Sefer Ha-Heshek

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on March 3, 2016. Click here for a video lecture on the topic.

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Working in the abandoned Judaica collection of the Kiev Vernadsky Library during the immediate post-Soviet period, a brilliant young Jewish historian named Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern discovered a rare 300-year-old manuscript. Ignored by Communist scholars for a century, the well-thumbed, 760-page manuscript, bound in leather with a wooden cover and copper breastplate, was not catalogued in any of the collections of the library. Its unusual Ashkenazic script and numerous drawings of complex Kabbalistic symbols fascinated Petrovsky-Shtern, who was on a personal journey to rediscover his ancestral faith. What was this mysterious, one-of-a-kind book?

After nine years of extensive research that took him to archives around the world, Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern published the answer. Sefer HaCheshek was a rare, secret guide to practical Kabbalah, written when Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of the Chassidic movement, was just beginning to deliver his revolutionary teachings. The author’s name itself sheds light on the significance of the text. Hillel styled himself as a Ba’al Shem, literally Master of the Name [of G‑d], a term used to describe itinerant amulet-makers who typically sold their services to simple Jews seeking Kabbalistic remedies for their problems. Shaman-like, these frequently unlearned and often unscrupulous individuals traveled from shtetl to shtetl, performing exorcisms, treating various ailments, and writing amulets for a wide variety of purposes: health, prosperity, marriage, children. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, by contrast, was known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, the “Good” Master of the Name, because his work was of an entirely different order.

The Sefer HaCheshek contains both extensive instruction in Kabbalistic healing and a surprising degree of autobiographical information. Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern, now a distinguished historian at Northwestern University in Chicago, argues convincingly that the manuscript was written as a type of curriculum vitae, as Hillel wished to end his peripatetic existence and secure a permanent position, preferably in Germany. Sefer HaCheshek was intended as a demonstration of his experience and expertise, having apprenticed to both medical doctors and reputable Kabbalists. Whether or not he received the position—an honor that was bestowed on his contemporary, the Ba’al Shem Tov, in the Ukrainian town of Medzhybizh—is unknown. Nevertheless, Hillel Ba’al Shem’s description of his prior experiences (especially a dramatic exorcism in Ostrah) illustrates the state of popular religious practice in pre-Beshtian Eastern Europe, and provides a vivid backdrop for the emergence of Chassidism.

Why did Chassidism flourish, and the populist, theurgic Kabbalah of Hillel and other ba’aleiShem decline? Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern provides a salient analysis by identifying what was absent in Sefer HaCheshek. Despite its encyclopedic coverage of remedies for every possible physical, psychological, romantic, and economic malady, Hillel Ba’al Shem delivers no message of universal human redemption. Unlike the Ba’al Shem Tov, whose teachings emphasized human potential and the value of community, Hillel relies on magical one-time fixes, not personal spiritual growth. To the crestfallen he offers no counsel; to the bereft, no benefit. The terminology employed in his work is similar—Hillel refers to Kabbalistic disciples as chassidim, for example—but the contrast between the numerous but forgotten Ba’alei Shem and the magnificent Chassidic world founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov could not be more profound.

Who Was Hillel Ba’al Shem?

A mysterious figure of the early 18th century whose work, recently discovered by Dr. Yohanan Petrovsky-Stern, sheds light on the world of popular culture from which Hasidism emerged.

 

Click here for the Prezi associated with this lecture.

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on March 3, 2016.

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Working in the abandoned Judaica collection of the Kiev Vernadsky Library during the immediate post-Soviet period, a brilliant young Jewish historian named Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern discovered a rare 300-year-old manuscript. Ignored by Communist scholars for a century, the well-thumbed, 760-page manuscript, bound in leather with a wooden cover and copper breastplate, was not catalogued in any of the collections of the library. Its unusual Ashkenazic script and numerous drawings of complex Kabbalistic symbols fascinated Petrovsky-Shtern, who was on a personal journey to rediscover his ancestral faith. What was this mysterious, one-of-a-kind book?

After nine years of extensive research that took him to archives around the world, Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern published the answer. Sefer HaCheshek was a rare, secret guide to practical Kabbalah, written when Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of the Chassidic movement, was just beginning to deliver his revolutionary teachings. The author’s name itself sheds light on the significance of the text. Hillel styled himself as a Ba’al Shem, literally Master of the Name [of G‑d], a term used to describe itinerant amulet-makers who typically sold their services to simple Jews seeking Kabbalistic remedies for their problems. Shaman-like, these frequently unlearned and often unscrupulous individuals traveled from shtetl to shtetl, performing exorcisms, treating various ailments, and writing amulets for a wide variety of purposes: health, prosperity, marriage, children. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, by contrast, was known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, the “Good” Master of the Name, because his work was of an entirely different order.

The Sefer HaCheshek contains both extensive instruction in Kabbalistic healing and a surprising degree of autobiographical information. Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern, now a distinguished historian at Northwestern University in Chicago, argues convincingly that the manuscript was written as a type of curriculum vitae, as Hillel wished to end his peripatetic existence and secure a permanent position, preferably in Germany. Sefer HaCheshek was intended as a demonstration of his experience and expertise, having apprenticed to both medical doctors and reputable Kabbalists. Whether or not he received the position—an honor that was bestowed on his contemporary, the Ba’al Shem Tov, in the Ukrainian town of Medzhybizh—is unknown. Nevertheless, Hillel Ba’al Shem’s description of his prior experiences (especially a dramatic exorcism in Ostrah) illustrates the state of popular religious practice in pre-Beshtian Eastern Europe, and provides a vivid backdrop for the emergence of Chassidism.

Why did Chassidism flourish, and the populist, theurgic Kabbalah of Hillel and other ba’aleiShem decline? Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern provides a salient analysis by identifying what was absent in Sefer HaCheshek. Despite its encyclopedic coverage of remedies for every possible physical, psychological, romantic, and economic malady, Hillel Ba’al Shem delivers no message of universal human redemption. Unlike the Ba’al Shem Tov, whose teachings emphasized human potential and the value of community, Hillel relies on magical one-time fixes, not personal spiritual growth. To the crestfallen he offers no counsel; to the bereft, no benefit. The terminology employed in his work is similar—Hillel refers to Kabbalistic disciples as chassidim, for example—but the contrast between the numerous but forgotten Ba’alei Shem and the magnificent Chassidic world founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov could not be more profound.

Tanya: People of the Book

People Of The Book:

Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

This article appeared in the February 25, 2016 edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times.

The appearance of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Tanya at the turn of the 19th century represented a sea change in Eastern European Jewish history. With this work, the Chassidic revolution, which had been building momentum in western Ukraine and southern Poland, burst into a constituency that had until that point prided itself on its immunity to the Kabbalah-inspired populism of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

The publication of Tanya dramatically illustrated the profound intellectual foundations of Chassidic thought, placing it in direct competition with the traditional Talmudic community in Lithuania for the hearts and minds of spiritually sensitive Jews. The Lithuanian yeshiva community, centered around Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, principal disciple of the recently deceased Vilna Gaon, could no longer dismiss the chassidim as superstitious, uneducated folk (or worse, as neo-Sabbatean heretics).

The Tanya placed Chassidism firmly within the Jewish literary tradition, articulating a fully documented path to holiness that had until then received little attention from more left-brained Talmudic thinkers.

The book itself was published in several stages, some posthumously, until it reached its current form in 1804. It begins with the modestly titled LekuteiAmarim (“Collected Statements”), which is a bold and psychologically gripping analysis of the human condition. Opening with the Talmudic passage that describes the angelic oath given to a person in utero (“be righteous and not wicked”), Tanya offers a remarkably original and persuasive description of the inner conflict of the soul as it encounters the challenges and temptations of the temporal world.

The title “Tanya,” literally “it is taught,” is taken from the opening line of this Talmudic citation. The remaining four sections of the work continue the discussion in several modalities, including a novel understanding of the meaning of repentance and deeper Kabbalistic insights on the nature of the soul. Overall, the work is deceptively complex, with sections that appear highly accessible while others hint to arcane, elusive depths.

The Tanya is known as the “Written Torah of Chassidism” because it represents the first work authored directly by a Chassidic master (previous works were collections of teachings published by various disciples). Rabbi Schneur Zalman is recognized as the first Rebbe of the Chabad movement, but the influence of his work reaches into every Chassidic dynasty and is regarded with great respect by non-Chassidic thinkers as well.

Tanya proved itself highly popular in the yeshiva world, much to the chagrin of traditional authorities, who could barely keep Talmudic students away from its intoxicating introduction of Kabbalistic concepts to pragmatic elements of the Jewish condition. In response, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin composed his master work, Nefesh HaChaim (1824), a Lithuanian-style primer in Kabbalah that provided an alternative to students attracted to the rapidly expanding Chassidic movement.

For its part, Chabad embraced Tanya by instituting a daily study regimen to promote yearly completion of the entire work. Tanya remains a brilliant gem in the treasure of Jewish spirituality.

Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at abramson@touro.edu.

Who Was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson? Jewish Biography as History

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, also known as “Der Frierdiker Rebbe” (The Earlier Rebbe) to distinguish him from his successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was the sixth leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Living in tumultuous times, he shifted the center of the movement from its Eastern European origins to its current headquarters in the United States.

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Who Was Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav? Jewish Biography as History

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One of the most creative, unusual, and controversial Hasidic leaders at the turn of the 19th century, Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav (Nachman of Breslov) continues to inspire generations of disciples. Part of the Jewish Biography as History series, more available at http://www.henryabramson.com.

Who Was Joseph Perl? Jewish Biography as History by Dr. Henry Abramson

One of the strongest critics of early Hasidism, Joseph Perl was a fervent advocate of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, in 19th century Galicia. Part of the Jewish Biography as History series by Dr. Henry Abramson, more available at http://www.henryabramson.com.

What is Yud Shvat? This Week in Jewish History

Yud Shvat, the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, is an auspicious date for Chabad Hasidm, commemorating the passing of the 6th Rebbe in 1950 and the ascension to leadership of the 7th Rabbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, one year later on January 17, 1951.

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Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro, The Esh Kodesh (Jewish Biography as History)

Piacetzna Rebbe

Discovered in the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, the wartime writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro (1889-1943) offer a unique and powerful perspective on the life and suffering of religious Jews during the horrific years of the Nazi occupation.

By Dr. Henry Abramson

According to my knowledge of the words of the Sages and the history of the Jewish people in general, we have never experienced such horrific suffering as has been visited upon us by the wicked ones since the end of 5702 (fall 1942)—may Hashem have mercy on us and rescue us immediately.

—Entry from January 11, 1943.

Discovered in the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Aish Kodesh (Holy Fire) is one of the most remarkable works of Jewish spirituality to emerge from the Holocaust. A slim volume of some 150 pages in the first printing, Aish Kodeshpresents the Torah spoken at the clandestine seudahshlishis gatherings convened by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, known to his followers as the Piaseczno Rebbe.

The author, a scion of the Grodzhisk Chassidic dynasty, was a creative thinker whose literary fame was established with the 1932 publication ofChovas haTalmidim (The Students’ Obligation). Trapped in Warsaw when the war broke out, he lived through all its tragedies: the sealing of the ghetto in the fall of 1939, the horrific typhus plague of the winter of 1941, the massive deportations to Treblinka in the summer of 1942, and the heroic but doomed uprising of April 1943. He was ultimately deported to a labor camp and shot in November 1943, most probably for his involvement in a second attempted uprising. Unlike Holocaust memoirs, journals, or diaries, Aish Kodesh is a book that is sui generis for many reasons.

Aish Kodesh is a public document, representing the real-time efforts of the beleaguered Jewish community to deal with the theological implications of the Holocaust as it unfolded in the Warsaw Ghetto. The intellectual task of understanding the meaning of unimaginable suffering was common to both Orthodox and secular Jews, and third-party reports of the Rebbe’s gatherings confirm that they were attended by believers and non-believers alike. Aish Kodesh is also a profoundly sustained work of theodicy, its pages filled with philosophical meditation on the meaning of evil in Jewish thought, and much scholarly attention has been devoted to this aspect of the work, notably Dr. Nehemia Polen’s masterly 1999 study, Holy Fire.

Aish Kodesh has not, however, been studied extensively by historians, who have typically been stymied by the sometimes abstruse Kabbalistic passages and the almost complete absence of explicit references to quotidian events in the ghetto: not once in the entire work do the terms “German” or “Nazi” appear, and the reader must wade through veiled Aesopian language to determine the message of hope that the Rebbe offered in response to the horrors of that week under Nazi occupation.

After the war, a desperate post-war search for the OnegShabbos archives (a collection of documents that chronicled the realities of ghetto life) unearthed the Rebbe’s manuscripts of Aish Kodesh and its subsequent publication in Israel. Popularized in song by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a renaissance of interest in Piaseczno chassidus developed in both scholarly and popular circles, notably under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Weinberger of Woodmere, whose Aish Kodesh congregation takes its inspiration from the life and work of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro.

Publication information: Esh Kodesh, Tel Aviv: Va’ad Hasidei Piaseczno, 1960

Rabbi Israel Salanter: The Mussar Movement

 

Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant (Israel Salanter, 1810-1883) was the founder of the modern Mussar movement that revolutionized traditional Jewish education. Controversial during his lifetime, his ideas ultimately permeated the Yeshiva system as a whole. Part of the Jewish Biography as History series in Jewish History.

Eliyahu ben Shlomo: The Vilna Gaon and Lithuanian Judaism

256px-Vilna_Gaon_authentic_portrait

Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo, the 18th century Talmudic scholar better known as The Vilna Gaon, is revered as the father of traditional Lithuanian Judaism.  Part of the Jewish Biography as History series by Dr. Henry Abramson.