In 1906 Reuven Zak printed a Hebrew booklet in Warsaw entitled Knesset Yisrael. The subject of the slender volume was the captivating hasidic master Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin (1796-1850). Zak was a disciple of the Hasidic master, Rabbi David Moses Friedman of Czortków (1827-1903), the eighth of the ten children of Rabbi Yisrael and his wife Sarah.
In Knesset Yisrael, Zak provided a story that was to be refashioned and retold numerous times in the twentieth century, and is undoubtedly a classic hasidictale. This is the earliest printed version, albeit in translation:
Our holy master [Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin] told a story of the Besht [ca.1700-1760], blessed be his memory, that once there was a dire life-threatening matter where there was a certain only son, who was very good, etc. And [the Besht] instructed to make a candle of wax and he travelled to the forest and attached the candle to a tree and did various other things and performed yihudim [mystical unifications of the Divine name], etc., and brought salvation with the help of God, blessed be He.
And afterwards there was such an incident involving [Rabbi Yisrael’s] great-grandfather, the Holy Maggid [Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch, d.1772], and he did likewise as described above, and he said: “The yihudim and kavanot [mystical intentions, sing. kavanah] that the Besht performed I know not, but I shall act on the basis of the kavanah that the Besht intended.” And that too was accepted.
And afterwards there was a similar incident involving the holy rabbi R. Moses Leib of Sassow [1745-1807], blessed be his memory, and he said: “We do not even have the power to do that; I shall only tell the story, and it is up to God, blessed be He, to assist.” And thus it was, with the help of God, blessed be He.
This story is a famous and beloved hasidic tale. It has been retold countless times – in hasidic lore, and by philosophers, scholars, and storytellers of the twentieth century, including Martin Buber, S.Y. Agnon, Gershom Scholem, Walter Kaufmann, Elie Wiesel, and Abba Kovner.
But it is really a hasidic tale?
There is no doubted that the personalities mentioned in the tale were heroes of the hasidic movement, and that the tale was recounted in the context of Hasidism. But is the notion of evoking and relying on the prayers and mystical intentions of forebears, in consideration of our own limitations – a truly hasidicidea?
Rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) – more commonly known by the acronym of his name Hida – was one of the great rabbinic scholars of the eighteenth century. A traveller, a bibliophile, and prolific author, the Hida’s works are chock-full of insights and historical notes.
In Petah Einayim – his commentary to the Talmud that he published in Livorno in 1790 – Hida records a prevalent custom that whenever a person prays during troubled times, that person says “May the God of Rabbi Meir answer me.”
This miraculous phrase appears in the Talmud, and it was the sage Rabbi Meir who personally suggested to a guard to use it as a last resort if he was in danger and unable to bribe the Roman authorities (Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zara 18a-b).
Despite the bona fide talmudic source, Hida still sought to offer an explanation for the widespread practice of evoking the name of the sage Rabbi Meir when beseeching the Almighty.
According to Hida, while saying “May the God of Rabbi Meir answer me” the person should meditate at that moment that he should have the same focus and intention as Rabbi Meir had when he prayed. Hida continued, explaining that this was also the root of the practice of those people who pray, study, or fulfil commandments in accord with Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. Hida concluded that this was a worthy practice, and fortunate is the person who does so.
Hida’s explanation was cited by the great Rabbi Hayim Palache of Izmir (1787-1868), who added that some people evoke the name of Yotam the son of Uzziah – a righteous king of Judah who was known for honouring his father.
The great Baghdadi sage, Rabbi Yosef Hayim (Ben Ish Hai, 1834-1909), went a step further. In his Ben Yehoyada – a commentary to the aggadic passages in the Talmud, first published in Jerusalem in 1898 – he related to the final instructions of the sage Rabbi Eliezer to his disciples. Inter alia, Rabbi Eliezer told his students that when they pray they should know before whom they stand (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 28b).
Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad explained that there are so many mystical intentions that we should focus on during prayer. We therefore recall that we are standing before the Almighty and allow God to fill in the gaps.
Thus if we struggle to focus during prayer, we can rely on the intentions of our saintly forebears: great rabbinic sages and famous hasidic masters. Not only that: when trying to fill in gaps in our prayer intentions, we can even rely on God.