Sunday, 19 March 2017


Shivchei haBesht, Laszczow, 1815.

Did early Chassidism overlap with some aspects of folk Russia or Ukraine in the early 1700’s?
Certainly in terms of music, dress and possibly even certain aspects of philosophy, many would say yes.

Some, however, have tried to downplay this Russian or Ukrainian folk influence, and I could never understand why. I then discovered that there are a number of - albeit controversial - schools of thought which suggest that the Baal Shem Tov (or Besht) may have been influenced by various folk groups, religious cults or even breakaway mystical movements.



The Besht is known to have studied the secrets of mysticism from a certain Adam Baal Shem Tov. His identity is somewhat obscure and there are is some speculation as to who he really was:


 According to some researchers, Adam, not being a common Jewish name at that time may have been a pseudonym for R. Heshel Tzoref a known Sabbatean (or follower of the false Messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi who passed away just thirty years earlier)[1] The Besht is known to have had in his possession, and to have made reference to, a book called Sefer haTzoref which contained a reference to Shabbatai Tzvi being the Messiah.

(I’m not suggesting in any way that the Besht subscribed to that view, but am simply recording the piece of information. See KOTZK BLOG 117.)


According to other far more radical speculation, this ‘Adam’ may have been a well-known Russian priest Adam Zernikov, of the Raskolnik cult. Y. Eliach suggests that the Besht may have been influenced by Raskol literature and just as they kept their teachings secret, so did he. Raskol literature was outlawed by the Russian Church and the ban was only lifted in 1906. [2]
Adam Zernikov, born in Koenigsberg in 1652, met R. Eliezer, the father of the Besht in Russia, where he - allegedly- transmitted some of his teachings to him.
(Again, I am in no way suggesting that that is true or not. I am merely recording the speculation.)


Another group active at the same time was known as the Khlysty sect. They would dress in white, dance during prayers and believed that their leaders could predict the future. The adherents would confess their sins to the leaders who were said to be able to identify the sinners from within the group. They advocated a degree of abstinence and called children ‘little sins’.

Early Kapust edition of Shivchei haBesht.

According to an early Kapust edition of Shivchei haBesht[3], after the passing of his first wife, the Besht was encouraged to marry again. He responded that he did not need a new wife because his son was born by the ‘word’.  For this reason, he had no need to marry again.

This text, however, does not appear in any of the later editions.


It is fascinating to see that this tension of views regarding a possible ‘outside’ influence (to whatever extent) on the founder of Chassidism, is reflected in two different biographical accounts which deal with stories of the Besht.

These books are:  Shivchei haBesht (first published in 1814 in Kopys, White Russia) and Rachamei haAv (first published Chernovitz in 1865).

The Shivchei haBesht appears to be quite comfortable with recording a strong (possibly) Russian influence on the Besht and particularly his father, R. Eliezer. On the other hand, the later work Rachamei Av, written after Chassidism had been firmly established, seems to negate it completely.

The popular Shivchei haBesht, however, is not unanimously accepted as authoritative in all Chassidic circles[4].
Perhaps the fact that it records this Russian influence may be one of the reasons for that.

It’s interesting to note that even secular historians acknowledge that there is, what they refer to as a ‘kernel of historical truth’, in the general theme of events (as opposed to the details of all the actual stories) as described in Shivchei haBesht.


The Shivchei haBesht was written by Dov Baer ben Shmuel haShochet, who was the son-in-law of the Besht's scribe, Alexander Shochet and obviously had personal contact with the Besht himself. It contains more than two hundred stories about the Besht and those associated with him. During the first two years the book sold more than ten thousand copies.[5]

There are two stories in Shivchei haBesht which do appear to link the Besht to strong cultural ties with Russia:

Shivchei haBesht Lemberg (Lvov) Edition. 1885, p. 4.

According to this version:

Before the Besht was born, his father, R. Eliezer had been living in Wallachia. He and his wife were already old. It happened that bandits came and took R. Eliezer captive. His wife had to flee and because of her poverty she was forced to become a midwife. He was taken to a far-away where there were no Jews and sold. He served his new master well and became head of the household. He was given permission not to have to work on Shabbat. After much time he decided to flee, but was told in a dream to stay where he was because there was still something he had to accomplish there. The master had dealings with the king’s advisor and offered his servant to him as a gift.’

This event must have occurred towards the end of the 1600’s, as the Besht was only born around 1700.

It appears as if the place which barred all Jews from entering, and even from doing business at that time, was the Muscovite Duchy in Russia. So it seems that R. Eliezer spent some time in Russia.

The story continues:

Then one time the King took his soldiers on boats to wage war...’

Historically this may coincide with the Azov Campaign of 1695/6, where Peter the Great attacked the city of Azov, and this happened to be Russia’s first sea battle. The attack was a failure and Shivchei haBesht describes this following chain of events:

R. Eliezer is one of the sailors on the ships and advises on how to achieve victory, by informing the navy that iron pillars were embedded within the ocean floor, preventing the ships from approaching the enemy port. For this information, he is hailed as a hero and is brought to the king on a ‘small boat’. He is then shaved and made to change his clothes.

Peter the great was known to have disliked beards and even the old Russian traditional clothes. He ordered people to be clean shaven and to wear ‘modern’ clothing.

As a reward, R. Eliezer was given the minister’s daughter as a wife. Of course, he did not consummate the marriage. Eventually, he revealed to her that he was a Jew and she allowed him to return to his home where he was reunited with his real wife.

Soon, although both were now in their nineties, a son was born. He was called Israel and became known as the Baal Shem Tov.

Another story which also indicates some knowledge and interaction with Russian culture can be seen in the following story:

It once happened that the Besht was unable to speak. He hinted to his students that they should bring him his teffilin, which he then put on. His power of speech returned to him. When asked what had happened, he explained that as a result of a sin of his youth he had been punished by losing his ability to speak. He explained that the prosecuting angel had appeared in the form of a gentile carrying a metal rod and wanting to assault him. The teffilin had saved him. But the attacker shouted in Russian to ‘take off the leather’ but to no avail.

Because of the reference to the Russian language, this too may indicate that the Besht was either born or spent his early years in Russia.[6]


About a hundred years after the passing of the Besht, a newer and different version concerning the birth of the Besht is presented by the Rachamei haAv:[7]

The Besht’s father, R. Eliezer was a very kind person. Once, Elijah the prophet decided to test him and appeared to him on Shabbat afternoon dressed like an old man who desecrated the holy day. Instead of rebuking the Shabbat desecrator, R. Eliezer invited him into his home and gave him a Shabbat meal. After Shabbat he gave the old man some money. Then Elijah revealed his true self to R. Eliezer and told him that as a reward he would be given a son who would brighten the whole world.

According to this version, there is no mention made of any time spent in Russia. There is also no mention of the close relationship between R. Eliezer and the ministers of the king, of the meeting with Peter the Great and haven been given the minister's daughter was a wife.  Nothing of the culture of Russia is alluded to as an influencing factor whatsoever.

Could it be that later writers of Chassidic history wanted to remove all traces of any foreign influences surrounding the birthing of the new movement?

Shivchei haBesht Berditchev Edition, 1865.


Sadly, so many question the authenticity of so much that is written about such a pivotal spiritual figure in Jewish history.

It’s interesting to see that some historical tax registers record that the house in which the Besht lived in his later years enjoyed tax-free status, which shows the esteem in which he was held by the government. Also, some court records refer to him and some of his contemporaries which appear to correlate with a number of events as described in Shivchei haBesht.

1758 Polish tax census of Medzhybizh showing Baal Shem occupying house #95

Even if we leave alone some of the radical and perhaps preposterous (although not impossible) theories concerning just how far Chassidism was influenced by these foreign cultures, are we not mirroring the same bias in the other direction if we deny any overlap whatsoever?

We do know that the Besht lived in the forests and came into contact with folk communities, either from Russia or the Ukraine. He knew how to use plants for healing, he distributed amulets and was generally regarded as a medicine man. Since he didn’t fit the mould of typical urban rabbis of the time, it is quite within reason to assume that he took some of this knowledge from folk culture.

Carpathian Mountains today.

In my youth and early adulthood, I fell under the spell and allure of Chassidism. The rabbis and teachers whom I allowed to influence me were all Chassidim. I was intrigued by the Baal Shem Tov and his teachings but particularly by his stories.

While listening to the stories which were a central part of the Chassidic oral tradition, no one ever made any attempt to hide the fact that the Baal Shem Tov interacted with all levels of Russian society, including non-Jews. On the contrary, it was considered praiseworthy to recount how the Besht sought out shepherds and ordinary folk who spent their lives in the mountains and composed beautiful melodies which tugged at the heart-strings.

Ordinary love songs were converted and elevated to holy songs of yearning for G-d, and often even wordless melodies were adopted into Chassidism without denying their secular and non-Jewish origins. (This is something that the Chabad movement, for example, also appears to be quite comfortable with, although obviously without the more radical speculation as to how far it may have gone.)

Early Chassidism probably was, to a large extent, unashamedly rooted in folk culture and what we today would call the ‘populist’ movements of that time.

If a degree of reasonable overlap is acknowledged by many, the question remains as to why did some of the later writings, originating well after the movement had already been firmly established, feel the need to deny this?

And - given the wide range of provocative speculation - is the fact that the Shivchei haBesht does not hide the potential for such possible influences, one of the reasons why some came to regard it as being an unauthoritative account of the origins of Chassidism?

[1] See: The Sabbatean Prophet R. Heschel Zoref - R. Adam Baal Shem, by G. Scholem.
[2] This is the view of Y. Eliach in The Russian Dissenting Sects and Their Influence on Israel Baal Shem Tov, Founder of Hassidism.
See Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research36 (1968): 67-68. - For a critique of this theory, see chap. 3, 68-75.
See also: On the Origins of the Chassidic Movement – A Critique By Rabbi Dovid Markel:
[3] P. 36.
[4] According to R. Dovid Markel: “See Shem HaGedolim HaChadash (R. Ahahon Valdin) who writes that the author did a disservice to the Besht by printing inauthentic stories—thus causing a reader to doubt authentic ones as well. See as well Likutei Halachot, Pesach 7:3 from R. Nachman of Breslav who expressed that although in general the stories are true, details may not be. Additionally, in the work Ohr Pnei Yitzchak (pg. 56) the author expresses an account in the name of the Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak of Gur that the stories are untrue. While Chabad Rebbe’s have indeed praised the work, it seems possible that it because they believed all the stories may have taken place, not that they actually did. For further discussion see Yehoshua Mundshein, Shivchei Ha-Besht (Jerusalem 1982) pg. 53ff.”  [Note: I believe R. Nachman quoted above should instead read R. Natan.]
[5] According to Moshe Rosman: “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. 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.”
See Life Stories: Shivchei Ha-Besht by Moshe Rosman.
[6] Again, see a critique of this view by R. Dovid Markel above.
[7] Rachamei haAv, p. 47.

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