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Kefitzat ha-Derekh

by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.
Translated literally, kefitzat ha-derekh means "the jumping of the road." It is usually interpreted, however, as "the shortening of the way." The phenomenon consists of the swift arrival of a person or persons to a distant destination, accomplished by supernatural means. The travelers must break the laws of nature to fit the concept, and the distance cannot be covered as quickly by walking or riding an ordinary horse, mule, or donkey.

Kefitzat ha-derekh does not appear in the Bible. The Talmud, however, mentions three Biblical individuals who experienced it. The actual term used in the Talmud is slightly different, though. It appears as "those for whom the earth jumped (kefitzat ha-aretz)." These were Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, Jacob the Patriarch, and Abishai ben Zeruiah. There had been some debates weather it is exactly the same concept as Kefitzat ha-derekh, but most scholars agree that it is close enough to be considered so.

Kefitzat ha-derekh can happen spontaneously, as a miracle performed for the benefit of a just and good person who is in trouble. It is usually a man; I have never encountered a story involving a woman who had Kefitzat ha-derekh 1. The man may be away from home before the beginning of the Sabbath, or unable to reach a place where he had promised to perform a valuable religious service. Suddenly, he finds himself in that distant spot, sometimes without realizing how it happened, sometimes by being transported through the air or over water. Such a miracle is assumed to be performed either by God himself, by one of his angels, or by Elijah the Prophet.

The other approach to kefitzat ha-derekh was accomplished deliberately by a group of people called baalei shem. The term means "masters of the Name" and the word "baalei" is the plural of "baal," or master. These people performed what amounts to magic, despite the fact that Judaism had always objected to any form of it; the Bible even recommends killing all witches. But this did not stop the practitioners of practical Kabbalah from being wonder makers. The baalei shem maintained that they had secret knowledge of the holy Names, and that they could achieve supernatural results using them. The Name, holy Name, or Shem Tov (good Name) may be one of the divine Names, the name of an angel, or a combination of letters in those Names.

Most people familiar with Judaism know the name of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidism. His real name was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer. A truly great scholar, he created a new philosophy, functioned as a religious leader, and performed miracles as a wonder-maker. Most of what we know about him is second hand, stories told by his disciples and later repeated for generations, much like Rabbi Hillel, Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus. The most famous book about him is Shivhei ha-Besht (Besht is the Hebrew acronym for Baal Shem Tov), a collection of stories that have been used in every book written about him. However, many people do not know that he was not the first to be the master of Names. Many of the stories in the book were borrowed from original tales about other "baalei shem" that had preceded the Baal Shem Tov. Scholars, particularly Gershom Scholem, proved that there was no difference between the words "baal shem" which means, "master of the name" and "Baal Shem Tov," which means "master of the good name." All names were good -- the baalei shem would not use them otherwise. They never performed anything even remotely negative like sorcery, black magic, or Satanism; the entire purpose of the wonders they performed was positive, and based on deep faith in traditional Judaism. The Names they used could be either spoken, or written on amulets made of paper or parchment.

Baalei shem are not mentioned in the Bible. They appear for the first time in the post-Talmudic period in Babylonia, or possibly at the beginning of the Geonim period, and the tales developed into the Middle Ages. The 16th and 17th centuries are extremely rich in stories, in both Israel and Europe. Kefitzat ha-Derekh is only one of the many wonders the baalei shem performed. They could preserve the bodies of the dead as "dead-alive" by placing written amulets in the bodies, to keep them for burial in the proper time and place. They could create golems (see: Rabbi Loeb,) exorcize demons and dybbuks (see: Dybbuk), protect people against their enemies on both land and sea, summon beasts from the spiritual realms, send and interpret dreams, and raise the spirits of the dead. Every process had its own formula and name, and those of kefitzat ha-derekh were different from all the others.

The first known text to mention kefitzat ha-derekh, coupled with the personality of a baal shem, was a question sent by a North African community to Rabbi Hai Gaon. It described how a famous baal shem was seen in one place on the Eve on Sabbath (Friday). Later on the same Friday night, he was seen in another place, a distance of a few days journey. On Saturday evening, he was again seen back in the original place. There was no logical way to interpret the sightings, and the community wanted Rabbi Hai Gaon to explain the miracle. In his response, Rabbi Hai Gaon categorically denied the possibility of kefitzat ha-derekh; most rational rabbis did not want anything to do with these fanciful ideas. Nevertheless, the population, greatly encouraged by the baalei shem, did believe in kefitzat ha-derekh.

The concept appeared in many areas of the world. Southern Italy produced a particularly famous manuscript, Megillat Ahimaaz (also called Megillat Yuhasin). In this tale a most amusing use of the formula is described -- the Name was written on the hooves of the horse carrying the baal shem! There are tales from Germany, Poland, Russia, Spain, and others. Many more are attributed to the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria), the great kabbalist from Safed, Israel, and to his student, Rabbi Hayim Vital.

These wonderful tales continued to develop until the traveling rabbis abandoned walking and riding in favor of technological progress; they started using fast ways of transportation, such as trains, to reach important destinations. As miraculous teleportation was no longer urgently needed, the telling of Kefitzat ha-derekh tales dwindled and eventually stopped. The demise of this myth is surprising, since there are such things as derailed trains, car accidents, and delayed planes. Why not have a miracle in a crowded airport, or while stranded on a lonely road in a stalled car? The stories might have continued to accommodate such issues, and their organic growth into modernity would have been of interest. However, perhaps they did not entirely vanish, after all.

The idea resembles teleportation in other world myths and legends, not to mention science fiction and fantasy, which freely make use of it in books, movies, and television. If Kefitzat ha-derekh sounds familiar to readers of science fiction, it is because Frank Herbert used this term in his book Dune, where the concept charmingly, if somewhat inaccurately, refers to a person whose being represents the shortening of time leading to a certain important future event. But the most famous form of modern science fiction/Kefitzat ha-derekh will be familiar to just about everyone: "Beam me up, Scotty!"

1 If any reader knows a genuine Judaic Kefitzat ha-derekh tale, where the traveler is a woman, I would greatly appreciate hearing about it.


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