This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

On the Fast Track*

Where would the science fiction staple of intergalactic space travel be if Einstein had not introduced his obscure concepts of time-warps and worm-holes? Without these handy amendments to the laws of physics, we would have to forsake all dreams of close encounters with beings beyond our solar system, in deference to the vastness of the universe and the finite lifespans of the human organism.

It is much more convenient to deal with the instantaneous beaming of a spacecraft into a sector millions of light years away than to ponder the millions of years required for a trek across conventional space.

Worm-holes and space-warps have their analogies in Jewish tradition. Take, for example, the passage in the Torah where Jacob journeys from Beersheba to Haran (Genesis 28:10-11) After mentioning his final destination, the narrative immediately reports that he stopped on his way at Beth-el, to experience his dream about the angelic ladder.

The Talmud interpreted the itinerary in a strictly literal sequence, as if to say that the patriarch had already arrived at Haran, but was snapped back instantly to Beth-el when he realized that he had neglected to offer his respects at that ancestral shrine.

The Hebrew idiom of the Talmud states literally that "the land jumped up for him." Rashi explains that the road folded itself up for Jacob's sake. In other words: It warped.

Similar exploits were told of individuals through subsequent eras of Jewish history, and a special term was coined to denote it: kefisat derekh, literally: the leaping of the road.

Often, the objective of the teleportation was to bring the individuals home in time for Sabbath or a festival, or to allow them to perform an urgent religious precept.

At times, the instantaneous travel was related to momentous historical events.

For example, a tradition that was current among the Jews of Spain traced the origins of rabbinic learning in their land to a snap visit by the Babylonian Gaon Rav Natronai in the ninth century.

"It is a well-known and undisputed fact among the people of Spain, and a tradition handed down from their ancestors, that Rav Natronai came to them from Babylonia by means of a 'leaping of the road.' He taught Torah, and then returned. He was not seen to travel in any caravan, and nobody observed him on the road."

A century afterwards, when the incredulous Rav Hai Gaon was asked to express his opinion about this story, he dismissed it, suggesting that some imposter might have been passing himself off as the eminent scholar.

Tales of this sort were very popular among the Jews of medieval Germany. A typical example speaks of a delegation of Christian priests who challenged the saintly Rabbi Samuel the Pious to a competition at wonder-working. Rabbi Samuel dared his rivals to download for him a book that he was eager to read, that was currently in the possession of a scholar in another town.

The Christians offered to go him one step further: One of them would fall into a trance, allowing his disembodied spirit to soar off and take care of the interlibrary loan.

Though the priests were able to live up to their commitment, Rabbi Samuel trumped them by obstructing the spirit's return to its body until they had publicly acknowledged the superiority of his supernatural powers.

It was related concerning Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, one of the foremost teachers of the medieval German Jewish pietistic circles, that he mastered the secrets of flying on a cloud or teleporting himself across the supernatural airways, in order to perform urgent missions. On one occasion, the omission of a detail from the procedure caused him to tumble from his low-flying cloud, and left him with an incurable limp.

Later generations expanded on this tale in order to explain another milestone in the intellectual history of Spanish Jewry: the introduction of Kabbalah.

The legend told how the pioneering Spanish Kabbalist, Rabbi Moses Nahmanides of Gerona, had been initiated into the secret lore by Rabbi Eleazar of Worms. Rabbi Eleazar had been dismayed to learn in a heavenly vision that Nahmanides was ignorant of the esoteric lore. The Jews of Gerona also needed rescuing from an evil prince. In order to remedy these problems, Rabbi Eleazar decided to pay a quick visit to Spain on the day before Passover. For good measure, he brought with him some freshly baked matzah, which was still warm on his arrival.

Rabbi Eleazar, whose identity was unknown to Nahmanides and his neighbours, was able to accomplish a great deal during his brief visit to Spain. Ignoring his host's advice, he maneuvered to have himself arrested for entering the town's red light district. Just as he was about to be executed for his indiscretion, he caused his body to be magically exchanged with that of the wicked prince, who perished on the pyre in his stead. Rabbi Eleazar was then able to show up at Nahmanides' seder in time for Kiddush, and to offer him intensive instruction in the teachings of the Kabbalah.

It was widely assumed that the secrets of teleportation were known to all the leading Kabbalistic saints. Thus, some claimed that Rabbi Isaac Luria had employed that mode of transportation when he immigrated to the holy land.

It happened once, on a Friday, that Rabbi Luria invited his students in Safed to accompany him to Jerusalem. The naïve disciples politely declined the invitation, assuming that they would not be able to complete their journey before the onset of Shabbat. Unfortunately, they did not realize that their master had in mind his unconventional technique of traveling to the holy city.

Kabbalistic tradition had it that these hapless students, through their myopic lack of faith in their master, bore the guilt for delaying the final redemption.

The power of kefisat derekh was also attributed to the seventeenth-century mystical messiah Shabbetai Zvi. On one occasion, an Arab horseman showed up at the yeshivah of Gaza bearing a message addressed to its rabbi. Upon reading it, the rabbi told his students not to wait up for him. Then he mounted a horse, and was instantly whisked off to a magnificent encampment far off in the Sinai desert, where Shabbetai Zvi was holding court in regal style. Shabbetai Zvi dispatched the rabbi on a quest for magical stones that gave supernatural confirmation to his messianic claims, and set the stage for the resurrection of Jews who had perished at sea.

Teleportations are best known as a mainstay of the hagiographic legends surrounding the great Hasidic masters, especially the movement's founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.

A prototypical format of the Hasidic tales would have the master or disciples set off, often on a Friday afternoon or Saturday night, in a coach driven by a gentile driver. The unsuspecting chauffeur would doze off, as the horses took off into the air at warp-speed towards their destination. In this way, the Baal Shem Tov or his agents were able to arrive punctually at a variety of distant weddings and circumcisions, or to escape pursuers, avert anti-Semitic decrees, save lives, or rescue tainted souls from perdition.

Access to miraculous teleportation is not necessarily limited to humans. A touching story by Nobel Laureate S. Y. Agnon tells of a goat that would vanish mysteriously, and return afterwards with her udders filled with the sweetest of milk. When the owner's son decided to follow the animal, it led him to a vast cave. When he finally emerged from the other end of the cave, he found himself in a landscape of lofty mountains, luscious fruits and sparkling streams.

It soon became apparent that the cave was nothing less than a marvelous worm-hole extending from the diaspora to the mystic hills of Safed. The son decided to remain in the holy land, but sent the goat back to his father with a note inserted in her ear containing instructions about how to follow her to the cave.

Unfortunately, the father did not find the note until after the goat had been slaughtered. Neither he not anyone else was ever able to unearth that wondrous cave.

A tragic ending, it would seem. However, on further reflection, I wonder whether it did not really all turn out for the best.

Considering the heavy volume of inter-dimensional traffic, it is quite likely that, if he had been able to zip through the cave, the father might have become involved in a fatal collision with one of the numerous travelers speeding across the space-time continuum--perhaps with the Baal Shem Tov's coach ...or maybe even the Starship Enterprise.


This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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