"The Master Key" The Ba'al Shem Tov on Rosh Hashanah

Intro: Hassidism was an ecstatic spiritual movement that swept through Eastern European Jewry in the 18th century. Everyone agrees that its founder was Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer v'Sarah (Medzhybizh, Ukraine 1704-1772) - known as the 'Ba'al Shem Tov,' or 'Master of the Good Name.' Exactly what he taught, however, is a matter of some debate, as he left behind no writings. What remains of his legacy, then, is a collection of stories - legends, really - that his students told of his wondrous deeds and mystical teachings.

The following tale is a classic of the genre, in several ways. First of all, it takes place on Rosh Hashanah, which was a major holiday for the Ba'al Shem Tov (it was on Rosh Hashanah that he was said to have ascended to heaven and received his major revelation). Secondly, it deals with the Hassidic practice of inserting kavannot - Kabbalistic meditations - during prayers and rituals as a way of unlocking spiritual potencies. And finally, the story ends with a distinctly Hassidic twist, where the spiritual message seems at first to be esoteric, but turns out to be more deeply grounded in basic human emotion. This move exemplifies the populist nature of the Hassidic project, an attempt to harness the spiritual power of Jewish mysticism and put it in terms that simple Jews could relate to.

ספר אור ישרים

פעם אחת צווה הבעל שם טוב לתלמידו ר' זאב קיציס, שיכין עצמו וילמד את הכוונות שיש לכוון בתקיעות השופר כי הוא יהיה מסדר התקיעות לפניו בראש השנה.

למד ר' זאב את הכוונות ואף כתבם על נייר כדי שיוכל להביט בו בשעת התקיעות. את הנייר שהכין שם ר' זאב בחיקו.

גרם הבעש"ט לכך שהנייר נשמט ואבד.

כשבא ר' זאב לסדר התקיעות חיפש את הנייר אנה ואנה ולא מצאו. לא ידע ר' זאב כיצד לכוון את תקיעת השופר, וירע לו מאוד. ומתוך בכי תמרורים מעומק לבו ובלב שבור סידר את התקיעות בלי שום כוונות.

לאחר התקיעות אמר לו הבעש"ט: "בהיכל המלך יש חדרים והיכלות רבים, ולכל חדר והיכל יש מפתח מיוחד ושונה. אך יש דבר הכולל את כל המפתחות כאחד, והוא הגרזן. בעזרתו אפשר לפתוח כל המנעולים של כל הפתחים כולם.
כך הן הכוונות – אלו מפתחות. לכל שער ולכל פתח יש כוונה שונה ומיוחדת, אך המפתח הכולל, הפותח את כל השערים, הוא הלב הנשבר. כאשר ישבור אדם את לבו לפני ה' באמת יוכל להיכנס בכל השערים בהיכליו של מלך מלכי המלכים, הקדוש ברוך הוא."

Stories of the Ba'al Shem Tov

(as recorded in Or Yesharim,Warsaw 1884)

Once, the Ba'al Shem Tov instructed one of his students, Reb Zev Kitzis, to prepare himself to learn all the proper intentions [kavannot] that one must have in mind during the blowing of the shofar - for Reb Zev was the one who would be calling out the order of the sounds for shofar-blowing that Rosh Hashanah.

So Reb Zev studied all the kavannot and even wrote them down on a piece of paper, so that he could gaze upon them during the shofar-blowing. When he finished, he stuck the piece of paper in his breast pocket.

But the Baal Shem Tov caused the paper to become lost.

When the time came for Reb Zev to call out the shofar blasts, he began searching for the paper. He looked everywhere, but he could not find it. And he could not remember which kavannot went with which of the shofar blasts, so he became terribly upset. Full of deep sadness and with a broken heart, he went ahead and called for the shofar blasts, but without the proper kavnnot.

After the shofar-blasts, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: "In the palace of the King there are many rooms and compartments, and for every room there is a different, special key. But the master key of all is the axe, with which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates.

So it is with the kavannot for the shofar: they are the keys, and every gate has its own special key. But the master key, that opens all the gates, is the broken heart. So when a person truly breaks their heart before God, they can enter into all the gates in the palace of the One Supreme above all Kings, the Holy Blessed One."


1. What is the purpose of reciting these special kavannot before the Shofar blasts?

2. Why does the Ba'al Shem Tov ask Reb Zev to learn the kavannot, and then somehow cause him to lose the paper they are written on? [note: In many versions of the story, Reb Zev simply loses the paper.]

3. What is this palace, with all its locked rooms and compartments, a metaphor for?

4. Why is a broken heart considered the "master key"?

5. If it is the master key, why is it also compared to an axe?

6. Are you bringing any broken-heartedness to Rosh Hashanah this year? If so, how might you use it to "unlock the gates"? What gates in your life need unlocking (or smashing open)?