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The Besht

Magician, Mystic, and Leader

Immanuel Etkes

Publication Year: 2004

Now available in English, a provocative new biography of the founder of Hasidism Founded in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century, the Hasidic movement and its religious thinking have dramatically transformed modern Judaism. The figure of the Ba’al Shem Tov (known in acronym form as the BeSHT)—the purported founder of the Hasidic movement—has fascinated scholars, Jewish philosophers, and laypeople interested in popular Jewish mysticism in general and the contemporary Hasidic movement in all its variety. In this volume, Etkes enters a rich and heated debate over the origins of the movement, as well as the historicity of its mythic founder, Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, who lived much of his life as a miracle worker. The eighteenth century, as Etkes vividly portrays, was the heyday of the kabbalists, who dabbled in the magical power of letters and words to solve personal and communal problems—and to earn a living. Etkes sheds light on the personality of the Besht, on his mysticism, and on his close circle of followers. But equally important, he challenges the popular myth of the Besht as a childlike mystic, wandering the fields in prayer, seeing visions and engaging in acts of godliness and piety. Although Etkes shows great empathy for his subject, the Besht who emerges in these pages is much more down to earth, much more a man of his times. Indeed, according to Etkes, it was never the intention of the Besht to found a religious movement. Etkes looks at the Besht’s mystical roots, examining him not only from the vantage point of a social historian, but as a religious figure. Moshe Rosman, author of Founder of Hasidism, a biography of the Besht, claims that In Praise of the Besht—a volume published about the Besht in 1814, many years after his death, which portrayed his character by means of stories told by his close followers—could not be a reliable source. Etkes, disputing this claim, shows definitively that this well-known text (translated and interpreted by, among others, Martin Buber) may indeed offer trustworthy accounts of the Besht’s life and thinking.

Published by: Brandeis University Press


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Title Page

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pp. xiii-xiii

This book was originally published in Hebrew by the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History in 2000. The work on the various chapters took several years, during which I had . . .

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pp. 1-6

Why another book on the Besht, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov? What does this book seek to add to all that has already been written and published on . . .

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1 | Magic and Miracle Workers in the Days of the Baal Shem Tov

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pp. 7-45

Blocking the way forward for the historian who seeks to examine the place and role played by magic in the figure of the Baal Shem Tov, is the distorted picture . . .

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2 | Israel Baal Shem

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pp. 46-78

The professional designation, baal shem, does not bring out the special qualities of the Besht’s personality or suggest the scope of his activity; still less . . .

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3 | A Leader of the Jewish People

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pp. 79-112

The Besht did not view himself as the leader of a movement, not only because in his day the Hasidic movement did not yet exist, or because it had never . . .

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4 | The Besht as Mystic and Pioneer in Divine Worship

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pp. 113-151

It was his mystical experience, more than anything else, that was at the core of the Besht’s spiritual world. This experience was also what gave shape to the new form . . .

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5 | The Besht and His Circle

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pp. 152-202

Being an original mystic and a pioneer in divine worship, the Besht also viewed himself as imbued with a spiritual message to be conveyed to others. Who were . . .

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6 | The Historicity of Shivhei Habesht

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pp. 203-248

Do the sources available to us provide an adequate basis for forming a historical reconstruction of the Besht? This question has preoccupied scholars of Hasidism . . .

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Conclusion | The Besht and the Founding of Hasidism

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pp. 249-258

At the close of this book, I return to the question with which I opened it: Can the Besht be considered the “founder of . . .

Appendix I | Magic and Miracle Workers in the Literature of the Haskalah

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pp. 259-271

Appendix II | The Besht's Epistle

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pp. 272-281

Appendix III | The Versions of the Besht's Epistle

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pp. 282-288


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pp. 289-325


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pp. 327-337


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pp. 339-342

E-ISBN-13: 9781611683066
E-ISBN-10: 1611683068
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584654223
Print-ISBN-10: 1584654228

Page Count: 350
Publication Year: 2004

OCLC Number: 814507298
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Besht

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Subject Headings

  • Baʻal Shem Ṭov, ca. 1700-1760.
  • Jewish magic.
  • Mysticism -- Judaism.
  • Leadership -- Religious aspects -- Judaism.
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