The introduction of printing (first dated Hebrew printed book, Rashi, Reggio, 1475) gave occasion for a number of scholarly compositors and proof-readers, some of whom were also authors, such as Jacob ben Ḥayyīm of Tunis (d. about 1530), proof-reader to Bomberg, chiefly known for his masoretic work in connexion with the Rabbinic Bible and his introduction to it; Elias Levita, of Venice (d. 1549), also proof-reader to Bomberg, author of the Massoreth ha-Massoreth and other works on grammar and lexicography; and Cornelius Adelkind, who however was not an author. In the East, Joseph Karo (Qārō) wrote his Bēth Yōseph (Venice, 1550), a commentary on the Ṭūr, and his Shulḥan ʽArūkh (Venice, 1564) an halakhic work like the Ṭūr, which is still a standard authority.
The influence of non-Jewish methods is seen in the more modern tendency of Azariah dei Rossi, who was opposed by Joseph Karo. In his Me’ōr ʽEnayīm (Mantua, 1573) Del Rossi endeavoured to investigate Jewish history in a scientific spirit, with the aid of non-Jewish authorities, and even criticizes Talmudic and traditional statements.
Another historian living also in Italy was Joseph ben Joshua, whose Dibhrē ha-yamīm (Venice, 1534) is a sort of history of the world, and his ʽEmeq ha-bakhah an account of Jewish troubles to the year 1575.
In Germany David Gans wrote on astronomy, and also the historical work Ẓemaḥ David (Prag, 1592).
The study of Kabbalah was promoted and the practical Kabbalah founded by Isaac Luria in Palestine (d. 1572). Numerous works, representing the extreme of mysticism, were published by his pupils as the result of his teaching. Foremost among these was Ḥayyīm Vital, author of the ’Ez ḥayyīm, and his son Samuel, who wrote an introduction to the Kabbalah, called Shemoneh Sheʽarīm. To the same school belonged Moses Zakkuto, of Mantua (d. 1697), poet and kabbalist. Contemporary with Luria and also living at Safed, was Moses Cordovero (d. 1570), the kabbalist, whose chief work was the Pardes Rimmōnīm (Cracow, 1591).
In the 17th century Leon of Modena (d. 1648) wrote his Bēth Yehūdah, and probably Qōl Sakhal, against traditionalism, besides many controversial works and commentaries. Joseph Delmedigo, of Prag (d. 1655), wrote almost entirely on scientific subjects. Also connected with Prag was Yōm Ṭōbh Lipmann Heller, a voluminous author, best known for the Tōsaphōth Yōm Tōbh on the Mishna (Prag, 1614; Cracow, 1643). Another important Talmudist, Shabbethai ben Me’īr, of Wilna (d. 1662), commented on the Shulḥan ʽArūkh. In the East, David Conforte (d. about 1685) wrote the historical work Qōrē ha-dōrōth (Venice, 1746), using Jewish and other sources; Jacob ben Ḥayyīm Ẓemaḥ, kabbalist and student of Luria, wrote Qōl be-ramah, a commentary on the Zohar and on the liturgy; Abraham Hayekīnī, kabbalist, chiefly remembered as a supporter of the would-be Messiah, Shabbethai Zebhī, wrote Hōd Malkūth (Constantinople, 1655) and sermons.
In the 18th century the study of the kabbalah was cultivated by Moses Ḥayyīm Luzzatto (d. 1747) and by Elijah ben Solomon, called Gaon, of Wilna (d. 1797), who commented on the whole Bible and on many Talmudic and kabbalistic works. In spite of his own leaning towards mysticism he was a strong opponent of the Ḥasīdīm, a mystical sect founded by Israel Baʽal Shem Ṭōbh (Beshṭ) and promoted by Baer of Meseritz. Elijah’s son Abraham (d. 1808), the commentator, is valuable for his work on Midrash. An historical work which makes an attempt to be scientific, is the Seder ha-dōrōth of Yeḥiel Heilprin (d. 1746). These, however, belong in spirit to the previous century.
Hebrew Literature by Arthur Ernest Cowley
Elias Levita = Elijah Levita = Elias Levita of Venice = Élie Lévita = Elia Levita Ashkenazi = Eliahu Levita = Elijah Medaḳdeḳ = Elijah Tishbi = Elijah Baḥur = Eliyahu haBahur (Elijah the Bachelor) = Elye Bokher: Renaissance Hebrew grammarian, scholar, Masorite and poet, born at Neustadt near Nuremberg, to a Jewish family of Levitical status, he was the youngest of nine brothers. He preferred to call himself “Ashkenazi,” and bore also the nickname Bokher (Hebrew Baḥur), meaning youth or student, which later he gave as title to his Hebrew grammar. He was the author of the Bovo-Bukh (written in 1507–1508), the most popular chivalric romance written in Yiddish. Living for a decade in the house of Cardinal Giles of Viterbo, he was one of the foremost teachers of Christian clergy, nobility, and intellectuals in Hebrew and in Jewish mysticism during the Renaissance.
Azariah dei Rossi = Azariah ben Moses dei Rossi = Azariah min-Ha’adumim (Azariah of the Red Family): Italian-Jewish physician and scholar from Mantua, descending from an old Jewish family which, according to a tradition, was brought by Titus from Jerusalem. He was regarded as a spiritual heir of Esau (Edom, from Hebrew `-d-m, red).
He studied simultaneously medicine, archeology, history, Greek and Roman antiquities, and Christian ecclesiastical history and was very fluent in Hebrew, and Latin, having a good knowledge of Italian literature.
When about the age of thirty he married and settled for a time at Ferrara. Later he was found at Ancona, Bologna, Sabbionetta, and again at Ferrara;
Azariah dei Rossi his Meor ʿenayim (“Enlightenment of the Eyes” or “Light of the Eyes”) inaugurated critical textual study of rabbinical texts, to new bodies of literature that had been lost to the Jewish community, such as the works of Philo and Josephus. The “Me’or ‘Enayim” attracted the attention of many Christian Hebraists, who translated parts of it into Latin.
Dei Rossi’s followed the burgeoning scientific method of inquiry in his work and did not rely solely upon tradition. But this way of dealing with subjects which the multitude reverenced as sacred called forth many criticisms on the part of his contemporaries. His views were sharply criticised by Judah Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal of Prague) in the latter’s Be’er ha-Golah and further by Moses Provençal of Mantua (to whom Dei Rossi had submitted his work in manuscript), Isaac Finzi of Pesaro, and David Provençal, who endeavoured to defend Philo.
Dei Rossi was also the author of a collection of poems, among which are several of a liturgical character.
Joseph ben Joshua = Joseph ben Joshua ben Meïr ha-Kohen = Joseph HaKohen = Joseph Hakohen = Joseph Hacohen: French-Italian Jewish historian and physician of the sixteenth century, whose paternal family originally lived at Cuenca, Castile. When the Jews were expelled from Spain the family settled at Avignon. At the age of five Joseph left Avignon with his parents and went to Genoa, where they remained until 1516. From 1538 ben Joshua practised medicine in Genoa for twelve years. On June 3, 1550, he and all his coreligionists there were driven from Genoa as a consequence of the rivalry of the non-Jewish physicians. Joseph then settled at Voltaggio, at the request of the citizens of that small town, practising there down to 1567. When the Jews were driven-out of the territory of Genoa, he went to Costeletto (Montferrat), where he was very well received; in 1571 he was again established at Genoa, where he died.
Joseph ha-Kohen was highly regarded as a historian and physician. One of his chief concerns was also the release of the many Jewish captives taken by the vessels of the Italian republics and by the Corsairs; as in 1532, when Andrea Doria captured many Jews on taking Coron, Patras, and Zante; in 1535, when the emperor Charles V took Tunis; in 1542, when the galleys of Cegala Visconti had imprisoned a number of Jews.
In Hebrew literature Joseph ha-Kohen achieved prominence by two historical works. His major work, Dibre ha-Yamim le-Malke Zarfat we-‘Otoman (Chronicles of the Kings of France and Turkey), is in the nature of a history of the world, in the form of annals, in which he represents the sequence of events as a conflict between Asia and Europe, between Islam and Christianity, printed in 1554 at Venice but later put on index (Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin). It was reprinted in Amsterdam in 1733. Parts were translated into German and French; the entire work was issued in English, but badly translated, by Bialloblotzky. He continued, however, the work on it, as is evident from autographs preserved in British Library.
Of his second chronicle Emeq ha-Bakha (The Vale of Tears), the first known work by a Jewish writer describing the history of non-Jews, he made at least four updated editions.
Joseph ha-Kohen wrote also a Hebrew version, with the title Meqitz Nirdamim, of Meïr Alguadez’s Spanish medical work giving prescriptions for the healing of various diseases; to these prescriptions he added some of his own.
Less known is his work upon the New World. In his world-chronicle there is a reference to Columbus (whom, however, he confounds with Amerigo Vespucci); the work is very meager in its information.
David Gans = Rabbi Dovid Solomon Ganz = David ben Solomon ben Seligma = David Avazi: German Jewish chronicler, mathematician, historian, astronomer and astrologer, son of moneylender Shlomo Ganz. After having acquired a fair knowledge of rabbinical literature at Bonn and Frankfurt am Main (Frankfort-on-the-Main), he went to Kraków (Cracow), capital of Małopolskie województwo (province), southern Poland, where he studied under the Polish-Jewish Ashkenazi rabbi and codifier Moses Isserles (Rema).
Among Gans’s works the most widely known is his history entitled Tzemach David, published first in Prague in 1592. He was also the author of: Gebulat ha-Eretz, a work on cosmography, which is in all probability identical to the Zurat ha-Eretz, published in Constantinople under the name of “David Avazi” (“avaz” means “goose” in Hebrew, a reference to the surname “Gans”, which means “goose” in Yiddish); Magen David, an astronomical treatise, a part of which is included in the Nechmad ve’naim, of which a Latin translation and a résumé was made by Johann Ernst Hebenstreit.
Isaac Luria = Itzhak Luria = Yitzhak Ben Sh’lomo Lurya Ashkenazi = Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi = Ha’ARI = Ha’ARI Hakadosh (the holy ARI) = ARIZaL: born of German parents at Jerusalem, in what is now the Old Yishuv Court Museum, in 1534, leading Palestinian rabbi and Jewish mystic in the community of Safed in the Galilee region of Ottoman Syria, now Israel.
Isaac Luria belongs to an Ashkenazi family with wide ramifications, and several of whose members were distinguished for mystical tendencies and rabbinical knowledge. The most well-known are:
Johanan ben Aaron ben Nathanael Luria (end of 15th C.), Solomon b. Jehiel Luria (begin 16th C.), Isaac ben Solomon Ashkenazi Luria (ARI) (16th C.), Abraham b. Nissan Luria (first half 19th C.), David b. Aaron Luria (19th C.), Enoch Zundel b. Isaiah Luria (2nd half 19th C.)
While still a child he lost his father, and was brought up by his rich uncle Mordecai Francis, tax-farmer at Cairo, who placed him under the best Jewish teachers. Luria showed himself a diligent student of rabbinical literature; and, under the guidance of Bezaleel Ashkenazi, he, while quite young, became proficient in that branch of Jewish learning. At the age of fifteen he married his cousin, and, being amply provided for, was enabled to continue his studies undisturbed. When about twenty-two years old, becoming engrossed with the study of the Zohar, which had recently been printed for the first time, he adopted the life of a hermit. He removed to the banks of the Nile, and for seven years secluded himself in an isolated cottage, giving himself up entirely to meditation. He visited his family only on the Sabbath, speaking very seldom, and always in Hebrew. Such a mode of life could not fail to produce its effect on a man endowed by nature with a lively imagination. Luria became a visionary. He believed he had frequent interviews with the prophet Elijah, by whom he was initiated into sublime doctrines. He asserted that while asleep his soul ascended to heaven and conversed with the great teachers of the past.
In 1569 Luria moved back to Eretz Israel; and after a short sojourn in Jerusalem, where his new cabalist or kabbalistic system seems to have met with but little success, he settled at Safed, one of the four holy cities of Judaism. There he formed a circle of cabalists to whom he imparted the doctrines by means of which he hoped to establish on a new basis the moral system of the world. To this circle belonged Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, a central figure in the historical development of Kabbalah, leader of a mystical school in 16th-century Safed, Ottoman Syria, who was also considered by Luria as his teacher.
Other figures in that circle were a.o. Joseph Sambari Solomon Alḳabiẓ, Joseph Caro, Moses Alshech or Moshe Alshich, Elijah de Vidas or Eliyahu de Vidas, Joseph Ḥagiz, Elisha Galadoa, and Moses Bassola or Moses ben Mordecai Bassola. They met every Friday, and each confessed to another his sins. Soon Luria had two classes of disciples: (1) novices, to whom he expounded the elementary Cabala, and (2) initiates, who became the depositaries of his secret teachings and his formulas of invocation and conjuration. The most renowned of the initiates was Ḥayyim Vital of Calabria (Hayyim ben Joseph Vital), who, according to his master, possessed a soul which had not been soiled by Adam’s sin.
Leon of Modena = Leon Hudah Aryeh of Modena =Leon de Modena = Yehudah Aryeh Mi-Modena = Judah Aryeh: Italian scholar, rabbi, and poet; son of Isaac of Modena and Diana Rachel, grandson of Mordecai.
Leon was a precocious child. His father, who was then in good circumstances, gave him a complete education, not neglecting even such worldly accomplishments as singing and dancing. Leon’s masters were successively Azriel Bassola, Hezekiah Galico, Hezekiah Finzi, and Samuel Archevolti.
At the age of twelve Leon translated into Hebrew verse the first canto of Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso,” and about a year and a half later he wrote his dialogue against gambling (for which he had a passion), which passed through ten editions and was translated into Latin, French, German, and Judæo-German. Even at this early age he was not only well versed in Hebrew and rabbinical literature, but was conversant with the classics and possessed a fair knowledge of mathematics, philosophy, and natural history.
Like many poets, he lived upon his emotions. By the irony of fate, Leon, who had fulminated against gambling, developed a passion for all games of hazard, and, being too weak to overcome it, attributed the fault to the astral influences under which he had been born. This passion, which is probably accountable for his inconsistencies, had a large share in the misfortunes which filled his life.
He had scarcely reached maturity when his father became impoverished, and Leon had to seek his own livelihood. In 1590 he married, and won a living by teaching. After the death of his father, in 1592, he settled at Venice, where he was appointed (1594) member of the rabbinate and preacher. In the latter capacity he was especially successful; his addresses in Italian attracted large audiences, including Christian priests and noblemen. Leon’s successes as an orator and poet won for him the consideration of the Christian scholastic world, and admitted him to the highest Venetian circles. He had among his pupils Louis Eselin (a nobleman of the French court), the Archbishop of Lodève, John Plantanit, Jacob Gaffarelli, and Giulio Morosini.
Leone’s major work was Ari nohem (published by Fürst in 1840; “The Lion Roars”), first published in 1840), in which he attempted to demonstrate, with much erudition, that the “Bible of the Kabbalists” (the Zohar), dealing with the “inner” (mystical, symbolic) meaning of biblical texts, the major text of Kabbala, is not the work of antiquity that its proponents claimed, but a mere fabrication..
According to him the name “Chochmat HaKabbalah” (the wisdom of Kabbalah) is misleading, since it is neither “wisdom” nor a Kabbalah (a tradition going back to Moses)
In the highly candid and sometimes emotional work “Chayye Yehuda,” literally “the life of Judah” he presented an autobiography wherin he admitted to being a compulsive gambler. He also mourned his children (two of whom died in his lifetime – one from natural causes and one killed by gangsters). Another son was a ne’er-do-well who traveled to Brazil and returned to Venice only after his father’s death.
The “Ḳol Sakal” comprising three treatises, and “Sha’agat Aryeh” were published by Isaac Reggio under the title “Beḥinat ha-Ḳabbalah” (Göritz, 1852). It has even been suggested with some plausibility that both these works, instead of being written by Leon, were merely attributed to him by I. S. Reggio (see Deutsch, “Theory of Oral Tradition,” p. 39; “Epochs of Jewish History,” pp. 23 et seq., New York, 1894). But a comparison between the ideas expressed by Leon in his “Bet Yehudah” and elsewhere and those expounded in the “Ḳol Sakal” leaves little doubt as to his authorship.
Leon’s “Magen weẒinnah” (published by A. Geiger, Breslau, 1856), contains answers to eleven objections to the rabbinical interpretation of the Law brought, according to Leon, by a Marano of Hamburg.
Leon edited a great number of works, which he provided with prefaces, poems, and approbations; and he assisted the musical composer Solomon de Rossi in the publication of his work on Synagogal music. He is believed to have introduced some sort of polyphony in the synagogue at Ferrara, and wrote two essays on music justifying polyphonic practice in services and celebrations
Yōm Ṭōbh Lipmann Heller = Yom Ṭov Lipmann ben Nathan ha-Levi Heller = Yom-Ṭob Lipmann ben Nathan ben Moses: Bavarian-Bohemian Jewish rabbi and scholar who is best known for his commentary on the Mishna. His works also indicate that he had extensive knowledge of mathematics, the sciences, and other secular subjects.
Heller was brought up by his grandfather, Moses Wallerstein Heller, chief rabbi of the German communities. He was sent to Friedburg, where he studied under Jacob Günzburg (from the Jewish nobility family of which many can be found in Russia). Thence he was invited to Prague by a rich merchant, Aaron Ashkenazi, who later became his father-in-law. There he studied under Judah Löw b. Bezaleel, head of the yeshibah of Prague. According to Azulai (“Shem ha-Gedolim,” i. 74), Heller’s second master was Solomon Ephraim Lenczyza, chief rabbi of Prague. At Prague Heller perfected his rabbinical studies; and in 1597, when scarcely eighteen years old, he was appointed dayyan (judge) in that city.
In Oct., 1624, Heller was called to the rabbinate of Nikolsburg (Mikulov a town in Břeclav District in the South Moravian Region of the Czech Republic), and in March, 1625, became rabbi of Vienna. There he reorganized the community and drew up its constitution. According to Hock (l.c.), it was Heller who obtained for the Jews the privilege of having Leopoldstadt as their special quarter. But two years later he was recalled to Prague to the office of the chief rabbinate. At this time, because of involvement in the Thirty Years’ War, the Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand II had imposed heavy taxes on the Jews of Bohemia. As chief rabbi, Heller was responsible for overseeing the collection of the tax, a task that aroused bitter opposition within the Jewish community and made him the object of false accusations. Charged with contemning both the state and Christianity, he was heavily fined and imprisoned together with common criminals. The Jews of Vienna, however, obtained his transfer to another prison. The verdict was that Heller properly deserved death, but the emperor, however, commuted the punishment to a fine of 12,000 thalers, to be paid immediately, the incriminated writings to be destroyed. The fine was far beyond Heller’s means; but the order was explicit that in default of payment Heller was to be stripped and flogged in the public squares of Vienna and Prague. The Jews again interfered in his behalf, and the fine was reduced to 10,000 florins, to be paid in instalments. By the help of generous Jews, Heller was enabled to pay the first instalment of 2,000 florins. Finally, after a confinement of forty days, he was liberated (Aug. 14), but deprived of his office and left without means. His enemies, in addition, obtained an imperial decision to the effect that Heller might not officiate as rabbi in any town of the Austrian empire. He returned to Prague Sept. 26, and was confined to his bed for three months. His friends in the meantime secured a partial withdrawal of the decision regarding the rabbinate..
In 1632 he was called to the rabbinate of Nemirow, government of Podolsk, Russia, and three years later he became rabbi of Vladimir, Volhynia (Volynia / Wołyń). There again he became the centre of controversy. At a rabbinical conference known as the Council of the Four Lands, he fought for the renewal of a decree preventing the purchase of rabbinical offices, simony being a practice at that time. This aroused the anger of some of the wealthier Jews, who succeeded in obtaining a decree from the governor ordering Heller’s expulsion. Although the decree was eventually rescinded, in 1643 Heller accepted an appointment to the chief rabbinate in Kraków, where Joshua Heschel, the author of “Maginne Shelomoh,” was head of the yeshibah. Four years later Heschel died, and Heller succeeded him in the direction of the yeshibah.
At Kraków Heller relaxed the Jewish marriage laws, because, owing to the persecutions which the Jews had suffered at the hands of the Cossacks, many women did not know whether their husbands were still alive or not. He established the 5th of Tammuz, the day on which his troubles began, as a perpetual fast-day in his family, and the 1st of Adar as a day of mirth to commemorate his nomination to the rabbinate of Kraków.
Next to his autobiography, Megillat eyva (“Scroll of Hate”; first published in 1818), which documented the various communities in which he had lived and included accounts of massacres of Jews in Prague (1618) and Ukraine (1643) we can find the most famous of his many religious works being his commentary on the Mishna, Tosafot Yom Ṭov (1614–17, 2nd ed. 1643–44; “The Additions of Yom Ṭov”) which was intended to serve as a supplement to the commentary of Obadiah of Bertinoro; both works are found in many modern editions of the Mishna.
His notes on the “Gib’at ha Moreh” of Joseph b. Isaac ha-Levi prove that he occupied himself with philosophy.
Heller was also the author of the “Mi she-Berak,” recited every Saturday.
Elijah ben Solomon = Elijah ben Solomon Zalman = Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman = Elijah of Vilna = Ha-Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu = Elijah Gaon = Gaon z Wilna = Vilna Gaon (Gaon of Wiln) = ha-Gaon he-Chasid mi-Vilna = HaGra: born into a long line of scholars, Lithuanian Talmudist, halakhist, kabbalist, mathematician, and the foremost leader of misnagdic (non-hasidic) Jewry of the past few centuries. He is commonly referred to in Hebrew as ha-Gaon he-Chasid mi-Vilna, “the pious genius from Vilnius”.
He gave evidence of the possession of extraordinary talents while still a child. At the age of seven he was taught Talmud by Moses Margalit, rabbi of Kaidan and the author of a commentary to the Jerusalem Talmud, and was supposed to know several of the treatises by heart. From the age of ten he continued his studies without the aid of a teacher. When he reached a more mature age Elijah wandered in various parts of Poland and Germany, as was the custom of the Talmudists of the time. He returned to his native town in 1748, having even then acquired considerable renown; for when he was hardly twenty years old many rabbis submitted their halakic difficulties to him for decision.
Since Elijah had never studied at any yeshibah, he had this advantage, that his mind was never biased by prejudice or by the perverted methods of study then in vogue. He thus escaped casuistry, his mind remaining open to the plain and simple peshaṭ.
Israel Baʽal Shem Ṭōbh = Baʿal Shem Ṭov (Master of the Good Name) = Baal Shem Tov = Israel Ben Eliezer = Beshṭ: Polish Jewish mystic and healer, charismatic founder (c. 1750) of Ḥasidism, a Jewish spiritual movement characterized by mysticism and opposition to secular studies and Jewish rationalism.
Born at a village known to contemporary Jews as Okop or Akuf, depending on the Hebrew vocalisation., a border-city between Poland and the principality on the lower Danube River, Wallachia.
From the numerous legends connected with his birth it appears that his parents were poor, upright, and pious, and that when left an orphan he was taken care of by the community in which he lived. At the “ḥeder” he distinguished himself only by his frequent disappearances, being always found in the lonely woods surrounding the place, rapturously enjoying the beauties of nature.
As a young orphan, he held various semi-menial posts connected with synagogues, being a ‘helper’ who took the children to and from school and rehearsed short benedictions and prayers with them.
Later he became “shammash” in the same community, and at about eighteen he married the daughter of the wealthy and learned Ephraim of Kuty. When his young wife died he left the place, and after serving for a long time as helper in various small communities of Galicia, he settled as a teacher at Flust near Brody, the city near the Styr River, east of Lviv (present Ukraine) where 70% of the town’s population were Jews. After the Cossack uprising the town’s Jewish population was spared because they were found not to have been engaged in alleged maltreatment of the Orthodox Christian (Rus) population and were only required to pay a “moderate tribute” in kind.
Baal Shem Tov arrived in the trade centre Brody at the age of 20 when his religious outlook was taking shape, yet before making himself public all over western Ukrainian lands. At that time Brody belonged to the Potocki family, one of the wealthiest and most powerful aristocratic families in Poland.
After his marriage Shem Tobh went to a village in the Carpathians between Kuty and Kassowa to engage in mystical speculation, meanwhile eking out his living as a lime digger. Every week his wife took a wagonload of lime to the surrounding villages; and from this, they derived their entire support. But the magnificent scenery in this, the finest region of the Carpathians, and the possibility of enjoying it without the interruptions of city life, compensated him for his great privations.
During the many years that he lived in the woods and came into contact with the peasants, Besht learned how to use plants for healing purposes and to effect wonderful cures. In fact, his first appearance in public was that of an ordinary healer, or Ba’al Shem. He worked wonders by means of herbs, talismans, and amulets inscribed with the divine name. He later became an innkeeper and a ritual slaughterer and, about 1736, after many trips in Podolia and Volhynia as a Ba’al Shem, Besht, considering his following large enough and his authority established, decided (about 1740) to expound his teachings. He chose for the place of his activity the little city of Miedzyboz (Medzhibozh / Medzhybizh), in Podolia.
People, mostly from the lower classes, came to listen to him. His following gradually increased, and with it the dislike, not to say hostility, of the Talmudists.
While still a young man, the Beshṭ had become acquainted with such figures as Rabbi Naḥman of Gorodënka and Rabbi Naḥman of Kosov, already spoken of as creators of a new life, and with them he regularly celebrated the ritual of the three Sabbath meals. In time it became customary for them to deliver pious homilies and discourses after the third meal, and the Beshṭ took his turn along with the others.
The brothers Meïr and Isaac Dob Margaliot, two prominent Talmudists had already supported Baʿal Shem Tov. Besht’s doctrines (though in an essentially altered form) were introduced into learned circles by Baer of Meseritz.
The foundation-stone of Ḥasidism as laid by Besh is a strongly marked pantheistic conception of God.
By renouncing mortification in favour of new rituals, the Beshṭ in effect had taken the first step toward initiating a new religious movement within Judaism. The teaching of the Beshṭ centred on three main points: communion with God, the highest of all values; service in ordinary bodily existence, proclaiming that every human deed done “for the sake of heaven” (even stitching shoes and eating) was equal in value to observing formal commandments; and rescue of the “sparks” of divinity that, according to the Kabbala, were trapped in the material world. He believed that such sparks are related to the soul of every individual. It was the Beshṭ’s sensitivity to the spiritual needs of the unsophisticated and his assurance that redemption could be attained without retreat from the world that found a ready response among his listeners, the common Jewish folk. He declared that they were, one and all, “limbs of the divine presence.”
Besht was a man of the people, who knew how to give his meta-physical conception of God an eminently practical significance.
While the rabbis of his day considered the study of the Talmud as the most important religious activity, Besht laid all the stress on prayer.
During his lifetime, the Beshṭ brought about a great social and religious upheaval and permanently altered many traditional values. In an atmosphere marked by joy, new rituals, and ecstasy, he created a new religious climate in small houses of prayer outside the synagogues.
Until his death, he devoted himself almost entirely to spiritual pursuits.
- Shabbat Shuvah: Turning Mourning into Action & Repair
- Lurianic Manicheanism
- Qliphothic Roots of HaMashiah Ben Yosef
- Jesus Christ in the Lurianic Qabbalah Part 2
- The Heavenly and Earthbound Arts of Cagliostro
- Put Your Heart in It
- Teach us to number our words
- Melt the Ice of Form and Become a Blessing to the World
- The Kosher Chicken, a Baal Shem Tov Story
- Beshalach – Go straight to the top in case of distress.
- The Saint and the Renegade – a historical novel publshed on the 200th yahrzeit of the Baal Shem Tov, by S. Tiger, London 1960.
- Drop Your Fussy Places to Feel and Engage Divine Love and Light
- Rav Avigdor Miller on Getting Stuck On A Ladder
- Mishnah Insights: Berachos 5:1