Sunday, 17 June 2018



R. Yechezkel Landau (1713-1793) - also known after his Halachic work, as the Noda biYehudah – was born to a wealthy and influential family in Opatow in Poland. His father, R. Yehudah, was very involved in communal affairs and became one of the leaders of the Va’ad Arba Aratzot or the Council of the Four Lands[1]. This body, based in Lublin, was in existence for two hundred years and took care of Jewish communal, religious and political affairs.

Thus, R. Landau grew up in an environment which was rich and knowledgeable in communal realities.

At the age of twenty, he was appointed as dayan or judge of the Court at Brody, a position he held for eleven years.


In the 1700’s, the Council of Four Lands moved from Lublin to Yaroslav and in their last session in the fall of 1753[2], it adjudicated the famous Emden/Eybeschutz controversy. This was where R. Ya’akov Emden accused R. Yonatan Eybeschutz - no less a personality than the Chief Rabbi of Prague - of being a secret Sabbatean or follower of false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi.

During that session, R. Eybeschutz was acquitted of Sabbatean heresy - and it was none other than R. Landau who had sat in judgement during that bitter trial.

The reason why they chose R. Landau to reside over that cataclysmic controversy was because he was respected as both a Talmudist as well as a Kabbalist. And he lived up to his reputation because his judgement on this matter was considered so sensitive, fair and neutral, that he attracted the attention of the entire Jewish world – to the extent that when the position of Chief Rabbi later became available in Prague, it was offered to him.

People flocked to R. Landau for advice and Halachic guidance and the constant practical application of his scholarship thus broadened the material for his Sha’alot uTeshuvot or responsa work – the Noda biYehudah - which he named after his father.



Although the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi had died almost a century earlier in 1676, there was a multitude of secret Sabbatean cells all over Europe, still spreading his message. Shabbatai Tzvi had mastered and then abused the Kabballah of the Ari Zal. 

This explains why his teachings were of an extremely mystical nature and had much allure. He had also produced a Sabbatean Kabbalah and his teaching found ripe audiences across the Jewish and Torah world. He had taught that sometimes one needs to intentionally enter into the sin in order to ‘elevate’ it and thus hasten the redemption. This was a very dangerous notion and some of his followers were known to have been promiscuous. 

More than half of the Jewish population, including respected rabbis, are said to have followed Shabbatai Tzvi before his conversion to Islam in 1666. And many continued to follow his Kabbalah even after his death ten years later.

Rabbi Dr Maoz Kahana (with whom I have communicated and admire greatly as a scholar and an absolute gentleman) has written in depth about the post-Shabbatai Tzvi period, and I have drawn - in this article - from his extensive research.[3]  

As part of his investigation, he dated and revisited lost manuscripts, fragments and personal writings relating to R. Landau and the Sabbatean issue.
He refers to the disturbing phenomenon of “the percolation of Sabbatean ideas into mainstream [including rabbinical][4] writing”- even almost a century after Shabbatai Tzvi’s demise.


Secret and covert Sabbatean ideology was so pervasive that in 1752, R. Ya’akov Emden published a blacklist of books containing such literature. R. Emden wrote: “The following books have absorbed the venom of this snake in certain concealed parts...impurity has spread throughout Israel, hidden away in secret places.[5] 

Many Sabbatean ideas were discreetly disseminated even within the pages of mainstream prayer books and other rabbinical works which were commonly found in many homes at that time. [See KOTZK BLOG 168].

Referring to one such Sabbatean manuscript Va’avo hayom el ha’ayin R. Emden wrote: “even the upright people of this country possess copies of it.”[6]
[See KOTZK BLOG 168 and KOTZK BLOG 118 for some more examples.]

Sabbatean literature got interspersed within normative Kabbalistic literature and it was often hard, even for the trained eye, to distinguish one from the other.



During the Emden/Eybeschutz debacle, R. Landau compiled his famous and crafty letter of compromise which he hoped would put the controversy to rest. He addressed his letter to the heads of all the main Jewish communities. While R. Emden had accused R. Eybeschutz of distributing amulets with Shabbatai Tzvi’s name on them, R. Landau took a middle of the road approach. He expressed disapproval only of the amulets, but he did not condemn R. Eybeschutz personally.


R.Landau was known to have encouraged good relations with all people including non-Jews and was considered to be a model and patriotic citizen. When Empress Maria Theresa (the only female leader, and the last, of the powerful Hapsburgs)died, it was R. Landau who delivered the eulogy.

This is even more notable considering that Maria Theresa was once regarded as one of the most anti-Semitic rulers of that time. She even considered expelling the Jews from her realm. She wrote of the Jews: "I know of no greater plague than this race, which on account of its deceit, usury and avarice is driving my subjects into beggary. Therefore as far as possible, the Jews are to be kept away and avoided." 

However, toward the end of her life she offered the Jews protection and opposed forced conversions to Christianity, permitted Jewish schools to open and for Jews to participate actively in commerce.

I did some research of my own and discovered that one of the reasons why Empress Maria Theresa, although an avowed anti-Semite, changed her attitude and actually ended up being very favourable to the Jews – was because of a Jewish courtier whom she greatly admired, Avraham Mendel Theben. He had the ear of the Empress and used his influence to release Jews who had been falsely imprisoned as a result of a blood libel as well as convince her to adopt other reforms which were favourable to the Jews.

It turns out that Theben’s daughter was married to R. Mordechai, the son of R. Yonatan Eybeschutz![7]
Perhaps this was one of the reasons why R. Landau did not want to antagonise R. Eybeschutz.

And perhaps this is why R. Kahana refers to R. Landau’s soft compromise on R. Eybeschutz’s Sabbatean controversy - as him “turning a blind eye” and making “convoluted efforts to resolve the confrontation”.


But in that same aforementioned letter, R. Landau went on to state in no uncertain terms:

I have come to awaken the hearts of all the great men of the land regarding the books of magic and heresy that have been found in our country . . . [that aim] to deny heretically the basic truths . . . to uproot and remove all traces of the root of the belief of Israel . . . 

Believe me, amongst all gentile faiths . . . I have not heard such heresy as this...These writings have spread throughout almost the majority of the regions of Podolia, where they are considered holy writings...

[Therefore] Issue a printed proclamation of a severe excommunication...and send instructions in print to this end to all the communities of Israel in every country,
[signed] Yechezkiel [Landau].[8]

From the letter we see that R. Landau was less concerned about the matter of R. Eybeschutz’s alleged personal use of Sabbatean amulets, and more concerned about the more dangerous issue of the masses confusing Sabbatean literature with holy mystical writings, particularly those of the Ari Zal which at that time were at the height of their popularity.

Ironically, R. Kahana adds in a footnote that some have argued that Sabbateanism itself was responsible to some extent for the popularity of the Ari Zal’s teachings!

(Interestingly enough, both R. Eybeschutz[9] and R. Emden[10] published this letter of R. Landau in their respective works – although R. Emden continued to discredit R. Eybeschutz by claiming he had left out certain sections of the letter.)


The response to R. Landau letter was quite surprising. The rabbis of Brody - while agreeing in principle to the ban on the various publications because of suspected Sabbatean heresy - felt that R. Landau had actually not compromised but had in fact been too harsh on R. Eybeschutz by condemning the amulets!

And, even the ban on the publications which they partially agreed to, was not really taken seriously and may have been lip service more than anything else.

Thus R. Landau’s letter was not as effective as he thought it would be.


R. Landau did not just leave it at the Letter.  In his response work Noda biYehudah - in an undated entry dealing with an unrelated issue of the shapes of letters in a Sefer Torah scroll - R. Landau inserts the following:

Now, regarding the words of the Zohar, I do not wish to speak at length. How I am angered by those who study the book of the Zohar and the Kabbalistic literature in public. They remove the yolk of the revealed Torah from their necks, and chirp and make noises over the book of the Zohar, thus losing out on both, causing the Torah to be forgotten from Israel.

Furthermore, since our generation has seen an increase in the heretics of the sect of Shabbatai would be proper to mend a fence and prohibit the study of the Zohar and the Kabbalistic any case, we do not rule Halacha from the Zohar...I do not deal with hidden secrets but merely reflect on that which has been permitted to me.” [11]

Amazingly, in this Halachic responsum, R. Landau appears to call for a blanket prohibition against the study of the mysticism of the Zohar and Kabbalaistic texts, in order do away once and for all with the possibility of the merging of a genuine mystical system with that of a secret Sabbatean mystical system!

R. Kahana writes: “there was no sharp differentiation between a recognised maggid or kabbalistic preacher, on the one hand, and a hidden Sabbatean heretic, on the other...the escalation of heretical activities necessitates a clear renunciation of kabbalistic literature in all its varieties...[and][12] would proscribe the entire kabbalistic tradition by prohibiting all study of the zohar and kabbalistic texts.


The printed editions of Noda biYehuda do not provide a date for this last responsum banning the study of Kabbalah. However, in a notebook of R. Pinchas Katzenellenbogen (who originally addressed the query about the shapes of the letters of a Sefer Torah to R. Landau in the first instance), there is a date which corresponds to Friday, February 20, 1756!

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, R. Kahana shows how at that time, R. Landau would have been caught up in the furry and debacle of another false messiah (who claimed to be a reincarnation of Shabbatai Tzvi) by the name of Jacob Frank.  (See KOTZK BLOG 123.)

Jacob Frank had, about two months earlier, just crossed into Poland as part of his campaign to solicit support from Polish secret Sabbatteans. And just a few weeks prior, Jacob Frank was caught in a Sabbatean nihilistic ritual which resulted in arrests, accusations and counter-accusations. 

This sparked an intense confrontation between the rabbis and the Frankists under the ‘patronage’ of Bishop Dembowsky. Eventually, the tensions culminated in religious debates in Kamenetz Podolsk (where copies of the Talmud were burned) and Lvov, with Jacob Frank converting to Christianity together with many of his followers.

R. Katzenellenbogen’s question to R. Landau just happened to arrive at the beginning of this tumultuous period. This may have prompted R. Landau referring to ‘an increase in the heretics’ at that precise time. And this may explain why R Landau was prepared to revert to such an extreme measure as banning the study of Kabbalah.

This suggestion would hold true considering, as mentioned earlier, that R. Landau was indeed respected by both Talmudists and Kabbalists and in fact had previously participated in the circulation of Kabbalistic works while serving at the Brody Kloyz. R. Kahana writes: “The almost forty years he was to spend in Prague (1755 to 1793) only served to entrench and deepen  his hostility to Kabbalah – this in a man who had himself grown up, been educated, and had been unconditionally active in an environment saturated with it.”


This time the rabbinate responded more swiftly and directly to his call and issued a writ of excommunication against the Frankists. They did not ban the study of Kabbalah, but they raised the minimum age of study of Kabbalah to thirty years, and of study of the Ari Zal’s teachings to forty years of age.

A short time later this writ became officially known as ‘The Double-Edged sword’ and became the official protocol of Eastern European Jewry.

Furthermore, at the same time, R. Landau’s previous suggestion in his earlier letter - to ban Sabbatean publications - was retroactively reinstated and the official wording now read:

“...and the excommunication shall apply to anyone who owns the aforementioned impure [Sabbatean][13] books, unless he burns them, including the names of G-d they contain.”[14]

[1] These included Greater Poland, Little Poland, Ruthenia and Volhynia.
[2] Some put the date at 1752.
[3] The Allure of Forbidden Knowledge: The Temptation of Sabbatean Literature for Mainstream Rabbis.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Torat haKenaot (Altona 1752), 71b-72a.
[6] Shvirat Luchot haEven (Altona 1757), 31b.
[7]The Jews of Hungary: History, Culture, Psychology, by Raphael Patai, p.228.
[8] Gachalei Eish, II, 132a-133a.
[9] Luchot Edut (Altona 1755), p. 41.
[10] Petach Enayim (Altona 1755) 7-8.
[11] Noda biYehudah, Part 1, Yoreh De’ah 74. (One could perhaps argue whether 'ligdor geder' means to restrict, limit or to prohibit.)
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Parenthesis mine.
[14] Halperin, The Records, sections 750-53.

Sunday, 10 June 2018


A typical page of Talmud with Rashi toward the centre (in this case on the right) and Tosafot towards the outside (in this case on the left).


We often form various perceptions around the personalities of rabbinic sages and, in a sense, put them into conceptual boxes – as if they are individuals who are easy to define.
Sometimes the personalities are indeed easy to categorise – but that is not always the case.

One fascinating group of prolific rabbinic writers who appear to have been easily categorised as sober and scholarly legal commentators, are the Ba’alei haTosafot, or Tosafists - but, as we shall see, they are more complex than commonly imagined:


The Tosafist period - spawned by Rashi (1040-1105) - lasted about two hundred years, encompassing the 12th and 13th centuries, and ending with R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293). The term Tosafists generally refers to the rabbis of the early period of the Rishonim (1038-1500) who lived specifically in Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany).

The Ba’ale haTosafot are regarded and respected as expert Talmudic commentators and great legal decisors. Anyone who has ever studied Gemara would know that ‘Tosafot’ is more challenging than any other section of the Talmud.

Incidentally, the term ‘Tosafot’ is a misnomer because there was not a person by the name of ‘Tosafot’ – as there was a ‘Rashi’ – rather it refers to the many Franco-German rabbis of that two hundred year period who fell under the umbrella of the ‘Ba’alei haTosafot’.

They are known primarily for their scholarly legal glosses and addenda to Rashi and to general Talmudic teachings – and form the basis of much of the responsa literature which went on to inform the various legal codes.

However as Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel explains, we only know part of their story from their published and printed works – yet their unpublished manuscripts reveal so much more about who they actually were, and these unpublished manuscripts - some only recently discovered –reveal a very different side to their authors from the way they are commonly perceived.

Professor Kanarfogel is a specialist in the period of the Tosafists and particularly in their unpublished manuscripts.
This article is an adaptation of one of his lectures[1] in which he shares some hitherto unknown ideas found in some of these unpublished manuscripts.

Before we look at the Tosafist manuscripts, though, we will glimpse at two other writers of the same early Rishonim period, who were Sefaradim (and technically not Tosafists) whose multifaceted works are well-known:


RAMBAM (1135-1204):

Maimonides, born in the south of Spain, is best-known for the legal writings of his Mishneh Torah. But he is also equally known for his philosophical writings such as the Guide for the Perplexed. It was only because both works were published and widely distributed that we know of the duality of his interests - which were so poles apart that some even suggest that the same person could not have written both books.

And those weren’t the only works he authored as we know he also wrote on science, medicine and astronomy.

RAMBAN (1194-1270):

In a similar sense, Ramban, born in the north of Spain, is best-known not only as a legal decisor, but also  as a great expounder of Jewish mysticism, as can be seen from his introduction to his published commentary to the Torah where he says that he writes about the ‘secrets of the Torah’.

In both abovementioned examples, Rambam and Ramban were expert interpreters of Talmud and masters of Halacha - yet each, additionally, pursued profoundly different intellectual interests: Rambam wrote on philosophy and Ramban on Kabbalah. We know this only because their secondary writings were published and thus popularised.

Imagine if all of those non-legal texts had not been published – we would never have been able to fully comprehend the complexity and composite of their personalities.
However, this was not always the case with the Tosafists - the Ashkenazi (or Franco-German) rabbis of that same period - were not all so fortunate as to have all their non-legal writings published.


Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam stated that while his grandfather, Rashi, was able to comment on both Talmud and Tanach - the Tosafists had to content with just Talmud as they were nowhere near the level of the previous generation.

This was taken at face value until very recently when documents were discovered revealing that Rabbeinu Tam did indeed compose some Biblical commentary, namely to the Book of Iyov and also to the Book of Ester.
Thus, recent evidence shows that Rabbeinu Tam was indeed active in Biblical commentary and not just Talmud[2]

Something else that is not widely known about Rabbeinu Tam is his writing of Piyyutim or liturgical prayers, such as Yetiv Pitgam, which is recited on Shavuot.


Yom Tov ben Yitzchak of Juani, a student of Rabbeinu Tam, also wrote Piyyutim. Additionally, he composed about one hundred interpretations to verses in the Torah. His style, being simple and precise, is similar to that of Rashi. A small number of these commentaries have been published, but Professor Kanarfogel discovered many more in manuscript form - and unpublished - in various libraries in London, Germany and Russia.

One such interpretation which was hitherto unknown is to a verse in Shemot where Moshe asks to see G-d’s glory. The Torah responds, rather abruptly by saying that; “No man can see Me and live.” R. Yom Tov explains this terse verse in a softer manner: G-d is so magnificently lofty that were one to perceive Him, one would no longer want to live down here on this earth. Moshe still had much work to accomplish in the earthly realm, that had he seen ‘G-d’s glory’ he would not have wanted to continue with his worldly mission.

Professor Kanarfogel has found that there were about six Tosafists who offered such interpretations to the verses of the Torah – which shows that a significant component of Torah interpretation would have been lost to us were it not for these hidden manuscripts.


Moshe ben Ya’akov of Coucy (also known as Moshe Mikotzi) was the author of one of the earliest codifications of Halacha, known as Semag or Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (which was largely influenced by Rambam’s rulings).

He was an interesting personality, known as a darshan, because he delivered fiery speeches to wide audiences and particularly encouraged them to observe tefillin, mezuzah and tzitzit. He also strongly advocated that Jews be more ethical to their gentile neighbours both personally and in terms of business. 

He also participated in the Disputation on the Talmud which took place in Paris in 1240.
Although a Halachist, he too wrote a commentary to the Torah which can be found sporadically in some published works. 

One of his less known very pragmatic interpretations is when Leah gives birth to her third son from Ya’akov and she calls him Levi because: ‘Now my husband will accompany (yelaveh) me.’
R. Moshe Mikotzi simply and sensibly explains that Leah happily recorded that now her husband would help with the child rearing as she, the maidservant and her husband would - all three together - be able to take care of all three children. Her husband was thus forced to ‘accompany’ her and to get involved in domestic affairs.


Besides writing liturgical prayers and commentating on the Tanach, what is most surprising is that many Ba’alei haTosafot got involved in a form of mysticism which Professor Kanarfogel refers to as ‘white magic’.

As a stated principal, legal decisors do not normally allow any form of mysticism to influence or have any bearing on legal rulings. The two disciplines are theoretically to be kept distinct from one another.

The Noda biYehuda[3] writes; “We do not rule Halacha from the Zohar[4].” This principle goes right back to Talmudic times where Shmuel states: “We do not learn (Halacha) from Mishna, nor from legends, nor from any additional teachings, but only from Talmud.”[5]

Yet that was not always the case with the Tosafists as we shall see:


Already from around the late 1100’s the Chassidei Ashkenaz or German Pietists were reviving an older form of mysticism known as Heichalot literature[6] which flourished in the post-Talmudic period from about 500 to 1000 CE.[7]

This mystical literature, according to Professor Kanarfogel, preceded the appearance of works like the Zohar and Bahir and was not yet familiar with the system of the Ten Sefirot.

There were a number of Tosafists who got involved with this earlier theurgic system of Kabbalah and used divine and angelic names in an attempt to achieve higher spiritual states and to accomplish certain objectives.

[Theurgy is defined as: ‘the technique of compelling...a supernatural power to do or refrain from doing something.’[8]]

This is interesting because it was commonly believed that these practices were limited to Chassidei Ashkenaz and not generally performed by the Tosafists (although there are scattered references to such activities in some of the published works of the Tosafists).


One example of a known and published reference to this form of Tosafist theurgy is found in the Semak or Sefer Mitzvot Kattan, by Yitzchak ben Yosef of Corbeil[9]. Although somewhat an abridged form of the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol and hence primarily a Halachic work, it includes a section on R. Yehudah HaChassid, the leader of Chassidei Ashkenaz, who describes exactly when divine names can be used for divine protection from highway-men and natural danger.

This mystical reference was commonly regarded as an anomaly of the Halachic Tosafist literature until the recent discovery of other Tosafist manuscripts where this type of practice appears to be more commonplace than previously believed.


A manuscript filled with mystical formulae - found in the National Library in Paris and dating from the mid-1200’s - was written for the Tosafist R. Yitzchak ben Yitzchak who was connected to the study hall of Évreux in Normandy, northern France. This study hall was known to have had an affiliation with the mystics of Chassidei Ashkenaz.

Interestingly, later copyists who were unfamiliar with Yitzchak ben Yitzchak, decided to attribute the work to Rabbeinu Tam. This was a great irony because Rabbeinu Tam was one Tosafist not generally considered to be overtly involved in mysticism at all.


However, Rabbeinu Tam’s student, Eliezer ben Shmuel of Metz (d. 1175) who authored Sefer Yereim, endorsed a mystical practice whereby one person could bind another, while still alive, to appear after death to his companion and answer questions of the afterlife.


R. Yechiel of Paris, who attempted to defended the Talmud during the Disputation of the Talmud in Paris in 1240 which sadly resulted in many Talmudic and other manuscripts being burned (see The Dangers of Translating Hebrew Texts) apparently received a visitation by an aggrieved soul who claimed he was thrown upwards by the angels but not caught on the way down – as punishment because he spoke during a section of the Friday evening prayers[10].

This ruling was later incorporated in the Tur with a similar explanation, except it is attributed to R. Yehudah haChassid. The Tur[11] was the son of the Rosh[12] who was a pupil of R. Meir of Rothenburg who was clearly known to be involved in mystical teachings.

R Yechiel also commented and elaborated in a very mystical manner on the Keil Adon hymn which is included in the Shabbat morning prayers, which itself is already taken from the Heichalot literature.


Yeshaya ben Mali de’Trani (1180-1250) known as Rid, was an Italian Tosafist who permitted the recitation of various mystical formulae to locate lost objects and to find a thief – provided one only made use of divine names and not those of demons.

This was later incorporated in the Tur who quoted his father the Rosh, who permitted locating lost objects even by using the names of demons.


R. Yitzchak ben Eliyahu permitted the use of names of demons not only for finding lost objects but even to ‘know the future’.


One of the last of the Tosafists was R. Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293). In one published responsum, he writes that once a person has decided to die a martyr’s death, he will not feel any pain regardless of the means of execution. He bases this thesis, partially, on a section taken from the Heichalot literature. 

R. Meir of Rothenburg also offered formulae for protection, participated in Dream Questions and practices which bring about a state of Petichat haLev (Opening of the Heart) which is said to aid in the retention of one’s studies.


Professor Kanarfogel concludes by saying: “Manuscript research reveals dimensions of Tosafist thought and interest...that would have remained relatively unknown if we were to rely only on printed texts and books...Overall these findings suggest that the Tosafists were not simply excellent and committed Talmudic scholars who had little interest in other disciplines or areas of study – rather the Tosafists emerged from the manuscripts as rabbinic scholars who participated in quite a range of additional intellectual...fields which they took quite seriously. These include independent Biblical interpretation, the writing of liturgical poems...magical and mystical teachings and practices...


To what extent the Tosafists actually ruled Halachically after being influenced by mystical experiences and practices would be a fascinating study. It would be enlightening to quantify the percentage of rulings which were based on mystical methodologies.  (See Dreams as a basis for Halacha? for examples where rulings were actually instituted based on such non-legal activities).

While reverting to Kabbalah may have been more widespread than generally imagined, it certainly does not appear to have been an absolute norm.

Perhaps some purists would argue that the influence from theurgic Kabbalah was nevertheless too strong and impacted too much on the Halachic process.

On the other hand, it does seem that for the most part, the Tosafists exercised great restraint - in that although expressing interest in mystical practices, they still did not allow those activities to impact in an overwhelming manner on their legal decisions.

[1] Hidden Treasure: The Intellectual Life of Medieval Ashkenazi Jews.
[2] Rabbeinu Tam’s published version suggesting he had no involvement in Tanach commentary may have been made out of humility. Or perhaps it was made when he was younger and circumstances changed as he got older.
 [3] R. Yechezkiel Landau (1713-1793). See Noda biYehudah, vol. 1.
[4] Although he mentions the Zohar specifically (which only started appearing in Spain in the late 13th century) the reference would most likely include all forms of mysticism.
[5] yHag 1:8
[6] Sifrut haHeichalot.
[7] Not to be confused with Merkava literature which is mysticism dating from a much earlier period.
[8] Merriam-Webster dictionary.
[9] He was a son-in-law of R. Yechiel of Paris.
[10] During the Bracha Me’ein Sheva.
[11] R. Ya’akov ben Asher (1270-1340)
[12] R. Asher ben Yechiel (1250-1327)

Sunday, 3 June 2018


The Baal Shem of London's silver Sifrei Torah.

Rabbi (Doctor) Chaim Shmuel Yaakov Falk was known as the Baal Shem of London.
Of Sefaradic descent, he was either born in Bavaria or Podolia around 1708 and he died in 1782 and was buried in the Alderney Road Cemetery in Mile End, London.

[His fascinatingly well-documented story took place at just about the same time as the famous founder of the Chassidic movement R. Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) .]


While in Westfalen, Germany, he was charged with sorcery and was sentenced to be burned at the stake, but he managed to escape and was sheltered in the castle of the German Count, von Rantzau, where he performed Kabbalistic practices for the nobility.

These practices are documented in detail in Mémoires du comte Rantzow.
Around 1736 he found his way to London and took up residence at 35 Prescott Street, and then later at Wellclose Square where he had a private synagogue. He also visited Paris from time to time.


Some astounding tales are told about this very English Baal Shem:

He was a man of great wealth and made secretive trips to Epping Forrest in a carriage drawn by four horses in order to bury some treasure there. He also had the gift of locating buried treasure. They tell of a wheel breaking off and then allegedly following the carriage all the way to the forest.
His candles would burn for weeks before becoming extinguished. He could manifest a room full of coal for his fire, and objects would move from place to place when in his presence.
Once the Great Synagogue was being consumed by fire and he saved it by writing Hebrew letters on its pillars.

Notwithstanding all his mystical activities, surprisingly, there is no record of there being any outcry by his local Jewish community and no evidence of him being deemed a fraud. He continued to maintain a close relationship with London’s Chief Rabbi Tevele Schiff, and was accepted by both Ashkenazic and Sefaradic communities of London.

There have been some cynical suggestions that he was left alone because of his immense charitable contributions.


While he appears to have been well integrated within the London community, he did experience some opposition from European Jewish leaders. R. Yaakov Emden accused R. Falk of being one of the secret followers of False Messiah Shabbetai Tzvi, known as Sabbateans. [See Shabbatai Tzvi –Roots Run Deep.]

One of the reasons for this was that, amongst other indications, his closest friend happened to be the well-known Sabbatean, Moshe David[1] of Podhayce (who had connections with – and praised him [R. Falk to] - R. Yonatan Eibeschutz who also fell under R. Emden’ Sabbatean suspicions).

Gershom Scholem wrote: “The theory propounded by several scholars that these wandering ba'alei shem [such as Falk] were responsible for spreading Shabbateanism has not been proven, although some of them were indeed members of the sect."[2]

R. Falk apparently fled to Holland on the way to London, where it is suggested that he may have met R. Moshe Chayim Luzzatto - the great Kabbalist and suspected (by some) to be a Sabbatean, whose writings he would long cherish and whose books he would keep constantly by his side.[3]

The fact is that no overt reference to Shabbatai Zvi has been found in R. Falk’s diaries or writings.


Rabbi Emden wrote: 

although I do not know him personally, I have heard that he pretends to be an expert in practical Kabbalah, and that he claims to have the ability to discover hidden treasures. He is married to an immoral woman with whom he moved to London. There he found supporters – especially among the lower classes – who tried to use him to enrich themselves. Some rich non-Jews also believed in him, thinking that he could discover treasure for them. Using trickery he succeeded in entrapping one wealthy non-Jewish captain, who spent his entire fortune on him and has now been reduced to poverty, and he is only able to survive as a result of Falk’s charity. Incredibly this captain continues to praise him among wealthy Christians, so that they give him a lot of money. In this way, the Baal Shem is enabled to live as a man of wealth, and he uses his money to bribe his close followers so that they continue to spread his fame.”

Later, R. Emden published the ‘evidence of his trickery’ found in one Sussman Shesnowzi’s[4] letter to his son describing some activities he witnessed at the home of the Baal Shem of London:

R. Ya'akov Emden publishes the 'incriminating' letter from Zusman. 
R. Emden could not hold himself back and sarcastically changed Baal Shem to Baal Sheid (Master of Demons) and Mekubal to read Mechubal (Wrecked)!

Here is a translation of the letter[5]:

“Behold, the light which is called "lamp" is a great candelabrum of pure silver with doubled and trebled lights, stacked above each other, with eight flowered branches coming out of the sides, forming the shape of holy letters. With this menorah he performed an amazing miracle. On Friday he poured oil in, the typical amount for Shabbos - but the lamp stayed lit for three weeks until he personally dissolved the holy thing with his hands (and the miracle ceased). This was a new thing from the Master of the Universe, even greater than the miracle of Chanukah, when the Menorah lasted for only 8 days.

On this night of Tuesday, the 8th of Kislev, we saw an amazing thing. During the month of Cheshvan until now he had secluded himself in his home near the bridge (London Bridge). He was shut in for six weeks, literally without food or drink, sleep or lighting any fire - you wouldn't believe it! After the sixth week he commanded that a minyan of learned men should immerse in the mikvah, and at midnight we who had prepared ourselves, dressing in white kittels, met at his home. The holy man commanded the aforementioned kabbalist Rabbi Moshe David to write (something) in his ledger. 

Afterwards, he commanded this Moshe and another member of this holy Chevra, Rabbi Yaakov, grandson of R. Meir Eisenstadt (author of Panim Meiros), and they each lit a large candle. Then he commanded that the group enter barefooted into his room, and behold, we saw the holy man sitting on a throne, dressed like an angel...

The godly Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe David, known as Rabbi Moshe Ba'al Shem, wrote a letter to our master Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz, the famous Chief Rabbi of Hamburg, and told him all these great things and wonders regarding this holy man (=Falk). So R. Yonasan applied to him the words from the Tikkunim, that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, זכאה דרא דהאי רזי עיתגלי ביה, "This generation is fortunate to have such mysteries revealed."

The letter continues: 

I am grateful that I have been received into this Brotherhood, who by their piety can hasten the advent of the son, be very circumspect, and show this only to wise and discreet men. For here in London, this matter has not been disclosed to anyone who does not belong to our Brotherhood.”[6]

This letter was enough to convince R. Emden that something very suspicious was going on.


In 1830, Hayim Isaacs - who had converted to Christianity – wrote a book entitled ‘Ceremonies, Customs, Rites and Traditions of the Jews’.

In it, he included strange ‘miracles’ that ‘Dr Faulk’ had performed and claimed that this is what Jews are required to believe in. He wrote - after ridiculing the accounts of various ‘miracles’:[7]

From Hayim Isaacs' book, The Jews.

In other words, Hayim Isaacs was explaining what mainstream and normative Jews are required to believe in. These were some of the reasons why he claimed he had converted out of his faith.


R. Falk is said to have benefited financially from his ‘wonder-working’ enterprises – but he also befriended and advised bankers like Aaron Goldsmid and amassed a huge fortune and was, therefore, able to live a lavish life. Notwithstanding, he was extremely generous and donated much of his money to worthy causes. He bequeathed, for example, the amount of one hundred pounds, to be paid annually, to the Great Synagogue. He died three days after writing his will, (and according to some accounts, having no children[8]), all his money was left to charities.

The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopaedia records, “He left large sums of money to charity, and the overseers of the United Synagogue in London still distribute annually certain payments left by him for the poor.”

There are accounts of an almost constant stream of poor people flocking to his door and never leaving empty-handed.

He also became a serious book, tapestry and art collector.


R. Falk kept a cryptic diary, which was never meant to be published, with records of his dreams and names of angels which is housed in the library of the United Synagogue in London. The diaries are written in cryptic Hebrew, and tell of dreams, booklists, recipes, and Kabbalistic names of angels. They also contain accounts of failed alchemy experiments and explosions resulting therefrom.

His assistant Zvi Hirsch Kalish also kept such a diary, and it tells how his teacher arrived in London penniless and that husband and wife would often argue about finances. He also records that his teacher was very stingy with money, although he gave huge amounts to charity when he started to amass his financial fortune.


According to some accounts, while in Bavaria he became well-versed in New Testament teachings, which he utilized in religious discussions with Christians, whose patronage he sought for his alchemical and magical exploits.

It is clear that many non-Jews were enamoured by R. Falk as he “achieved considerable prominence. He was called Doctor Falk by Christians[9]. Some accounts refer to a ‘Dr Falcon’. 

It is believed that his ideas were later to influence William Yeats (1865-1939), one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Yeats was heavily involved in organizations dealing with theosophy and the occult. He wrote, “The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.[10]

According to Professor Michal Oron’s translated diaries of R. Falk, he had “dialogue with Christian scholars, and...with Freemasons and Shabbateans.”[11]

Cecil Roth (whose wife Irene, as it transpires, was a descendant of the Baal Shem of London) writes that R. Falk:

 “established a kabbalistic laboratory on London Bridge where he carried out alchemical experiments which aroused some notice. Among those who were attracted to him, was the international adventurer Theodore De Stein, who claimed to be king of Corsica and hoped to obtain through Falk's alchemical experiments sufficient gold to enable him to "regain" his throne. He was also in touch with, among others, the Duke of Orleans, the Polish Prince Czartoryski, and the Marquise de la Croix.”[12]


In my shul, we have a well-known portrait of what we always believed was the (real) Baal Shem Tov.

The 'authoritative' portrait of R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov with his personal signature - which turns out not to be so authoritative. 

 We weren’t alone – as evident from a recent auction catalogue: “For more than a century this eighteenth-century portrait of the Kabbalist Rabbi Dr Chaim Samuel Jacob Falk has been broadly misidentified and popularly thought of as being a depiction of the founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov himself.”[13]

The Baal Shem of London is not the Baal Shem Tov of Medzebuzh.

So now it is clear that what we thought was the Baal Shem Tov of Medzebuzh was, in fact, an Englishman from London! And he is holding a compass which may be related to his alleged relationship with Freemasons.

The unsigned painting remained in the Goldsmid family. At the beginning of the 1900’s British Chief Rabbi Dr Herman Adler gave a lecture about the Baal Shem of London and offered a viewing of the little-known portrait. The picture was published in 1908[14] and was widely distributed. This resulted in people confusing The Baal Shem of London with the Baal Shem Tov of Medzebuzh.


Burial place of Baal Shem at Alderney Road Cemetary, London 
Only around 2010 was it discovered that in all the articles written about the Baal Shem of London, no mention was ever made of his real name. According to the burial records of Alderney Road Cemetery his name is recorded as:
“5542 – 4 Iyar, died,  Morenu Reb Abraham Shmuel ben Morenu Raphael, buried 5 Iyar, Baal Shem.”


So who exactly was the Baal Shem of London? 

There is no doubt that R. Avraham Shmuel Falk was an extremely colourful character. His activities were interesting, to say the least. 

But apparently, there does not appear to be any record of a blatant and intentional transgression of  Jewish law (although, clearly, his behaviour was far from 'normative' halachic practice).

His apparent acceptance by the English Rabbinate and his alleged 'rooting' in teachers like Ramchal (and I even came upon a suggestion that he may have been exposed to R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov!) - need to be weighed against his unusual practices and R. Emden's suspicions that he was linked to members of the secret Sabbatean movement.

The question is: where within that broad spectrum would he have been positioned? 

Was he a charlatan, a Sabbatean, or genuine mystic?

Perhaps the closest we can get to answering that question is to leave it to the Reader to decide.

[1] Also known as R. Moshe David Baal Shem.
[2] Kabbalah, by Gershom Scholem p. 311.
[3] Marsha Keith Schuchard, DGWE, p.356-7
[4] Also known as Eliezer Zusman.
[5] The translation is from the well-informed On The Main Line.

[6]Translation from Emanuel Swedenborg, Secret Agent on Earth and in Heaven: Jacobites, Jews and ...edited by Marsha Keith Schuchard, p. 447.

[7] See On The Main Line November 9, 2010.

[8] There is evidence that he may have had a daughter, Sara Falk: “I have found several references to Samuel Falk having a daughter, Sarah, who was married to his assistant Zvi Hirsch Kalisch. I have traced my husband’s direct line (Collins) back to Hyman Collins (Kalisch) son of Zvi Hirsch Kalisch...” See Cemetery Scribes Blog, July 18 2010. This in conjunction with the fact that historian Cecil Roth’s wife (was Collins) also is related to the Baal Shem of London.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Richard Ellmann (1948). Yeats: The Man and the Masks. (New York) Macmillan. 94

[11] Rabbi, Mystic, or Impostor? The Eighteenth-Century Ba'al Shem of London: An Eighteenth-century Jewish Mystic, by Michal Oron.

[12] C. Roth, Essays and Portraits in Anglo-Jewish History (1962).
[13] The Kesterbaum Judaica Auction Catalog 2013.
[14] The earliest publication of the portrait was actually in 1886 in Great Jewish Families in Britain.