Published in: Jewish Studies Quarterly 6 (1999), eds. Joseph Dan and Peter Schäfer, pp.
Messianic Strains in Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov's 'Holy Epistle'1
Israel Ba'al Shem Tov ('Master of the Good Name'), the legendary founder of Hasidism
(1700-1760)2 left hardly any writings behind him. One of the few pieces in our
possession is an epistle addressed to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon of Kutov, who
had emigrated to the Holy Land in 1746 and settled in Jerusalem.3 In writing this epistle,
the Besht wished to share with Rabbi Gershon a mystical experience, 'the ascent of the
soul,' which he had performed on New Year's Day, 5507 (1746).4 The Besht used a
certain technique - 'adjuration'5 - which enabled his soul to separate from his body during
the course of prayer. While his body remained on earth, his soul ascended to Heaven and
met the Messiah. The epistle, containing details of this event, was originally dictated by
the Besht to his disciple, Rabbi Aryeh Leib - "the Scribe the Rabbi Reprover of
Polonnoye."6 But the missive never reached its destination, perhaps due to an
encroaching plague and the ensuing quarantine.
In 1750, during the fair of Luka, the Besht received a letter from Rabbi Gershon, from
which he learned that his epistle had not arrived in Jerusalem.7 Sometime later, probably
in 1752, he wrote a second epistle8 repeating part of the information contained in the
previous one. He entrusted the second epistle to another disciple of his, Rabbi Jacob Jo-
seph of Polonnoye, to be delivered to Rabbi Gershon in Jerusalem. Yet, "due to an
obstruction brought about by God, blessed be He,"9 Rabbi Jacob Joseph cancelled his
planned journey to the Holy Land, and thus the second epistle failed to reach its
destination as well. It remained instead in the possession of Rabbi Jacob Joseph of
Polonnoye, and was published in 1781 as an appendix to his book Ben Porat Yosef
(Korez 1781).10 In this fashion, some twenty years after his death, the Besht's 'Holy
Epistle' became sacred throughout the Hasidic world. The Korez version remained the
only printed version until 1923, when David Fraenkel published another version based on
a private manuscript.11 Mordechai Bauminger reprinted the latter version in 1971, which
came to be known as the Fraenkel-Bauminger.12
The first epistle was not published by the Hasidim, and scholars considered it lost.
However, Joseph Rozani has recently discovered13 that it had been printed in 1900, in
Abraham Kahana's book Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (Zitomir 1900).14 Kahana gave no
clue as to the source of the epistle, noting only that "The version of the epistle given here
differs from the printed [Korez] version, and is printed according to [a copy of?] a
manuscript of Rabbi Ishaia Dunevich, belonging to an acquaintance of mine, which I had
the opportunity of viewing."15
Rabbi Isaiah Dunevich was a disciple of the founding fathers of Hasidism - Rabbi
Pinchas of Korez, Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal, the Zlotchover maggid, and Rabbi Dov Ber, the
Mezeritch maggid. He owned the manuscripts that were used to print Or Torah (Korez
1804) and perhaps Zavva'at ha-Rivash (1793?), two collections of Hasidic 'Hanhagot'
(moral instructions) attributed to the Besht, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Premishlan, the
Mezeritch maggid and the Zlotchover maggid.16 Moreover, Rabbi Isaiah sponsored the
initiative to copy and preserve a Shabbetaian composition, Sefer ha-Zoref from a
manuscript belonging to the Besht's son and grandson.17
The fact that Rabbi Isaiah had access to manuscripts held by the Besht's offspring
suggests that he was connected to authentic Beshtian material. Another point that may be
significant is that Sefer ha-Zoref was copied by one of Rabbi Isaiah's disciples in 1782.18
Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the 'Holy Epistle' was also copied around 1782.
Still, it is not clear how many copies had been made before Kahana saw the manuscript.
His comment about printing from the manuscript " "על פי העתקה מכתב ידו של ר' ישעיה
מדונוויץis somewhat vague,19 and could refer either to Rabbi Isaiah's handwriting or to a
copy of his handwriting.
In 1980, Y. Mondschein published another version of the Besht's first epistle, based on
the 1776 Rothschild manuscript JNUL 8 5979.20 The first few sections of this Hasidic
manuscript - which predates the publication of Ben Parat Yosef by five years - contain
Hasidic 'Hanhagot,' typically ascribed to the Besht and his disciples. It also contains the
'Holy Epistle' and the 'Will of the Zaddik' of Rabbi Aaron of Karlin. Ail of these sections
were copied during June-July l776, as mentioned explicitly at several points in the text21
Separated by an empty page, the last section of the Rothschild manuscript contains the
teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the leader of the 1777 Hasidic immi-
gration to the Holy Land. This part was not mentioned in the detailed table of contents on
the first page, and probably was written some time after 1776.22
Some additional indications suggest that the manuscript belonged to one of the 1777
emigrants, who had copied Hasidic material - including the Besht epistle - to be taken
with the group to the Holy Land.23 The owner of the manuscript continued to write in his
notebook after 1777, perhaps in order to preserve the oral sermons delivered by Rabbi
Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk in Safed and Tiberias.
The 1776 Rothschild version and the 1782[?] Kahana version are not entirely identical.24
Some of the words in the Rothschild version were written with a comma in place of the
last letter, while most of the words in the Kahana version are complete. It is impossible to
determine whether the last letters were left out in the Rothschild version or added in the
Kahana version.25 Moreover, particular words and sentences in the one version differ
from the equivalent words and sentences in the other. Therefore, it seems unlikely that
the owner of the Rothschild manuscript copied from Rabbi Isaiah Dunevich or vice versa,
but rather from a third version, either a previous copy or the original epistle itself,
Another possibility is that one of the versions was copied from the original handwriting,
while the other was copied from a copy. Either way, we can conclude that at least three
versions of the first epistle - the original and two copies - already existed by the early
1780s. Moreover, the fact that in 1776 - five years prior to the 1781 Korez printing - the
first epistle was already entitled 'The Holy Epistle,'26 proves that it was regarded as an
authentic piece by the Besht.
Currently, then, scholars of Hasidism have at their disposal two versions of each of the
Besht epistles - the Kahana and Rothschild JNUL 8 5979 first epistles, as well as the
1781 Korez and Fraenkel-Bauminger second epistles. These sources are not sufficient to
determine which of the versions of each epistle is more faithful to the original Beshtian
epistles. However, they are broad and diverse enough to point up the differences between
the first letter and the second one.27
The first epistle has its own distinct structure and focus. Still, its text is not as fluent and
clear as that of the second; words appear to have been lopped off from the sentences,
perhaps due to some kind of censorship. For example, both of its versions omit the
opening salutation and the closing greeting and signature, beginning immediately with
the Besht's account of his ascent to Heaven. Consequently, the identity of both writer and
addressee as well as the date and circumstances of the epistle's composition remain
As for the contents, the first epistle differs from the second one. It does not include the
second 'ascent of the soul,' performed by the Besht in 1750 and described in his 1752
epistle.28 This omission suggests that the first epistle was written prior to 1750, probably
already by 1746- 1747.29
Another noticeable difference is the space devoted to the events in the communities of
Zaslav, Siytovka and Dunevich, where Jews had been forced to convert and then been
killed. In the 1752 epistle these events preoccupy the Besht to the extent that he appears
to have ascended to Heaven on Rosh Hashanah 1746 mainly in order to forestall the
decree of forced conversion. Contrary to the impression given by the later epistle, the
subject of forced conversion is mentioned in the first epistle only in brief, while the
Besht's attention is focused elsewhere.30
The focus of the first epistle is the messianic quest, as evinced by three topics which do
not appear in the second epistle, only in the first one:31 the Besht's reaction when told of
his future death in the Diaspora, his interpretation of the divine rejoicing and the extended
answer of the Messiah:32
"The vision that God has shown me in the ascents will certainly be a wonder to you and
serve to gladden your soul, as it has been a wonder in my eyes as well, wondrous things
known to you regarding the ascents of souls ... I saw wondrous things which 1 had never
before seen from the day I reached maturity until now. That which 1 saw and learned in
my ascent is impossible to describe or relate, even mouth to mouth …
I also witnessed the ministers of the nations of the world, who came and submitted as
slaves before their masters, before the great angel Michael.33 And many gifts were given
to all the Righteous34 and to all the world, so that they could countenance and endure the
rejoicing and great delight, as when the Torah was given,35 which is impossible to
comprehend in worldliness. I was horrified and shaken by this vision, and said in my
heart that this [the rejoicing] may have been for me and - God forbid - my time has come
to depart from this world. And perhaps because of that it is the appropriate thing to do.
Veda"l.36 My soul grieved for myself and for my friends at the prospect of my dying
I went higher until I actually entered the palace of the King Messiah,38 and I saw face to
face that which I had never before seen from the day I reached maturity until now. And
what was revealed to me is not for you. Also revealed to me were wondrous and fearful
things regarding the depths of Torah which I have not seen and heard and no ear has
heard in many years. And it occurred to me to ask him - perhaps all this delight and
rejoicing is in preparation for his good coming.39 And when will the Master come?40 And
his lofty reply is not to be revealed.41 But in this way will you know of it: when your
teaching becomes famous and manifest in the world, and your springs are dispersed
abroad,42 that which I have taught you and you have comprehended, and they [others]
will also be capable of performing unifications and having [soul] ascents as you do. Then
will all the kelippot43 be consumed, and it will be a time of grace and salvation. And I
was astonished and I had a great sorrow about the extent of time involved, and when such
a thing might be possible."
In the second epistle the Besht describes the ascent of his soul to the Palace of the
Messiah, where "... I saw a great rejoicing, the reason for which I cannot fathom."44 At
first he attributed the rejoicing to the prospect of his imminent death, but it was made
clear to him that his time had not yet come. Thus, the divine rejoicing remained a mystery
to him - "... yet to this very day I do not understand the nature of the rejoicing."45
However, the first epistle presents a previous explanation by the Besht for the rejoicing
he encountered. When he met the Messiah, "... it occurred to me to ask him - perhaps all
this delight and rejoicing is in preparation for his good coming." This sentence, which
does not appear in the second epistle, reveals some of the Besht's hidden hopes and
expectations of witnessing the immediate coming of the Messiah, as he ascended to the
Moreover, the Besht's first question refers to the Messiah's future coming. In the first
epistle the Messiah's answer includes one significant sentence which does not appear in
the second epistle: "And when will the Master come? And his lofty reply is not to be
revealed.46 But in this way will you know of it: when your teaching becomes famous and
manifest in the world, and your springs are dispersed abroad, that which I have taught
you and you have comprehended, and they [others] will also be capable of performing
unifications and having [soul] ascents as you. Then will all the kelippot be consumed, and
it will be a time of grace and salvation. And I was astonished and I had a great sorrow
about the extent of time involved, and when such a thing might be possible."
The Besht asked for the exact date of the Messiah's arrival - "when will the Master
come?" But the Messiah answered about the terms of his arrival and conditioned his
future coming on the dissemination of the Besht's teaching - "and your springs are
dispersed abroad." As a matter of fact, these terms were impossible to fulfil: The Messiah
promised to arrive when the secrets he had taught the Besht would be known to others.
Yet, he had forbidden the Besht to reveal these secrets even to Rabbi Gershon,47 let alone
to others. Such a paradoxical condition clarifies part of the Besht's reaction: "... when
such a thing might be possible." Yet, the other part of his reaction: "and I was astonished
and very sorrowful about the extent of time involved" is unclear, for the Besht could not
have concluded the length of time that would elapse until the Messiah's arrival from his
answer. Thus, this part of the Besht's reaction corresponds to the Messiah's answer only if
part of the answer is understood as referring not exclusively to the terms of the arrival,
but also - and perhaps mainly - to the exact date of this arrival:
"And when will the Master come? '( והיתה תשובתו הרמAnd his lofty reply) is not to be
The expression ' והיתה תשובתו הרמrefers to the verses in First Samuel, 7:15-17:
"And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. And he went from year to year in
circuit to Bet-El, and Gilgal, and Mizpah; and he judged Israel in all those places. And his
return was to Rama, for there was his house; and there he judged Israel; and he built there
an altar unto the Lord."
The words תשובתו הרמהin Hebrew means 'his lofty reply,' but as a quotation - תשובתו
- הרמתהit also means 'his return to Rama,' the mountainous village that was the Prophet
Moreover, ה'ר'מ'ת'הis also read as a numerological combination marking the year 1885 –
84.תרמ"הIt seems that the Besht understood the Messiah's reply - - תשובתוto be
designating the year )5881( ה'ר'מ'ת'הas the year of his future coming: "and when will the
Master come? And his reply ".ה'ר'מ'ת'הThe rest of the sentence, "not to be revealed," is
read both as a part of the Messiah's answer and as a clue directed to Rabbi Gershon,
hinting that this information was an esoteric secret not to be explicitly written or revealed
to others. This interpretation of the Messiah's answer clarifies the Besht's reaction: "And I
had a great sorrow about the extent of time involved;" although the date is specified,
obviously the Besht would not live for another 138 years to welcome the Messiah in his
Thus, when read in sequence, the answer refers simultaneously to the date of the
Messiah's coming and to the terms of his coming. Both answers lead to a dead end - the
date is too far in the future and the terms are impossible to be fulfilled. The double
interpretation stems from the enigmatic nature of the Messiah's words. Like the oracle at
Delphi, instead of providing the questioner with a simple answer, he replies with a
question that creates a contradiction or a paradox.
A similar ambiguity can be found in the Talmudic account of a previous dialogue
between the Messiah and Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi, which was the sub-text of the Besht's
epistle.49 In this dialogue, the Messiah answers a question which was not directed to
him,50 while responding to the more important question in a most ambiguous way:
"'When will the Master come?' asked he.'Today,' was his answer." The word 'today' was
understood by R. Joshua as referring to a specific date, while Elijah completed the
quotation-"Today, if you will hear his voice, "thus making the Messiah's coming
Another possible explanation is that the Messiah's full answer to the Besht is a
combination of two different versions of the answer that were pieced together. One
version, probably in the first epistle, refers to the date:
"And when will the Master come? And his reply - '' - 'ה'ר'מ'ת'הis not to be revealed... and I
was astonished and I had a great sorrow about the extent of time involved."
The other version, probably in the second epistle, refers to the terms:
"And when will the Master come? In this way will you know of it: when your teaching
becomes famous and manifest in the world, and your springs are dispersed abroad, that
which I have taught you and you have comprehended. Then will others be capable of
performing unifications and having [soul] ascents as you do. Then will all the kelippot be
consumed, and it will be a time of grace and salvation… and when such a thing might be
In the first version, the Messiah communicated the date of his arrival -the year 1885 - but
the Besht was disappointed because it was not the date which he had expected. In the
second version, the focus was on the terms of the Messiah's arrival. At a very early stage,
somebody had combined the Messiah's answers in the two epistles, expanding the answer
and creating a new, integrated text.52
The text of the first epistle clarifies the messianic purpose of the ascent of the Besht's
soul. The Besht ascended to Heaven on New Year's Day, 1746, in order to verify his
messianic expectations. The truth that he discovered there brought disappointment and
frustration, and smashed his hopes of witnessing the coming of the Messiah in his
lifetime. Moreover, the 1746 messianic ordeal could be regarded as the last of the Besht's
attempts between the years 1740-1746 to bring the Messiah. The first attempt was his
failed journey to the Holy Land53 in the year ,)0471( ת"קwhich was predicted by some
Kabbalists to be the year of redemption.54 It may have been the failure of this journey that
prompted the Besht to conclude that the Messiah could not arrive before the mission of
raising the holy sparks from the abyss of evil was complete.55 Such a conclusion might
explain his subsequent dedication, during the years 1742-1746, to the correction - 'tikkun'
- of the sinning soul of Shabbetai Zevi, the false Messiah, in order to complete that
process.56 Only during his ascent tq Heaven in 1746 did the Besht learn that despite all
his spiritual efforts, he would not be granted the privilege of welcoming the Messiah oh
The Besht's experience in Heaven also influenced hisplan to join Rabbi Gershon in the
Holy Land. In 1750 the Besht received, at Luka's fair, a letter from Rabbi Gershon57
informing him that the Jerusalem rabbis "are eagerly awaiting your arrival."58 However,
in spite of his desire to see his beloved brother-in-law, and his affinity for the Holy Land,
the Besht made no second attempt to leave the Diaspora. In his 1752 epistle to Rabbi
Gershon, the Besht hinted that he would not join him in Jerusalem after all. Although he
tendered no explanation, his despair of emigration to the Holy Land as an operative plan
was probably connected to his l746 realization that redemption was still far away.59 He
also ceased to support Rabbi Jakob Joseph of Polonnoye's planned journey to
However, the Besht did not change his view concerning the essential and indispensable
role of the Holy Land in the process of historical and cosmic redemption, nor did he
develop an alternative concept of redemption in and within the Diaspora. A clue can be
found in his words in the first epistle: "My soul grieved for myself and for my friends at
the prospect of my dying abroad." A similar note issues from the closing salutation of the
second epistle: "God knows that I do not despair of travelling to the Land of Israel, if it
be God's will, to be together with you. It is only that the time is not in accord with it."61
Hence, the time of the Messiah had not yet arrived. The hearts were already reclaimed
and the bodies were willing, but it was not God's will to redeem his people at this specific
moment in history. The Besht had no choice but to submit to the Divine Will
Thus, the account of the Besht's voyage to the holy palaces of Heaven is not a tale of
personal failure. It does not express a spiritual conversion antagonistic to the Kabbalist
method of apocalyptic speculations, nor does it mark the beginning of a new religious
path. More than anything, it is an-account of misfortune and bad luck; everything is ready
for the arrival of the Messiah, except the Messiah himself, for "the time is not in accord
The 1746 messianic expectations of the Besht faded to materialize. Yet they left a legacy,
sealed in esoteric writings, which, refused to disappear. The messianic impulse
burgeoned anew in the proximity of the year 1781, projected to be the year of redemption
by Kabbalistic calculations predating Hasidism. One of these Kabbalists, Immanuel Hai
Ricchi, was a commentator on Lurianic Kabbalah and the author of Mishnat Hasidim
(Amsterdam 1727)63 and Yosher Levav (Amsterdam 1737, Krakow 1890), which in
certain Hasidic circles became one of the books necessary to the understanding of the
secrets of redemption.64 According to Hai Ricchi's numeration in Yosher Levav, the
process of redemption was to start in )0471( ת"קand reach its climax in the eighth month
(Iyar) of ,)1871( תקמ"אwith the coming of the Messiah:
"I also found it explicitly stated in the Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 48. Thus six and
a half hours of His [God's] day means 541 years and eight months of our years and
months.65 Consequently, according to the words of RaShBi, in the year 541 (= תקמ"א
1781) and two thirds, the mount of the Lord's house shall be ready. For then shall Israel
be relieved from the troubles and wars that accompany the advent of the Messiah.
Accordingly, during the period 1740-1781 and two thirds, they [the wars] will gradually
disappear, so that by [the end of] that period we shall be joyous and glad. And here is the
sign - Though it tarry, wait for it, because it will surely come. (Habakkuk, 2:3)"66
This calculation was quoted by Rabbi Samuel Ben Eliezer of Kalwaria, who lived in the
Besht's generation. Rabbi Samuel repeated the prophecy in his book Darkhei Noam
(Koenigsberg 1764), determining that, 'In the year 1781 and eight months, as stated, our
righteous Messiah will not delay in coming."67
The eighth month of 1781 became a crucial date for an esoteric Kabbalistic circle, led by
one of the Besht's disciples, Rabbi Yechiel Michael, the Zlotshover maggid.68
Apparently, the latter's charismatic personality captivated his disciples and augmented
messianic expectations, as the year 1781 drew near. As part of their messianic activities,
his followers began to print Kabbalistic material, in accordance with the belief that
spreading the secrets of Kabbalah would hurry the coming of the Messiah.69 The Korez
printing house printed a series of Kabbalistic books between 1778-1782.70 Among them
were the Zohar (1778), Sefer Yezira71 (1779), Tikkunei Zohar (1780), Sefer ha-Kane
(1782) and the Lurianic Ez Haim72 printed in 1782 for the first time. The first Hasidic
books to be printed were Toledot Yakob Yosef (Korez 1780) by Rabbi Jacob Joseph of
Polonnoye and Maggid Devarav le-Yaakov (Korez 1781) by Rabbi Dov Ber, the
The second book of Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, Ben Porat Yosef was also printed
in 1781, with the second version of the Besht's Holy Epistle included as an appendix.73
The printers went out of their way to emphasize the date of the printing. As Aryeh
Morgenstern has pointed out,74 they inserted an unusual addition below the epistle's
closing salutation: "And the work has been completed by those who carry out holy work
faithfully, on Tuesday, the twentieth of Iyar, 1781."75 This addition was followed by the
six names of the printer and the typesetters. The date was neither accidental nor arbitrary;
according to the calculations of Immanuel Hai Ricchi and Samuel Ben Eliezer of Kalvira,
it was the projected date of redemption.
Printing the Besht's second epistle on this special date exposed the messianic purpose
behind the printing. The second epistle lacks the first part of the Messiah's reply, while
highlighting the second part of this reply. Apparently, the prophetic expression, "when
your teaching becomes famous and manifest in the world, and your springs are dispersed
abroad," was understood literally, in the most practical terms. Thus, printing the Besht's
epistle and disseminating his teachings through his disciples' books were considered to be
a fulfilment of the Messiah's terms for his arrival.
The 1781 attempt turned into another disappointment, followed by a series of bans and
the death of the circle's leader, Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal. It temporarily brought the messianic
chapter in the history of Hasidism to a close,76 but enabled the growth of a mass
movement on the ruins of the founders' dreams and hopes.
This article is a chapter in a larger research entitled The Messianic Secret of Hasidism. I
thank Prof. Joseph Dan, Prof. Rachel Elior and Prof. Moshe Idel for their fruitful remarks. I
am most grateful, too, to Rachel Yarden for the translation.
See: Scholem, G., "Demuto ha-Historit shel Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov," in: Shapira, A.
(editor) Devarim be-Go, Tel Aviv 1976, pp. 287-324; Roseman, M.J., "Miedzyboz and Rabbi
Israel Baal Shem Tov," in: Hundrert, G.D., (editor), Essential Papers on Hasidism, Origins to
Present, New York and London 1991, pp. 275-299.
Regarding Rabbi Gershon of Kutov and his immigration to the Holy Land, see: Heschel, A.
J., "Rabbi Gershon Kutover," The Hebrew Union College Annual (HUCA) 33, Cincinnati
(1950-1951) part 2, pp. 17-71. Dinur, B.Z., "The Beginning of Hasidism and Its Social and
Messianic Elements," (Heb.) in: Be-Mifneh ha-Dorot, Jerusalem 1955, p. 191. Parts of
Dinur's article have been translated into English. See: Hundert G. D. (editor), Essential
Papers on Hasidism, Origins to Present, New York and London 1991, pp. 86-208; Bernai, J.,
"Al Ahyato shel Rabbi Abraham Gershon mi-Kutov Ie-Erez Yisrael," Zion 42 (1977) pp.
110-119; Bernai, J., Iggerot Hasidim me-Erez Yisrael, Jerusalem 1980, pp. 23.
ראש השנה תק"זThe Hebrew year תק"זstarts in September 1746 and ends in 1747.
As he is called in the second epistle. See: "The Holy Epistle," Ben Porat Yosef (appendix),
Korez 1781. Rabbi Aryeh Leib was one of the Besht's first disciples, with their affiliation
predating the year 1738. See: Rubinstein, A. (editor), Shivhei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Ba'al
Shem Tov), Jerusalem 1991, p. 232.
See: The Holy Epistle, Ben Porat Yosef (appendix), Korez 1781.
The Fraenkel-Bauminger version, which is the equivalent of Korez, dates the second epistle
to Parashat Teruma 1752 in Rashkov.
See: The Holy Epistle, Ben Porat Yosef (appendix), Korez 1781.
See: The Holy Epistle, Ben Porat Yosef (appendix), Korez 1781. For English translations of
the second epistle, see: Jacobs, L., Jewish Mystical Testimonies, New York 1976, pp. 148-
155; Rosman, M., Founder of Hasidism, A Quest For the Historical Ba'al Shem Tov, Los
Angeles - London 1996, pp. 97-113.
Fraenkel, D. Mikhtavim meha-Besht Za"l ve-Talmidav, Lemberg 1923.
The authenticity and reliability of the Fraenkel-Bauminger version has been discussed at
length. See: Rubinstein, A., 'Tggeret ha-Besht le-Rabbi Gershon mi-Kutov," Sinai 67 (1970)
pp. 120-139; Bauminger, M. S., "Le-Iggeret ha-Besht," Sinai 68 (1971) pp. 198-200;
Bauminger, M.S., "Iggerot Rabbenu Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov Za"L ve-Hatano Rabbi Yehiel
Mikhal Za"l le-Rabbi Avraham Gershon Za"l mi-Kutov," Sinai 71 (1972) pp. 248-269;
Rubinstein, A., "Al Ketav Yad me-Iggeret ha-Besht le-Rabbi Gershon mi-Kutov," Sinai 72
(1973), pp. 189-202; Bauminger, M.S., "Od le-Iggerot ha-Besht ve-Hatano le-Rabbi Avraham
Gershon mi-Kutov," Sinai 72 (1973), pp. 270-283; Mondschein, Y. (editor), Shivhei ha-Besht
(In Praise of The Ba'al Shem Tov), Jerusalem 1982, p. 233; Etkes, E., "Ha-Besht ha-Histori -
Bein Rekonstrukziah le-De-konstrukziah," Tarbiz 66 (1997), pp. 425-442.
See: Rozani, J., Iggeret Aliyat Neshama le-Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov, thesis submitted
for an M. A. degree under the guidance of Prof. Rachel Elior, The Hebrew University of
Kahana, A., Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov, Zhitomir 1900, pp. 100-102.
Kahana 1900, p. 100; Rozani 1997, pp. 12-15.
See: Gries, Z., Sifrut Hanhagot, Jerusalem 1989, under the article in the appendix on Rabbi
Isaiah Dunevich; Altshuler, M., Rabbi Meshullam Feivush Heller u-Mekomo be-Reshit ha-
Hasidut, thesis submitted for the degree Doctor of Philosophy under the guidance of Prof.
Joseph Dan, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1994, pp. 323-327.
Eventually, Sefer ha-Zoref and other Kabbahstic and Hasidic material were found in the
Stolin Geniza, belonging to the Karliner rabbinic dynasty. This Geniza was found and
described by Z. Rabinovich, "Min ha-Geniza ha-Stolinait," Zion 5 (1940), pp. 125-132.
See: Rabinovich 1940, p. 131.
See: Kahana 1900, p. 100.
Mondschein, Y. Migdal Oz, Kfar Habad 1980, pp. 419^26; Mondschein 1982, pp. 229-239.
See also: Rosman 1996, pp. 97-113; Altshuler 1994, pp. 127-148.
See: Mondschein 1982, pp. 229-230.
See: Mondschein 1982, pp.229-232.
Signs of this appear on the first page, where the manuscript's owner wrote the following
lines, unrelated to the body of the text:
"My innkeeper in Anabel (Al-Nabel) Mordechai Chadad ben Gemara?
His wife Achyah? Daughter of Esther
Her son Eliahu Her daughter Esther
His father's name Nissim ben Ephraim
His brothers Jehudah and Abraham and Zemach
His sisters Channah and Rivka and Gazelle."
Conceivably, the manuscript's owner wrote down the names of the Chadad family in order to
pray for them. Since the surname Chadad and first names Nissim, Tzemach and Gazelle are
common among Tunisian Jews, the manuscript evidently belonged to a Hasidic Jew who
passed through Al-Nabel, a Town in Tunis with a well known Jewish community, and
promised his innkeepers to pray for them upon his return to the Land of Israel. Thus, we can
reasonably assume that the writer of the address was one of the 1777 Hasidic immigrants, or
one of their descendants, who travelled from Tiberias to North Africa in later years. Such
voyages are recorded in documents of the Hasidic 'Kollel' in Tiberias, and I thank Mrs. Zvia
Tubby and her husband, Prof. Joseph Tubby, for clarifying the Tunisian context of the
address. This context explains why teachings of the immigrants' leader, Rabbi Menachem
Mendel of Vitebsk, were recorded at the end of the manuscript, and why the first sections of
the manuscript were dated the month of Tammuz 1776; the manuscript belonged to one of
the1777 Hasidic immigrants; as the caravan of immigrants set forth in the month of Adar
1777, a few months earlier the manuscript's owner had copied down Hasidic teachings to take
with the group to the Land of Israel. Similarly, we hear of Hasidic writings, brought to the
Land of Israel by the 1777 immigrants, from Rabbi Meshulam Feibush Heller, who wrote
from Eastern Galicia to his brother-in-law Rabbi Joel, one of the 1777 immigrants, about "a
number of wonderful secrets ... some of which are recorded in the writings of your camp."
See: Likkutim Yekarim, (Lemberg 1792) Jerusalem 1981, p. 130b.
For a detailed comparison between the Rothschild 8 5979 version and the Kahana version,
see: Rozani 1997, pp. 35-50.
Either by one of the copyists, or by Kahana himself when he published the epistle.
In the Rothschild version. See: Mondschein 1982, pp. 229-230.
Some of the differences between the first and second epistles have been discussed at length.
See: Mondschein 1982, pp.229-239; Rosman 1996, pp.97-113; Etkes 1997, pp. 425-442;
Rozani 1997, pp. 27-82.
See: Ben Porat Yosef (appendix), Korez 1781: "And on New Year's Day 5510 (1750) I
performed an ascent of the soul, as is known, and I saw a great accusation, until the evil side
almost received permission to completely destroy regions and communities."
See: Mondschein l982, p.231.
30 See: Kahana 1900, p. 102; Mondschein 1982, p. 230.
The Besht himself confessed that the first epistle had included some information that was
left out from the second epistle. However, he ascribed the discrepancies to the weakness of
his memory. See: the second epistle, Ben Porat Yosef (appendix), Korez 1781: "... the news
and the secrets which I wrote to you via the Scribe the Rabbi Reprover of Polonnoye did not
reach you and I was also greatly pained by this ... At the present time I have, however,
forgotten some of the things in them, but details which I do remember I will write very
The paragraphs from the first epistle given here are translated from the Rothschild JNUL 8
5979 version as published by Y. Mondschein 1982, pp.233-237. For a detailed comparison
between the Rothschild version and the Cahana version, see now: Rozani l997, pp. 35-50.
See: Daniel 12:1: "And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince who standeth
for the children of thy people." See also: Bavli Hagiga, 12b: "Zevul is that in which [the
heavenly] Jerusalem and the Temple and the Altar are built, and Michael the great prince
stands and offers up thereon an offering, for it is said (I Kings 8:13): I have surely built Thee
a house of habitation - Zevul - a place for thee to dwell in for ever." See also 'The Midrash of
the Ten Commandments,' in: Bet ha-Midrasch, Jellinek, A., Jerusalem 1938, Vol. 1, p. 64: "in
Zevul there is an Altar and Michael the great prince of Israel is a high priest and he stands
and offers up thereon an offering every day. And what are the offerings? … The souls of
Zadikim until the Temple is built and God will bring down the high Temple of Zevul to
earthly Jerusalem." It should be noted that Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye wrote in Toledot
Ya'akov Yosef, section 2, Devarim, p. 614: "My Master Teacher [the Besht] performed
ascents of the soul and saw how Michael, the great guardian of Israel, spoke in favour of
Israel." The great prince Michael is not mentioned in the Besht's second epistle, which was in
the possession of Rabbi Jacob Joseph. Therefore, his remark in Toledot Ya'akov Yosef
strengthens the conclusion that he knew the text of the first epistle as well.
'Righteous' (Zadikim). See also: Daniel 2:6, 5:17, 7:9-15. The Besht portrays the day of
divine judgment taking place in heaven on New Year's Day (Rosh Hashanah). Apparently,
the Besht's description is based on Daniel's prophecy regarding the Day of Judgment.
Moreover, Daniel's Day of Judgment is closely linked to his attempt to predict the exact date
of the end of days, which is also the Besht's purpose in his ascent to heaven. See also: Elior,
R., "Rabbi Josef Karo ve-Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov: Metamorfoza Mistit, Hashra'a
Kabbalit ve-Hafnama Ruhanit," Tarbiz 65 (1996), pp. 671-709. It should be noted that the
Besht's great-grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Braslav, also regarded Rosh Hashanah as the day
of redemption. See: Liebes, Y., "Ha-Tikkun ha-kelali shel Rabbi Nahman me-Braslav ve-
Yehaso la-Shab-taut," Zion 45 (1980), pp. 201-245. Prior to Hasidism, we find it in the
writings of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia that connected Rosh Hashana with redemption and the
rising of the Messiah, using numerology to prove it. Rabbi Abraham defined the esoteric
knowledge about the coming of the Messiah as a prophecy given to him through a divine
voice. See: Idel, M., Ha-Havaya ha-Mistit ezel Avraham Abulafia, Jerusalem 1988, pp. 110-
כמו במתן תורה
Acronym to denote a secret that cannot be revealed - veda"l וד"ל
The two marked sentences do not appear in the second epistle. The Besht's remark, "and
perhaps because of that it is the appropriate thing to do. veda"l," is not clear. It is difficult to
understand what was the "appropriate thing to do" before his dying abroad. Maybe the Besht
is referring here to his desire to emigrate to the Holy Land, which is mentioned in the next
The marked sentence does not appear in the second epistle.
The Besht's question to the Messiah follows a Talmudic dialogue between Rabbi Joshua
Ben Levi and the Messiah by the town gates of Rome. See below.
This sentence does not appear in the second epistle.
See Proverbs 5:16, "Let thy springs be dispersed abroad." For a similar use of this verse in
the prophets, transmitted to Rabbi Joseph Karo by his divine mentor, see: Elior 1996, pp.
An appellation for the forces of evil - קליפות
The Holy Epistle, Ben Porat Yosef (appendix), Korez 1781.
The Holy Epistle, Ben Porat Yosef (appendix), Korez 1781.
והיתה תשובתו הרמ' אי אפשר לגלות
The Besht repeats several times the prohibition to reveal the Messiah's secrets, perhaps
mainly the secret of redemption, even to Rabbi Gershon. See: The Holy Epistle, Ben Porat
Yosef (appendix), Korez 1781: "But no permission was given to me to reveal this secret for
the rest of my life. I did request that I be allowed to teach it to you but no permission at all
was given to me and I am duty bound on oath to keep the secret."
5645 in the Hebrew counting.
Bavli Sanhedrin, 98a: "Rabbi Joshua ben Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R.
Simeon b. Yohai's tomb. He asked him: 'Have I a portion in the world to come?' He replied:
'If this Master desires it.' He then asked him: 'When will the Messiah come?' 'Go and ask him
himself,' was his [Elijah's] reply. 'Where is he sitting?' 'At the entrance of Rome.' 'And by
what sign may I recognize him?' 'He is sitting among the poor lepers. All of them untie [the
bandages of their sores for dressing] all at once, but rebandage them together, whereas he
unties and rebandages each separately, thinking, should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.'
So he [R. Joshua] went to him [the Messiah] and greeted him, saying: 'Peace upon thee,
Master and Teacher.' 'Peace upon thee, O Son of Levi,' he [the Messiah] replied. 'When will
the Master come?' asked he. Today,' was his answer. On his returning to Elijah, the latter en-
quired: 'What did he say to you?' 'Peace upon thee, O Son of Levi,' he answered. Thereupon
he [Elijah] observed: 'He [the Messiah] thereby assured you and your father of the world to
come.' 'He [the Messiah] spoke falsely to me,' R. Joshua rejoined, 'stating that he would come
today, but he has not.' He [Elijah] answered him: 'this is what he [the Messiah] said to you:
Today, if you will hear his voice.'" (PS. 115:7).
The first question of R. Joshua b. Levi was directed to Elijah: "Have I a portion in the
world to come?"
Elijah's role here is that of mediator and interpreter between the Messiah and ordinary
people, which is also the Besht's role in his ascent to heaven. Moreover, Elijah's mentor was
Ahijah the Shilonile, who was also the heavenly mentor of the Besht.
The fact that the expanded reply appears in both versions - the 1776 Rothschild version and
the Kahana 1782 [?] version - excludes the possibility of a later addition or fabrication. See
also: Mondschein 1982, pp.231, 235; Rosman 1996, pp. 103-104. My conclusion is that both
first and second epistles were known in Hasidic circles by 1776-1781.
See: Shivhei ha-Besht (Rubinstein) 1991, pp.52-54, 129-132; Dinur 1955, pp.192-206.
See: Shivhei ha-Besht (Rubinstein) 1991, p. 239; Bartal, I., "Aliyat Rabbi Elazar Rokah
me-Amsterdam le-Erez Yisrael," in: Michman, Y., (editor) Mehkarim al Toledot Yahadut
Holand 4, Jerusalem 1985, pp. 7-25; Bernai, J., "Hidush ha-Yeshuv ha-Yehudi bi-Teveria bi-
Shnat 1740 u-Mashmauto ha-Historit," Shevet ve-Am 8 (1978)pp. 35-62; Asaf 1996, p. 340.
See the testimony of Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, p. 729: "I
heard in the name of my Master Teacher [the Besht,] that when he went on his famous
journey [to the Holy Land], his Rabbi [the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite] showed him in that
place, that all the journeys of Israel in the desert and all the journeys of man can be found in
the Torah. And when his ship broke and he was in great sadness, his Rabbi came ... and
showed him what worlds [sefirot?] he was in - the [worlds of the] names ' אהיand the
combination ' .אהיAnd he [the Besht] strengthened his heart to sweeten them in their roots as
he knows etc. ".ודפח"חThe Besht intended to "sweeten the worlds," by changing their evil
nature into holiness and thereby repairing the Divine Name .אהי"הReforming the evil soul of
Shabbetai Zevi was part of this process. See also: Yaari, A., Iggerot Erez Yisrael, Ramat Gan
l971, p. 284; Dinur 1955, p. 196.
See: Shivhei ha-Besht (Rubinstein) 1991, pp. 133-134; Dinur 1955, pp. 188-192; Liebes
1980, p.226; Liebes, Y., "Hadashot le-Inyan ha-Besht ve-Shabbetai Zevi," Mehkarei
Yerushalaim be-Mahshevet Yisrael 1983, pp. 564-569.
See: The Holy Epistle, Ben Porat Yosef (appendix), Korez l781: "I received [the letter] at
the Luka fair in the year 5510 (1750) which you sent by the hand of the envoy from
Jerusalem." The letter received at the Luka fair was probably the second letter. The Besht did
not receive Rabbi Gershon's first letter, which was written in 1748 and "sent by the hand of a
man who was travelling from Egypt."
See: Bernai 1980, p. 40.
59 A hint can be found in Rabbi Gershon's letter to the Besht. See: Bernail980, p. 40:
"[But] what can I do for I know of your nature that you have to pray in your minyan, except
for the other things. So I have despaired of your coming to the Holy Land unless the King the
Rabbi Jakob Joseph had planned more than once to immigrate to Jerusalem, but failed to
realize his intentions "due to an obstruction brought about by God; blessed be He." Yet the
obstruction was evidently the Besht's objection, as demonstrated in Shivhei ha-Besht. See:
Shivhei ha-Besht (Rubinstein) 1991, p.l06. See also: Bernai, J., "Some Clarifications on the
Land of Israel's Stories in Praise of the Baal Shem Tov," Revue des Etudes Juives 146 (1987),
The Holy Epistle, Ben Porat Yosef (appendix), Korez 1781.
Most scholars have tried to find in the Besht's epistle a manifesto of a new Hasidism or
some other original gospel, which it does not include. See: Dubnov, S., Toledot ha-Hasidut,
Tel Aviv  1960, pp. 60-62; Buber, M., Be-Pardes ha-Hasidut, Tel Aviv 1945, p. 21;
Dinur 1955, p. 206; Scholem l976, pp. 287-324; Scholem, G., "The Neutralization of the
Messianic Element in Early Hasidism," The Messianic Idea in Judaism, New York 
1978, pp. 176-202; Scholem, G., "Devekut, or Communion with God," in: Hundert G.D.
(editor), Essential Papers on Hasidism, Origins to Present, New York and London 1991, pp.
275-299. Only Isaiah Tishby pointed out that the Besht aimed to bring redemption using the
traditional Kabbalstic means of holy magic, such as ascents of the soul, holy names and
'Yichudim.' See: Tishby, I., "Ha-Rayon ha-Meshihi ve-ha-Megamot ha-Meshihiot be-Zemihat
ha-Hasidut," Zion 32 (1967), pp. 32, 45. Now see: Idel, M., Kabbalah - New Perspectives,
New Haven and London 1988, pp. 94-95; Idel, M., Hasidism - between Ecstasy and Magic,
New York 1995, pp. 79. Idel defines the Besht's spiritual experience as magical mysticism,
pointing out that "the Besht's magical and mystical teachings may be regarded as having mes-
sianic implications, and the Besht himself may be seen as a moderate redemptive figure
whose work included magical components."
It should be noted that Rabbi Jakob Emden, a fierce enemy of Sabbateanism, issued a
prohibition against praying according to Mishnat Hasidim. See: Idel 1995, p. 150.
Nevertheless, the Besht probably knew the 'Kavanot of prayer' in Mishnat Hasidim and might
even have practiced them as suggested in Shivhei ha-Besht (Rubinstein) 1991, pp. 251-252.
Yosher Levav is mentioned by Rabbi Meshulam Feibush Heller, a disciple of Rabbi Yechiel
Michael, the Maggid of Zlotshov. See: Likkutim Yekarim (Lemberg 1792) Jerusalem 1981,
p.l31a. It should be noted that Rabbi Meshulam's epistles were titled Yosher Divrei Emet,
potentially influenced by Yosher Levav. I thank Dr. Aryeh Morgenstern for sharing this
information with me.
According to the Talmudic Tractate Sanhedrin, 97a, a thousand of years equal one day (12
hours) in the counting of God.
Hai Ricchi's numeration was based upon the numerology of three words in Habakkuk, 2:3:
"Though it tarry, wait." ,145 = א"ם יתמהמ"הwhich marks the year 1781. The first letter of
'wait' – חכ"הis 8 = ' ,חwhich indicates the eighth month of 1781. For the Hebrew source, see:
Hai Riccbi, Yosher Levav, Krakow 1890, p. 47. I thank Dr. Aryeh Morgenstern for sharing
this information with me. See also: Tishby 1967, p. 17.
See: Tishby 1967, pp. 16-17.
See: Altshuler 1994, pp. 30-51, 83-126. Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal was portrayed by Rabbi
Avraham Joshua Heschel of Apt as practicing ascents of the soul to heaven. See: Mayim
Rabbim, Brooklyn 1979, p. 140; Idel 1988, p. 95.
For a full bibliography, see: Altshuler 1994, p. 56 note 119. See also: Balaban, M., Le-
Toledot ha-Tenuah ha-Frankit, TeI Aviv 1944, pp. 127-135.
See: Altshuler 1994, pp. 51-60.
The Book of Creation.
The Tree of Life.
In his lecture "Messianism in the Beginning of Hasidism," delivered at the International
Congress for Jewish Studies, Jerusalem 1997.
See: The last page of Ben Porat Yosef, Korez 1781:
" ותשלם המלאכה על ידי עוסקי במלאכת הקודש באמונה ביום שהוכפל בו כי טוב חמישה ושלושים למב"י [למנין
".בני ישראל] לסדר ולפרט בהר סיני לאמר
The term '" "למנין בני ישראלrefers to the Counting of the Omer. " "בהר סיניand " "אמורare the
weekly Torah portions that are read in the second and the third weeks of the month Iyyar.
See: Altshuler 1994, pp. 51-60, 285-291.