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Guru, mystic, teacher: How the Ba’al Shem Tov invented Hasidism

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Published: 25 January 2018

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Born somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains, on the seam between Poland and Bukovina at the end of the 17th century, this itinerant holy man, also known as the Besht, arrived at the bustling hub of Mezhbizh, in present-day Ukraine, with its volatile mix of Jews, Gentiles, poor and rich, around 1740.

His reputation as a wonder-working Jewish mystic had preceded him, and the Besht was able to secure the enviable position of resident kabbalist.

He set up shop with a collection of spells, amulets, special prayers, and potions, deftly navigating the fractious social and commercial interests of the town to become a treasured resource for people suffering every conceivable ill.

At one point he extracted the soul of a sinner from a frog. In another case, an alleged madwoman possessed by a dybbuk (the nomadic spirit of a malefactor undergoing posthumous punishment) challenged the Besht, who’d approached her as part of a rabbinic delegation, by pointing out that he did not meet the minimum age requirement for performing the magical rite of exorcism.

The Besht calmly told the spirit to take stock of the mess he’d made. Just leave the woman alone, and all of us will study on your behalf, the Besht said. After he’d persuaded the spirit to privately give him his name, thereby proving he was serious about curtailing the dybbuk’s mortification, it meekly departed.

Hasidism: A New History
By David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, Marcin Wodziński (Princeton University Press)

FULL STORY The Hasidic Question (LA Review of Books)

Hasidic movement forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world

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