Sunday 25 June 2017


Prossnitz, Moravia - historic region of Czech Republic


In addition to Shabbatai Tzvi[1] (1626-1676), Jacob Frank (1726-1791) and Yehoshua Herschel Tzoref[2] (1623-1700), we still have other candidates for the Messiah: one of them being R. Yehudah Leib Prossnitz (1670-1750[3]).


R. Leibelle Prossnitz’s original name was Yehudah Leib ben Yaakov Holleschau, but he was known after the town in which he later settled – Prossnitz - which was where his wife’s family came from. At that time Prossnitz had the second largest Jewish community in Moravia, and was known as the ‘Jerusalem of the Hana (Plains)’.

One of R. Moses Sofer’s students described the town as ‘full of members of the sect of Shabbatai Tzvi.’

In the popular vernacular, the inhabitants of Prossnitz were known as ‘Schepsen’ (corrupted from Shabbatai Tzvi).

Interestingly enough, about a hundred years later, the town also became a centre for Haskalah and Reform.)


At around the age of thirty R. Leibelle Prossnitz was drawn to the teachings of Kabbalah, and claimed to have been instructed by the Ari Zal (who has died about a hundred and thirty years earlier) – and also by Shabbattai Tzvi (who had died some thirty years earlier).

A poor pedlar by trade, he lived in a ruin which was said to be haunted. Later, after ‘revealing himself’ as Mashiah ben Yosef, he travelled around Austria and Germany where he gained popularity and managed to receive some substantial degree of funding. He then changed his name to Yosef ben Yaakov.

Early on in his career, he pulled off a spectacular stunt when, one midnight, he allegedly was able to ‘manifest’ the Divine Presence. He robed in white and adorned himself with gold lettering which spelt out the Tetragrammaton which glowed - apparently with the help of some burning alcohol behind a curtain.

While the crowd was aghast, someone[4] tugged at the curtain and the fraudulent show was exposed and Yehudah Leib (or Yosef) was thereafter excommunicated by R. David Oppenheim, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, and was exiled for three years. He appears to have further been excommunicated on three different occasions.


The excommunications did not prevent R. Prossnitz from attracting growing number of adherents from the many Sabbateans active during the early 1700’s. 

He associated with R. Meir Eisenstadt (1670-1744) who was the rabbi of Prosnitz at that time. R. Eisenstadt (who at one stage similarly called himself the Messiah!) was from the well known rabbinic family and he himself was regarded as a great Halachic authority.  

Leibelle Prossnitz was also very close to R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz (who was accused by R. Yaakov Emden of being a secret follower of Shabbatai Tzvi). According to some accounts, R. Eybeschutz actually studied under R. Eisenstadt and became his adopted son!

Some letters from R. Prossnitz to R. Eybeschutz were, at some stage, confiscated from the Sabbateans and used as evidence of their messianic leanings.

He was additionally quite influenced by the well known Sabbatean, R. Nechemiah Chiyun[5].


The following is an extract from a letter, allegedly written by R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz, asking for his amulets (which many believed were of Sabbatean origin) to be urgently returned to him:

To be short: For G-d’s sake, return to me all the writings and amulets, for this is very urgent to me.
I hope to G-d, who is good and does good, that He will not forsake me.

(And I hope) that all those who rise up against me, who (try to) swallow me up, will fall into (their own) trap, and I will escape happily and free...
From the one who waits for G-d’s salvation, may it come soon,
Signed: R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz.[6]
What exactly were these ‘writings and amulets’ and why were they recalled so urgently?

In a 1751 letter from R. Yaakov Emden[7] - which is housed today in the Bodleian Library - he writes about R. Leibelle Prossnitz:

Assorted strange letters of correspondence with the wicked heretics of the sect of Sabbatai Tsevi...were found in his (R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz’s) possession. 

In particular, he corresponded with the accursed Leibele Prostitz...For he (Leibelle) prophesized that he would rule in place of Sabbatai Tsevi...and he (Leibelle) misled the hearts of the sages of that generation...

Although they (the rabbis) initially attacked him (Leibelle) with the sword of excommunication, intending to destroy him; they then accepted his patently false that point the rabbis who were pursuing him softened...and they hid him like the night...”[8]

R. Yaakov Emden clearly believed that the rabbis should have been more vigilant with Leibelle Prossnitz, especially in the wake of the wave of false messiahs at that time.

What strikes one as very significant is the fact that, according to R. Emden, the rabbis ‘hid him like the night’- which may account for the fact that such an influential rabbi who rubbed shoulders with Rabbis like Eisenstadt, Eybeschutz and Chiyyun, seems to have faded away from the face of history and today few even recognize his name.


Meanwhile, R. Prossnitz’s following grew even larger when he became known as an accomplished mochiach or revivalist preacher.

He predicted the ‘return’ of Shabbatai Tzvi in 1706. 

In Prossnitz’s messianic scheme of things, the messianic line passed from Shabbatai Tzvi to R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz and then to on him.

He claimed he had brought an end to the reign of the ‘evil force’ known as Samael and was involved in some form of ritual to accomplish that end.


According to the Breslov Megilah[9], Rabbi Nachman’s opponents accused his foremost disciple, R. Natan of Breslov, of being a great-grandson of R. Leibelle Prossnitz.

A well-known Kabbalistic work entitled Tzadik Yesod Olam allegedly written by the Ari Zal, seems to have in fact been falsely attributed to the Ari and was, instead, fraudulently written by R. Yehudah Leib Prossnitz[10].


During that time, when so many false messiahs and secret cells of Sabbateans were active all over Europe, one would have imagined that the populace would have been less gullible and not have fallen for another spiritual charlatan.

Yet, R. Yaakov Emden writes that even the ‘sages of the generation’ were led astray -  and this seems to have been the case even with regard to some of the ‘minor’ messiahs!

This gives one an insight into those incredible times and shows how the people were clasping at straws to construct a spiritual system which could immediately springboard them into eternity.

An interesting question would be – with the current focus on populist messianism today from varying locations on our religious spectrum including some sects of Chassidism and even some forms of religious Zionism - to what degree have times have really changed since then?

[3] Some say 1730.
[4] According to some accounts it was R. Meir Eisenstadt himself.
[7] Entitled Iggeret Purim.
[8] See Sabbatian Heresy: Writings on Mysticism, Messianism and the Origins of Jewish Modernity, edited by Pawel Maciejko, p. 123.
[9] See note 95.
[10] See Studies in Jewish Myth and Messianism, by Yehudah Liebes, p. 103.

Sunday 18 June 2017



In the early 1200’s, Nicholas Donin - a disenfranchised Jew who had been excommunicated by his former teacher R. Yechiel of Paris - became baptised and joined the Franciscan Order.
Originally a Karaite Jew who only kept the written Torah and rejected the Oral Tradition, he was determined and well-positioned to attempt to uproot the authority of the rabbinical tradition from within Judaism.
He was quite successful in his mission and his prominent role in the infamous Disputation of Paris, on Friday 6 Tammuz 1240 – the first formal Jewish-Christian Disputation - resulted in the burning of every obtainable French manuscript of the Talmud. This amounted to twenty-four carriage loads containing about twelve thousand manuscripts which were destroyed on the streets of Paris. This became known as the Disputation of Paris, or The Trial of the Talmud.
In 1238, Nicholas Donin presented Pope Gregory IX with thirty-five accusations against the Jews who studied the Talmud which, according to him, contained negative references to Jesus and Mary. Donin knew his Talmud well, having translated it into French. He claimed that Jews were permitted to kill non-Jews and were allowed to break their promises to them as well. He said that Jews believed Mary to have been a common woman of ill repute. Furthermore, according to him, the Talmud contained ‘odd and obscene folklore’ such as Adam’s attraction to animals before he met Eve. He also claimed that rabbinical Judaism was no longer recognisable from the original biblical Judaism and that Jews spent more time studying Talmud than Bible. Donin’s translations of the Talmud changed the way Christians viewed the Jews.
Nicholas Donin’s actions were historically very significant because, apparently, until that time the church had a rather outdated perception of Jews as still being theological fossils of the biblical Israelites, who honoured the Law of Moses and the Prophets. The church seemed somewhat unaware of the dramatic way rabbinic Judaism had, in a sense, interpreted the religion more along the lines of the Talmud than the literal biblical texts.
This, of course, had always been the gripe of the Karaite Jews, but now Donin had brought the issue to the forefront of the church, which seemed and horrified by this ‘new development’ within Judaism. This was compounded by the allegations of anti-Christian blasphemy said to be found in the Talmud.[1]
In the opening statement in the Disputation, one of the defending rabbis[2] said: “Please do not make me respond to (Donin’s) words, since the Talmud is an ancient text and no one has spoken about it before. St. Jerome, after all, knew all of the Torah and the Talmud, just as other priests have, and if there is any problem to be found in it, we would have heard of it by now.”
Copies of the accusations were sent to all the Franciscans and Dominicans and they were informed that upon official investigation, if these allegations were to be found to be true, then all the available manuscripts of Talmud would be destroyed. In the meanwhile, both these Orders had the right to seize all the copies of the Talmud they could find. This marked the beginning of the Dominican Order being given inquisitorial tribunals under papal authority. They were already charged with the authority to police cases of suspected Christian heresy.
While this decree was issued throughout much of Europe, it was largely not acted upon, except in France where the Jews were threatened with their lives if they did not surrender their copies of Talmud.

While the Trial took place in 1240, the manuscripts were only burned around 1242. This was because of the efforts of the bishop of Sens who was a supporter of the Jews, who managed to delay the edict for some time. According to some accounts, this bishop suddenly died while in the presence of Louis IX, and this was taken as a sign that he was a heretical bishop – and they immediately began the burning proceedings.
Even before Nicholas Donin’s allegation had been presented to the Pope, he already managed to arrange a Crusader attack on the Jews, as an act of revenge against his people who had dared to publically humiliate and excommunicate him. During this attack, three thousand Jews were killed and five hundred others chose the option of conversion.
To better understand some of the nuances surrounding the era of the Disputation of Paris, one must remember that during this period which was known as the 13th century Church Ascendant, the church wanted to win over the hearts and minds of the Jews. It was not just interested in the crude persecution of Jews - although history shows that many incidences of crude persecution did indeed take place - it regarded it as a greater victory to persuade the Jews to accept Christianity by ‘logical reason of debate’.
This was the time when the church began to infuse principles of philosophy in their own faith. The church was, particularly through the efforts of Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274), influenced by Aristotle (whom he referred to as ‘the Philosopher’.)[3] He argued that reason, not just faith, has a place within religion. Pope Benedict XV declared: "This (Dominican) Order ... acquired new lustre when the Church declared the teaching of Thomas to be her own”. (In modern times, under papal suggestion, priests are encouraged to study the writings of Thomas as part of their ordination programme.)
This was one of the reasons why Christianity felt so under attack. Their dogma and philosophy had been recently carefully laid out in minute detail and was therefore exposed and became vulnerable to anything that appeared to oppose it.
On the other hand, the Jews of the 1200’s generally had not developed a detailed dogmatic theology. Judaism certainly had many laws and strict commandments but its philosophy and dogma were far more open and unrestricted.
This created a tension between the Jews and the church, with the church expecting to debate on dogmatic issues which were absent from Judaism.
King Louis IX appointed four leading rabbis to defend Judaism in the public debate:
R. YECHIEL OF PARIS (d. 1268):
R. Yechiel, also known as Sire (Sir) Vives, was a Tosafist from northern France who headed the Yeshiva of Paris which had three hundred students, one of whom was the famed R. Meir of Rothenburg. In 1258, R. Yechiel settled in Acre and established there the Midrash haGadol deParis. He is buried on Mt. Carmel near Haifa.[4]
The line of R. Yechiel’s argument was that the three references to Jesus in the Talmud refer to different individuals, with only one referring to the Christian Jesus[5], who was executed for sorcery. (This, in itself, was an astounding admission that he was prepared to have made during the debate.)
R. Yechiel went on to explain that while some of the texts in question were accurate, they referred to idolaters and not to Christians who were in a category of sophisticated religions.
R. Moshe was a student of R. Yehudah haChassid. He was also known as Moshe miKotsi and was an expert on Halacha who authored one of the first codifications of Law in his Sefer Mitzvot haGadol (or SeMaG).[6]
It has been suggested that the reason for this work was a direct result of the thousands of Talmudic manuscripts being burned after the Disputation of Paris. Because these texts were no longer available, he needed to present a Halachic summation of their contents.
The historical irony, of course, is that Nicholas Donin’s attempt to destroy rabbinical Judaism resulted in even more attention being focused in the codification of that very same law.
Another great irony was that ten years earlier, Jews had denounced the writings of Rambam to the Dominicans in France which resulted in Jews burning manuscripts of Maimonides on the same streets the Talmud was later burned by the Christians. This incident was sparked by Rambam's work, the Guide for the Perplexed, which was also translated into French! 
A third irony was that Nicholas Donin was himself accused of heresy by the Christians for his excessive rationalistic approach to Christianity, and may have even been put to death by the church.
R. Yehudah was from the town of Melun, in north-central France forty miles from the centre of Paris, where he headed his academy.
R. Shmuel is known by his French name, Sir Morel, by which is he sometimes referred to in rabbinical literature. He is also the Tosafot on certain Tractates of Talmud, particularly Avodah Zarah.

These rabbis were some of the greatest of the time, yet they were unable to exert pressure upon the church to change its negative views on the Talmud, as they now had translations they could read and interpret themselves.
As Seidman writes: “...translations and baptisms were parallel campaigns, performed in the same public space, demonstrating that the Jewish world had been blown open wide.”[7]

From what we have seen, the catalyst for so many debates between the Christians and Jews in medieval times - which usually ended badly for the Jews – often was the translation of a Hebrew text into the native language or lingua franca:
The movement of translation from Jewish to non-Jewish languages stripped Jewish discourse of its protective covering, forcing Jewish texts out into an unfriendly Christian world”.[8]
Amazingly, to this day, some Jews still look suspiciously upon any texts translated from the original Hebrew or Aramaic. This is true particularly within elements of the sheltered yeshiva world, where no one will want to be seen using a Gemora with an English translation - even by Artscroll!
Never mind an English translation, but no one would even want to be seen with a Modern Hebrew paraphrase of the Aramaic.
Jastrow’s Aramaic dictionaries are not openly consulted in some places, and if they reluctantly are, they are occasionally used as book props or even foot rests!
But the fact is that more and more texts are becoming available in ‘foreign languages’. This presents a great challenge today - not just to Judaism but to every religion - where so much literature is openly available on the internet. Scholars and laymen alike can now peruse the once secret and indecipherable texts of the other’s faith.
We can no longer hide behind excuses of difficult concepts being explained away as ‘lost in translation’ because now all religion is laid bare. Today, except for those within closed communities, we can no longer hide behind erudite religious ‘spin’.
It’s not so easy to hide texts away anymore. This presents a great challenge for us.
Even sects within Judaism, who had no idea what teachings their sister sects were espousing (although they understood the language, the texts were not readily available) – they now have insight not readily accessible before.
Hopefully, it will result in stronger, more honest and meaningful encounters with faith.
Perhaps there is more open honesty to be ‘found’ than ‘lost in translation’!


Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translationby Naomi Seidman.

Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages, by Haym Maccoby.

Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France, by Susan L. Einbinder.

[1] See Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France, by Susan L. Einbinder. See alsoKOTZK BLOG 84 for an alternate explanation.

[2] This was R. Yechiel of Paris, who recorded the proceedings in his work known as Vikuach or Debate. [3] See Haym Maccoby: Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages.
[4] Some say he never lived in the Land of Israel and remained in France, where he died. There may be evidence of fragments of his tombstone which reads: Moreinu Yechiel... leGan Ed...
[5] Sota 47a.  Sanhedrin 107b refers to another ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. The third reference from Gittin 47a was to another who ‘gets boiled in a boiling pot’.
[6] Although he seems to have followed a similar format to Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, he - unlike Rambam – offers lengthy discussion and explanation of the laws. He also borrows much from Rashi and the Tosafists and usually favours the customs of Ashkenaz over Rambam.

[7] See Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation, by Naomi Seidman, p. 138.

[8] Ibid.


Ladino edition of Kav haYashar which quotes R. Yehoshua Herschel Tzoref. Constantinople 1823.

A book that has intrigued me for some time is Sefer haTzoref, by R. Yehoshua Herschel Tzoref (1623[1]- 1700[2]).

It is quoted and praised by many, including the Baal Shem Tov who said; ‘universes could be built upon it’.

The Baal Shem Tov said of its author, R. Tzoref:

The messiah’s soul had sparked in him...” [3]

 - Yet I could not find Sefer haTzoref online or anywhere else for that matter. 



In connection to the secret and ‘mystical writings’ entrusted to the Baal Shem Tov, by his teacher R. Adam Baal Shem Tov – R. Aryeh Kaplan writes:

There has been considerable speculation as to the nature of these writings, but in part at least, it is almost certain they consisted of Sefer Ha Tzoref (Book of the Smith), which had been written by Rabbi Herschel Tzoref...”

Who was R. Herschel Tzoref?

What is the ‘considerable speculation’ about the ‘nature’ of his book, and why can’t we find it anywhere?


Just before the time of the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi[4] (1626-1676), there emerged a secret society of Nistarim (hidden mystics). According to Chassidic tradition, these Nistarim had nothing to do with the Sabbateans (as the followers of Shabbatai Tzvi were known) - who abused (as much as they mastered) the mystical and Kabbalistic traditions for their nefarious ends.[See KOTZK BLOG 117]

During the time of Shabbatai Tzvi, the members of the Secret Nistarim made a particular point of remaining ‘underground’, because anyone who openly professed to be a mystic was immediately branded a Sabbatean, and these Nistarim certainly did not want to be conflated with them.

R. Yehoshua Herschel Tzoref was one of the influential members of the Secret Nistarim, and he made the bold decision to publicise their existence and ‘go open’. And he did this in 1666, the year Shabbatai Tzvi converted to Islam! According to tradition, R. Tzoref wanted to show that they were not at all connected to the Sabbatean movement and he began to brazenly and openly teach mysticism in Vilna.

It appears that R. Adam Baal Shem Tov transmitted these teachings of R. Tzoref to the Baal Shem Tov, who was born in the same year[5] that R. Tzoref passed away.

Thus the group of Secret Nistarim became the pre-cursor to the Chassidic movement.

R. Tzoref seems to have been a rather elusive figure - because he does not feature in the traditions of the Secret Nistarim - although he was a leader of that secret fraternity. He also appears to have been a student of R. Eliyahu as well as of R. Yoel Baal Shem.

Before he began to openly teach Kabbalah, he worked as a silversmith[6] by day (hence his name Tzoref – smith) and he studied mysticism secretly at night.

Whenever R. Tzoref would test a new quill, he would write the names Hamman, Amalek and Zeresh (Haman’s wife) on a piece of parchment and then cross them out – in order to fulfil the commandment to ‘blot out’ the name of Amalek.

After his publicity in Vilna, he moved to Cracow where his reputation as a mystic grew. However, as was common at that time, being a mystic, he was suspected of having Sabbatean leanings.

In the memorial book belonging to the burial society, it records R. Tzoref as being:

“...the author of five books...all his life he never left the door of his home, except to go to synagogue or the study hall... he hardly slept and wrote constantly...”


Because the Baal Shem Tov was handed what was most likely (amongst other teachings) the Sefer haTzoref, by his teacher R. Adam Baal Shem Tov, it lead some to question whether there was a Sabbatean component to early Chassidism.

In an enormously controversial piece of writing, Gershom Scholem states;

“...Now all this amounts to no less than the fact that the founder of Hasidism (the Baal Shem Tov)  guarded the literary heritage of a leading crypto-Sabbatean (R. Tzoref)[7] and held it in great esteem.

Apparently we have here the factual basis of our Rabbi Adam Ba’al Shem.”[8]

-Scholem seems to be saying here that R. Tzoref may, in fact, be the selfsame person referred to as the (difficult to define) R. Adam Baal Shem Tov, the teacher of the Besht![9]


Besides Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank (1726-1791), it appears as if R. Tzoref referred to himself as Mashiach ben Yosef in his work Sefer haTzoref! This could make him, potentially, the third false messiah of that era!

At the height of the messianic fever of 1666, when Shabbatai Tzvi converted to Islam, R. Tzoref said that he experienced prophetic visions similar to those of Ezekiel.

According to one interesting source[10], it also appears as if one Tzadok from Grodna[11], a distiller by trade, presented himself as a ‘prophet’ to the Messiah. In 1695, he sent letters to numerous Jewish communities and told them to get ready to travel to Jerusalem. Many Jews sold their property in anticipation of the arrival of the messianic age. 

(This would have been over and above the similar messianic fervour surrounding Shabbatai Tzvi, of a few years earlier when Jews also sold their properties in anticipation of travelling to Jerusalem.)


Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan makes a point of emphasising that all mystics at that time were subjected to various forms of witch-hunting. 

He brings an extreme example of the classical Kabbalist, Abulafia (1240-1291) whose work Chayey Olam haBah was tampered with to make it look as though it was written by Shabbetai Tzvi. 

The same occurred to another mystical work from the 1500’s entitled Shoshan Yesod Olam (by R. Tirshom, which deals with exorcism and magic squares), which was also made to look like it was written by Shabbatai Tzvi.

Because the Sefer haTzoref largely followed the mysticism of Abulafia - who specialised in the system of manipulating combinations of letters (which is also alluded to in the title Tzoref – metzaref means to combine letters) - it naturally became a suspicious text.[12]

Notwithstanding this climate of suspicion which applied across the board to all mystics, R. Kaplan acknowledges that R. Tzoref’s writings may nevertheless have been the subject of ‘considerable speculation’. [13]

Gershom Scholem is far more direct when he refers to R. Tzoref as ‘the most important figure’ of the Sabbatean movement in Lithuania.

R. Efraim Zalman Margoliot (1762-1828), one of the great Talmudic scholars of his time, become embroiled in a controversy with R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, over this very book the Sefer haTzoref - and after demonstrating what he believed to be its Sabbatean roots, he managed to prevent the Sefer haTzoref from being published.


Although the Sefer haTzoref was never published in book form, R. Tzoref’s teachings were quoted in one of the most popular inspirational works, Kav haYashar[14], which was so in demand that it was published in most of the countries where Jews lived at that time. It quoted ‘our teacher R.  Herschel’ on numerous occasions:

Kav haYashar was first published in 1705 and was then republished at least thirty times over the next century. To date, there have been over eighty editions, in addition to seven Yiddish and three Ladino editions. 

So, through Kav haYashar, R. Tzoref became an extremely well-known personality.


It appears as if the closest one can get to finding Sefer haTzoref is to peruse a copy of the ‘Foreword by the Copyists of the Manuscript (of Sefer haTzoref)’:

(Paraphrase follows:)

With G-d’s help (these are) the words of the first copyist:

This is Sefer haTzoref which was found in the house of our Master, our Teacher the Rav Rivash (the Baal Shem Tov). explained in leaf 400...the spirit of the Messiah revealed itself in him (i.e. R. Tzoref), as I was told by the Talmudic scholar...R Shabbatai of Rashkov (not to be confused with Shabbatai Tzvi, who heard this from the Baal Shem Tov that) the year 1648 was a time of grace for the create the soul of Messiah.
But on account of our many iniquities (this did not materialise, so in response)...the author (R. Tzoref) took upon himself to compose several books...

The Teacher R. Shabbatai (of Rashkov) told me that the Rivash (the Baal Shem Tov) had intended to make a copy of it (the Sefer haTzoref).

The Rivash (the Baal Shem Tov) therefore gave it to him (R. Shabbatai of Rashkov) to copy – but in the meantime the Rivash was summoned to heaven (and passed away).

(Then the Baal Shem Tov’ son)  R. Tzvi Hirsch came and took (confiscated) this book from his (R. Shabbatai of Rashkov’s) house...

Eventually this book came to (the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson) R. Aharon (of Totiev).
He agreed ...that a copy should be made of this book, when he saw that this precious work was in danger of being lost as the pages were becoming defaced.

Then I, a young man (at that time) was copy it out...

I...make grateful mention of Sage R. Aharon, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who lent me the book to take to my home...

Such are the words of the first copyist, Yehoshua, son of Aharon of Dinovitz, resident in the community of Dinovitz.”

Thus, after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, the manuscript of the Sefer haTzoref was handed down to his grandson R. Aharon of Totiev, and a handwritten copy was then made by R. Yeshayahu of Dinovitz, a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch.

This copy eventually found its way – still only in manuscript form – to the Karliner (Stoliner) dynasty:


This handwritten copy of Sefer haTzoref, remained carefully guarded by the Karliner (Stoliner) Chassidim until the Holocaust when it was apparently hidden together with other valuable manuscripts.

This Stoliner Geniza, as it became known, contains not just the largest array of historic Chassidic letters and literature, numbering in the thousands - but also writings of R. Yoel Sirkis (the commentator to the Shulchan Aruch, known as the Bach, 1561-1640) and the Shtar Hitkashrut, or Pledge of Allegiance drawn up in 1575 by the students of the Ari Zal[15]

All this in addition to letters of the Maharal of Prague and R. Chaim Vital, which are just a few examples of the literary treasures the Stoliner Geniza held.

But most important to our discussion is that the Stoliner Geniza contains (the only?) copy of Sefer haTzoref, with its 700 sheets (1400 pages).


Prior to the War, in 1929, Dr Wolf Zeev Rabinowitsch, a ‘young surgeon and aspiring historian of Hasidism’ met the Rebbe of Stolin. A period of intense research followed with occasional permissions granted for certain people to view the Stoliner Geniza housed in ‘a cellar’ in the Rebbe’s home.

Then in the late 1930’s, Rabinowitsch wrote a letter to the brother of the Stoliner Rebbe requesting to borrow the very manuscript of Sefer haTzoref:

To the Righteous Rabbi, R. Asher...from the descendants of the Tzadikim of Karlin in the Holy Community of Stolin...

I hope that His Honor still remembers my visit at his[16] house in Stolin about ten years ago...

I have learned...that in his house there is a manuscript of Sefer Ha-zoref, by the sage and thinker R. Yehoshua Heshel Zoref...and that His Honour would like to...publish it...

I hope to find a publisher here, in Eretz Yisrael...”

This extremely respectful letter stands in stark contrast to what Rabinowitsch would write three years later:

Now in the court of Stolin, there is a long awaited manuscript of a Sabbatean prophet among the holy writings of the Hasidic tzadikim! And the copiers of the book pray that the merit of the Sabbatean author shall shelter them.”

For the record, the Stoliner Rebbe never did send the Sefer haTzoref, nor any other writings from the Geniza, to Rabinowitsch for publication.

The history of the Stoliner Geniza, after this period, is as elusive as it is sad:

The city of Stolin was conquered by the Soviets in 1939. 

Surprisingly the Stoliner Geniza remained intact until the German conquest in 1941, when its contents were placed on waggons and the Stoliner Rebbe and his family were murdered on Erev Rosh Hashanah in 1942.

Professor Yitzchak Y. Melamed writes:

There is good reason to believe, moreover, that the collection of literary treasures, which they so carefully preserved for more than a century, still exists somewhere, dispersed or even partially intact.

There are members of the community who still scour Judaica libraries and the black and grey markets of Hebraica for further signs of its survival.”


According to Shivchei haBesht, the Baal Shem Tov hid the teachings of his teacher ‘beneath a stone in a mountain.

As we have seen, many are of the opinion that much of the secret writings which remained hidden during the early years of the new Chassidic movement, included Sefer haTzoref.

We have also seen that the Baal Shem Tov had possession of the original Sefer haTzoref, from which another copy was made.

We know that R. Margoliot prevented the Berditchever Rebbe from publishing Sefer haTzoref, clearly because in his opinion it was a Sabbatean work.

The only place which housed (or apparently still houses) the Sefer haTzoref is the Stoliner Geniza, yet access to it was, for the most part, denied.

According to R. Dovid Sears; “Although their location is known, these writings have not yet been recovered.[17]

Professor Melamed writes; 

If the rare manuscripts and books carefully collected and preserved by the Stoliner Hasidim from the early 19th century until the 1930s were recovered, even in part, it would be one of the greatest Hebraica finds of our times.”[18]

If the manuscript does still exist, and if its location remains a secret, it only fuels the flames of the centuries-old suspicion that it may indeed have been of Sabbatean origin.

Until the Sefer haTzoref is brought to the light of day for all see, we shall never know whether the allegations of Sabbatean influence are true or not.


Studies in Pinsk Jewry, by Wolf Zeev Rabinowitsch.

The Lost Textual Treasures of a Hasidic Community, by Yitzchak Y. Melamed.

The Path of the Baal Shem Tov: Early Chassidic Teachings and Customs by Dovid Sears.

Studia Podlaskie, Bialystok 1989.

Meditation and Kabbalah, by R. Aryeh Kaplan.              


(As found in the Stolin Geniza.)

'We the undersigned have pledged ourselves to form a single company to worship the Divine Name and study His Law day and night, as we shall be instructed by the perfect and divine Sage, the Rav and Teacher, R. Hayyim Vital (may his light shine forth!), and we shall learn with him the true wisdom and be faithful in spirit, concealing all that he shall tell us, and we shall not trouble him by pressing him too much for things that he does not wish to reveal to us, and we shall not reveal to others any secret of all that we shall hear spoken in truth by his mouth, nor of all that he taught us in the past, nor even of what he taught us in the lifetime of our Teacher, the great Rav, R. Yitshak Luria Ashkenazi (of blessed memory) during all that time; and even what we heard from the lips of our Teacher, the above-named Rav (of blessed memory), we shall not be able to reveal without his permission, since we should not understand these things if he had not explained them to us. This pledge, taken under solemn oath in the Name of the Lord, concerns our Teacher, the above mentioned Rav, R. Hayyim (may his light shine forth!); and the duration of this pledge is from today for ten consecutive years. Today is the second day of the week, the 25th Menahem Av, 5335 of the creation [1575], here in Tsfath (Safed] (may it be built and established speedily in our days!); and all these words are clear and valid.'[19]

[1] Some say 1633.
[2] Some say 1720.
[3] See The Lost Textual Treasures of a Hasidic Community, by Yitzchak Y. Melamed.
[4] The exact date is around 1590, when this secret society was established by R. Eliyahu Baal Shem, to preserve the teachings of Abulafia. R. Eliyahu is said to have lived to the age of 116, and he was succeeded by R. Yoel Baal Shem.
[5] Some say the Baal Shem was born in 1700, while other put the date at 1698.
[6] Some say, goldsmith.
[7] Parenthesis mine.
[8] See Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, by Gershom Scholem.
[9] There are many theories as to who R. Adam Baal Shem Tov really was. One of the most interesting is the suggestion that he was the secret son of Shabbatai Tzvi!

[10] See Studia Podlaskie, Bialystok 1989, p.126.
[11] Who R. Yaakov Emden referred to as a ‘simple Jew’.
[12] See Meditation and Kabbalah, by R. Aryeh Kaplan, p 171.
[13] One also needs to remember that historically the fraternity of Secret Nistarim was founded as early as 1590 which was decades before Shabbatai Tzvi was even born.
[14] Authored by R. Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover, published in 1705, which was known to have provided solace after the Chmelnitzki Massacres of 1648-49.
[15] See below for a translation of this Pledge of Allegiance.
[16] The letter is typically framed in the third person as a sign of respect.
[17] See The Path of the Baal Shem Tov: Early Chassidic Teachings and Customs by Dovid Sears, p.87.
[18] See The Lost Textual Treasures of a Hasidic Community, by Yitzchak Y. Melamed.
[19] Translation from: ‘Pinsk Historical Volume’. History of the Jews of Pinsk, 1506-1941. Edited by Dr Wolf Zeev Rabinowitsch.