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Sunday, 10 September 2017

143) DO THE CHERSON LETTERS CHANGE SOME ASPECTS OF POPULAR CHASSIDIC HISTORY?

APPEAL TO THE RUSSIANS:

During the past few months, while working on the first English translation of the Cherson Letters, I noticed that there has been an usually high spike in readership from Russia. Surprisingly there is generally quite a strong component of Russian readers - and I am honoured by that – but there have literally been many thousands of Russian views on the Cherson letters in particular.

We know that, according to some accounts, these letters were hurriedly copied during the Russian Revolution of 1917 (in which grandfather participated), to save the contents from confiscation by the authorities.

If these letters are genuine and not the forgeries that many allege, then some of the original documents may still be in Russia.

If any of the Russian readers have ANY information that they are willing to share please email me privately at baalshem@global.co.za. I undertake not to publish anything without permission.
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A sample of the writing of the Rav of Rashkov, the scribe who copied the Sefer haTzoref for the Baal Shem Tov (see Document 32).

DO THE CHERSON LETTERS CHANGE SOME ASPECTS OF POPULAR CHASSIDIC HISTORY?
Most of us have read popular accounts of the Baal Shem Tov’s birth, his hiding from and then his revelation to the world.
‘KI TOV’:
One point that comes up, again and again, is that the Baal Shem Tov was preceded by many other Baal Shems (without the Tov). Among them was R. Eliyahu Baal Shem of Worms (1555-1636), who was followed by R. Yoel Baal Shem of Zamosc (d. around 1720) and then finally by R. Adam Baal Shem who was R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov’s teacher. Baal Shem was a generic term which applies to healers and ‘miracle workers’.

R. Israel, though, was the first to be called Baal Shem Tov.

However, surprisingly in our letters, it turns out to be exactly the opposite. R. Adam always signs his name as Adam Baal Shem Tov, whereas R. Yisrael refers to himself simply as Baal Shem!

The popular literature is at pains to explain how Tov was added only to R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov because he wasn’t just a ‘common kabbalist’ who knew how to ‘manipulate the names of G-d and the angels’ but he could change G-d’s mind for good and always avert evil decrees.

 Another reason was that he represented the ‘ki tov’ as referred in Genesis (G-d saw that the light was ‘good’). And he, therefore, represents another step closer to the ‘Light of Messiah’.

- Yet, according to the letters, amazingly, R. Adam signed as Baal Shem Tov, while R. Yisrael just signed as Baal Shem.

WHEN DID R. YISRAEL FIRST MEET R. ADAM?

Another example is that popular history has it that the Baal Shem Tov joined the secret band of mystics, known as Machaneh Yisrael, when he was just 14 years old. This group was then headed by R. Adam Baal Shem (Tov).

-Yet, according to the letters, although he was his teacher and he transferred to him the ‘secret writings’, R. Adam had never met the Baal Shem Tov until he came out of hiding at the age of 36. There are, as we have seen, numerous references to the fact that R. Adam had never met R. Yisrael until then.

THE ISSUE OF SCHOLARSHIP:

A further controversial and very uncomfortable example relates to the question of the scholarship of the Baal Shem Tov. I am not suggesting that he was not a great scholar, but there are letters were on the Baal Shem Tov’s own admission he ‘could not learn’. 

While he may have, as is usually explained, hidden his scholarship from all those around him until he turned 36 when he revealed himself to the world (this is actually borne out by one letter where he apologises to R. Gershon Kitover) - there are other (later) letters where he calls for assistance from the Maggid (or R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye) to debating with their opponents because they knew how to ‘argue according to the Talmud’[1]

There is also a letter where, after receiving the ‘secret teachings’ he admits openly that does not understand them and needs someone to explain them to him.

ORGANIC GROWTH?

The early Chassidic movement is often portrayed as having undergone a process of organic growth, spreading like wildfire from the bottom up as it became more popular amongst the masses.  The letters, however, depict a different course – one where it spread from the top down. There are many examples of the Baal Shem attempting (very successfully) to attract leaders who were already popular and respected in their own right, with the expressed aim of growing the movement.

To broaden their reach, strategy, planning and what we today would call ‘marketing’, was crucial particularly during the early stages of the dissemination of the early Chassidic movement (much as it still is today in many cases). People were positioned in various places and the movement, particularly under the Maggid, was ruled and controlled with an iron fist and exacting eye. 

There was also an obsession with numbers and it appears as if the reason why the Maggid was appointed to take over the reins from the Baal Shem Tov (instead of R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye) was specifically that he would have a ‘double portion’ of followers[2].

These are just some observations thus far and more will emerge as we progress further.

(See here for why I believe these letters are not forgeries.)
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LETTERS FROM THE CHERSON GENIZA TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH FOR THE FIRST TIME.

(PART 12.)

If you have never read these letters before, see here and here for an important introduction and general contextualization.

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OVERVIEW TO THIS SERIES OF LETTERS (1735-1740):


  • In this series of letters, dated 1735 – 1740, we read how the Baal Shem Tov, who was prohibited from travelling to Israel by his teacher, R. Adam Baal Shem Tov, was going to try to change his teacher’s mind and join his brother-in-law on his journey to the Holy Land. (Doc. 312)
  • There is another letter from R. Adam Baal Shem Tov referring to the ‘secret writings’ which had to reach the Baal Shem Tov and no one else. (Doc. 18)
  • There is an interesting letter which could imply that the Baal Shem Tov did not just receive the ‘secret writings’ from R. Adam, but perhaps also from the rabbinical figure and Head of the Court, R. Chaim  Rappoport.   (Doc. 279)
  • And there is a letter from the Baal Shem Tov which, taken in a literal sense, paints him as being perhaps not as humble as we would have imagined. (Doc. 27)

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DOCUMENT 312:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to his brother-in-law, R Gershon Kitover, informing him that he was going to try to get permission from his teacher to rescind his ban[3] on travelling to the Holy Land:

B”H

Wednesday evening (Parshat) Vayikra. 5495 (1735). Telusk.

To my dear brother-in-law, the great and holy rabbi and gaon, a man of G-d etc. etc. etc., our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Gershon, n’y.

I see that even you, holy and honourable one have decided in your heart to go up to the Holy Land, may it be rebuilt and rehabilitated speedily in our days, Amen[4].

Even though I too have already decided in my heart (to also journey to the Holy Land) but my teacher and rabbi is still at one (and is adamant) that he will not permit me (to travel there).

Therefore, when on this forthcoming Shabbat, may it descend upon us for good, I merit, G-d willing, to see him (my teacher) and if I (manage to change his mind) and get permission to go up (to the Holy Land), I shall immediately inform you, honourable and holy one, and we shall go up together to the House of G-d. Amen, so may it be His will.

From your brother-in-law who loves you with my heart and soul.

All the members of my household, n’y, send regards,

Yisrael Baal Shem from here (in) the above mentioned holy community.

(P.s.:) The members of my household send regards.

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DOCUMENT 18:

Letter from R. Adam Baal Shem Tov to his son, R. Leib, telling him that the ‘writings’ he had given him[5] must be given to the Baal Shem Tov, although he does not know where he is hiding:


B”H

Wednesday (Parshat) Emor 5495 (1735).

To my dear and important son, our teacher the rabbi, Leib, may you live.

Know that all the ‘writings’ which I have handed over to you are destined for the G-dly rabbi, Mr Yisrael who is known as Baal Shem Tov.

And I do not know where he is.

But this I do know; that he is very holy and awesome. And that his words are heard Above.
Search and seek after him and hand (the ‘writings’) over to him.

For I am ‘Adam’ (a man) but he is an ‘Ish’ (a person)[6].

(So) transfer to his holy hand (all the ‘writings’) because he will (bring a) fragrance to the world.

From your father who writes and signs (this letter) and who loves you,

Adam Baal Shem Tov of Ropshitz.

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DOCUMENT 213:

Letter from R. Mordechai of Dalishchick to the Baal Shem Tov telling him he met his teacher and that he was informed that a ‘wonder’ was predicted to take place in the year 5507:




B”H

Wednesday (Parshat) Korach, Brody. 5495.

To my honourable colleague, a man of G-d, the pious man who is the foundation of the world, Mr Yisroelik of Telusk.

I saw your teacher[7] and in the year 5507, G-d willing, we (you) will see wonders.

This is what I received from your teacher.

From the one who loves you with heart and soul,

Mordechai of Dalishchick[8].      

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DOCUMENT 310:

Letter of a Kabbalistic nature[9] from the Baal Shem Tov to his brother-in-law R. Gershon Kitover:




B”H

Erev Shavuot 5496 (1736) Brody.

To my brother-in-law the holy rabbi and gaon, the holy illuminator, famous (for scholarship in) revealed and hidden (Torah), a man of life and many wonders etc. etc. etc., our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi A(vraham) Gershon, n’y.

In short, if you, honourable and holy one, will listen to me, you will make your pidyon[10] like this:   
  
From rasha (evil) (to) osher (wealth)[11].

And from chalash (weak) (to) lachash (quiet).

Together they make shema chatzat[12]. Enough said.

And may G-d, blessed be He, ....(unreadable text) appreciate you for your knowledge.

From your brother-in-law who inquires after your well being,

Israel, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer, of Tesusk.

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DOCUMENT 279:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Chaim Rapoport[13], informing him that he will be returning the ‘ writings’ he had received from him:




B”H

Tuesday (Parshat) Noach 5500 (1740) Peret Katan[14]. Kerasna.

To my faithful and beloved, the holy and famous rabbi and gaon, the lion of upliftment, the awesome righteous one, and the esteemed luminary etc. etc., our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Chaim haKohen, n’ y,  of the Rapoport family.

I received all the writings today.

And in a month’s time, I shall send them back to your holy hand as we agreed.

From your beloved who is concerned about your well-being, like a brother from the womb,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem of Telusk.

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DOCUMENT 27:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Yitzchak of Drohbitch requesting he comes to visit him as so many other esteemed rabbis have done for the past six years since he came out of hiding:





With G-d’s help, Erev Rosh haShana, 5500 laPeret Katan[15], here in the holy community of Akop.

May the mountains carry greetings to the great man, who is exceedingly elevated and awesome etc., our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak, n’y, truth speaker from the holy community of Drohbitch.

Indeed I was informed by Heaven to reveal myself and to sanctify through me the name of Heaven, may (G-d’s name be) blessed and elevated.


It has now been about six years[16] (since my revelation) and, thank G-d, holy gaonim have flocked to me to hear my teachings and to ascend the mountain of G-d in along a quick path, which is clean and easy in quantity, yet on the contrary in quality is difficult.

The main thing is only the innermost (aspects) of the heart. Enough said.

(So) why do you, honourable and holy one, hold back from coming (to me).

It is true that these (High Holy) days are a time (for a rabbi) to preach – but on the festival of Sukkot, may it descend upon us for good, come, honourable and holy one to bask in the shadow (splendour) of faith.

From the one who loves you even without (ever) meeting you, who loves you in truth with a heart and soul that yearns for you forever,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem of Telusk.   
             
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[1] See unnumbered Document p. 124 haTamim: Wednesday (Parshat) Korach. Sudilkov.
[2] See unnumbered Document p. 124 haTamim: Thursday (Parshat) Korach. Medzebuzh.
[3] See Document 31. It is unclear whether the teacher referred to in this letter (Doc. 312) is R.Adam or Achiyah haShiloni. In Document 31 we clearly see that R. Adam banned his student from going to Eretz Yisrael, but the inference in this letter (Doc 312) seems to point to Achiya haShiloni who the Baal Shem hoped to merit to see on Friday night.
[4][4] Tvbb”a is an abbreviation for tibaneh vetikonen bimheira beyamenu Amen.
[5][5] This is interesting because this letter is dated 1735, yet two years earlier (Doc. 48 and 51 dated 1733)we see R. Adam handing over the ‘writings’ to his son to give to the Baal Shem Tov and more importantly, we see R. Adam confirming that the Baal Shem Tov had received them.
[6][6] This is intended (as we have seen in so many of R. Adam’s letters) as a great compliment and praise from the teacher to the student.
[7] This could either have been R. Adam or Achiya haShiloni.
[8] He was also known as Mordechai the Tzadik and was an early contemporary of the Baal Shem Tov. According to Hayom Yom (5th Iyyar): ‘Alter Rebbe.
R. Mordechai, born in the village of Bayev in Mohilev, studied under the Baal Shem Tov for two years and stands out as being the first person to introduce the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov to the counties of Mohilev, Minsk, and Vitebsk.
In Doc. 24, the Baal Shem Tov refers to R. Mordechai as ‘my colleague’, and also promises to keep his identity a secret.
We also know from Document 276 that R. Mordechai was, at some stage, also hiding together with the Baal Shem Tov.
[9] See Document 106 for a similar Kabbalistic letter.
[10] Redemption note.
[11] Both Hebrew words have the same letters except in different order.
[12] I do not understand this as the mem, tzadi, and tav are not found in the referenced words.
[13] Also known as R. Chaim haKohen Rapoport of Lvov (d. 13 Tamuz 1771). He was from a long line of accomplished rabbis who had their roots in Italy and Central Europe as early as the 1400’s. R. Chaim Rapoport was involved in the dispute concerning Bishop Mikolski (or Sikolski) who wanted to tear out the Aleinu prayer from all Jewish prayer books. (See Document 342.)
The following is pure speculation; In the letters, we do see examples of books being borrowed (Doc. 2). They are referred to as ‘sefarim’ (books). The ‘secret writings’, however, are referred to as ‘ketavim’ (writings). Could it be that the Baal Shem Tov did not just receive the ‘secret writings’ from R. Adam but also from the known and respected rabbinic figure R. Chaim Rapoport? If the theory that the ‘secret writings’ may have included the Sefer haTzoref, which was copied by the Baal Shem Tov’s scribe, the Rav of Rashkov – could it be that perhaps it was originally in the possession of R. Rapoport and during this one month period, it was copied and then returned? See Doc. 31. See KOTZK BLOG 129.
[14] A calendar designation.
[15] A calendar designation.
[16] This letter is dated 5500 (1740). Six years earlier would have corresponded to 5494 (1734). The Baal Shem Tov would have been 34 years old at the time of his revelation – or according to some accounts, he would have been born in 1698 (not 1700) and would, therefore, have been 36 years old.

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