Motzei Shabbos Story: Sitting at his Shabbos table, the Baal Shem Tov began to laugh, seemingly out of nowhere. His students only found out why after a miraculous journey.
Hunger was a familiar guest in Reb Shabtai’s home. Work didn’t come by so often for the bookbinder, and since Reb Shabtai and his wife, Perel, refused to collect charity, they regularly went to bed enduring the throbs of an empty stomach. Once, before Shabbat, they hadn’t a single coin in the house—not for wine, challah, or even two stubs of wax for candles. Despair cut through Reb Shabtai’s heart like a fiery poker. Although the image of a barren table smothered in darkness was heartbreaking indeed, the couple agreed to follow the Talmudic adage, “Better make your Shabbat profane than to rely on the largesse of others.”
On Friday afternoon, Reb Shabtai left for the synagogue, where he, as usual, spent the rest of the day reading Psalms and the weekly Torah portion. This, coupled with the peaceful silence, helped somewhat ease his burdened mind. When the sky turned orange tinged with red, Reb Shabtai began to prepare to welcome the Shabbat while the synagogue around him filled up.
As much as Reb Shabtai would have preferred that they last forever, the evening services eventually drew to a close. He remained in his seat and stared blankly at his siddur, sneaking occasional glances at the others leaving—he didn’t want anyone pestering him as to why his windows were dark. The synagogue fell quiet as before, and Reb Shabtai finally decided it was time to come home.
Something, however, wasn’t right.
The sight of candles twinkling warmly from behind the grubby window made Reb Shabtai’s heart sink. He was quite sure that was his home. Had Perel really been unable to contain herself from borrowing the candles? Or perhaps worse—money? His bewilderment grew further as he crossed the front door to discover Perel beaming next to a table laden with a bottle of wine, two glazed loaves of fluffy challah, and an assortment of delicacies. He studied all of this quietly. A demand for the meaning of this would undoubtedly distress Perel, so Reb Shabtai resolved to simply leave it unaddressed. He returned Perel’s smile.
“It was a miracle, Shabtai,” said Perel, discerning her husband’s unasked question. “While you were gone, I began to clean the house and came across a pair of gloves I didn’t know we even had. The gloves, Shabtai, had big golden buttons! They were quite expensive, too, because once I snipped them off, they sold for a sizable amount. Everything you see here—” she motioned to the lavish table “— was bought with that money.”
A sudden surge of gratitude warmed Reb Shabtai’s heart; G‑d had delivered in their time of need. He danced around the small table, clapping his hands with a spontaneous song on his lips. Perel laughed, the worries of poverty usually etched on her face now gone without a trace.
Miles away, sitting at his own Shabbat table, the Baal Shem Tov also began to laugh. The hearty sound reverberated around the room, despite the large crowd of students gathered there. This prompted a few of them to exchange curious stares, but no one attempted to inquire about the reason, nor did the Baal Shem Tov explain.
After havdalah the next day, Reb Ze’ev Kitzes asked the Baal Shem Tov for the meaning of his Friday night laugh. The Baal Shem Tov provided no answer, instead requesting his wagon driver to ready the horses for himself and his students. With a respectful silence, the students piled into the wagon after the Baal Shem Tov; they were accustomed to the occasional mysterious outing.
The wagon didn’t stop until it had arrived in the Polish city of Opatow (Apta) the next morning. By the order of the Baal Shem Tov, one of the students hurried off to find Reb Shabtai, a bookbinder. A wide-eyed Reb Shabtai soon stood in the front of the Baal Shem Tov.
“Tell me what happened on Shabbat night,” said the Baal Shem Tov gently.
And so Reb Shabtai did: he recounted the couple’s grim certainty that they’d fast that Shabbat, the unexpected gift from Above, and his dance around the table to praise G‑d. The Baal Shem Tov nodded along, his beard failing to hide a wide smile.
“The entirety of Heaven rejoiced in your moments of pure joy,” smiled the Baal Shem Tov. “Now tell me, what do you want to be blessed with?”
Reb Shabtai thought for a few moments, scrunching up his face wistfully. “I don’t need silver or gold. It’s obvious the one thing Perel and I want is children . . .”
The Baal Shem Tov blessed the couple with a child, and one year later, he arrived in Opatow once more to serve as sandek for the baby boy at his brit. Yisrael—named to honor the Baal Shem Tov—would later serve Jewry as one of its most inspiring leaders: Rabbi Yisrael, the Maggid (preacher) of Kozienice (Kozhnitz).