Jewish Genealogy: In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov

Let me take a moment to map out my family tree leading back to Ze'ev Wolf Kitzes, my 8th great grandfather, the Hasid I am investigating at the start of this project. It goes like this, listing only direct descendants of Kitzes and not their spouses:

Max Sparber -> Claire Kestenbaum -> Ida Kitzis -> Isaac N Kitzis -> Noah Kitzis -> Chaim Nachman Kitzis -> Wolf Ozer Kitzis -> Israel Kitzis -> Nachman Kitzis -> Ze'ev Wolf Kitzes

I pieced this together from an online genealogy of Wolf Kitzes, and, who knows, it might be completely wrong. I suspect it's pretty accurate, though, as even when students of the Ba'al Shem Tov didn't create dynasties of wonder rabbis, as with Kitzes, their families still tended to be pretty diligent about maintaining the family tree. It's something called "yikhus" in Yiddish, a sort of pride in the accomplishments of ancestors. I will continue to investigate the family tree as I am able, but it is a starting point.

I should note that, at the moment, I have no idea how I know that I am descended from Kitzes. I had thought my mother told me, but she insists that she never did, she found out from me. I feel as though I have known since I was in my teens, when I was in the Jewish high school, and I expect it is likely that someone else in her family told me, but we're lost as to who that might be. Nonetheless, we do fit onto the Kitzes family tree perfectly as it is, and this isn't the sort of thing I would just make up as a child. I was a strange child, but not that strange. This is another area I will continue to investigate.

And one more quick note: As I am adopted, there probably will be some who do not feel it is appropriate for me to claim Kitzes as an ancestor. After all, I have biological ancestors, all from Ireland, and I claim them too.

Thankfully, I do not need to care what these people think. I am not trying to claim leadership in a Hasidic dynasty, as Kitzes established no such dynasty. I am not trying to marry into a Hasidic family, or claiming property, or anything where my biological relationship to Kitzes might be important. I consider myself to be a grandson, and I doubt he would have taken issue with that, for reasons I shall detail. But, as for now, I simply need remind people that the Talmud, in discussing several children that King David is said to have adopted, declared that "Whoever brings up an orphan in his home is regarded, according to Scripture, as though the child had been born to him."

Onward. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are a number of stories told about Wolf Kitzes, and my goal was to start with those stories and determine where they came from. This week, I begin with what must be considered the ur-text of Hasidic Judaism, a book called "Shivhei ha-Best," or, in English, "In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov." I purchased a copy in translation, an academic work produced by Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz in 1993.

The original book was written in a sort of primitive Hebrew in 1814, originally with no credited author, but in later editions credited to Rabbi Dov Baer ben Samuel. Rabbi Dov Baer was the son-in-law of Rabbi Alexander the Shohet, who had been the scribe for the Baal Shem Tov, the father of Hasidic Judaism, often called the Besht for short. And so Baer drew from his memories and from stories told to him about the Baal Shem Tov, assembling the first collection of tales told about the rabbi.

The book was produced a generation after the death of the Baal Shem Tov, and wasn't intended as a historical document but instead as a collection of miracle stories, but it's the earliest text we have dedicated specifically to the Besht. And Wolf Kitzes appears in this book in a half-dozen stories (called Kotzes in this edition), which I will summarize in a moment. I will not focus overmuch on the life of the Baal Shem Tov in writing about my great-grandfather, but I will say that this book manages to be both wildly entertaining and tremendously alien. Stories often seem gormless or lack significant detail, sometimes seeming like fairytales, sometimes seeming like dreams, and sometimes just seeming like arguments with a little magic trick thrown in.

Nonetheless, they are always recognizably Jewish. My favorite tells of the Baal Shem Tov fighting a werewolf, if you can believe it. There aren't that many Jewish werewolf stories, and the only part of this one that feels unmistakably Jewish is the Baal Shem Tov's reason for becoming a hunter of lycathropes: The monster is distracting children from their studies.

Here, as follows, are summaries of the Wolf Kitzes stories in the collection, with a few notes at the end:


The story comes from Rabbi Falk of Chechelnik, who heard it from Rabbi Abraham, who came from Mezhybozhe, where the Baal Shem Tov lived and worked. Rabbi Abraham said that he witnessed the Besht start trembling during prayer. Wolf Kitzes went to examine him, and the Baal Shem Tov was "burning like a torch" and his eyes were bugging out. Rabbis Abraham and Kitzes took the Baal Shem Tov by the hands to the ark, where the Torah scroll is kept, and he stood there trembling, postponing the reading of the Torah.


This story also comes from Rabbi Falk. On Yom Kippur, the Besht heard that "the oral tradition would no longer" belong to the Jews. He was so overcome with sorrow that he could only bless two of his visitors that night, and he said harsh words to them at the synagogue. He then fell crying onto the ark, asking how the Jews could survive without the Torah.

He was angry at rabbis, blaming them for this misery. During prayers, he became increasingly agitated, and when he read the words "Open the gates of heaven," he doubled over, nearly falling. Congregants wanted to support the Besht, and so went to Kitzes, who looked at the Baal Shem Tov and saw that "his eyes bulged and he sounded like a slaughtered bull."

The Besht was like this for two hours, and then suddenly stood up and finished his prayers. Afterwards, he told the congregants that during prayer he found he could move from this world to the next. As he moved through God's palace, he found prayers from the past 50 years that had not ascended. He asked the prayers why they remained, and they said they were waiting for the Besht to lead them. And so the Besht led the prayers into heaven.

But there, he found the gate locked. In a panic, he consulted with Ahijah the Shilonite, the Biblical prophet, saying the Jewish people were in trouble. Ahijah attempted to turn the lock, but could not, and so they went to the palace of the Messiah. The Messiah gave the Besht two holy letters, and suddenly the Besht could turn the lock. With that, the prayers ascended, and the decree that the Jews would lose the Torah was lifted.


This story originates from Rabbi Tsevi the Scribe. He tells of a marriage between two orphans, a girl that the Besht had raised and a boy that Wolf Kitzes had raised. The Besht had pledged two hundred gold coins as the girl's dowry.

Before the wedding, Kitzes told the Besht that the wedding would not continue until he had the gold coins. The Besht was surprised, feeling Kitzes did not trust him, and Kitzes explained that he could not continue to raise and educate the boy without the money. In the meanwhile, another rabbi approached the Besht with a debt that needed to be paid immediately.

The Besht told the rabbi to immediately go and pay the debt and then to return for the wedding. The rabbi went to the house of the man who owned the debt, who at once renounced the debt and immediately declared that he owed the Besht two hundred gold coins. The rabbi tarried on the way home to tell an innkeeper of the miracle, and the Besht was very irritated with him for holding up the wedding.


At the Besht's funeral, a rabbi was puzzled to see nothing extraordinary. But on his way home from the cemetery he saw "great and wonderful things." He told Wolf Kitzes, who said that this was undoubtedly "the way it had to be."


When the Besht moved to Mezhybozhe, there was already a community of Hasidim there, including Wolf Kitzes, and they did not regard the Besht as an important man. He was a Baal Shem, an itinerant miracle worker, and this was not seen as being the work a pious person should do.

But the rabbis had a student who was sick and who wanted  to see the Besht, and eventually they relented. They told the student to tell them everything that happened. A boy hid in the room.

The Besht saw the student and told him he would die, but could not enter paradise because there was one thing he had not yet "corrected." The student admitted this was true, and the Besht said he would take care of it and it would not keep him from paradise. The Besht told him not to tell anybody, and when the rabbis came to visit the student, he would not tell them what happened. However, the boy who hid in the room related the story, and the student told them it was true.

The rabbis demanded the sick student visit them after death and tell them what happened. He appeared after death and told them he was let into paradise, but could not find a place there. He finally found the Besht at a table teaching Torah. He asked the Besht why he could not find a place in paradise, and the Besht told the student that it was because he had not honored the Besht's request not to reveal what had happened.

The rabbis went to the Besht, who said that he knew that student had come to them as a ghost, and at once the rabbis became followers of the Baal Shem Tov. It turns out that the student never found a place in paradise, but was given a place by the gates.


I will abbreviate this one significantly: It tells of a new rabbi in the community, Rabbi Mikhel the Judge, who spends most of the story arguing with Wolf Kitzis about fine points of Jewish law (and, later, astrology), until the Besht wipes his mind of all knowledge. At first Rabbi Mikhel thinks he is foggy from having drunk too much mead, but realizes he has lost his knowledge due to the Besht, and goes to confront him.

The Besht scolds him: "Is it to argue and to tease that we learn the Torah?" Immediately, Rabbi Mikhel realizes that the Besht's scolding is right, and becomes a righteous man.


In the community of Bar, a Jew argued with the head of court and lodged a complaint with the Governor. This Jew went to the Besht to ask him to pray for a good outcome, and the Besht said he would.

But there was a Preacher in town who knew the Jew to be an evil man and his charges to be false, and so the preacher cancelled the charges. The Preacher may have been the brother-in-law of Wolf Kitzes, and once they were both at a meal with the Besht. The Baal Shem Tov expressed confusion that his prayer had not been answered.

The preacher laughed, and his in-law, perhaps Wolf Kitzes, said that he had seen a minyan of 10 Jewish men, which would have been used to cancel the complaint. The preacher ignored this, but the Besht pressed him, and the Preacher answered that he knew the truth of the charge, and he had cancelled it.

The Besht responded to this, saying "Blessings be on your head. You have done well."


The Besht was at a feast and began to choke on bread. Everyone became worried, but Wolf Kitzes looked at him and told them to leave him be. After a long while, the Besht recovered, and explained that as he ate, he thought about when Moses was first given meat, and Moses appeared, causing him to choke.


So there isn't much here that is biographical. Wolf Kitzes appears as most of the people do in these stories, as supporting characters in the Besht's story, weirdly, often checking on the Besht when the man is choking or having some sort of seizure, which he seemed to do a lot.

We can glean that Wolf Kitzis was in Medzhibozh, in Ukraine, which is true. We know him to be an educated man, which is true, as his biography states he was the rabbi of Tulchyn before he moved to Medzhibozh.

Story 152 also has Wolf Kitzes as one of the leaders of a community of Hasidim before the Baal Shem Tov appears, which I have read elsewhere, and is interesting. In most popular histories, Hasidism begins with the Baal Shem Tov, but in these early accounts he instead becomes the leader of an already extant movement. I am looking forward to learning more about this.

Finally, and most meaningful to me, there is story 123, in which both the Besht and Wolf Kitzis have adopted children and are marrying them to each other. This is the first I have heard of this, and, obviously, as an adopted child, it stands out to me, especially in the way both the Besht and Wolf Kitzis fulfill the roles of parents in the story. Wolf Kitzis demands a dowry for the education and support of the boy, which the Besht is expected to fulfill, and the Besht is quite irritated when someone delays the wedding.

This strikes me as decidedly parental behavior, and isn't surprising, as while adopted children (typically referred to as "orphans") are a bit unusual in Jewish law, they are, for the most part, treated as biological children. Additionally, I have read that the Besht himself was orphaned as a child and raised by his community, and so the Besht may have had special sympathy for orphans.

Who was the boy in the story? It's not clear, although Gershon David Hundert in "Essential Papers on Hasidism" theorizes that it might have been a stepson of the Besht named Shmuel, who I have not been able to find anything more about. There is another possibility as well: The Besht had a daughter named Udel Ashkenazi who was married to Yechiel Ashkenazi, and who is credited as being the son of Baruch Ashkenazi and Shifra Ashkenazi. It is remotely possible he was the orphan in question, although I have no evidence of this whatsoever, except that Yechiel's hometown was Tulchy, where Wolf Kitzis was rabbi.

Whatever the case, this is the first that I have heard that there is a hidden legacy of adoption that links both my great-grandfather and the Baal Shem Tov, and, as you can imagine, I liked to discover this. I liked it very much.