Megillat Setarim: Yizhak Isaac Safrin of Komarno

CONSIDERED to be one of the leading Hasidic masters of the nineteenth century, Rabbi Yizhak Isaac Safrin (1806-1874) was the son of Rabbi Alexander Sender (1770-1818) and became a great and respected Jewish mystic. Rather curiously, however, Safrin – who is also known as Isaac Eizik of Komarno – is, at least to those of us who lack a reasonable command of the Hebrew language, one of the more neglected and obscure figures to have made a contribution towards the spiritual and cultural development of Judaism. This is his story.

When he was just ten years-old, Safrin’s father died and he was subsequently brought up by his uncle, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Eichenstein (1763-1831). They lived in Komarno, which is now a thriving suburb in the Lviv Oblast province of western Ukraine. This tiny rural settlement, once part of Austrian Galicia and dissected by the flowing river Vereshytsia, was originally founded in 1324 and the area spawned the notable Zhidachov-Komarno dynasty. As Louis Jacobs explains,

the Hasidim saw their masters as kings in a system of royal succession.[1]

Jews first began to settle in Komarno around 1555 and, less than one century later, constructed both a synagogue (1620) and a cemetery (1644) in the region. In 1648, Jewish residents successfully helped defend Komarno from a fierce Cossack invasion. Little is known about these early inhabitants, but the medieval records show that, by 1765, there were around 686 tax-paying Jews in the urban districts and around 844 of them living out in the surrounding villages. The religious faithful constructed a second synagogue in the nineteenth century, during Yizhak Isaac Safrin’s own lifetime, whilst the Safrin family itself – which was comprised of a long line of Tzadikkim – was present in Komarno right up until the German invasion of the city in 1941 and the mass arrests and persecutions that followed.

After marrying at just sixteen years of age, the young Safrin dutifully committed himself to the study of both Kabbalah and the Sefer ha-Zohar, although he soon found himself living in great poverty. It is even said that he

closeted himself in a small room, and totally absorbed himself in his studies, sleeping only two hours each night, living on bread and water. In his prayers, which lasted three hours, he rose to the loftiest heights.[2]

When his uncle died, Safrin moved to Zydatchov to become a dayan and serve in a religious court, although in 1831 he moved back to Komarno to become a fully-fledged rabbi. Some of the more significant works that he produced in his lifetime, included the Peirush Mahari commentary on the Midrash; the Likutei Torah VeHashas and Heichal HaBrachah on the Torah; the Ozar ha-Hayyim on the Commandments and extensive writings about the Baal Shem Tov.

Safrin’s greatest achievement, however, is the Megillat Setarim, which was compiled between 1855 and 1857 and circulated among a mere handful of select Hasidic leaders. The title may be translated from the Hebrew in several different ways, including ‘Secret Book’ and ‘Intimate Diary’. The Megillat Setarim itself – first published in its entirety by N. Ben Menachem, in 1944 – was inspired by the Book of Visions, compiled by Rabbi Hayyim Vital. The latter was a disciple of Isaac Luria (1534-1572), a figure that Safin also revered. In fact Safrin eventually saw himself as a ‘transmigration’ of Luria himself, a claim based on the fact that

he believed himself to be the Messiah of Joseph of his generation as Vital had been in his. This identification is suggested by Komarno’s equation of the year of his birth, 5566 (1806), with the phrase “Messiah of Joseph” through the process of gematria.[3]

Gematria is the system through which it is possible to establish the numerical value of letters, words and phrases, and then convert these numbers into one or more corresponding references. These references – which relate to aspects of Jewish scripture – shed new light on the original words themselves and reveal their more esoteric and hidden nature.

Safrin’s dreams began shortly before his fortieth birthday and his record of those experiences, which came to form the Megillat Setarim, is divided into two parts: the Book of Visions (named, of course, after Vital’s work of the same name) and The Deeds of the Lord. According to Moshe Idel:

The first rabbi of Kamarno possessed an extremely heightened sense of messianic self-awareness and simultaneously had strong mystical experiences.[4]

The first half of the Book of Visions begins with a fascinating autobiographical account of Rabbi Safrin’s adolescence, detailing his visionary adventures from the time of his birth right up until he had reached the age of twenty. Well-versed, as he was, in gematria, Safrin’s account is brimming with numerological significance:

I will give my brethren a glimpse of God’s ways: Who I am, what I am, and why I came into this lowly world. I was born on the twenty-fifth of Shavat 5566 [1806], under the sign of Jupiter, in the year “Messiah ben Joseph.” Today is the eleventh of Adar II 5605 [1845], and I have been in this world 14,281 days. I have celebrated 2,040 Sabbaths in this world. Until the end of the year “halakhar le-Moshe mi-Sinai,” “be-Tuv Yurushalayim,” Hesed, Emet, Pahad,” I will have 14,476 days and 2,068 Sabbaths. On the twenty-fifth of Shavat 5606 [1846] I will attain the age of understanding. When I complete my fortieth year, I will have 14,619 days and I will attain the crown of Torah.[5]

This mathematical discourse is followed by several Kabbalistic references which are used to set out the reasons for the perceived incarceration of Yizhak Issac Safrin’s own soul within the world, something he attributes to the wicked reign of Jeroboam ben Nebat between 922 and 901 BCE and the division of ‘United Israel’ into two distinct kingdoms in the wake of Solomon’s death in 931 BCE. As Morris M. Faierstein notes, the ancient monarch is demonised as a result of the fact that, in

Rabbinic literature, he is an archetype of evil.[6]

Safrin therefore equates the figure of King Jeroboam (‘evil dog’) with the events leading up to his own birth, a process he regards as just the latest in a sequence of unfortunate transmigrations. In fact Safrin even suggests that he first appeared in the world for less than one year, before disappearing again until his sisters had been born and his father had had a chance to discuss the birth of his first-born son with the Seer of Lublin. When the latter informed Safrin’s father that he would have a son at the expense of his own life, he agreed and Rabbi Safrin re-entered the world.

Around the time of his circumcision, Safrin tells us, the Baal Shem Tov – or, in Safrin’s words, ‘the Besht’ – visited the city of his birth and thus his mother took him to be blessed:

When he put his hand on my head, he cried out in a loud voice and said in Yiddish: This small one has a great and awesome mind and a wondrous soul. My mother was very frightened by his great outcry and he said to her: Do not be afraid; this child will be a great light.[7]

Safrin received his first visions between the age of just two and five, impressing his family and their friends with his prophetic utterances and the great diligence that he showed towards his studies. His teacher was Rabbi Zevi of Zhidachov (d. 1831), himself a learned Kabbalist and devoted follower of the aforementioned Seer of Lublin, and Safrin believed that Zevi’s soul came from the very same source as that of Hayyim Vital. Safrin’s Book of Visions goes on to mention a few other notable Hasidic teachers that he believed to have emanated from the same spiritual stock, perhaps reinforcing his own divine lineage. His late father, too, is linked with the departed souls of Maimonides, Eleazar of Worms and Shlomo ben Avraham ibn Aderet (1235-1310). The latter, who had been taught by Nachmanides, was once the Chief Rabbi of Spain.

When Safrin was six years old, he travelled with his father to celebrate Passover with the Seer of Lublin and the master informed the young child that if he devoted his life to God then he would excel in all things. Safrin makes frequent reference to Luria and it is perfectly clear that he is attempting to create a strong association in the mind of his readers:

When I was seven, [a desire for] the wisdom of our divine teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, burned in me like a torch. I studied his writings with awe, fear, and great enthusiasm. I asked my father about the difficult passages. I studied in want and poverty and I was worthy of several wondrous things and holy levels.[8]

In 1818, when Safrin of Komarno was twelve, his father went away to Hungary and the youngster cried for seven days and seven nights. This, he tells us, was the result of the fact that he had foreseen his father’s death and the prophecy came true when Rabbi Sender perished in the city of Ohel and thus failed to return.

Safrin later had a vision in which he saw his uncle and newly-appointed guardian, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Eichenstein, author of the Sur Mera (1832), walking side by side with the famous scholar Joseph ben Ephraim Karo. Despite the fact that the two men were divided by more than three and a half centuries, Safrin was convinced that his uncle had asked Karo to ensure that Safrin was instructed in the ways of the Torah. He felt like he had arrived at an important crossroads in his life:

A short time later, I was overcome by Satan, may his name be erased. I was not careful where I cast my gaze and two paths lay before me, Gehenna and Paradise. The good was awakened within me and one day I entered the synagogue alone and wept copious tears, like an overflowing spring, before the Creator of the world.[9]

Safrin’s transgressions were of a sexual nature and he had encountered a seductive vision of the female form, although we are reliably assured that in the following twenty-five years he never again submitted to the sins of the flesh.

The young man continued to study the Torah throughout the course of his marriage, although by 1823 – as Luria had done before him – Safrin isolated himself in order to create the conditions for a deeper spiritual awakening:

I had a private room which was very cold and was not heated even once during the whole winter. It was my custom to sleep only two hours every day and the rest was spent [in the study of] Torah, Talmud and commentaries, Zohar, the writings of our teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, and Rabbi Moses Cordovero. As a result of all this, I fell into a state of great katnut for more than three months and I was faced with many difficult and evil kelippot that attempted to entice me to leave my study of Torah.[10]

Safrin was subjected to a period of intense depression, but this was followed by what he describes as the descent of ‘a great and wondrous light’ that filled his entire house. This was the Shekhinah, which denotes the appearance of the Divine Presence. In order to further consolidate this dramatic and cataclysmic awakening, Safrin travelled to Medzibozh and conferred with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (d. 1825), one of the oldest and most venerable members of the Hasidic fraternity. There were mixed emotions, too, for at the same time as his father-in-law passed away and his young wife gave birth to the couple’s first daughter, Hinda Sarah.

The second half of the Book of Visions, on the other hand, concerns the twelve-year dream sequence that Safrin experienced between the Spring of 1845 and late-November 1857. When this visionary period first began, Safrin explains, he unified himself with the animus of Isaac Luria at a moment of personal weakness and gradually fell into a deep sleep. As he entered the realm of the subconscious, Safrin witnessed various souls and the whole experience unnerved him considerably. He then saw Rabbi Heschel and called out to him in his sleep, and the Hasidic leader and author of Ohev Yisrael told him that an evil individual had poisoned his mind against Safrin but that the situation had now been resolved and he once again respected the young man.

Ten days later, Safrin dreamt that he had received a detailed and thorough explanation of Psalm 20: ‘May the Lord answer you in time of trouble.’ His interpretation of this passage was related to the Shekhinah and the fact that it would only reveal itself to him fully if he remained true to ‘the name of Jacob’s God.’ The Skekhinah itself, he was told, was in this case a representation of his own anguish:

This occurred to me because I had been in great anguish the previous day over my great want, poverty, and degradation, as a result of which I had wasted much time from Torah study and worship. I was particularly anguished over my weakness. During the day I was very depressed about God’s behaviour towards me. I forgot the divine-name, that my anguish over the lack of income and physical fatigue are insignificant, when today I am here and tomorrow in the grave giving an accounting before the Supernal King.[11]

Three days later, on a Sunday evening, Safrin had a vision in which he saw himself delivering a sermon about the esoteric connection between Exodus 23:25 (‘And you shall serve the Lord your God’) and the sustaining nature of Rosh Hashanah. The vision ended when Safrin found himself repeating the words ‘it shall not accuse’, over and over again, as a means of casting out the ‘evil beast’ that stood in the way of his own spiritual progress.

Other visions that Safrin experienced in 1845 included a visitation by Rabbi Zevi who, by that time, had already been dead for fourteen years. Zevi apparently told the young man that Safrin would replace him as Tzadik, even though the very notion seemed unthinkable at the time.

Safrin also dreamt that a Tzadik by the name of Menachem appeared to him with a shining face, and that he later travelled to a tanner’s market in the Polish town of Dukla. Once he realised that it was completely impossible to perform his prayers in such an unholy place, he felt extremely anxious and perturbed. At least until the appearance of a mysterious female figure:

I fainted from my own great anguish and dozed a little. I had a vision of a great light in the image of an adorned young woman, a glowing light, but I was not worthy to see her face. More cannot be written down. Her light was brighter than the noonday sun.[12]

In 1846, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Safrin had an unusual day-dream in which he imagined that he was attempting to assist a neighbouring Russian community by seeking to engage in dialogue with its ‘Guardian Angel’. The creature was extremely aggressive towards Safrin and he therefore decided to leave it be and, instead, sought the protection of the ‘guardian angel of Edom’. His record of the dream is fairly confusing, but results in the lifting of an annulment that had been set upon the Jewish community itself. That night, the theme of annulment was continued and whilst Safrin dreamt that he was ‘walking with hair’ on his head, said to be a warning that a divine judgement of some kind would follow, the following night he dreamt that the pronouncement was annulled. However, it is not entirely clear what Safrin means when he states:

I dreamed that the Supernal Crown was revealed in His mercy and that the judgements were sweetened. The rabbi, the Bet Joseph, interceded on my behalf and only robbery remained. This too was sweetened and only a knife and silver spoon were stolen.[13]

Given that Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of the Jewish new year, perhaps he imagined that one or more of his guests had developed an unwelcome penchant for the family cutlery, alleviated somewhat by the fact that only two items were found to be missing after the intervention of the divine.

Later that year, Safrin had a vision in which he travelled to the Holy Land and had a fruitful meeting with Rabbi Zevi, Rabbi Israel Baer and Rabbi Moshe Abele. He later encountered the departed soul of Rabbi Baerish, but was convinced that at the time he had not actually been sleeping:

I thought that I was awake and I was in a state of great translucence and clear thought. I said to myself: What great merit do I have that I see the souls of the zaddikim while awake, without agitation? I was filled with light as a result of my great joy at having this privilege.[14]

After showering the Rabbi with kisses, Safrin was most keen to establish whether his academic work had been included among the literary treasures in the Afterlife:

At the very least sir, reveal the greatness of my teachings to me. Are they acceptable above, before the Lord of all, especially my book Ozar ha-Hayyim on the commandments and what I wrote there, in the 275th commandment concerning the mouth of Attika Kadisha and the renewal of creation? He stood up with great agitation and fear and said: The Torah, the Torah (many times). He raised both hands in fear and said: Your teachings and novellae are studied in all the academies. I was filled with boundless joy and I awoke…[15]

This rather frantic concern with his reputation in Paradise led Safrin to have another dream a short while afterwards, in which he realised that in order for his prestige to be further heightened, it was first necessary to humble oneself.

Safrin’s final dream of 1846 was on the twenty-fifth of Heshwan, during which he met Joshua of Brody, one of his friends. Safrin was unsure whether his friend was alive or dead, although Brody soon told him that he had come from the Supernal world and confirmed that his reputation was of a high standing among the departed. To which Safrin replied:

The previous week I had been very angry with my wife, for she had disturbed me greatly, and lights, souls, and angels which had accompanied me for almost two days disappeared from me. Was there great damage above, as a result of this? He did not answer me at all concerning this. I said to him with warmth and friendliness: Do not suspect me of asking you these things because I want to be a rabbi or a Rebbe, but rather because I desire that my portion be with the Lord of Israel and the people of Israel. He answered me that all was well and I awoke.[16]

The following year, 1847, Safin dreamt that he saw a Torah scroll and that between each verse there was a deep secret. Once again, he was accompanied by Rabbi Zevi, who told him that he was responsible for the esoteric interpretations that lay upon the scroll itself. Safrin seemed determined to assure his place in the annals of Judaism, but was also eager to put words into action and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, he had a vision in which he had prostrated himself in repentance of his sins.

In another moment of enlightenment, Safrin witnessed various people who had gathered to protest that his Ozar ha-Hayyim had revealed far too much about the holy commandments. He defended his actions, saying that

if God will grant me life, I will certainly write, for we are commanded and required to know the reasons for the commandments.[17]

This was followed by the appearance of both Elizah and a ferocious lion, said to represent kingship.

On the opening day of selihot, when penitential prayers are recited during the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, Sefrin imagined himself wearing the traditional tefillin, which mystics use during prayer. This was a sign of future greatness and the vision pleased him immensely. Shortly afterwards, something which took place in one of Safrin’s dreams spilled over onto the plane of consciousness. As he slept, Safrin had promised Rabbi Mordecai that he would not travel to the town of Drohobycz for an entire decade. When he awoke, however, he discovered that the oath was real and that he was indeed forbidden to visit Drohobycz for a duration of ten years. Needless to say, this incident left him rather confused.

One dream, in particular, reveals the huge influence that Isaac Luria had on Safrin’s own thought. The former, of course, was responsible for developing the Kabbalistic notion that the vessels (Sephirot) on the Tree of Life had been damaged and that ‘sparks’ of light had become trapped in the broken fragments. Safrin mentions that on the eve of Yom Kippur, 1847, he dreamt that he had removed a Torah scroll from its place and attempted to ‘repair the sparks’ by reciting the words ‘Am ha-Sefer’. He claims to have succeeded, too, at least to some extent, and he also discovered that Rabbi Yehuda Zevi of Radziwill, a close friend, had recently died and, by doing so, ‘repaired everything’.

In 1848, as a comparatively less observant Jew, Karl Marx (1818-1883), was in the process of publishing his Communist Manifesto, Safrin had another vision during Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles. This time, he saw a lunar eclipse and interpreted the event as ‘a bad sign for the Turks’. This relates to the Muslims (Ishmaelites) as a whole, although it is unclear whether Yizhak Safrin’s prophecy ever came to fruition.

In a subsequent vision, Safrin was informed by persons unknown that

I only have one heart for my Father in Heaven. They also told me that my soul contains a spark from the tanna Rav.[18]

The expression ‘tanna Rav’ is possibly a reference to Abba Arika (d. 247 CE), himself a disciple of Judah the Prince (d. 217 CE) from the days of the Roman occupation of the Holy Land.

Meanwhile, as he dozed in the afternoon sun on the eve of Shabbat Va-Yehi, Rabbi Safrin saw himself conducting the Neilah, or concluding service of Yom Kippur, and that yet more evil decrees were annulled as a result of his pious actions. Other dreams from that same period included meetings with mournful rabbis from Belz and Radziwill, and an incident in which Safrin lost two teeth and took it to mean that

two of my enemies will be uprooted together in one day.[19]

Elsewhere, Safrin was given a miraculous item of clothing belonging to the Baal Shem Tov, although he was unable to remember what gave the item its magical significance. A few days later, Safrin dreamt that he met Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz (1760-1827) of Ropshitz, an important Hasidic leader from Galicia:

I spoke to him about many matters and afterwards I asked him: Why was I worthy to see Souls when wide awake? He said: From the reward of the Sabbath and its light. We had a Sabbath illumined with a wondrous light.[20]

Whatever one makes of Safrin’s hallucinatory encounters, he certainly kept very good company. He later ‘met’ Elimelech of Lyzhansk (1717-1787), said to have been a disciple of the Maggid of Mezhirech. It led to another encounter with the Baal Shem Tov:

I was told that the place of our divine master, the Besht, was not far from that of the above-mentioned divine master. I quickly went to his dwelling, with great desire, to see the face of the holy master. I stood outside his house and was told that he was inside, in the midst of his prayers. Afterwards, the door opened and I was worthy to see the face of our master, the Besht, may his merit protect us. As a result of my great joy and fear I was not able to move from my spot. He walked over to me and greeted me with a joyful face and I had great pleasure. His visage is engraved in my mind and is always before me. Perhaps I had been worthy to attain this because I had given charity that day, as is right and proper.[21]

Safrin’s visions started to become less frequent and although he had a total of four remaining experiences that year, he does not go into very much detail. The first of these, in 1852, involved a rather fleeting and fairly uneventful meeting with his uncle; the second, in 1855, involved a further encounter with the Baal Shem Tov, in which his questions about peace and righteousness were ignored; the third, in 1857, featured a double solar eclipse, followed by a bright full moon; and a fourth and final vision that same year took the form of a lunar eclipse on the third night of Hanukkah, when he was informed that the ‘children of Israel’ are divided into both masculine and feminine parts. Inexplicably, despite going on to live for a further seventeen years, in 1857 Safrin stopped recording his dreams altogether.

The second part of the Megillat Setarim, entitled The Deeds of the Lord, is a collection of Jewish folk tales about the Baal Shem Tov. Safrin heard most of these stories from his father-in-law, Rabbi Abraham Mordecai of Pinczow (d. 1824). As the founder of the Hasidic movement itself, the Besht, as the Baal Shem Tov is known in the text, was a huge inspiration to Safrin and it is hardly surprising that the Rabbi devoted so much attention to his remarkable life and times.

The first story concerns a Hasidic legend that was related to him by Rabbi Mordecai who, in turn, had heard it from a ‘righteous old man’. It tells of the man’s visit to a mikvah, or place of Jewish immersion, accompanied by both his son and the Besht. After remaining in the mishvah for a considerable length of time, the candle began to burn low and when the old man warned him that they would soon be in darkness the Besht replied in Yiddish:

Thorn, take an icicle and light it. “He who told the oil to burn will tell the icicle to burn.” This means in Hebrew: Fool take the icicle hanging from the roof during the winter and light it. The old man said that it burned until he accompanied the divine master to the house.[22]

According to N. Ben Menahem, who later published the Megillat Setarim, the quotation in this extract is taken from a holy tractate, or ta’anit. It is designed, of course, to assure the reader that it is possible to overcome natural phenomena by trusting in God.

Safrin’s next story, which, once again, was originally passed down to him by Rabbi Mordecai, involves an association between Rabbi Moses Hayyim Ephraim of Sudylkow (1740-1800) – grandson of the Besht and author of Degel Mahne Ephraim – and Mordecai himself. Ephraim describes an incident that took place in the city of Medzibozh, involving a man of great wealth who harboured an unwarranted grudge against the Besht. The beginning of the story is remarkably similar to that of the Maharal of Prague. One night, a group of troublesome Gentiles attempted to frame the rich man by planting a corpse in his courtyard, in order to make it appear as though he had committed an act of ritual murder for Passover. The body was discovered by the wife of the wealthy man and together they decided that their only course of action was to consult his sworn enemy, the Besht. Ephraim takes up the story:

My grandfather said to me: Ephraim, my dear grandson, take the staff and go with this man to his house and say to the corpse, my grandfather sent me to you. You should immediately get up and come with me. I went with the man and spoke thus to the above-mentioned corpse. The corpse immediately got up and went with the bier in his hands to my grandfather, who lay him back on his bier.[23]

Eventually, those responsible for the murder went to the house of the wealthy man and discovered that the body was missing. Meanwhile, the Besht placed the hat of Ephraim’s brother onto the head of the deceased gentile, placing in his hands a copy of the Haggadah, and asked him to speak. The man came back to life and began reciting the words of the Passover service, which completely fooled the plotters when they arrived at the Besht’s house. Once they had left, confused, the Besht sent the corpse back to sleep and told the wealthy man to take it away and bury it.

Soon afterwards, there was an altercation between the Besht and a local Catholic priest. The former asked the priest why the gentiles wished them so much harm and why a body had been left in the courtyard. The priest admitted that the deed had been carried out maliciously and that he would never again remain silent if the Jews were persecuted unjustly.

Another of Safrin’s tales was handed down from Rabbi Jehiel Michel of Zloczow (1731-1786), who was walking through a field with the Besht and two more of his disciples when they realised that without a source of water they would be unable to wash their hands for the minha prayer:

Our master took his staff and hit the ground and a spring broke forth and they washed their hands and prayed. To this day, the gentiles call it the Baal Shem’s spring.[24]

Safrin was informed by Rabbi Zevi that when a woman asked to buy a magical amulet from the Besht for fifty ducats, she went home and sold all her belongings but was only able to raise a total of thirty ducats. The Besht refused to sell the item at such a cheap price, so the woman travelled to the Council of the Four Lands, which was the central autonomous government of those Jews who were based in Poland and Lithuania. The Council and its leader, Rabbi David of Ostrog, agreed that the Besht had acted in an unjust manner and demanded that he immediately appear before them. When the Besht arrived on the premises, he took out a pipe and the smoke began filling the entire chamber. This had the effect of silencing the tongues of all those in attendance and the smoke was duly perceived to be the Shekhinah. The Besht then showed Rabbi David the wonders of heaven and the latter turned to his compatriots and replied:

One does not argue with God himself. Believe me, this is no ordinary man.[25]

Despite her complaint, the woman subsequently became extremely wealthy and this, too, was said to be the divinely-orchestrated will of the Besht himself.

In another of Safrin’s legends, the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Hayyim Cohen of Lvov meet one another on the road to Brody. Rabbi Cohen made light of claims that the Besht was in possession of divine inspiration, but when the Besht suddenly told the Rabbi exactly what he had been doing on the previous Sabbath, without having had prior knowledge, the latter was convinced.

Safrin also tells us that when the Besht was studying with his teacher, Ahijah the Shilonite, he attempted to consult the prince of the Torah and accidentally brought down the prince of fire and the entire city was burnt to the ground. The gentiles chased the Besht out of the city and he used miraculous means in order to cross the waters of the Dniester, using a piece of his belt to get from one side of the river bank to the other. He also managed to escape when a band of robbers attacked his mountain retreat. Again, by employing supernatural methods:

They saw that when he quickly walked from mountain to mountain, the mountains quickly stuck to each other, as he went from mountain to mountain, so that he would not fall into the valleys between them, which were very abundant.[26]

The thieves knew of a short-cut to the Holy Land and invited the Besht to accompany them, but when they arrived at a dangerous crossing he refused to entertain them with another miracle and returned home to engage himself in communion with God.

One of the tales that Rabbi Mordecai gave to Safrin, tells of a great sorcerer who would use powerful magic in order to murder Jewish children before they had a chance to be circumcised. The Besht travelled to the house of a Jew in the area and told him to seal the property completely, so that it was impossible for the magician to enter. However, the sorcerer changed into a cat and tried to enter the house through the floor, although the Jew struck the evil-doer with a large stave and broke a hand and one of his legs.

The sorcerer complained to the local nobility about his treatment and it was agreed that both he and the Besht should meet at a pre-arranged time and place and pit their wits against one another before a large crowd. The magician began by conjuring up various wild beasts, but the Besht was able to take evasive action by using his staff to draw a protective circle around himself. When a boar entered the circle, the Baal Shem Tov drew a second circle inside the first and the creature was unable to penetrate further. The sorcerer was indignant and asked the Besht to show him what he was capable of:

You do something! He responded: I will not do anything except to call the children you murdered and they will take vengeance. Immediately, there gathered a great many small children who fell upon him, and not even a small bone of his was left intact. So may all your enemies be destroyed Lord, amen.[27]

Another of Safrin’s anecdotes describes a great Tzadik who sheltered in a magnificent palace when he was caught out in the rain on his way to the local synagogue. As soon as he left the palace, however, it collapsed and we are told that its sole purpose was to provide temporary shelter for the Tzadik himself. Safrin remarks that the building collapsed precisely as the Besht was relating this very tale to one of his disciples and chuckling to himself. The supernatural wisdom and insight of the Besht knew no bounds and it is also said that he had the ability to look at a certain artefact – such as a wooden bench, for example – and know exactly what the craftsman had been thinking when he was constructing it.

One story concerns a rabbi who refused to pronounce that a duck was kosher in order to alleviate the great poverty and hardship of its owner. As a result, whilst the rabbi himself was later vindicated for his actions before a heavenly tribunal, the duck was said to contain the soul of a man who was forced to enter the animal in order for him to be ‘repaired’ and the fact that he was not considered kosher condemned him to a life of aimless wandering. When this fact was established, the rabbi in question was made to wander the earth in order to repair his own soul. Eventually, the Besht interceded on his behalf and the soul of the rabbi was permitted to come to rest.

A related incident is said to concern the time when the Besht refused to eat at a special banquet given in his honour, which had been laid on by a certain householder. During his absence, the householder’s son choked to death on a small bone and when the Besht was asked if he knew whether this act of misfortune would take place and if it was the reason why he chose to decline his place at the banqueting table, he replied that in a previous transmigration the child had been a rabbi who had refused to accept that a fowl had been kosher:

It was decreed that he should transmigrate into this world again and the spark of the fowl should kill him. [The Besht] saw all this and was unable to annul the Heavenly decree and therefore he left…[28]

The Besht also features in another of Safrin’s stories about food, when a man intending to train as a ritual slaughterer of animals is horrified to discover that the person who had been formerly responsible for this task has been forced to stand on a roof for a period of three years. This, he is told, is the result of the man not having prepared his knife properly. Needless to say, the would-be slaughterer quickly changed his mind and sought another profession, instead. This particular story had found its way to Safrin by way of Rabbi Jehiel Michel of Zloczow.

A tale set around the time of Rosh Hashanah, on the other hand, mentions a clumsy Tzadik who distracts those around him by dropping his snuff-box during prayers. A ‘death decree’ was pronounced on the unfortunate individual, but the Besht took action on his behalf during the festival of Hoshanah Rabah by seeking to appease the man’s accuser. This he did by entering the study-house and explaining to the individual that tobacco leaf was created by God purely because it can serve as an aid to focus the mind of those souls who find it difficult to pray without the presence of a sweet odour. The accuser was satisfied with the Baal Shem Tov’s explanation and immediately forgave his beleaguered associate.

At this point the manuscript ends very suddenly, with a brief reference to a poor woman who had been in labour for seven days. We are told that the Besht was summoned for his assistance, but unfortunately we never get to discover the outcome of this final tale.

Yizhak Isaac Safrin died on a Saturday evening, in 1874, and between 1875 and 1881 five volumes of his extensive commentary on the Sefer ha-Zohar were issued posthumously. However, the Zohar Hai, as it is known, offered nothing particularly original both in and of itself and was chiefly inspired by Lurianic Kabbalah. Safrin had made no secret of his huge admiration for Luria, of course.

Safrin’s own legacy, on the other hand, continues to endure and Rachel Elior says that he

recreated the Ba’al Shem Tov in his imagination, claimed him as his direct teacher, and rewrote his doctrine clearly, perspicuously, and systematically.[29]

Finally, it is perhaps worth mentioning that Safrin’s name has not only been omitted from many of the major works on Hasidism, but one of the world’s leading authorities on Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, also suggested that Safrin may have embroidered many of his stories and legends about the Baal Shem Tov. On the other hand, Scholem was respectful of some of the Rabbi’s other writings and included a selection of his work in his Kitve Yad be-Kabbalah (1930). As Morris M. Faierstein observes, we

must await an analysis of his large oeuvre, which is an important desideratum.[30]

By the time that happens, of course, and it will, the field of theology will have been enriched considerably and Safrin of Komarno’s work will be available to a new and upcoming generation of academics and religious scholars.


1. Eichenstein, Zevi Hirsch (Ed.) & Louis Jacobs (Ed.); Turn Aside from Evil and Do Good: An Introduction and a Way to the Tree of Life (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation, 1995), p.xiv.

2. Finkel, Avraham Yaakov; Kabbalah: Selections from Classic Kabbalistic Works from Raziel HaMalach to the Present Day (Targum Press, 2002), p.356.

3. Faierstein, Morris M. (Trans.); Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets (Paulist Press, 1999), p.267.

4. Idel, Moshe; Messianic Mystics (Yale University Press, 2000), p.239.

5. Faierstein, Morris M. (Trans.); Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets, op.cit., p.275.

6. Ibid., p.332.

7. Ibid., p.276.

8. Ibid., p.279.

9. Ibid., p.280.

10. Ibid.

11. Jacobs, Louis; “Translator’s Introduction” in Zevi Hirsch Eichenstein (Ed.) & Louis Jacobs (Ed.); Turn Aside from Evil and Do Good: An Introduction and a Way to the Tree of Life, op.cit., p.xxiii.

12. Faierstein, Morris M. (Trans.); Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets, op.cit., p.285.

13. Ibid., p.286.

14. Ibid., p.287.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p.288.

17. Ibid., p.289.

18. Ibid., p.290.

19. Ibid., p.291.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., p.292.

22. Ibid., p.294.

23. Ibid., p.295.

24. Ibid., p.264.

25. Ibid., p.297.

26. Ibid., p.298.

27. Ibid., p.300.

28. Ibid., p.303.

29. Elior, Rachel; The Mystical Origins of Hasidism, op.cit., p.64.

30. Faierstein, Morris M. (trans.); Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets, op.cit., p.268.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *