Sunday 30 April 2017


Letter from the Cherson Geniza, apparently from a student of the Baal Shem Tov


Chassidim have many holidays. Chabad, for example, have twenty-two Chassidic Holidays. These include the 19th Kislev which is the ‘Rosh haShana of Chassidut’, the 5th of Tevet which is the ‘Sefarim Victory’, and the 10th of Shevat which is the anniversary of the passing of the previous Rebbe and the beginning of the leadership of the last Rebbe.

Other groups of Chassidim also have their various special holidays.

All Chassidim are rooted in their common spiritual ancestor, R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) – the founder of the general Chassidic movement.

Few are aware, though, that the Baal Shem Tov himself apparently established a holiday which was meant to be one of the first Chassidic Holidays – and yet it remains largely unknown and uncelebrated!


Around the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a geniza or repository of old writings[1], was discovered in a synagogue in Cherson (or Gerson or Kherson) in southern Ukraine. It contained, amongst other writings, a number of letters written and signed apparently by the Baal Shem Tov. 

It has come to be regarded, by some, as the 'Cairo Geniza' of early Chassidic literature.

Without this discovery, we would never have known of a fascinating chapter of Chassidic and Jewish history:

According to the letters, in  1759 - the year before the Baal Shem Tov passed away - Bishop Sokolski of Lvov summoned him and two others ‘of the Chassidic brotherhood’ to a ‘contest of debate’ against the followers of the self-proclaimed and false messiah Jacob Frank (1726-1791).

Remarkably, the Chassidim emerged victoriously and thus were many Jewish souls ‘saved from evil’ - and the public burning of the Talmud was averted.

After winning the debate, the Baal Shem Tov and a number of other prominent rabbis signed a celebratory document which solemnly stated that they undertook to make that day, the 26th of Tammuz, a festival ‘of eating, drinking and joy, for ourselves and our children for now...and forever.’!

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe’s yeshiva in Warsaw (in the suburb of Otwosk) published a magazine known as HaTamim[2]

In 1935, two letters found in the Cherson geinza were published which showed the Baal Shem Tov as one of the signatories:

LETTER 1:[3] 

(Loose translation)

Lvov, 26 Tammuz 1759.

Today we, the undersigned, bring good tidings to all of Israel. Through the efforts of the Bishop Sokolski of Lvov (may he live and be well) we, the signatories below, were victorious over the evil cult of...Jacob Frank and his evil group... 

G-d assisted us to be victorious - therefore we and our children and all who participated, undertake from now on and for all time to make this day a festival and holiday of eating, drinking and joy in every place,  in the merit of G-d...permitting us to victoriously tread on their altars, raising up the light of Israel. 

Signed on this day in Lvov:

Chaim haCohen Rappaport ben haRav Simcha - Av Beit Din City of Lvov
Yisroel ben Moraynu Eliezer of Medzibuz
Yitzchok Dov Ber Margolios of Yazilovich
Dov Ber ben Avraham of Mezrich
Yaacov Yosef haCohen of Polnoa
Zev Wolf Kitzes

LETTER 2: [4]

(Loose translation)

We the undersigned have taken upon ourselves to make an annual celebration on the 26th of Tammuz. It should be a day of eating, drinking and gladness in remembrance of the great miracle and kindness that G-d did for us on this day. 

There rose against us a wicked, evil enemy...Jacob Frank...He misled Jews into idolatry and influenced many of our faith, and now G-d has upturned his evil plans and made him fall into the very pit he had prepared for others.

With the help of Bishop Tikulslki (Sokolski or Mikulski) of Lvov (may he live and be well) who called the three of us from the Chassidic brotherhood on the 23rd of Tammuz 5519 (1759) to debate against the evil ones...and a hearing of their issues against (the Jewish religion). A thorough investigation was conducted between us. G-d stood in our defence...leaving intact the good name of the Jews.
On the 26th of the month of Tammuz in the abovementioned year...we were victorious over the evil ones... and many Jewish souls were saved from evil... 

We made a pact in our hearts to declare this day, forever, a holiday of feasting, drinking and happiness for ourselves and our children and for all who participated.

We attach our signatures on this day, the 27th of Tammuz 5519 (1759) in the City of Lvov:

Chaim haCohen Rappaport - Chief Rabbi of Lvov and the Country
Yisrael ben Eliezer of Medzibozh
Yitzchok Dov Ber Margolios of the city of Yazlovich
Dov Ber ben Avraham of the town of Mezrich
Yaacov Yosef haCohen of Polona
Zev Wolf Kitzes 

It is amazing that had it not been for this random finding in an old synagogue geniza, no one would have known that there was an original holiday established by the Baal Shem Tov, as evident from the letters.


These letters speak of a religious victory. And being supported by writ and six signatures of a who's who in the Chassidic world at that time, carried much weight. Furthermore, this holiday was to be not just a Chasssidic holiday but also a universal Jewish holiday because the issues of false-messianism were universal to all Jews.

One would have imagined that even if the general Jewish world had ignored this holiday, at least the Chassidim of the Baal Shem Tov would have observed it.

Apparently, one of the few groups which celebrate this holiday are those Chassidim from the Ruzhiner dynasty. The Cherson synagogue in which the geniza was located appears to have originally been a Ruzhiner synagogue, and most of the geniza collection was eventually purchased by them.

Yet mysteriously, this great Chassidic holiday was unknown or perhaps even overlooked by most of the other followers of the Baal Shem Tov.


One explanation, given in a letter by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1959, reads:

I have not heard a specific explanation for this, but it seems to me that it can be compared to the case of a festival whose form and manner of acceptance is fixed only after the passage of time.

The matter surfaces in an allusion made to it by our Sages when dealing with the miracle of Chanukah, the annual celebration of which was only instituted in the following year.
Now since its (the Tammuz 26 holiday) acceptance was in 5519 (1759), what emerges is that even before the first celebration of this festival was to take place, the passing of the Baal Shem intervened and the group disbanded.

We know something of the state of mind that existed among his disciples at that time.
We are speaking, then, of a date that never became the occasion of an actual celebration.”[5]

That probably is the best answer that one can give, and the Rebbe appears to have acknowledged that it may be inconclusive.

But it is still difficult to understand how Chassidim particularly, would have ignored a signed letter of the Baal Shem, declaring unequivocally, a festival for all future generations. One also wonders whether this standard of ‘waiting the year out’ applied to all the other Chassidic holidays as well?


I have put together the following chronological timeline to try to contextualise the letters:


Years earlier on, tensions between the rabbis and the Frankists[6] came to a head in 1743, when the Rabbinic Congress in Brody placed all those suspected of Sabbatean and Frankist heresy under a cherem or ban.  

[For more on the influential Sabbateans, see KOTZK BLOG 117]

This congress called for anyone with information on secret messianic cells to come forward and expose the deviant groups. The rabbis accused the 'messianic Jews' of wife swapping and adultery. They also proclaimed a ban against anyone studying Kabbalah under the age of forty.[7] This upset the Sabbateans and Frankists and they took their case to the Church for support.


These ‘messianic Jews’ argued that they were being persecuted by the rabbis and asked for Christian protection. 

The Frankists proclaimed that they rejected rabbinic and Talmudic writings, and only adhered to the mystical teachings of the Zohar. This, according to them, was quite compatible with the Trinity and Christianity.

Jacob Frank and his followers were duly taken under the protective wing of Bishop Kobielski, and in 1757 (two years prior to the Lvov debate) a debate or trial was held in Body, between the Frankists and the Rabbis.

According to Pinkas haKehilot, a certain Dr Abraham Uziel, who was a physician and a Talmudic scholar was charged with the duty of defending the rabbinical position. The presiding judge was Bishop Kobielski who apparently was greatly assisted by an earlier letter from the Pope - and the Frankists were declared the victors resulting in ten thousand volumes of the Talmud being burned.

Interestingly, in this account from Pinkas haKehilot, there is a section that has been expunged and removed for some reason, from the original text.

To complicate matters even further, just over a decade later: “A rabbinical assembly convening in Brody in 1772 excommunicated the followers of Hasidism, and Hasidic works were burned there.”[8]

(The description of events is staggering:  We move from accounts of the Frankists winning  debates and burning copies of the Talmud in Brody, and then two years later rabbis winning debates in Lvov and saving copies of the Talmud from being burned – to thirteen years later when some rabbis themselves were burning works written by the Chassidim, also in Brody!)


During the same year as the Brody debate and following the suggestion of R. Yaakov Emden(1697-1776), the Jews contacted Bishop Dembowski of Kamanets-Podolsk, and accused the Frankists of magic and immoral practices. 

This was presented as being a threat to both Judaism and Christianity.

It’s interesting to see that in the same year of 1757, both the Frankists in Brody and the rabbis in Kamanets-Podolsk, were alternately seeking support from the Church.

R. Emden’s plan, however, failed and Bishop Dembowski became emboldened by Frankist support. The tables were turned against the Jews with volumes of Talmud being burned once again.

Illustration of Bishop Dembowski drinking in celebration after burning volumes of the Talmud.(From Sefer Shimush by R. Yaakov Emden. Amsterdam 1757.

Years later, Augustus III of Poland also issued a decree which offered the Frankists further protection.

THE LVOV DEBATE (17 July 1759):

Historically, from sources other than the Cherson letters, we similarly see that a debate did indeed take place in Lvov from 17 to 19 July 1759. This corroborates the general description of the debate in the Cherson letters.

Jacob Frank came to Lvov for the debate but did not participate. 

For some reason, the Vatican got involved and the Jews were surprisingly treated rather well, with them being “obliged only to formulate a written response to the Frankists’ accusations.[9] 

As for the Frankists themselves, as a result of the Lvov debate, it was seen that some of their messianic ideas resonated with the Church and they were now considered as ‘eligible for conversion’ to Christianity. 

Voluntary baptisms began even before the debate was concluded, and Jacob Frank himself converted to Catholicism in the Lvov Cathedral on 17 September 1759. In all, about 3,000 Jews converted around this time, and were given “prerogatives of the gentry”.

However, there does not appear to be confirmation that the Baal Shem Tov participated in that debate, nor in any other debates!

According to Dubnow, the Jews were represented by R. Rapaport (as recorded in the letters) but no mention is made of the Baal Shem Tov’s participation.

Others similarly maintain that “the historicity of the Besht’s participation in this public debate is open to serious doubt.” [10]


As we have seen, according to the Cherson letters, the debate took place in Lvov.

However, there is a Breslov tradition that the Baal Shem Tov and R. Nachman of Horodenka (R. Nachman of Breslov’s grandfather) debated with the Frankists in Kamanets-Podolsk, which is about three hundred kilometres away from Lvov!

(Nachman of Breslov visited Kamanets-Podolsk forty years later in 1798, together with an anonymous student, both in disguise, as Jews were not permitted within city limits. They returned, apparently, to in order to perform ‘spiritual rectifications’ and to ‘cleanse’ the city from the previous Frankist presence.[11]) 

This account contradicts the version as presented by the Cherson letters, both in terms of the date, geographical location and disputants.


Even though the Breslov tradition differs from the Cherson letters, both accounts nevertheless do speak of the Baal Shem debating the Frankists.

There is also a document from R. Avraham of Shargorod which he sent to R. Yaakov Emden in which the Baal Shem Tov is mentioned as being involved in the debate.

According to Nathan Michael Gelber, besides the main disputants designated to represent the rabbis “...the community leaders invited the surrounding settlements to choose alternative disputants.”[12]  In some instances we know there were up to forty other rabbis also present. It is therefore not entirely unreasonable to think that the Baal Shem Tov could have been one of those ‘alternative disputants’. 

As to why we have largely ignored the Chassidic holiday established by the Baal Shem Tov after the Lvov victory, we are left with more questions than answers:

Why were there two letters in the Cherson geniza (with the name of the bishop varying from Sokolski to Tikulslki) with the exact same signatories effectively saying the same thing?

Why did R. Nachman record the debate of his great-grandfather the Baal Shem Tov as taking place in Kamenets-Podolsk and not Lvov as stated in the Cherson letters?

What Chassidim would ignore an instruction from the Baal Shem Tov?

The answers to all these questions revolve around one central issue:

- How reliable and authentic are the letters of the Baal Shem Tov as discovered in the Cherson Geniza?

According to Moshe Rosman:

Close inspection of the contents, form, and paper cast serious doubt on their genuineness, and today, outside of the Habad Hasidic movement, there are virtually no authorities who consider these letters anything other than forgeries...scholars examined the letters...attributed to the Baal Shem Tov and matched up the dates to the day of the week in which they were written...some of these dates coincided with Saturdays and other Jewish holidays in which writing is prohibited...the Gerrer Rebbe, Belzer Rebbe and Munkatcher Rebbe all took issue with the authenticity of these letters and I could not find any sources outside of Habad that suggested they were not forgeries.”[13]

According to Toledot haTenu’ah haFrankit[14], the alleged debates between the Baal Shem Tov and the Frankists did not take place at all.

Moshe Idel refers to the general writings found in the Cherson Geniza as ‘Kherson fabrications”.[15]

Astoundingly, R. Chaim Lieberman, the noted librarian and secretary of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, claimed to have met the ‘forger’ of the Cherson Geniza!

Could it be that the Baal Shem Tov’s debate with the Frankists never happened?

Could this be the real reason why the festival of 26 Tammuz was never established as a Chassidic holiday?



(Loose translation and paraphrase of Igerot Kodesh Vol. 8 p. 249)

"When I saw the almost three hundred letters (from the Cherson Geniza) which were in the possession of my father-in-law (the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe) - some of which he did not allow to be published – I knew without a doubt that they were authentic...

... I would want to present reasons which prove (that they are indeed authentic letters):

1.  We know all the people, who were involved in matters of Chassidism at that time who lived in Southern Russia near Odessa and Cherson, and none of those individuals would have been able to write (forge) these letters by themselves.

2. During that tumultuous time (of the Russian Revolution of 1917) it would have been almost impossible to acquire the parchment on which those letters were copied.[16]

The major argument of those who doubt the authenticity of these letters is that the dates do not correspond appropriately. Anyone who has ever worked on copying and editing will know that mistakes are likely to occur in about five percent of the work. This is especially the case where one copies in haste.

A forger, however, who would want to sell the writing to a Chassidic court where they have knowledge of Chassidic history, would have made the effort to ensure there were no mistakes as this would reveal the fact that the writing was a forgery. So the existence of mistakes actually proves their authenticity.
If one were to see the hundreds of letters at one time, which is how they were brought when sold to Lubavitch, would clearly see that they were not original as they were all in the same handwriting and on similar parchment. A forger would never have presented his work in such a way, especially if he wanted to sell them to a Chassidic court..."

In the collection of letters that were not published, there were kamiyot (mystical inscriptions) and other indications which were not common to the public but remained private and transmitted only from Rebbe to Rebbe, beginning with the Alter Rebbe (the first Rebbe of Chabad).

M. Schneerson.

ADAR 5714 (1954)


Days in Chabad – Historic Events in the Dynasty of Chabad-Lubavitch, Compiled by R. Yosef Y. Kaminetzky.

In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov: Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz.

Tormented Master, by Arthur Green.

Encyclopaedia Judaica.

Pinkas haKehilot.

Toledot haTenu’ah haFrankit, by Meir Balaban.


Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov, by Moshe Rosman.

[1] Apparently they were not all original writings, but many were said to be hand-copied from the originals.
[2] Personally, when I was in yeshiva, this was one of my favourite books to learn, because it afforded one with such insight of classical Chassidic values, rare to find elsewhere.
[3] HaTamim, Nissan 1935 Warsaw: vol. 2 p. 558 #342.
[4] HaTamim ibid.  p. 559, #126.
[5] Letter dated 8 Kislev 5720 (1959).
[6] I have used the terms Sabbateans and Frankists interchangeably because the two messianic sects were interrelated, although the latter were more extreme. As for the date of the Brody Rabbinical Congress in 1743, Frank would have only been 17 years old - so technically the Congress must have been primarily directed against the Sabbateans. Later, though, the Frankists would have fallen under the same ban.

[7] The Jewish Time Line Encyclopedia: A Year-by-Year Mattis Kantor, p. 223.

[8] See Encyclopaedia Judaica – Brody, Ukraine
[9] The Yivo Encyclopaedia of Jews in Eastern Europe – Frankists.
[10] (See In Praise of the Baal Shem, by Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz, p. 319.)
[11] According to Hillel Zeitlin, there were still Frankists living there, and R. Nachman visited with them in order to bring them back to Judaism. Rabbi Nachman wrote that he first had to visit Kamanets-Podolsk as preparation for his journey to the Land of Israel, almost like the mystical notion of ‘decent for the sake of ascent’. Also see Shivchey II 2, 3, which contains a censored reference to the controversy caused by the journey to Kamanets-Podolsk : “Everybody offered some explanation of it, some praising it, while others etc.” (See Tormented Master, by Arthur Green, p. 65.)
[12] See Encyclopaedia Judaica – Brody, Ukraine
[13] See: Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov, by Moshe Rosman
[14] p. 295 and 316.
[15] See R. Israel Baal Shem Tov; ‘In the State of Walachia’, by Moshe Idel.
[16] The original letters were apparently hidden and copies were hastily made.

1 comment:

  1. According to R' Nachman in Likutei Moharan the Baal Shem Tov died from two holes in the heart, one hole was the infamous Shabtai Tsvi and the other was the less well known Jacob Frank. If the debate on the 26 was a roaring success why did R ' Nachman say these two 'hole in the heart' killed or affected the Baal Shem Tov.