The Tisch: Past Lives

Posted by Levi Cooper on June 4, 2010
Topics: Hasidut, Hasidic Lore Series

For Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, dreams were a medium for divine communication.

The spread of Hassidism as a movement in Hungary began in earnest after 1815. In one Jewish calendar year, three of the beacons of Hassidism in Galicia and Poland passed away: Rabbi Yisrael Hopsztajn of Kozienice (d. September 28, 1814), Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanów (d. May 29, 1815) and Rabbi Ya’acov Yitzhak Horowitz, known as the Seer of Lublin (d. August 15, 1815). It was then that their disciple, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841), a native of Poland then serving as rabbi of Sátoraljaújhely (situated today in northern Hungary near the Slovakian border) publicly accepted the mantle of hassidic leadership.

Rabbi Teitelbaum is commonly known by the title of his homiletic work Yismah Moshe, which was published posthumously in 1849. He was one of the first who authored halachic responsa – published under the title Responsa Heishiv Moshe – while serving as a hassidic master, a model that would become popular in Galicia and the norm in Hungary.

At first, Teitelbaum was aligned with those who opposed the hassidic movement. At the urgings of his son-in-law, he traveled to visit the Seer of Lublin and after meeting him, he decided to join the ranks of the hassidim.

Besides his Torah scholarship and hassidic leadership, the Yismah Moshe was known as a mystic, often writing amulets for those in need. He was well aware of his soul’s transmigrations, relating that he had been in this world three times previously. His soul’s first journey to this world was as one of the sheep in the flock of the patriarch Jacob.

According to Jewish mystical tradition, these sheep contained the roots of the souls of Israel.

The Yismah Moshe’s grandson related an episode when his grandfather told him of the second sojourn of his soul. It was during the years that the Jewish people wandered in the desert as they journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land. With a clear memory, the Yismah Moshe recounted the rebellion of Korah and his mob: “All the respected leaders of the Jewish people sided with Korah and it was only the masses that sided with Moses.”

“Grandfather, which side did you stand on?” asked the young lad eagerly.

“I stood alone, neither with Moses nor with Korah,” answered Rabbi Teitelbaum.

The grandchild was surprised: “Could it be, Grandfather, that you did not stand by our master Moses!?”

“You didn’t know Korah,” he replied, “If you knew Korah, you wouldn’t ask me that question!”

Hassidic tradition records that another reincarnation of the Yismah Moshe’s soul occurred during the destruction of the First Temple. Some hassidic masters went further, identifying the Yismah Moshe’s soul as none other than the prophet Jeremiah. In this context we can understand another tale told about him: There is a tradition that the Third Temple is already built and operational in heaven, ready to descend the moment we are worthy. Considering this tradition, the Yismah Moshe once finished the silent Amida prayer and was inspired to ask the Almighty to show him the Third Temple as it stands in heaven. God granted his request and he had a vision of the prophet Elijah wearing the ritual garments of the priests as he offered up the daily tamid sacrifice.

For Rabbi Teitelbaum, dreams were a medium for divine communication. Hence, he we would place great significance on any vision he merited. His Torah study would, at times, lead to fascinating and bold conclusions that had never been considered by Torah giants of previous generations. Though the Yismah Moshe was undoubtedly proud of these innovative readings of traditional texts, he was concerned: “Lest the readings of our sages’ words that I suggest are not the original intention of the authors. If that is the case, woe to me, for my ‘Torah’ is not real Torah.”

At night he had a dream where he was told: “If you arrive at your scholarly Torah conclusions after appropriate spiritual preparation and with pure and honest mental faculties, you need not fret: Even if what you say was not the previous intent of the author and heretofore was considered untrue, nevertheless heaven has accepted your words of Torah and they are now considered true Torah.”

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