Translated literally, kefitzas ha-derech 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 travellers 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.
The first known text to mention kefitzas ha-derech of a holy Tzaddik is the question asked to Rabbi Hai Gaon by the Kairouan community in North Africa, whether or not to believe in such people. It described how a famous holy Tzaddik 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. The community wanted Rabbi Hai Gaon to explain the miracle. In his response, Rabbi Hai Gaon (939-1038), a leader of Babylonian Jewry, categorically denied the possibility of kefitzas ha-derech; most rational rabbis did not want anything to do with these fanciful ideas.
Kefitzas ha-derech does not appear in the Tanach, Bible. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 95a) 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 (kefitzas ha-aretz)." These were Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, Jacob the Patriarch, and Abishai ben Zeruiah. There had been some debates whether it is exactly the same concept as Kefitzas ha-derech, but most scholars agree that it is close enough to be considered so.
Kefitzas ha-derech can happen spontaneously, as a miracle performed for the benefit of a just and good person who is in trouble. 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 Gd, by one of His angels, or by Elijah the Prophet.
The other approach to kefitzas ha-derech was accomplished deliberately by a group of people called baaley 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 commands the execution of all witches. But this did not stop the practitioners of practical Kabbalah from being wonder makers. It is believed that the baaley shem 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. 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 repeated for generations. 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 "baaley shem" that had preceded the Baal Shem Tov.
Some 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 baaley 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. Perhaps the word “Tov” is added to reflect that the intentions of those Tzaddikim were absolutely pure without thought for themselves but only as true purveyors of the Almighty’s plans for this world.
Baaley 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. Kefitzas ha-Derech is only one of the many wonders the baaley 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, exorcize demons and dybbuks, 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 kefitzas ha-derech were different from all the others.
As we mentioned earlier, the first known text to mention kefitzas ha-derech, coupled with the personality of a baal shem, was the recorded 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. The community wanted Rabbi Hai Gaon to explain the miracle. As an aside, it is astounding to think that such questions were asked and that the people seriously considered that such things might have some truth to them. What type of an answer were they expecting? Did they wish to know if such a person should be treated as a shamster and rebuffed? In his response, Rabbi Hai Gaon categorically denied the possibility of kefitzas ha-derech; most rational rabbis did not want anything to do with these fanciful ideas. He strongly denounced the Baaley shem, writing off their wondrous activities as "nonsense". Rabbi Judah ha-Levi (c. 1150-1217) suggested they were misguided to believing that when a "prophet" accurately foretold future events, "it was the speech that was the cause of this wonder." Maimonides (1135-1204) not only opposes Ba’aley Shem, but the use of Divine Names in any activity.
Even those masters who studied Kabbalah (practical or theoretical) were known to express their reservations. Rabbi Judah HaHasid (1150-1217) advised that mystical books containing Divine Names were to be hidden from students, lest they study it without supervision and "incur punishment." He also commented that anyone who "conjures" angels or demons, interprets dreams, or invoke the Divine Name to accomplish something would come to a bad end.
Although Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla (13th century) wrote an entire book on the mystical properties and uses of the Hebrew language and Names of God called Garden of the Walnut, he later changed his position, warning against that route of study in a later, theoretic work, Gates of Light.
European Jews of the medieval period, however, displayed a more favourable attitude toward them, and preserved numerous stories of both real and fictitious Ba’aley Shem.
Nevertheless, the population, greatly encouraged by the baaley shem, did believe and many still believe in kefitzas ha-derech. The concept appeared in many areas of the world. Southern Italy produced a particularly famous manuscript, Megillat Achimaaz (also called Megillat Yuchasin). In this tale a most unusual 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 Chayim Vital.
The motif of kefitzas ha-derech, in contrast to other supernatural motifs of the Hasidic genre, appears only in the first generations of Hasidism, it seems to have disappeared entirely in later times.
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 Kefitzas ha-derech 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/Kefitzas ha-derech will be familiar to just about everyone: "Beam me up, Scotty!"