A Page Out of History: Early Chassidic Thought

So I recently was asked to start giving a weekly class on Jewish history to Jewish teens attending public schools in the Seattle area.

I consider myself something of a history afficionado, particularly when it comes to Jewish history, but I never took pains to memorize all the details necessary to be an authority on the subject. But as the teacher of an official class, I thought it right to set about some serious research.

Anyhow, for whatever reasons we started the course examining the “modern” period, which begins, for some arbitrary reason, in the mid-17th century (C.E.). Our first session consisted of a “get-to-know-you” kind of ice-breaker. The 2nd week we met we discussed the state of Jewry in Eastern Europe (Poland) in the 17th century, and the Chmielnicki massacres that ravaged those communities.

A good time was had by all.

As I prepare ahead, I researched as much as I could about Shabbetai Tz’vi, the messianic pretender who would mislead the lost sheep of Israel during this desperate time, and one of the positive spiritual movements that would follow, that of Chassidism.

I research Chassidism, and the movement’s founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem. Of course, I knew that the Baal Shem Tov himself did not leave behind any writings, and his teachings are generally known to posterity only through his disciples.

One such disciple was a man named Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye. I never actually bothered looking up Rabbi Yaakov’s writings before, but this time curiousity got the best of me. I looked up Toledos Yaakov Yoseph on HebrewBooks.org and downloaded it.

Open reading the opening passage, I felt its ideas, though essentially none of which I wasn’t already aware, are so important, basic and vital, that they deserve repetition in this forum to anyone who may read them:

“…The body of man is not the man, but the clothing of the man who is created with 248 limbs and 365 sinews, and G-d breathed in him a living soul comprised of 248 spiritual limbs and 365 spiritual sinews that are clothed within the 248 limbs of the body. Then the limbs of the soul carry out their activity via the tools that are the limbs of the body. The sustenance of the spiritual limbs is the fulfillment of the Torah that is comprised of 613 commandments parallel to the 613 parts of the body. Each limb of the 248 limbs is sustained by a particular commandment relating to that limb… This is what the godly rabbi, our master, Rabbi Chayim Vital, wrote in his book, The Gate of Holiness (שער הקדושה ח”א פ”א): ‘Therefore, a man must strive with all his ability to fulfill all 613 commandments. When one fulfills a certain positive commandment, one should intend to remove from the particular limb of his soul relating to that commandment its impurity (זוהמת הקליפה ההיא). Then one will imbue that limb with the holiness of that commandment (אז תחיל עליו אבר המצוה הקדושה ההיא) after the impurity is removed. So too when one refrains from a trangression, one should intend that through this, the impurity that is in the particular sinew of the soul that relates to that trangression be removed. Then one will be able to draw forth the spiritual bounty that is drawn through the spiritual channel. Through this, one’s spirit becomes a throne and a chariot for the holiness of G-d.’ …Know and understand his holy words, for this is a great principle of the entire Torah and the service (of G-d) to bring one to the level of, ‘And you who cling to the L-rd…'”

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