Culture, Identity, Religion

31 Matza Balls

Yesterday afternoon, as Passover came to a close for many of us, I had the opportunity to be part of a “Ba’al Shem Tov Meal”, a Jewish ritual very different from what I’m used to. My friend ML is a 10th- or 12th-generation direct descendant of Reb Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, itinerant mystic and 17th-century founder of Hasidism, and as such, has inherited a unique practice which has been observed in her family meticulously and without fail each year: They cook exactly 31 matza balls, with one larger than the others, and sit around to hear the recitation (in Yiddish or in partial English translation) of the story of Reb YBST’s attempt to bring the Mashiach by travelling to Israel to meet The Ohr HaChaim, Rav Chaim IbnAttar, with whom he believed he shared King David’s reincarnated soul.
So about twenty of us friends of ML sat around her studio apartment, munching on Matza Lasagna, salads, and 31 matza balls sponsored by Moishe House Silver Spring, and listened to ML read her cousin’s recently completed translation of the entire story. It was good times, and there was a lot of joking about the historicity of the improbable tale, but what struck me more than the fun, the lively company, or the food, was the devotion and persistence with which this Passover custom had been passed down through the generations. Its power was such that ML, one of my most cynical friends, could not imagine letting the last day of Pesach pass without making a Ba’al Shem Tov Meal of her own, complete with all 31 matza balls, and an (irreverant but) attentive audience.
For the past 260 years her extended family members have gathered in their homes yearly to keep this story going, and despite its different variants (was the daughter named Udel or Adel? Was Reb Yisrael attacked by ghouls or pirates?) the tale is remarkably cohesive. It seems like Reb YBST was successful when he started this practice so long ago. If you could make sure your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren were telling a story about your life more than two centuries from now, what story would you want them to tell? And how would you see to it that they did?
An extremely-truncated version of the story told at the Ba’al Shem Tov Meal can be found here.

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