Practical Kabbalah

The Epistle of the Baal Shem Tov

The following text is an apparently authentic letter by the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. In it, he describes a mystical ascent he performed by means of Kabbalistic techniques, and what he learned from the messiah in heaven. Some notes for study of the text appear at the end.

This translation is based on that by David Sears in The Path of the Baal Shem Tov(Aronson), although I have edited it in several places.

The Epistle of the Baal Shem Tov (Letter to Rabbi Avraham Gershon Kitover)

To my beloved brother-in-law, my friend who is dear to me as my own heart and soul, the exalted rabbi and Hasid, renowned for his Torah scholarship and fear of Heaven, our master, Rabbi Avraham Gershon, may his light shine. Peace unto him and his family, his modest wife, Bluma, together with all their children; may they be blessed with life, amen, selah.

I received the letter written by your holy hand, which you sent by means of the emissary from Jerusalem, at the fair of Luka in the year 5510 (1750). It was written with extreme brevity, and explained that you had already written at length to each of us individually and had sent those letters by means of a certain man en route to Egypt. However, those letters never arrived, and I was sorely grieved that I never saw the work of your holy hand which was written in greater detail. Assuredly this is due to the calamitous state of the many lands in which the plague has spread because of our many transgressions. Not far from our region the pestilence has reached the holy community of Mohilev, as well as Wallachia and Turkey.

[Your letter] also states that the Torah teachings and mystical revelations which I sent you through the rabbi and preacher of the holy community of Polonoye did not reach you. This, too, caused me great distress. It certainly would have given you great joy if they had reached you. I have since forgotten many [of those teachings]. However, the few details I still remember I will write to you in brief.

On Rosh Hashanah of the year 5507 (1746), I made an oath and elevated my soul in the manner known to you. I saw wondrous things in a vision, the like of which I had never witnessed since the day my mind first began to awaken. The things which I saw and learned when I ascended there would be impossible to communicate, even if I could speak to you in person. When I returned to the lower Garden of Eden, I saw many souls, both living and dead, some known to me and others unknown-their number was beyond reckoning. They were hastening back and forth in order to ascend from one world to another through the pillar known to those initiated into the mysteries. Their joy was too great for the mouth to express or the physical ear to hear. Also, many evil-doers were repenting, and their sins were being forgiven, since it was a special time of Divine favor. Even to me, it was amazing how many of them were accepted as penitents, a number of whom you also know. There was great joy among them, too, and they ascended in he same manner.

Together they begged and implored me unceasingly, “Because of the glory of your Torah, God has granted you an additional measure of understanding to grasp and to know these matters. Ascend with us so that you can be our help and support.”

Because of the great joy that I beheld among them, I agreed to go up with them… And I sought my master (Achiyah HaShiloni) to accompany me, for the ascent to the Supernal Worlds is fraught with danger. From the day of my birth until now, I never experienced such an ascent as this.

I went up from level to level until I entered the Palace of the Messiah, where the messiah studies with the Tannaim (rabbinic sages)and tzaddikim, as well as the Seven Shepherds. There I found extremely great rejoicing, but I did not know the cause of this delight. At first I thought that it might be due to my having passed away from the physical world, God forbid. Later they told me that I had not yet died, for they have great pleasure on high when I effect mystical unifications in the world below through their holy Torah. However, to this very day, the nature of their joy remains unknown to me.

I asked the messiah, “When will you come, master?” And he replied, “By this you shall know: it will be a time when your teachings become publicized and revealed to the world, and your well-springs have overflowed to the outside, [when] that which I have taught you-and that which you have perceived of your own efforts-become known, so that others, too, will be able to perform mystical unifications and ascents of the soul like you. Then all the evil klippot [shells] will be destroyed, and it will be a time of grace and salvation.”

I was amazed at this and greatly troubled, since a long time must pass for this to be possible. But while I was there I learned three segulot and three Holy Names which are easy to learn and explain. My mind was then set at ease, and I thought that with these teachings the people of my own generation might attain the same spiritual level and state as myself. They would be able to elevate their souls and to learn and perceive just as I do. However, I was not granted permission to reveal this during my lifetime. I pleaded for your sake to be allowed to teach you; but I was denied permission altogether and took an oath to that effect.

Yet this I can tell you, and may God assist you, that your way may be pleasant to the Lord, and that you do not go astray (particularly in the Holy Land). Whenever you pray or study-and with every utterance your lips-intend to bring about the unification of a Divine Name. For every letter contains worlds and souls and Godliness, and they ascend and combine and unite with one another. Then the letters combine and unite to form a word, and they are actually unified with the Divine essence-and in all these aspects, your soul is bound up with them. All become unified as one, and they ascend and bring about great joy and delight without measure. Consider the joy of a bridegroom and bride in this lowly physical world, and you will realize how much greater is the joy on such a lofty spiritual level.

God will surely help you. Wherever you turn, you will succeed and become enlightened. “Give wisdom to the wise, and he will become wise all the more.” Please pray for my sake, that I might be privileged to dwell in God’s land during my lifetime; and pray for the remnant of our people who still remain in the Diaspora

These are the words of your brother-in-law who longs to see you face-to-face, who prays that length of days be granted to you and your wife and children, and who wishes you peace “all your days-including the nights, for many good years,” Amen, selah.

Israel Baal Shem Tov
of the Holy Community of Medzhibozh


Notes for Study:

Notice, in this text, the combination of several forms of Kabbalistic practice. At first the Besht says he took a “vow” to ascend on high; later he refers to his method as “mystical unifications and ascents of the soul.” Notice, too, how the supposedly simple and devotionalistic Hasidic master actually uses complicated, ecstatic-magical Kabbalah, and how his advice to his brother in law is not simple piety but a specific kavvanah to “bring about the unification of a Divine Name.” If you read closely, you will see many other subtle Kabbalistic allusions in the text.

It’s fascinating that the Besht says he learned very simple tools for this type of ascent, but was not allowed to reveal them. What is the purpose of this revelation-and-concealment? The Besht does not provide a reason why his forbidden to reveal these tools, but it would be interesting to speculate as to possible ones.

Hasidism is sometimes known for its “neutralization” of political messianism: instead of focusing on a this-worldly redeemer whose imminent arrival is expected, Hasidism taught that the messianic age can be experienced “here and now” through the experience of ecstatic prayer. The Holy Letter functions in different ways in this regard. On the one hand, the fact that the Baal Shem Tov’s first question in heaven is when the messiah will arrive shows that messianism was still a primary concern to the Hasidim (or perhaps to their audiences, many of whom were greatly tempted by contemporary messianic movements). On the other hand, the answer he receives suggests that the messiah’s arrival is hardly imminent. Moreover, since the best way to bring about the coming of the messiah is to spread Hasidic practices and teachings, the distinction between “bringing the messiah” and “practicing ecstatic prayer and other practices” disappears. It’s worth looking at the messiah’s answer closely, in Hebrew if you have the text, to see the many subtleties present in his reply.