Sunday 18 June 2017


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.


  1. In an age of rabbinic Judaism, all these little groupings and cults may have influenced the mainstream religion more than we might choose believe. How many more of these genizas are there? What else has been suppressed or concealed?


    1. Thanks Yossie. Would you mind to contact me at