June 18, 2024
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The Surprising Relationship Between the Baal Shem Tov and Achiyah HaShiloni

The Chasidic Tradition

To those not raised with chasidic thought and way of thinking, it seems quite random. Chasidic tradition teaches that the Baal Shem Tov, the legendary founder of chasidut (and my 10th-generation great-uncle), studied ten years with the navi Achiyah HaShiloni. Chasidim believe that Achiyah taught the Baal Shem Tov all the secrets of the Torah from its beginning to its conclusion for 10 years (from 1724 to 1734). The Baal Shem revealed himself, at the urging of Achiyah HaShiloni, upon completing their studies.

Achiyah HaShiloni is the navi who in Sefer Melachim informs Yeravam ben Nevat of his divine mandate to lead the northern 10 shevatim of Bnei Yisrael to form a separate kingdom, Malchut Yisrael, distinct from Malchut Beit David in the south. Sefer Melachim also records Achiyah HaShiloni as reproving Yeravam ben Nevat when the latter veered severely off the proper Torah track.

What possible connection exists between Achiyah HaShiloni of nearly 3,000 years ago with the Baal Shem Tov of the 18th century C.E.?

Achiyah HaShiloni in the Aggada

Chazal add much to the Tanach’s depiction of Achiyah and help us grasp why chasidim connect the Baal Shem Tov with Achiyah HaShiloni. The Gemara (Bava Batra 121b) describes Achiyah HaShiloni as born during the lifetime of Moshe Rabbeinu’s father Amram and as having served as the rebbe of Eliyahu HaNavi. In his introduction to Mishneh Torah, the Rambam describes Achiyahu HaNavi as one of the chachmei hamesorah, prime transmitters of the Oral Tradition. The Rambam writes that Achiyah HaShiloni learned Torah from Moshe Rabbeinu and later from David HaMelech. Achiyah subsequently passed the mesorah to Eliyahu HaNavi.

In a stunning Midrash (Bereishit Rabba Parasha 35), Chazal declare that Achiyah HaShiloni is such a great tzadik, that together with Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai he is capable of redeeming all of Israel from their sins until the generation of Mashiach.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102a) presents Achiyah HaShiloni and Yeravam ben Nevat as chavrutot, unparalleled Torah scholars to whom the entire Torah was revealed. This Gemara relates that Yeravam’s Torah knowledge was flawless.

Rav Moshe Weinberger’s Explanation

Rav Moshe Weinberger of Woodmere, New York, presents the classic chasidic explanation of the connection between Achiyah HaShiloni and the Baal Shem Tov (https://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/823521/rabbi-moshe-weinberger/baal-shem-tov-4-achiya-hashiloni-and-the-baal-shem-tov/). In short, chasidut sees Achiyah HaShiloni teaching the arch-villain Yeravam ben Nevat as a prototype for reaching out to all Jews, even those who completely severed their ties to Torah.

Moreover, Achiyah HaShiloni viewing Yeravam ben Nevat’s Torah as pure and unsullied reflects the idea that the sins of even the most depraved sinners are only surface deep, but their deeper selves remain uncontaminated.

Rav Weinberger describes how the Baal Shem followed in Achiyah HaShiloni’s path with outreach efforts to every Jew. He describes at length how the Baal Shem would even make efforts to cleanse and rectify legions of souls of sinners who lived in prior generations.

A New Explanation: TABC Talmid Benzion Rotblat

My TABC student Benzion Rotblat suggests a very straightforward connection between Achiyah HaShiloni and the Baal Shem. Achiyah prophesied the need to split the kingdom. Shlomo HaMelech’s reign had gone awry with far too much emphasis on the king instead of Hashem. Achiyah’s vision of dividing the kingdom was to tone down the king’s power so that the focus would shift to Hashem and the Beit HaMikdash. Achiyah intended the division to be cooperative and mutually beneficial (comparable, l’havdil, to the National League and American League in baseball or the NFC and the AFC in football).

The Baal Shem applied Achiyah HaShiloni’s vision to his time. He saw the need to create a new wing of Torah life. The Baal Shem saw his chasidic teachings as introducing new opportunities for Jews to connect to Hashem and Torah. There would be room in the Baal Shem’s vision for chasidic and non-chasidic approaches and everything in between.

Tragically, terrible battles emerged between chasidut and its opponents that raged for generations. While there were many situations of peaceful coexistence, unfortunately, there was significant strife for long periods.

A New Outlook Toward Chasidut

The Lubavitcher Rebbe commented that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik attending the Rebbe’s Farbrengen in 1981 constituted the official end of the battle between chasidut and its opponents. He went so far as to say even the souls of the protagonists in Olam Haba had reconciled. On the car ride returning from Crown Heights to Yeshiva University, students report that Rav Soloveitchik commented that he saw the Holocaust as the end to the hostilities.

Today many have struck a healthy balance between chasidut and non-chasidic thought and Torah lifestyle. The unnecessary battles have ceased, thank God, and many follow in the footsteps of Rav Soloveitchik, who melded chasidic elements to his overall Torah outlook.

Conclusion

A Modern Orthodox synagogue rabbi who incorporates some chasidic teachings to his shiurim and drashot told me that his great-grandfather prided himself on driving out the chasidim from his shtetl (East European village). In my opinion, the great-grandson’s openness to chasidut serves as a tikun, a correction, for the unfortunate combative attitude that prevailed in earlier times.

One does not have to formally identify as a chasid to learn and be inspired by chasidic ideas. Blending chasidic and non-chasidic approaches serve as an authentic realization of the vision of Achiyah HaShiloni and his student the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem’s teachings adds a healthy new dimension that enriches our people and strengthens our bond with Avinu Shebashamayim.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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