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Rabbi Yaakov Yosef HaKohen Katz was a foremost disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. He was born before the Baal Shem Tov. Although his exact birth date is not known, it is accepted that he lived more than 110 years!!!
Having been born before the beginning of the Chassidut movement, his attachment to Torah did not follow in accordance with Chassidic thought. It was only after a mysterious meeting with the Holy Baal Shem Tov where he remained together with him privately for a few hours – that he changed his thinking to become the foremost disciple! Although he was so close to the Baal Shem Tov, he did not become the leader of the Chassidic movement after the Baal Shem Tov. This would be the position reserved for the Maggid of Mezritch – Rabbi Dov Ber. While the Maggid was an extroverted charismatic leader who was able to reach the masses, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef remained the more introverted type of successful Torah scholar. He was a direct descendant of the Kabbalist Rabbi Shimshon of Ostropole and Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller – author of the Tosefot YomTov, the well known commentary on the Mishna. He is gifted for being able to express himself successfully in both the revealed Torah in Halachah as well as the hidden aspect of Torah – Kabbalah and Chassidut.
He wrote the Toldot Yaakov Yosef – a commentary on all the Parshiyot of the Torah. It was the first Chassidic book to come out in print! It blends both Kabbalisic teachings together with Halachic law as well as philosophical concepts. He quotes his teacher the Baal Shem Tov 280 times. The work was praised by the Chassidic giants including Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz who called it “Torah from the Garden of Eden.”
He also authored: Ben Porat Yosef, Tzofnat Paaneach and Ketonet Passim.
He is known to the Chassidic world as simply “The Toldos.” He had one righteous son – Rabbi Avraham Shimshon and one righteous daughter.
The Floating Bed
"Every word, every letter in this book, Toldot Yaakov Yosef, is precious," Reb Yayvi, the Maggid of Ostra told his son, Getzel. "There is just one passage whose meaning eludes me." Reb Yayvi turned again to the obtuse section and pored over it for a long time but could not fathom its meaning.
"Come, Getzel," he announced to his son. "We are going to R' Yaakov Yosef himself for an explanation." After many hours of travel, the carriage finally stopped in front of R' Yaakov Yosef's house. They found R' Yaakov Yosef lying in bed. It was several days before he would die.
"I have come to you for Torah knowledge. I bought your precious book and enjoyed it thoroughly, studying it closely from cover to cover. There was one passage, however, which I could not understand. I have come here to ask you for an explanation."
R' Yaacov Yosef motioned to the bookcase where his volume stood among other books. "Bring it here and show me exactly which passage you are referring to." The visitor did as he was told. As soon as he opened the book, it fell to the particular paragraph in question. He handed it to the man in bed.
"Here, it says, 'I heard from my rebbe the Baal Shem Tov...'"
As soon as he began explaining, R' Yaakov's face began to glow with an unearthly aura, his body appeared like a burning torch. The very bed he lay on rose in the air and hovered, surrounded by a pillar of fire !
"When he finished his explanation," Reb Getzel would tell over many times in the years to come, "everything returned to normal. The fire disappeared and the bed rested once more on the floor with its occupant, an exhausted old man."
"It is a sight I will never forget all my days," Reb Getzel would say, swearing by his beard that it was all true. (Sifrei Kodesh)
May the merit of the tzaddik Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye protect us all, Amen.