whole manner began to change completely. He took on an air of importance, and refused to sit at the pauper's table with the rest of the beggars. In a loud, arrogant voice, he demanded to be seated at the head of the guest table in a place of honor. The child made such a great disturbance that Reb Shlomo stepped in and said, "Let's just humor the boy, so we can continue the celebration in peace."
But the rabbi knew there was more to it, because he had recognized the boy as the reincarnated soul of Mr. Geltman. "He is really the master of the house, and those are his sons," thought Reb Shlomo to himself. "All he is doing is asking for his due."
When the meal was served, the same thing happened; the Bettler boy refused to take the plain foods offered to the poor, and insisted upon getting the best cuts of meat and the choicest morsels from the head table. Once again, Reb Shlomo said, "Let him have his way, so he doesn't disturb the feast."
But the other guests were getting upset with the boy. How dare he, a mere beggar's son, insult the Geltman brothers like that? So they asked his mother, "Does your son always behave like this?"
"Why no," replied Mrs. Bettler, as puzzled as they were. "He's always been such a good boy, very quiet and well-mannered. He's never done anything like this before -- I just don't know what's gotten into him!"
At the end of the feast, after Reb Shlomo had already gone home, the Geltman brothers distributed money among the poor, as was the custom. When the Bettler boy's turn came, he looked disdainfully at the small coins and shouted, "How dare you offer me coppers!? Bring me gold from the treasure chest!"
By now, the Geltman brothers had had enough of his insolence, and Reb Shlomo was not there to intervene. So the Geltmans told their servants to throw him out of the house. And they did.
When Rabbi Shlomo later learned how the Geltman brothers had unknowingly mistreated their reincarnated father, he was deeply saddened. He could not bear the thought of spending his life watching such tragic scenes, so he begged heaven to take away his miraculous powers.
or scroll down and read 2 more stories....
The saintly Rabbi Yekhiel-Mikhel, who was known far and wide as the Preacher of Zolochev, once traveled to a city where he had never been before. He didn't know any of the people there, but his fame had gone ahead of him, so the prominent members of the congregation began coming to him for advice. One by one, Reb Yekhiel fixed his gaze upon their foreheads, meditated long and hard, then told each person the flaw in their soul, and how to heal it.
Word soon got around that there was a true saint in town, who could accurately read the whole history of a person's soul in all its incarnations -- just by looking at the forehead. So the next group of visitors pulled their hats all the way down to their noses, so the rabbi could not see their foreheads. But he read their souls anyway.
"Did you really think that pulling your hats down that way could hide your deeds from me?" the rabbi asked with a grin. "Surely an eye which can see through the flesh to the depths of the soul can easily see through a hat!"
Such was the spiritual insight of Reb Yekhiel. It is said that he turned every day into Yom Kippur --the Day of Atonement -- but in a good way, because he was able to see into the depths of everyone's souls, and help the people to grow spiritually. He accurately described their past sins, told them how to correct them, and prayed for their forgiveness. If this was true on an ordinary weekday, how much more must it have been true when it really was the time of the High Holy Days.
Once, on Rosh Hashanah night, the soul of a dead man came to Reb Yekhiel. The apparition appeared exactly as the man had been on earth, and Reb Yekhiel immediately recognized him. He was the soul of the cantor who used to chant so beautifully from the Torah scroll during the Sabbath services in Reb Yekhiel's town.
"What are you doing here on this most holy of nights?" the rabbi asked the dead man.
"Surely the holy rabbi already knows," the soul replied. "On Rosh Hashanah, God himself opens the Book of Life, and judges the whole world. All of the deeds of everyone on earth are clearly written in that Book, in every tiny detail. God looks at our sins and our good deeds, and weighs them both in the balance. Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be born -- and to which family? During this night, souls are also judged to be reincarnated once again. I am just such a soul, about to be reborn."
"So tell me," the rabbi asked, "why are you being sent down into the physical world again?"
"It is written in the Zohar, that when God desires to take back a person's spirit, then all the days that he has lived in this world pass in review before him," the soul replied, "and this is exactly what happened to me. Just before my death, I recited the confessional, as every Jew is supposed to do, and I thought over everything which I had done. Then my entire life passed before me -- and I saw that in every instance, I had acted in exactly the right way. My whole life had been totally kosher and totally good. When I realized this, a great feeling of egotistical pride came over me. As luck would have it, right in the middle of this feeling, I died, with no time to repent of that sinful pride.
"When I arrived at the Heavenly Court, that sin of pride was still clinging to me like a soiled coat. And because of that sin, the Heavenly Court decreed that I must return to earth once more, in order to atone for my pride." With that, the apparition vanished.
That same year, a son was born to Reb Yekhiel and his wife. They named him Zev-Wolf. Little Zev soon grew to be a wild and willful child, whom nobody could control. But Reb Yekhiel knew that this was the very same soul which had come to him on Rosh Hashanah night. He also saw that his son's rebellious ways were connected to the sin of pride which had caused him to reincarnate in the first place. However, the child himself did not remember this, and the boy was not about to listen to lectures about humility from his father! So Reb Yekhiel held his peace.
Time passed, and Zev-Wolf was nearing his thirteenth birthday, the age of bar mitzvah, when he would take on responsibility for his own actions. As is the usual custom, his father commissioned a set of tefillin to be made for him, because a boy must begin to wear them at prayer when he becomes a son of the commandments.
So Reb Yekhiel ordered the local scribe to write parchments with the proper verses from the Torah, which were to go into the little black rawhide boxes. Then he asked the scribe to bring him the boxes before putting in the parchments. Reb Yekhiel took the empty boxes into his hands and looked at them for a long, long time. As he thought about his son who would wear them, and the sin of that soul in its previous life, his tears began to flow, falling into the empty tefillin boxes. Then Reb Yekhiel carefully dried the boxes and put in the parchments with the verses of Scripture.
From the moment that Zev-Wolf put on those holy tefillin, a spiritual transformation came over him. His rebelliousness left him, and he was filled with tranquility and love. Eventually he became a Hasidic Rebbe -- Zev-Wolf of Zbarash -- and to this day he is remembered for his deep humility.
or scroll down and read 1 more story....
(Count Vladimir (Valentine) Pototzki (Potocki) was a historical figure, who converted to Judaism and is reported to have been burned at the stake by the Inquisition on May 24, 1749. Numerous legends have sprung up around him, some of which are combined here to form a my version of the narrative. The Baal Shem Tov was actively teaching at the time of Pototzki's martyrdom, which was a major event for the Jews of that time.)
A woman once came to Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (also known as the "Besht"), and begged him to pray for her to have a child. At first the holy rabbi did not want to do it, but she kept returning and pleading so earnestly, that he finally relented and said, "There is a soul in the spiritual world which would like to be born to you, but are you strong enough?"
The woman thought he was talking about physical strength, so she said, "Yes, Rebbe, I am strong enough to bear a child. In fact, I'm in perfect health."
So the Besht blessed her, and, nine months later, she bore a healthy baby boy. She nursed the child herself, and lavished every kind of love and attention upon him. The mother and child were very happy together. But on the boy's third birthday, when he received his first set of ritual fringes, he suddenly died for no apparent reason. The grieving mother traveled to the Besht again and asked, "Why did God give me a child, only to see him die in my arms?"
"Don't you remember," replied the Besht, "how I asked if you were strong enough? The strength I referred to was not the strength of the body, but the strength of the heart." Then he told the following story.
In the first half of the 1700's, a boy named Vladimir was born into a noble Polish family by the name of Pototzki. The boy had an excellent mind, and his father wanted him to have the best education possible. So the nobleman sought out tutors to teach his son Latin, Greek, Hebrew, mathematics, and all the known sciences.
As it turned out, the tutor who taught Old Testament and the Hebrew language was really Jewish. But the nobleman did not know this, because the teacher always dressed in Polish clothing like the non-Jews wore. If the father had known that the teacher was a Jew, he would never have hired him, because he hated the Jews.
The teacher, for his part, was reluctant to take the position, because it meant he would have to move into the castle, and it might be difficult to find enough privacy to say his prayers in peace. If the antisemitic father ever found out that he was a Jew, it could cost him his life. But the nobleman insisted until the teacher could find no more excuses to refuse. He agreed to come live in the castle, but only on one condition: that he would be given his own room, and be allowed one hour of total privacy every day. During that hour, nobody was to disturb him, not even the nobleman himself.
Vladimir's father agreed to these terms, and the teacher came to the palace. His young student soon grew very fond of him and followed him everywhere -- except for that mysterious hour when he locked himself all alone in his room each day. The boy repeatedly begged his teacher to tell him what he did in there, but the teacher did not want to say. He was reciting his prayers during that hour, and he knew that the boy's father would become enraged if he ever found out that his son was being taught by a Jew.
As Vladimir grew into his teens, he became more and more curious about that secret room. One day, he could stand it no longer. He decided to solve the mystery by hiding under the bed in his teacher's room, to find out what he did in there. When the time came for the hour of solitude, the teacher locked himself in as usual. Then he put on his prayer shawl, wrapped the leather straps of the tefillin around his arm and head, and began rocking back and forth in ecstasy, chanting rapidly in Hebrew.
Vladimir was so fascinated by this strange behavior, that he could not resist calling out, "What are you doing?"
The poor teacher paled in fright. "Who's there?" he said cautiously. "Is somebody here in my room?"
"It's me," Vladimir replied, crawling out from under the bed. "I'm sorry I frightened you, but I wanted to know what you do in here. So now you must tell me -- what are you doing?"
"I'm saying my prayers," the boy's teacher explained. "I am a Jew, and my real name is Menachem. This is the way that Jews pray to the One God who created everything in the universe."
"Teach me how to pray like that!" Vladimir said. "I want you to let me wear a shawl and straps like that, too."
"But these things are only for Jews," Menachem replied. "If I put them on you, your father will be very angry, because he hates the Jews. He would punish you severely, and probably put me to death."
"Put it on me anyway!" Vladimir commanded, "or I shall call the guards and tell my father about it right now!"
So Menachem had no choice but to show his student how to put on the tallis and tefillin. As soon as he did so, a strange light shone in Vladimir's eyes. "I want to be a Jew, too!" he exclaimed. "Please, please make me into a Jew!"
"It's not as easy as all that," Menachem said. "In order to become a Jew, you would have to study with a rabbi for a long time, and then convert by being circumcised and going to the mikveh. If your father ever found out, he would put both me and the rabbi to death. You could lose your right to inherit the palace, and the Church would not be happy about your conversion, either. You could even be burned at the stake, heaven forbid. It would be better for you to remain as you are, and worship the One God through your own religion."
But Valdimir would not be disuaded. From the moment he put on that tallis and tefillin, he wanted to be a Jew with all his heart. In order to humor him, Menachem taught him the Jewish prayers, reasoning that, if his father ever found out, they could say he was just practicing the Hebrew language. One thing led to another, and soon they were discussing religion, philosophy, mitzvot, and the meaning of life. The young man soaked it all up like a sponge. He loved everything about Judaism, because he really had a Jewish soul.
The day finally came when Vladimir decided to run away and formally convert to Judaism. Menachem went, too, because his life would be in danger as soon as the nobleman discovered that his son was missing. The local rabbi did not want to convert Vladimir, for fear of reprisals against the whole Jewish community. So they traveled all the way to Jerusalem, where the rabbis performed the conversion. Vladimir remained in the Holy Land for a long time, praying and learning Torah, and became a devout scholar.
Meanwhile, his parents were burning with anger. They were so ashamed of their son becoming a Jew, that they broke off one of the eagle claws on the family crest, to represent Vladimir's disgrace. Had they been willing to let it go at that, this story would have a different ending, because Vladimir did not care about his royal status, and would gladly have given it up to follow the path of God. But the father wanted control over his son, so he hired detectives to track him down and bring him back to Poland by force. "Vladimir loves beautiful lacework," he told the detectives. "It's even possible that he will go into the lace business. So keep a sharp eye out around the lace shops."
Sure enough, several years later, one of the detectives saw a bearded man standing in front of a shop in the marketplace, admiring the fine lacework. He recognized him as Vladimir Pototzki, captured him, and took him by force to his father's castle in Poland. There, the Church officials gave Vladimir two choices: reconvert to Christianity and be forgiven, or remain a Jew and be burned at the stake as a heretic.
Vladimir stood firm as a rock, and could not be persuaded to give up Judaism. His mother begged and pleaded with him, saying, "What do you see in those Jews? What do they have that we don't? With us you can have anything you want -- we are rich, we can give you absolutely anything -- just name it."
"What I want, you cannot give me," Vladimir replied. "The simple taste of gefilte fish at the Sabbath evening meal is more delicious to me than all the fine banquets in a nobleman's castle."
When the Church officials saw that Vladimir remained firm in his new religion, they ordered him to be burned at the stake. As they were about to light the fire, they gave him one more chance to save his life. They even brought his family there to plead with him. "You could still change your mind," they begged him. "Give up this Jewish foolishness and live!"
But Vladimir replied, "My soul is Jewish, and it draws me to the Jews. I know my soul is pure and will go to heaven. But I was born among you and raised among you, and my body was corrupted by your ways. For many long years I have fasted and prayed and practiced all types of austerities, in order to purify myself of those sins. But it was not enough. Now this fire will burn away the last of the dross, and I will be purified at last. By executing me for my faith, you are doing my a favor -- and so I thank you for this!"
With that, they lit the fire and he was burned at the stake. When Vladimir's soul ascended and stood before the Heavenly Court, he lacked only one thing in order to enter Paradise: he had never been nursed by a Jewish mother. Plus, there was a taint on his soul from the idolatrous lullabies that he had heard at his gentile mother's breast. So it was decreed that he would have to reincarnate one more time, in order to be nursed by a Jewish mother, who would sing to him about the One True God.
"And so," said the Baal Shem Tov to the grieving woman, "the soul of this righteous convert descended to earth and incarnated as your son. You nursed him, loved him, and sang to him with all the tenderness of a Jewish mother's heart. In so doing, you brought about the repair that his soul needed. When he reached the age of three and received his first ritual fringes, his babyhood was ended, and the work was complete. So his pure soul left the body and ascended to the Garden of Eden."
When the woman heard this, she was happy for the soul that had incarnated as her child, but sad for her own loss here on earth. The Baal Shem Tov saw her sadness and said, "Because you went through so much in order to help this soul, it has been decreed in heaven that you will have another child, who will live to see many generations." Everything happened as the Baal Shem Tov had predicted. And some say that the second child grew up to be the famous Hasidic Rebbe, Rabbi Aaron of Karlin.
These stories are excerpted from Jewish Tales of Reincarnation, Copyright 1997, 1999 by Yonassan Gershom. All rights reserved. Please do not re-post them elsewhere.)
and read all 70 stories!
More info on this book
More books by this author