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To Paradise and Back

Simhat Torah follows the seventh day of Sukkot and is a day of rejoicing. On Simhat Torah, the year-long reading of the Torah comes to an end with the last few verses of the Book of Deuteronomy and starts again with the first verses of the Book of Genesis. The scrolls of the Torah are taken from the Ark and carried around the synagogue in a procession that makes seven circuits around the sanctuary. After each circuit, there is singing and dancing with the scrolls. It is a celebration of great joy for having lived to complete the reading of the Torah for another year. In some Hasidic circles, there is wild dancing, as in this tale about the Ba’al Shem Tov and Rabbi Dov Baer (1710-1772).

Although the gates of the Garden were closed after Adam and Eve were expelled, there are quite a few visits to the Garden recounted in Jewish folklore, such as that of the Ba’al Shem Tov in the following story. This shows how Jewish folktales draw on biblical themes and retell them, perpetuating the influence of the Bible in Jewish tradition. The theme of leaves from the Garden of Eden is a popular one in Jewish folklore.

Every year the followers of the Ba’al Shem Tov celebrated Simhat Torah with wild dancing and singing. For on that day the reading of the Torah is begun anew, and Jews dance with the Torah in their arms.

Then one year his Hasidim noticed that the Ba’al Shem Tov did not join in the dancing, but stood off by himself. He seemed to be strangely somber on that joyful day. Suddenly a shoe flew off the foot of Rabbi Dov Baer as he whirled in the dance, and at that instant the Ba’al Shem Tov smiled.

A little later the Hasidim saw the Ba’al Shem Tov pull a handful of leaves out of his pocket, crush them, and scatter their powder in the air, filling the room with a wonderful scent, like that of Paradise. Then the Ba’al Shem Tov joined in the dancing with great abandon. The Hasidim had never seen him so happy, and they, too, felt possessed by a greater joy than ever before.

Afterward, when they had all caught their breath, one of the Hasidim asked the Ba’al Shem Tov what he had smiled about, after having been so solemn. He replied: “While you were dancing, I went into a trance, and my soul leaped from here into the Garden of Eden. I went there to bring back leaves from the Garden, so that I could scatter them among us, making this the happiest Simhat Torah of all time. I gathered fallen leaves with the greatest pleasure and put them in my pocket. As I did, I noticed that there were scattered fringes of prayer shawls in the Garden, as well as pieces of worn tefillin, from the straps Jews wrap around their arm when they pray. Not only that, but I saw heels and soles and shoelaces, and sometimes even whole shoes. And all of these objects were glowing like so many sparks, even the shoes — for as soon as they entered the Garden of Eden, they began to glow.

“Now I was not surprised to see the fringes and straps, for they come from sacred objects, but I wondered what the shoes were doing there.

“Just then a shoe flew into the Garden of Eden, and I recognized it at once as that of Rabbi Dov Baer.” The Ba’al Shem Tov turned to face him. “Dov, I realized that your love of God was so great that your shoe had flown all the way there. That is when I understood why there were shoes in the Garden of Eden. And that is why I smiled.

“I would have come back to join you at that very moment, but just then I saw two angels in the Garden. They had come to sweep and clean the Garden and to gather those precious, glowing objects.

“I asked the angels what they were going to do with the shoes, and one of them said: ‘These shoes have flown here from the feet of Jews dancing with the Torah. They are very precious to God, and soon the angel Gabriel will make a crown out of them for God to wear on His Throne of Glory.’”

The Ba’al Shem Tov stopped speaking, and all who heard this story that day were filled with awe. Nor was Rabbi Dov Baer’s shoe ever seen again, for it had truly flown to the Garden of Eden.

Howard Schwartz, a professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has been publishing books of Jewish folklore, poetry and children’s stories for more than a quarter-century. His latest, “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism” (Oxford University Press, 2004), gathers nearly 700 tales from the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, kabbalistic literature, Hasidic tales and newly collected oral lore. The following excerpt is from the section related to the holiday of Sukkot, titled “The Flying Shoe.”

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