To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on Dune, Frank Herbert, and The Shortening of the Way.

Day 29: Dune, Frank Herbert, and The Shortening of the Way

Paul Atreides, the Kwisatz Haderach

Paul Atreides, the Kwisatz Haderach

Tales are told of great and learned rabbis who, by the practice of using the secret Holy Names of God, were able to travel vast distances in a short amount of time. One such tale is of Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century rabbi who lived in Poland. Often he and his disciples would set off for a town hundreds of miles away, only to arrive in a few hours.

One night he and some new students had been traveling all day, and the town was nowhere in sight. The sun was nearing the horizon, when the Sabbath would begin. They could not drive their horses on the Sabbath, and this was no place to set up camp for the night, for in those parts of the world Jews were treated with suspicion, contempt, and often violence, and the roads were known to be filled with dangerous men at night. “Rebbe!” his disciples cried. “We are hours from any town and the Sabbath approaches! What shall we do?”

“Not to worry,” said the Baal Shem Tov. And just as he spoke, the town appeared as if from beyond a cloud, and the landscape all around them had changed, as if they had crossed a vast distance suddenly. “Ah,” the students said. “Our master has performed kefitzat ha-derekh, the Shortening of the Way.”

One of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples is quoted as saying, “That was one of my first experiences with kefitzat ha-derekh, the Shortening of the Way. Somehow the rebbe was able to travel great distances in impossibly short periods of time. I do not know how he did it. Dozens of times we traveled hundreds of miles in only a few hours. As the horses could normally cover only five to ten miles in an hour, we never understood how the master was able to accomplish such a feat. But he did it so many times, we stopped questioning.”

It is said that throughout history all baalei shem, or masters of the name, had this power of kefitzat ha-derekh. They studied the inner secrets of Kabbalah, and using special incantations of God’s Holy Name and the names of the angels, they were able to perform their miracles of transport.

The Myth’s Origins

The Talmud speaks of three individuals who kefitzat ha-aretz, earth jumped. They are Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, Jacob the Patriarch, and Abishai ben Zeruiah. As the awareness of and study of Kabbalah increased, tales of individuals being able to jump across vast distances became more common throughout Europe. People who performed this miracle were called the baalei shem, or masters of the Holy Name. Sometimes they chanted the name, other times they inscribed it on the horses’ hooves.

Though this miracle was typically performed by those learned in Kabbalah, sometimes the miracle happened without the traveler’s knowledge; it was performed by God for the traveler’s benefit. But frequently it is the holy man, like the Baal Shem Tov, who uses the kefitzat ha-derekh to reach a distant city so he may perform his righteous duty, his religious obligations, or help someone in need. Though the Torah explicitly forbids using any kind of magic, the use of kefitzat ha-derekh was nonetheless widespread in folktales.

The first written mention of the kefitzat ha-derekh is in a letter sent by a North African community to one Rabbi Hai Gaon. The community wanted to know if kefitzat ha-derekh was possible, because they had heard tales of a learned holy man who was seen in one place on Sabbath eve, and on the very same night he was seen hundreds of miles away. The next morning, he was seen in the first place again. How was this possible? they asked. Rabbi Hai Gaon did not believe in kefitzat ha-derekh, and denied the existence of such miracles. Yet the stories lived on in folktales, especially from the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov.

Some Thoughts on the Myth

So what does all this have to do with Frank Herbert and his novel Dune, as in the title of my post? In Frank Herbert’s book, the religious order of the Bene Gesserit has been attempting to breed a super-being, one whom they call the Kwisatz Haderach. They wanted this being to be a woman and thus fall under the control of their female religious order. But Lady Jessica unexpectedly gives birth to a boy, Paul Atreides, and thus the Bene Gesserit’s plan for domination of the universe fails when Paul cannot be controlled by anyone. The Kwisatz Haderach is known in the books as “the one who can be two places simultaneously” and “the one who can be many places at once.” Hebert defines the Kwisatz Haderach as “The Shortening of the Way.”

Also of interest to me is that the words “Bene Gesserit” resemble one of the names of the Jewish people, the Bene Jeshurun, which approximately means “Children of the Upright” in Hebrew.

I was unable to find any sources where Herbert describes how he came up with the Kwisatz Haderach, but it’s clear the myth influenced his concept of Dune.

So here we see again, as with Spock’s Vulcan salute, another Judaic myth making its way into popular science fiction culture, often with few people realizing their mythical origins. 

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Origin of Chaos