Despite being a preeminent disciple of the Baal Shem Tov,R’ Leib Sara’s (the Shpoler Zeide) concealed his greatness and chose to have no followers. Instead, he travelled the countryside incognito, performing great and mystical wonders.
He once met a wealthy Jewish villager who had no teacher for his children. The villager offered R’ Leib the vacant position and promised a generous salary. R’ Leib agreed on one condition: every Friday he would stop teaching early and the villager would arrange for a wagon-driver to take him to the local town and back, so he could visit the mikva in preparation for Shabbos. And so, his first Friday on the job, the villager arranged for his gentile servant to bring the teacher (R’ Leib) to town and back.
That night, the gentile driver told the villager that, as they left the village, the teacher instructed him to tie the reins to the wagon and turn around so his back was to the horses.
“When I obeyed,” continued the driver, “it felt as though the horses began flying through the air. Towns and villages flashed before my eyes, until we stopped at a tavern in a faraway city. There, the teacher made me promise to stay in the tavern, and he told the innkeeper to give me as much food and drink as I wanted.
“He returned two hours later. Saying nothing, we climbed back into the wagon. I was so tired because I had drunk and eaten so much that I fell asleep almost immediately. I only woke up just as we arrived back here.”
When the driver finished his fanciful tale, the villager told his family to keep the matter secret from the teacher. He also told his son-in-law to convince the teacher to take him along to the mikva the following Friday.
The next week, the teacher agreed to take the villager’s son-in-law along. After finishing at the mikva, they traveled to the faraway city, and the teacher again made the driver and now the son-in-law wait for him in the tavern. But the son-in-law had no intentions of staying put, instead quietly following the teacher, step by step, until he came to a heavily-guarded royal palace.
Much to his dismay, the teacher spotted the son-in-law, and, recognizing that he was in grave danger, told him to hold onto his belt. In this way, they passed undetected by the royal guards until they came to the emperor’s throne room. The teacher swiftly produced a knife and lunged at none other than Kaiser Josef of Austria, threatening to cut him alive unless he rescinded certain evil decrees he had promulgated against the Jewish people under his rule. Kaiser Josef yelled for help, but to no avail: unable to see the invisible duo, the royal guards thought the emperor insane. And so the emperor was forced to rescind his evil decrees.
As the teacher and the son-in-law made their way back to the wagon, the son-in-law stopped at a local store and bought himself a small knife, asking the shopkeeper to provide him with a receipt containing the date, exact address, and shopkeeper’s signature.
When they returned home, the villager’s family was astonished by the tale and even more so when they saw the receipt signed by a merchant in faraway Vienna—hundreds of miles from their Ukrainian village—on that very date. The teacher was forced to admit that he was R’ Leib Sara’s, the hidden tzaddik. And, after that Shabbos, R’ Leib left the village never to be heard from again.
Unlike the fictitious teleportation or time travel so admired in popular culture—think “Beam me up, Scotty!”—the notion of “kefitzas haderech” (literally, “the jumping of the road”) is well-steeped in our tradition. It generally consists of the swift arrival of a person at a distant destination, accomplished by supernatural means.
Our history is replete with examples of such preternatural travels. For instance, the spies sent by Moshe to reconnoiter the Land of Israel experienced a swift journey, touring the entire land in a mere forty days (Rashi, Bamidbar 13:25). Later, when the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel, they completed the long journey to Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival and returned to Gilgal—around 120 mil roundtrip—all in one day (Sota 36a).
But only three Biblical individuals—Eliezer (servant of Abraham), Yaakov, and Avishai ben Tzeruya—experienced the specific, miraculous journey known as kefitzas haderech (Sanhedrin 95a).
Eliezer’s journey to find a spouse for Yitzchak was the first such instance. When Eliezer arrived at Aram and met Rivka’s family, he recounted the entire saga of his search for a spouse for Yitzchak, including the he left Avraham’s home in Canaan and arrived in Aram that same day (Bereishis 24:42 and Rashi ad loc.).
Around 100 years later, Yaakov experienced something similar. Travelling to Charan, he realized he had passed Mount Moriah, the future site of the two temples, but neglected to stop and pray at that most auspicious place (Bereishis 28:11; Chulin 91b). So he made an about-face and started the long journey back to Mount Moriah. Because he wanted to pray there, G-d contracted the earth, and Yaakov arrived there within the day.
Such wonders aren’t limited to Biblical times.
The very existence of Shmuel, the Amora, owes itself to kefitzas haderech (Tosfos, Kiddushin 73a and Rosh ad loc.; BaHaG, Laws of Gittin). Shmuel’s father had travelled overseas for business, where a woman tried to seduce him. The woman explained that she was an expert in understanding bird language, and she heard the birds say that he was destined to bear a child that night who would grow up to be more intelligent and wise than any person before him.
When Shmuel’s father heard this, he ran from the woman, and, invoking certain of G-d’s holy names, caused the journey to contract, making it home to his wife and back to his overseas business trip that same night. When it later became apparent that Shmuel’s mother was pregnant, she was falsely accused of being unfaithful to her husband (since it was known that he was overseas), and she was punished with lashes.
Well, Shmuel was conceived that night, and when he grew up, he attested to the fact that he had felt the lashes in utero and that one of them had made an indentation on his head. Indeed, some claim that Shmuel’s father is referred to as “the father of Shmuel” to confirm that indeed he—and not someone else—was Shmuel’s father.
As with Shmuel’s father, certain holy individuals—“baalei shem” or “masters of the name”—possessed secret knowledge of G-d’s sacred names used to achieve kefitzas haderech, invoking them either through recitation or by writing them on the hooves of horse(s) (see e.g. Megillas Achima’atz [also known as Megillas Yuchsin of R’ Achima’atz of Southern Italy], pg. 24-25; see also Responsa of the Geonim No. 115). The holy name of G-d used to invoke such a wondrous journey, explains the Apter Rov, is comprised of the first letters of the words, “the heavens and the earth” (Bereishis 1:1), an allusion to achieving rapid transit. It is no coincidence that the words from which we learn that Eliezer experienced such a journey—“and I came on this day to the well” (Bereishis 24:42) also are comprised of those same four letters.
It is said that the Chasam Sofer and his rebbi, R’ Nosson Adler experienced such a journey. Once, they were travelling from Frankfurt and they gave their wagon-driver a mug of beer to make him drowsy. When the driver fell asleep, the earth jumped for them and they reached their far-away destination in very short order (see Responsa of Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim No. 197 [alluding to this story]).
Yet, not everyone favored widespread knowledge of such feats. The Kairouan community of North Africa asked Rav Hai Gaon whether to believe in the powers of such wonder workers who claimed the ability to trigger kefitzas haderech. Rav Hai strongly denounced such wonder-workers and their kefitzas haderech as “nonsense.”
The manner in which such travel was accomplished defies human understanding, and seems to be a matter of some dispute: is it that the destination is brought to the traveler (Rashi and Ohr HaChaim, Bereishis 28:11; Rashi, Bereishis 28:17) or that the traveler is sped supernaturally to the destination (Ramban, Bereishis 28:17; see also Shem MiShmuel, Chayei Sara 5676)? We don’t know for sure. Either way, we cannot explain or really understand such phenomena, other than to concede that our notions of time and space are relative to the intensity of the events and the spiritual level of the people experiencing them, with great people and epic events telescoping and otherwise manipulating time and space (Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Vol. 1, pg. 309).
But while a deep understanding of kefitzas haderech may be beyond our intellectual ken, it would be a mistake to regard it as nothing but a marvelous phenomenon devoid of practical significance.
The Baal Shem Tov’s horses were hitched up to his wagon for a trip, unaware of the wondrous journey they were soon to experience.
The horses began to gallop, pulling the wagon and the Baal Shem Tov behind them. After only a few minutes, the horses had covered a great distance, causing them to exclaim, “We’ve covered such a great distance but are not at all hungry. We must not be horses but men!”
A few minutes later, the horses sped past an even further landmark, still not hungry. “We must be more than men,” they thought. “We must be angels!”
And so the horses proudly galloped along until they reached their final destination. But, by this point, they were ravenous and couldn’t help but go straight to the feeding trough, enthusiastically digging-in. When they were done, the horses turned to one another and acknowledged knowingly, “Horses.”
While we may not experience the miraculous journeys of Eliezer or Yaakov or even the Baal Shem Tov, whether we know it or not, we often find ourselves on the receiving end of G-d’s miraculous works. We would do well to remember that such Divine intervention cannot take the place of genuine, hard-earned spiritual growth.