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Life Stories: Shivhei Ha-Besht

by Moshe Rosman

An Excerpt from Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba'al Shem Tov

(For another excerpt, please read Life Stories: Gedolim Ma'aseh Zaddikim.)

Without question, the most fecund, interesting, intriguing, problematic, and most exploited source relating to the Ba'al Shem Tov is Shivhei Ha-Besht. The title in Hebrew means, literally, "Praises of the Ba'al Shem Tov," and the book is a collection of more than two hundred hagiographic stories concerning the Besht and some of the people associated with him.(1) A sample of the titles (added by twentieth-century editors) of some of the stories can lend an idea of the book's subject matter: The Birth of the Besht, The Besht's Marriage, The Besht and the Robbers, The Besht as Rabbi Gershon's Coachman, The Besht's Revelation, The Besht's Prayer, How the Rabbi of Polonne Drew Near to the Besht, The Besht Cures the Grandson of Rabbi David of Ostrog, The Incarnation of Sa'adiah Gaon, Traveling to Redeem Captives, The Priest Who Was a Magician, The Besht Has No Money, The Besht's Dream.

Virtually every writer on the Besht has made use of this collection in constructing a portrayal. The key questions they have considered are as follows: Given the methodological issues, what is the relationship of these stories to historical events? What is the historical kernel that underlies these stories or the historical reality to which they are pointing? Each scholar has picked and chosen among the stories, giving much more weight to some than to others. Some of the tales have been declared fantasies, some embellishments of historical events, and some "authentic," meaning that they are reliable reports of aspects of historical events that occurred.

Dubnow, and others following his example, apparently decided that the criterion for historicity was plausibility. Events that are consistent with rationality and sound as if they could have happened probably did. Yet since so many patently legendary details in Shivhei Ha-Besht get in the way of rationality, Dubnow, and others, relied more on the motifs and patterns of behavior repeated in the stories than on reported individual facts. Even if details were mistaken or legendary, the assumption of these scholars seems to have been that such details "reflect" the truth, while the aggregate portrait of the stories is fairly reliable.(2)

A good example is the way Dubnow handled the information in Shivhei Ha-Besht about the Besht's early life. The stories about the Besht's parents and his birth are among the most obviously legendary in the book. In attempting to fix the Besht's birthdate, however, Dubnow assumed that since the legend says that the Besht's father was taken captive in a war and the Besht was born after his safe return, "a time of turmoil preceded the birth of the founder of Hasidism and the child was born after peace returned. In fact the Turkish conquest of Podolia ended after the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699 [and] therefore Israel ben Eliezer was born around this time."(3) Dubnow did not explain why it is necessary to assume that this legend has any link whatsoever with reality.

With regard to the Besht's childhood and adolescence, it would seem logical that knowledge about this period of his life would be the least well preserved. No one knew that he would become famous. Despite this truism, Dubnow and most scholars accepted these stories as a "more or less" accurate description of what the Besht did until he entered the public arena. Anything that did not appear to be "a strange fantasy" was accepted as at least "close to the truth." The possibility that these stories were designed to create a certain hero persona (miraculous birth, orphan, poor, humble, salt of the earth, part of a chain of tradition, innately wise, etc.) was not entertained. His humble origins, autodidacticism, and nature-loving, wise, but unconventional personality were taken for granted.(4)

Representative of how stories probably intended to create a persona were mistakenly subjected to historical exegesis is a cycle of stories recounting some of the exploits of one Rabbi Adam Ba'al Shem. In them Adam hosts a banquet for a king, exposes the Jew hatred of the king's minister, thus forcing his repentance, and teaches his own wife a lesson in modesty and inconspicuous consumption. Adam is also instructed in a dream to transmit the secret holy writings in his possession to the Besht - a mission accomplished through the offices of Rabbi Adam's anonymous son.(5)

Dubnow assumed that underlying these stories is the fact that the Besht really learned the secrets of mysticism from a certain man called, in the stories, Rabbi Adam. Scholem agreed and thought that this was a pseudonym for Heshel Zoref, the Sabbatean. Eliach claimed that this "Rabbi" Adam was actually a well-known Russian Orthodox priest.(6)

Shmeruk proved, however, that Rabbi Adam was a semilegendary ba'al shem, the stories about whom grew out of the milieu of Prague in the late sixteenth century. The historical kernel of these stories, if it exists, has nothing to do with the Besht or Poland. By the eighteenth century, Rabbi Adam was a familiar figure throughout Ashkenazic Jewry, but the Besht, living in the first half of the eighteenth century, could not have come into contact with Adam or his son.(7) The Shivhei Ha-Besht account seems designed to legitimize the Besht by placing him in a chain of mystical tradition. Trying to identify some person or event in the Ba'al Shem Tov's life embedded in the Rabbi Adam stories is a futile exercise.

In one place Dinur was somewhat more forthcoming than Dubnow in articulating his criteria for accepting stories as historical. These were two:

  1. "continuity of tradition," which I take to mean provenance, that is, if the story was related by an eyewitness; and
  2. "Internal consistency of the details with the Besht and his ideas," or what the Besht did must be consistent with what one would have expected him to do on the basis of the sayings reliably reported in his name.(8)

For Dinur, then, interpretation of the stories was dependent on interpretation of the sayings.

These criteria at least provide a rational approach to categorizing some of the stories. Legends about the early life preceding the Besht's career as an informal teacher might possibly be evaluated as a collective portrait of the movement; but they certainly do not refer to the Besht's personal life. Legends about the Besht's aborted trip to Eretz Yisrael or about his relationship to Frankism, however, might be interpreted on the basis of ideas that the Besht communicated in his sayings and letters. Still, Dinur himself pointed out the problems of the provenance of the sayings. In light of his hesitations as well as the considerations pertaining to Jacob Joseph of Polonne's citations (chap. 8), it seems to be a dubious proposition to make the stories dependent on one's understanding of the sayings.

Scholem also basically followed the Shivhei Ha-Besht stories in sketching the Besht's early life, but the real foundation of his description consists of nonpartisan reports and correspondence. Only after establishing the basic lines of his characterization on the basis of this material did he proceed to supplement it with carefully chosen passages from the stories and sayings. For example, having demonstrated through the independent statements and the letters that the Besht was both a professional practitioner of practical Kabbalah and more learned and respected than Dubnow and others supposed, Scholem added details to these basic facts, using the quoted sayings and Hasidic stories.(9) In the intervening years it has become evident that much of what Scholem regarded as reliable, independent, nonpartisan sources on the Besht were not such.(10) Moreover, in several places he pronounced himself satisfied that certain sayings or stories were "historical" without explaining his criteria for making this determination.(11) Scholem then proceeded to use the material he adjudged authentic to construct his core characterization. This, in turn, served as a guideline for adding details from the more historically equivocal stories.

Scholem did illustrate just what, to his mind, a legend with a "historical kernel" might be. He cited the following story told about the Besht by Pinhas of Koretz.

There was someone who was writing down what he heard from [the Besht] and when the Besht found out about this he commanded the preacher to check these writings. The preacher saw that not one word of the Besht's was written. The Besht said that this man had not listened for the sake of heaven and therefore a kelipah [evil force] had taken hold of him and he had heard other things.(12)
Scholem called this story "realistic and perhaps authentic concerning an event that happened." He then cited a second version of the same story as it appears in Shivhei Ha-Besht in the name of Gedaliah of Ilintsy.
There was a man who wrote down the Torah of the Besht that he heard from him. Once the Besht saw a demon walking and holding a book in his hand. He said to him: "What is the book that you hold in your hand?"

He answered him: "This is the book that you have written."

The Besht then understood that there was a person who was writing down his Torah. He gathered all his followers and asked them: "Who among you is writing down my Torah?" The man admitted it and he brought the manuscript to the Besht. The Besht examined it and said: "There is not even a single word here that is mine."(13)

In this way Scholem demonstrated how a verisimilar story could become legendary in the retelling within the space of one generation. He did not explain, however, how he knew that the first version of the story was authentic, or even "realistic." He implied that the teller's contemporaneity with the Besht and the simpler, plausible detail argued for authenticity. This tale and others concerned historical events that actually happened, and these stories were only one step removed from being chronicles.(14)

Judging by the standard criteria used to evaluate hagiography (e.g., contemporaneity of the source, simple, realistic detail, nondramatic tone, lack of direct quotation, absence of nonhuman actors), it is probable that Scholem successfully identified which version of the tale was the earlier one. Using the same criteria, however, there is no assurance that even the first version is "realistic and perhaps authentic."(15) Is it possible to isolate the historical elements?

Israel Yoffe first published Shivhei Ha-Besht in late 1814 in Kopys, White Russia. The book became very popular and was published twice more in Hebrew and three times in Yiddish within the next two years. The maskil (advocate of enlightenment), Josef Perl, reported that within roughly the same period it sold more than ten thousand copies.(16)

The text itself is problematic. The first Hebrew edition of 1814 was not based on an autograph manuscript. The one manuscript that does exist (and is also not an autograph) differs significantly from the printed text and from the manuscript employed by the printer.(17) Moreover, the printer informed his readers that he edited the manuscript he utilized. He changed the order of some of the stories, added material from other sources, enclosed sixteen passages in parentheses, and emended the text.(18)

The content of the stories is also troubling to the historian: there are stories that appear to be different versions of the same incident or parallels of stories told earlier about Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari) or other famous figures.(19) Even more problematic is the obviously legendary character of much of the material. Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome Mintz indexed the recognized folk motifs that appear in the stories. In their enumeration of 251 stories, only 44 do not contain any typical folktale motifs whereas 87 contain at least 5.(20) It may be true that life sometimes assumes stereotypical patterns and that the motifs were applied to a substratum of fact, but the sheer number of such motifs is a huge obstacle to internal historical analysis of these stories.

Even if it is assumed that the stories are "more or less" historical, they appear to be no more than collected anecdotes with no coherent connection. The events recounted are undated, and the surrounding circumstances are usually wholly lacking. In such a situation, trying to reconstruct the historical context is akin, in Dinur's words, "to solving an algebraic equation that consists almost solely of the variable."(21) All of this militates against threshing the historical kernel and might leave scholars close to despair.

However, after much arduous labor, some scholars have succeeded in demonstrating a "historical" layer at the base of these stories. Some of Scholem's academic descendants have made strides in crediting the kernel of truth approach. Rubinstein carried forward the attempt to isolate the historical elements of the stories via comparison of alternative versions of the stories themselves. In a series of articles(22) he compared differing versions of some of the stories appearing in the various recensions of Shivhei Ha-Besht. By hypothesizing the biases of the respective editors(23) and explaining the discrepancies between the stories largely in this way, Rubinstein attempted to arrive at a determination of which details belonged to the "original" story, were not obviously mythic, and therefore could be considered factual.

Rubinstein made progress in tracing biographical information about some of the people mentioned in the collection and in showing some aspects of its structure and organizing principles. On the basis of his comparisons, he described the Besht as a double-sided personality: he was a ba'al shem-type miracle worker for the masses as well as an inspired religious leader who succeeded in gathering an elite group of disciples.(24)

While Rubinstein's interpretations are often ingenious, they depend almost exclusively on what amounts to internal analysis. One cannot be sure that the castle isn't hanging in air.(25) Moreover, a large part of Rubinstein's analysis was based on the assumption that the 1815 Yiddish translation represented an independent recension of the collection - an assumption that has since been disproved.(26)

Other scholars have tried to continue Scholem's effort to combine internal analysis with outside corroboration. Israel Bartal compared the stories in Shivhei Ha-Besht about the ~???? aliyah and death of Rabbi Elazar (Eliezer) Rokeah in Eretz Yisrael with various printed and manuscript sources about this rabbi, as well as with four letters written by him. Bartal concluded,

Hasidic legend has preserved historical information, names and dates. It even hints at the messianic tension that anticipated the coming of the year 5500 (1739-1740). Ideological tinkering and apologetic tendencies did not bring about significant changes in the "historical" layer of the story about the aliyah of R. Elazar from Amsterdam. The legend concerning the Besht's ability to see from a distance was woven around a real historical event, the dates of which can be confirmed.... it turns out that the historian can utilize the legends in Shivhei Ha-Besht as a starting point for reconstructing historical events. If he is fortunate and discovers in his research parallel material that complements the information contained in the legend, then even what at first glance seems to be totally ahistorical may prove integrable into his historical work.(27)
For the student of Shivhei Ha-Besht, Bartal's assertions mean that after dismissing the legendary motifs of the stories, one may consider the details that remain to constitute a "historical layer" that is connected to a real historical event. The key expression is "starting point." The stories can alert the researcher that an event happened, yet not necessarily supply completely accurate information about it.

Another comparison of stories in Shivhei Ha-Besht with collateral sources was carried out by Jacob Barnai.(28) Using letters and other sources that originated in Eretz Yisrael and concerned figures and events mentioned in Shivhei Ha-Besht, he showed that there are many analogues between the stories and these letters. Barnai's opinion is that the stories in Shivhei Ha-Besht about events and people in Eretz Yisrael were probably written on the basis of the letters - many now lost or as yet undiscovered - that Hasidim who had settled in Eretz Yisrael sent back to Europe, combined with oral testimonies from those emigres who returned to Europe for one reason or another. He summed up by saying that even if the publishers of the Hasidic stories colored them to suit certain ideological or propagandistic alms, these stories "contain real historical seeds [and] they can be considered an important historical source."(29) Barnai has placed some of the Shivhei Ha-Besht stories on a new footing. If he is correct that they are based, at least in part, on written primary sources, then their credibility is enhanced. Even if his supposition is mistaken, he - like Bartal - has demonstrated the heuristic value of the legendary tales.

The work of Bartal and Barnai and the Polish sources (see chap. 10) should cause us to take a renewed look at the stories of Shivhei Ha-Besht as historical sources. Where previously scholars like Scholem and Rubinstein relied primarily on internal analysis to isolate the historical elements of the hagiographic stories, the more recent approach has added the important element of collateral, independent sources. By using more collateral sources, it will continue on a more reasonable basis.

The search for the history underlying the text is not over, however, once realia have been defined and actual events and persons authenticated. Even assuming that a story that has plausibility, provenance, simplicity, and accurate detail is "historical," such a story is not necessarily a reliable guide to history. While analyzing individual stories, scholars should not lose sight of the book within which they are ordered.

Bartal's article demonstrated that while Shivhei Ha-Besht had preserved historical details of the events connected with Rabbi Elazar, they constituted just one of the layers of the story and not the most significant one. The real purpose of the story, according to Bartal, was to shape the figure of Elazar in such a way as to promote Hasidic and non-Hasidic cooperation and blunt the growing criticism from the maskilic camp at the time the story appeared. Rabbi Elazar's biography was recruited to service the ideological needs of the early nineteenth-century movement.

An example of the pitfalls of mistaking accurate historical details for a reliable evocation of a larger event is the story in Shivhei Ha-Besht about the Besht's reception in Miedzyboz alluded to in chapter 1.

A story: When the Besht came to the community of Miedzyboz he was not important in the eyes of the hasidim, that is, R. Zev Kutzes and R. David Purkes,(30) because of the name which people called him, "Besht." This name is not fitting for a zaddik.(31)
The story then continues telling how the Besht was instrumental in getting a student of the two hasidim into Paradise and how the Besht taught Torah in the heavenly yeshiva. The dead student appeared to his earthbound teachers to inform them of the Besht's heavenly exploits.
Immediately on that Sabbath they came to him(32) for the third meal and he said this Torah,(33) and when he asked the question, they told him the answer and he said to them, "I know that the dead man told you." From that day on they came close to him.
This story seems to have a strong historical kernel: it was told by the Besht's disciple,(34) Jacob Joseph from Polonne; there were hasidim before the Hasidim; in this period and geographic area, old-style hasidim did apparently sometimes criticize ba'alei shem for their utilization and publication of the divine names in order to perform wonders;(35) the names of the hasidim involved are specified, and we know from Polish sources that these two hasidim actually lived.(36)

However, this story is embedded as one of the strands in a larger theme in the book: how the Besht was opposed by most people who met him and how he proceeded to win them over one by one. This was necessary because, as the theme assumes and this story might imply, the Besht was known as a crude, popular ba'al shem and not a profound mystic. Once he demonstrated his profundity, or effectiveness, his opponents relented. This construction does not neatly match that yielded by at least one reasonable reading of the letters and testimonies examined in chapters 6, 7, and 8: that by the time of his arrival in Miedzyboz the Besht was not an unknown in mystical circles; he had served his mystical apprenticeship and established his reputation; and prominent scholars and others counted him as their respected friend and even teacher.

The story in Shivhei Ha-Besht also can be enlisted to perpetuate what was a main theme in Hasidic writing on the Besht and was adopted by scholars through at least Scholem: that every step of the way, the Besht - like his spiritual protoges in the late eighteenth century - met with entrenched and even organized opposition. As Scholem put it, "His path was not always strewn with roses."(37)

However, on closer inspection, this almost unanimous tradition is undermined. Again, the sources analyzed in chapters 6, 7, and 8 indicate that the Besht enjoyed a measure of respect and prestige. He was not regarded as other than a bona fide mystical adept, well within tradition and qualified to be an arbiter of what tradition requires, at least in certain areas. As least one hasid, Gershon of Kutow, consulted him as a ba'al shem. Moreover, as we shall see, the Polish sources show how the Besht was supported by the establishment of the Miedzyboz Jewish community.

Evidence for opposition is weak. If the analysis in the last part of chapter 1 is correct, that ba'alei shem were not generally disrespected, and given the Besht's particular reputation, then the significance of the story in Shivhei Ha-Besht is limited. It and the other stories that mention opponents of the Besht talk about individuals who doubted his powers or methods as a ba'al shem or his claim to be a holy man. They were not portrayed as opponents of his spiritual way or religious message.(38) It was dislike for an individual, or distaste for his techniques, or refusal to recognize his spiritual powers that these people expressed. They were not representatives of an opposition faction that had doctrinal differences or political rivalry with the camp headed by the Besht. None of these scoffers can be construed as an organized opposing movement. The opposition to the Besht portrayed in these stories did not precipitate institutions.

Scholem attempted to prove that representatives of the conventional rabbinate found the Besht and his innovations objectionable by citing a book written in the early 1740s which criticized,

Newfangled people have appeared now who care about money, and God's word is a shameful thing to them. And a man goes around spouting hot air with parable stories and in a joking manner criticizes this people, but they don't speak frankly: "These are vanity; deceitful acts." They are ineffective in clearing the obstacle from my path that I might walk the straight and narrow.(39)
Scholem assumed that this was a critique of the Besht - the man spouting hot air - who was being accused of pandering to his audience so as to profit financially. Hayyim Liberman demonstrated, however, that Scholem had taken this passage out of context and that it actually was a critique of householders who, out of financial considerations, refused to support authentic scholars and invest in real Torah scholarship but rather made due with superficial moral instruction from popular preachers. The "newfangled people" are the stingy householders; the "man" referred to is a type - the popular preacher - and not a particular person .(40)

To be sure, later writers might have wanted to emphasize how much opposition the Besht faced. For the Hasidim at the turn of the nineteenth century, who were faced with institutional opposition, it was an assurance that they too could prevail. Just as their founder had doggedly and gradually convinced those whom he met that despite their prejudices he was great and his Torah was great, so would they ultimately win over their opponents and gain legitimacy.

For historians, opposition was a sign of the Besht's, and early Hasidism's, importance. If the Besht aroused institutional opposition, then he must have been challenging those institutions with new ones and must have actually founded a movement. If this movement was opposed, then it must have been numerically and doctrinally significant.

The evidence for the respect commanded by ba'alei shem, the status of the Besht at the time he arrived in Miedzyboz, the lack of sources indicating institutional opposition, and even the descriptions of the kind of disapproval expressed toward the Besht in the relatively late stories of Shivhei Ha-Besht leave little basis for asserting that when the Besht came to Miedzyboz he met with general opposition - despite the implication of the story in its setting in Shivhei Ha-Besht. He was a qualified mystic, and he did not represent some radical new path in the practice of Jewish religion. The story in Shivhei Ha-Besht, with its apparently bona fide historical kernel but lacking fuller contextualization, was presented by its tellers so as to convey a certain message: the Besht was scorned and confronted by entrenched, elitist opposition that he had to overcome. It does not accurately reflect the overall reception of the Besht in Miedzyboz or his status in the community. The use of this particular historical kernel bereft of context can yield an incorrect perception of the place of the Besht in Miedzyboz.(41)

Plausibility, realia, and even historicity are not sufficient criteria, then, for assessing authenticity. The first step in reading Shivhei Ha-Besht must be to accept that it is a work of hagiography, or sacred biography as the current academic lexicon terms it. This means that it was not written to record the biography of a great person in the past but to persuade people in the present to behave in a certain way or to accept a particular doctrine. Hagiography is primarily concerned with turning the exemplary life into a proof text for a position advocated in the present.(42)

Shivhei Ha-Besht is no exception. The stories it contains were written down and then published because both the compiler and the printer saw their potential for religious edification of the public. The compiler of the stories, Dov Ber ben Samuel, shohet of Ilintsy, stated in his preface,

I wrote it down as a remembrance for my children and their children, so that it would be a reminder for them and for all who cling to God, blessed be He, and His Torah, to strengthen their faith in God and his Torah and in the zaddikim, and so they would see how His Torah purifies the souls of its students so that a person can reach higher levels.(43)
The printer of Shivhei Ha-Besht, Israel Yoffe, added in his preface,
After I received these holy writings ... I realized the many great benefits which would result from them, especially because it is written in the book that the Besht said that when a person relates the praises of the zaddikim it is as if he concentrates on the Ma'asei Merkavah [Mystical Secrets of the Divine]."(44)
To make these stories religiously edifying, both the compiler and the printer ordered them in an anthology. This fact is of paramount importance for understanding the stories in the book and their relation to history. Shivhei Ha-Besht is an anthology edited at least twice, once by the compiler or "writer" (as he is identified in the text itself), Dov Ber of Ilintsy, and once by the printer, Israel Yoffe. The second redaction subsumed the first within it. One axiom of textual criticism is that an anthology, particularly an anthology of originally oral traditions, tells at least as much about the editors and their readers as it does about whatever the original material is supposed to represent.(45) In the case of Shivhei Ha-Besht, it must be made explicit that the material took its current form in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and reflects the concerns and the circumstances of the people who created it and for whom it was created at that time.

Whatever the Besht may have done during his lifetime, and whatever the content of these stories was during his lifetime or immediately after his death, what was preserved or altered or deleted or added was done so in the service of a vision that came along one or two generations later. Only after we assess how this book responded to the sitz im leben at the time of its redaction and publication can we successfully identify the raw material that went into it and that is most closely connected to the Besht of history.(46)

It is instructive, then, to pay close attention to the words of Dov Ber ben Samuel.

Every day miracles dwindle and marvels go away. For in days gone by some times . . . [Dov here gives examples of miraculous phenomena that used to occur with regularity] ... Because of all of these things many would repent, and faith would be strengthened in the heart of every Jew. But now, due to our many sins, the zaddikim have decreased and those who see through the windows have dimmed; faith has greatly diminished and several heresies have been spread in the world .... I decided to write the awesome things which I heard from people of truth ... and I wrote all of this as a remembrance ... so that it should reinforce faith in God and His Torah and faith in the zaddikim, and the faith of everyone who draws near to God and His Torah.(47)
The point is that once miracles happened every day and served as a source for validating faith. Now miracles no longer occur and faith is rapidly weakening. Dov's solution was to tell (true) stories about miracles as a substitute for the miracles themselves in strengthening faith.(48)

In contrast, Israel Yoffe had other concerns. The compiler claimed that the number of zaddikim had decreased. The printer said, "There is no generation without famous zaddikim." The compiler regarded zaddikim as primarily miracle workers. The printer linked them with a leadership role, claiming that God never abandoned his people. In every generation He supplied zaddikim as leaders.(49)

The compiler's collection was designed to underscore the Besht's role as a miracle worker. The printer was interested in information about the Besht as a leader. In his editing of the text, the printer added the stories about the Besht's parents, his childhood, his gaining of esoteric knowledge, and his accession to leadership,(50) shaping the anthology so that the Besht could be viewed as an archetype of the nineteenth-century Hasidic rebbe at the head of his court. Rather than emphasize his importance as miracle worker, Yoffe detailed the process by which the Besht qualified to be a leader.(51)

For both compiler and printer, the historical details, however accurate, were but raw material to be used rhetorically to prove a theological or ideological point. Their first loyalty was to the spiritual needs of their audience, not to the task of reconstructing the historical milieu of the Besht's lifetime and writing the biography of the Besht.

Being an anthology, Shivhei Ha-Besht does not include all of the stories current about the Besht. The 1815 Yiddish translation, for example, contains four stories that were not in the original Hebrew recension (it also deletes many stories). There are also collections of Besht stories that apparently originated independently of Shivhei HaBesht. Such a collection, stemming from Habad circles, was apparently the source for most of what Yoffe added in the first section of the book.(52)


(1). The text is not divided into story units. Ben-Amos and Mintz, SB, identified 251 discrete stories; Rubinstein, SBH, thought there were 214.

(2). S. M. Dubnow, "The Beginnings: The Baal Shem Tov (Besht) and the Center in Podolia," in EP, 26-45; I. Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, vol. 9 (Cincinnati, 1976), 29ff.; R. Mahler, A History of Modern Jewry (London, 1971), 455-458; B. D. Weinryb, The Jews of Poland: A Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland from 1100 to 1800 (Philadelphia, 1972), 263-269; B.-Z. Dinur, "The Origins of Hasidism and Its Social and Messianic Foundations," in EP, 134-136, 159-160, 196-197, and passim; J. G. Weiss, "The kavvanoth of Prayer in Early Hasidism," in Weiss, Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism, ed. D. Goldstein (Oxford, 1985), 100, 102; S. Ettinger, "The Hasidic Movement-Reality and Ideals," in EP, 227-228; G. Scholem, "The Historical Image of Israel Ba'al Shem Tov" [H], Molad 18 (1960): 340 and passim.

(3). Dubnow, "Beginnings," 27 (my translation of Dubnow's Hebrew text, p. 43, differs from the one in EP). This is the metaphorical interpretation alluded to at the end of chapter 8.

(4). See L. Raglan, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama (New York, 1936); 0. Rank, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (New York, 1964); M. Hadas and M. Smith, Heroes and Gods: Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity (New York, 1965), 3; M. Smith, "Prolegomena to a Discussion of Aretalogies, Divine Men, The Gospels and Jesus," Journal of Biblical Literature 90 (1971): 186, 191; M. Goodich, "A Profile of Thirteenth-Century Sainthood," Comparative Studies in Society and History 18 (1976): 437.

(5). SB, 13-18.

(6). Dubnow, "Beginnings," 28; G. Scholem, "The Sabbatean Prophet R. Heschel Zoref - R. Adam Ba'al Shem" [H], Zion 6 (1941): 89-93, 7 (1942): 28; Y. Eliach, "The Russian Dissenting Sects and Their Influence on Israel Baal Shem Tov, Founder of Hassidism," Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 36 (1968): 67-68 (for a critique of Eliach's thesis, see chap. 3, near nn. 68-75).

(7). K. Shmeruk, "The Stories about R. Adam Ba'al Shem and Their Development in the Versions of Shivhei Ha-Besht" [H], in Yiddish Literature in Poland [H] (Jerusalem, 1981), 119-139

(8). B.-Z. Dinur, Historical Studies [H] (Jerusalem, 1954), 188-189.

(9). Scholem, "Image," 346-356.

(10). See chap. 6, near and in n. 5.

(11). Scholem, "Image," 338-339 and passim.

(12). Ibid., 346-347.

(13). SB, 179.

(14) Scholem, "Image," 347, posited that this pair of tales indicated that one of the main shapers of the Hasidic legends in the generation following the Besht's death was the man who had apparently been responsible for the transformation of this story, R. Gedaliah of Ilintsy.

(15). For a short bibliography on the analysis of hagiography, see M. J. Rosman, "The History of a Historical Source: On the Editing of Shivhei Ha-Besht" [H], Zion 58 (1993): 177n-3, 181n.24.

(16). J. Perl, Uiber das Wesen der Sekte Chassidim, ed. A. Rubinstein (Jerusalem, 1977), 77-78; for a listing of the various editions and translations of Shivhei Ha-Besht, see Y. Rafael, "Shivhei Ha-Besht," Areshet 2 (1960): 358-377, 3 (1961): 440-441. Two important additions to this list are SBF and SBH.

(17). It apparently dates from the years immediately preceding the 1814 printed edition (see Rosman, "Source," 183-184); on the differences from the printed text, see SBF, 7-18.

(18). For my treatment of these problems, see Rosman, "Source," 183-210. For many years some scholars thought that the discrepancies between the printed Hebrew text and the 1815 Yiddish edition printed in Ostrog indicated that the Yiddish was based on an unedited manuscript of Shivhei Ha-Besht. This assumption of the existence of some urtext can no longer be maintained. Mondshine, SBF, 22-47, has demonstrated that these discrepancies are better explained as a result of normal practice in Yiddish translation, while I have claimed (Rosman, "Source," 180-183) that they also reflect typical changes in the translation of any hagiographic work from a literary language such as Hebrew to a vernacular like Yiddish. Moreover, some of the changes in the Yiddish seem intended to solve textual problems resulting from the printer's editing. The Yiddish is clearly based on the 1814 printed Hebrew text, although, in a typical hagiographic development pattern, it incorporates some additional and alternative oral traditions. Note that Ben-Amos and Mintz's English translation (SB) does not accurately reflect the placement of parentheses in the text, which makes it more difficult to identify where the printer intervened; see the first printing, which is held in JNUL R 8°35V4001.

(19). See, for example, SB story numbers 15 and 31, 34 and 35, 37 and 39, 125 and 126. With regard to parallels to stories about other figures, see J. Dan, The Hasidic Novella [H] (Jerusalem, 1966), 68-71; G. Nigal, The Hasidic Tale: Its History and Topics [H] (Jerusalem, 1981), 25-27; Shmeruk, "R. Adam," 119-139; Rosman, "Source," 202n.93.

(20). SB, 290-305 (the applicability of some of these categories is questionable).

(21). Dinur, Historical Studies, 195.

(22). All in Hebrew: "A Possibly New Fragment of Shivhei Ha-Besht," Tarbiz 35 (1966): 174-191; "The Revelation Stories in Shivhei Ha-Besht," Alei Sefer 6-7 (1977): 157-186; "The Letter of the Besht to R. Gershon of Kutow," Sinai 67 (1970): 120-139; "The Mentor of R. Israel Ba'al Shem Tov and the Sources of His Knowledge," Tarbiz 48 (1979): 146-158; "Notes on Shivhei Ha-Besht," Sinai 86 (1980): 62-71; "Concerning Three of the Stories in Shivhei Ha-Besht," Sinai 90 (1982): 269-279.

(23). See SBF, 65-67.

(24). See I. Etkes, "Hasidism as a Movement - The First Stage," in Hasidism: Continuity or Innovation, ed. B. Safran (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), 8-19.

(25). An exception to this is Rubinstein's analysis ("Letter," 129-132) of the story about the Besht's ascent of the soul on Yom Kippur 5717. Here Rubinstein compared the details of the story with what is known from outside sources. As a result he demonstrated how the the first trial of rabbinic Judaism instigated by the Frankists in 1757 in Kamieniec-Podolski provided the context for this story.

(26). See above, n. 18.

(27). I. Bartal, "The Aliyah of R. Elazar from Amsterdam to Eretz Yisrael in 1740" [H], in I. Bartal, Galut Ba-Aretz (Exile in the Homeland) (Jerusalem, 1994), 34.

(28). J. Barnai, "Some Clarifications on the Land of Israel Stories of 'In Praise of the Ba'al Shem Tov,' " Revue des etudes juives 146 (1987): 367-380.

(29). Ibid., 379.

(30). These names are vocalized according to the way they appear in the Polish documents: EW 41, see chap. 10; see also SB, 173.

(31). SB, 173-175; see also chap. 1, near nn. 29-30.

(32). Zev Kutzes and David Purkes came to the Besht.

(33). The Besht gave the same lesson he had given in heaven in the presence of the deceased student.

(34). See preceding story, SB, 173.

(35). See chap. 1, n. 64.

(36). See chap. 10.

(37). Scholem, "Image," 350.

(38). See, e.g., SB, 46-49, 222-223.

(39). The book was by Moses of Satanow, Mishmeret Kodesh (Zolkiew, 1746), sec. 5, p. 2a; see G. Scholem, "Two Testimonies about Hasidic Groups and the Besht" [H], Tarbiz 70 (1949): 232, 235.

(40). This explains the shift from the singular "man" to the plural "They don't speak"; see H. Liberman, Ohel Rahe"l (Brooklyn, 1980), 38-49; also M. Piekarz, The Beginning of Hasidism [H] (Jerusalem, 1978), 131-141. Piekarz, pp. 306-321, also showed how a second source (Shelomoh Helma, Mirkevet HaMishneh [n.p., 1751], introduction [which Scholem, "Testimonies," 232-240, considered to be a critique of Beshtian Hasidim] was in reality a conventional response to general neglect of Talmudic learning and popularization of Kabbalah.

(41). See T. J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographies in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1988), 18-30.

(42). Ibid., 4-10, 35, 150-151; R. Boyer, "An Attempt to Define the Typology of Medieval Hagiography," in Hagiography and Medieval Literature: A Symposium, ed. H. Bekker-Nielson et al. (Odense, 1981), 128-133; M. Sot, "Arguments hagiographiques et historiographiques dans les 'Gesta episcoporum,'" in Hagiographie, cultures et societes vi-xii siecles (Paris, 1981), 99-101; P. Maraval, "Fonction pedagogique de la litterature hagiographique d'un lieu de pelerinage: L'exemple des miracles de Cyr et Jean," ibid., 383-397; B. Cazelles, "Introduction," in Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe, ed. R. Blumenfeld-Kossinski and T. Szell (Ithaca, 1991), 1; M. Carrasas, "Sanctity and Experience in Pictorial Hagiography: Two Illustrated Lives of Saints from Romanesque France," ibid., 41; C. Hahn, "Speaking without Tongues: The Martyr Romanus and Augustine's Theory of Language in Illustrations of Bern Burgerbibliothek Codex 264," ibid., 161-162.

(43). SB, 5.

(44). Ibid., 1.

(45). S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York, 1962), xv; J. Neusner, "Judaic Uses of History in Talmudic Times," in Essays in Jewish Historiography, ed. A. Rapoport-Albert (Atlanta, 1991), 12-39. S. Zfatman, The Jewish Tale in the Middle Ages: Between Ashkenaz and Sepharad (Jerusalem, 1993), 103-104, probably overstated the case when she asserted that a folktale "does not tell anything about the time it occurred, but rather about the time it was told," as historians, anthropologists, and folklorists are engaged in an essential argument over the historical content of traditions; see D. Golan, "Construction and Reconstruction of Zulu History," Ph.D. dissertation, Hebrew University, 1988, 178-179.

(46). On the connection between historical events and hagiography, see Bartal, "Aliyah," 7-18; Cazelles, "Introduction," 4-6; Sot, "Arguments," 95-104.

(47). SB, 3-4.

(48). Compare the famous story told by Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin, Knesset Israel (Warsaw, 1906), 12a, about how the Besht lit a candle in the forest and said yihudim and kavvanot in order to cure a sick person. According to this story, each generation is successively removed from the ability to perform miracles via theurgy, with the last generation ultimately substituting storytelling about theurgy for the acts themselves. For various versions and interpretations of this story, see Idel, Kabbalah, 270-271, 397n.92.; G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1961), 349-350; M. Piekarz, Studies in Bratzlav Hasidism [H] (Jerusalem, 1972), IO2-103; E. Wiesel, Souls on Fire (New York, 1972), 167-168.

(49). For a detailed analysis of the printer's statements on this point, see Rosman, "Source," 198-200.

(50). SB, 7-32.

(51). On the probable reasons for this, see chapter 12.

(52). Rosman, "Source," 179-180, 191-194, 208-209.

As published in Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba'al Shem Tov Reprinted by permission of the publisher, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. (For another excerpt, please read Life Stories: Gedolim Ma'aseh Zaddikim.)



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