Sunday 18 March 2018


Shaar Gan Eden, by R. Yaakov Koppel Lifschitz.


In order to understand the milieu into which the Baal Shem Tov was born, one must take into consideration the widespread - yet devastating - success of the false messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi who had died just two decades earlier.

Shabbatai Tzvi and his followers, known as Sabbateans, managed to engineer one of the biggest movements in Jewish history, with estimates that more than half of Jewish population at that time believed him to have been the Messiah.

These followers included many scholarly rabbis and even kabbalists. After Shabbatai Tzvi died in 1676, the Jewish world was permeated with secret Sabbateans, many of whom presented a facade of Halachik observances to hide their messianic agendas and aspirations. See Shabbatai Tzvi – Roots run Deep.

In this article, we will look at the question of whether or not R. Yaakov Koppel Lifschitz was such an individual:

(NOTE: R. Yaakov Koppel Lifschitz must not be confused with R. Yaakov Koppel Hager, who was an early follower of the Baal Shem Tov and also his Shaliach Tzibur.)


R. Yaakov Koppel Lifschitz is best known for his Shaar Gan Eden which he wrote in Volhynia in the early 1700’s and which was printed posthumously in 1803.

In the preface to Shaar Gan Eden, R. Yaakov Koppel writes strongly against Sabbateanism. However, the actual contents of his book show subscription to much of Sabbatean ideology. This disavowal was a common technique used frequently by many secret Sabbateans during that time.
[See Chemdat Yamim.]
Shaar Gan Eden, by R. Yaakov Koppel Lifschitz.

In one section of Shaar Gan Eden, R. Yaakov Koppel writes:

At the end of the sixth millennium the light which precedes the cosmic Sabbath will spread its rays, swallowing death and driving the unclean spirit from the world. Then many commandments will be abrogated, for example, those relating to clean and unclean...

(and) ‘A new Torah will go forth’...the letters of the Torah will combine in a different way, according to the requirements of this period, but not a single letter will be added or taken away.”[1]

These, as well as other references, lead some to believe that R. Yaakov Koppel may have been sprouting aspects of Sabbatean ideology. The original Sabbateans (and I am certainly not implicating R. Yaakov Koppel with this) were known to have been quite promiscuous, and the notion of the ‘abrogation of clean and unclean’ was distorted to allow for such behaviour in an era believed to be preceding the Messiah. In other words, these rules of ‘clean and unclean’ would fall away and no longer be applicable.

In another section of Shaar Gan Eden, Moshe Rabbeinu is described as being both human and divine:

It is said about Moses that he is an ‘ish ha-Elokim (a man of G-d). But if he is a man (‘ish) then he is not G-d (Elokim)?!

- Rather, Above (i.e. in Heaven) he is called G-d (Elokim) and below he is called a man (‘ish).”[2]

According to Shaul Magid:

This is so striking rejects, even subverts, the more common euphemistic rendering of the passage (i.e. Moses is a “godly man”) opting for a rendition that enables Moses to be both human and divine simultaneously.”[3]

Thus “Moshe” or any corresponding leader would assume a type of role of G-d incarnate!

We know that Sabbateans did give divine-like reverence to their leader, which correlates with this ‘precedent’ of ‘Moshe’ being ‘both human and divine’.

According to Gershom Scholem:

"Although the book was regarded with some suspicion by orthodox Kabbalists outside the Hassidic camp it enjoyed a wide reputation with the Hassidim. But only recently it has been proved conclusively...that the author was an outstanding crypto-Sabbatian and based his doctrine to a very considerable extent on the Sabbatian writings of Nathan of Gaza (the prophet of false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi)." [4]


R. Yaakov Koppel also produced a prayer book with Lurianic and Kabbalistic meditations, entitled Kol Yaakov[5], which followed the rite of the Ari Zal; as well as a Kabbalistic commentary on the Haggadah. His prayer book was to form the basis of later Chassidic prayer books:

Kol Yaakov Siddur with reference to Shaar Gan Eden.

The Kol Yaakov Siddur contains the approbation of R. Asher Tzvi of Ostroh, who writes “I heard that the Baal Shem saw this siddur and it pleased him”:

In the siddur there is a clear reference to his other work Shaar Gan Eden - so it is likely that the Baal Shem Tov was aware of the existence of the book:

According to the title page and the approbations, when the Baal Shem Tov saw the manuscripts of Shaar Gan Eden and Kol Yaakov, he "hugged and kissed them...and used a lot of energy to hug with his arms the author's writings".

The approbations include R. Efraim Zalman Margoliot, as well as R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who wrote that the author "was a loyal Kabbalist and all his words were said with divine inspiration...This is the gate to approach the inner hall, the inner sanctum of the holy writings of the Ari Zal."


Professor Joseph Dan writes in no uncertain terms:

Jacob Koppel...was influenced by the Shabbatean movement in Poland, and he himself influenced Ḥasidism.

Besides (Shaar Gan Eden and Kol Yaakov)...he apparently wrote Naḥalot Ya'akov, an extensive commentary on the Zohar, which has been lost.

Jacob denounces the followers of Shabbetai Zevi and messianic speculation in general in a few scattered remarks. However, it has been proved that he was the brother and pupil of a known Shabbatean, Ḥayyim of Ostraha (Ostrog), who influenced his writings.

A close study of the kabbalistic doctrine of Jacob proves conclusively that his works included at least one part of a "credo" of Nathan of Gaza, the prophet of Shabbetai Ẓevi... his descriptions of development within the realm of the Sefirot (the divine emanations), Jacob uses a series of extremely radical sexual symbols found only in Shabbatean writings...

Finally, some scattered hints (which were fully developed in at least one of his works) allude to a heretical, antinomian concept of the Torah and the mitzvot, following the Shabbatean distinction between the laws governing the world before the coming of the messiah, Shabbetai Ẓevi, and the new laws following his appearance.

Jacob and his writings were highly praised by the early Ḥasidim, who published his works and used them extensively.

A reliable ḥasidic tradition even quotes some words of praise attributed to Israel b. Eliezer Baal Shem Tov.

Thus Jacob's Shabbatean writings form one of the links between late East European Shabbateanism and early Ḥasidism.”[6]


Fascinatingly, according to R. Dovid Sears, R. Nachman of Breslov discusses Shaar Gan Eden in his Chayey Moharan, and he is critical of the work.

And R. Natan of Breslov mentions the Introduction to the Siddur Kol Yaakov in his Likkutei Halachot and is similarly critical of it. [7]


According to Pinchas Giller, the contemporary kabbalist R. Yaakov Moshe Hillel recommends against reading Kabbalistic works which cite R. Yisrael Sarug (1590-1610), who was one of the students of the Ari Zal. He believes it was only through the other student, R. Chaim Vital, that the authentic Lurianic teachings were transmitted.

However, in the strangest of ironies:

"...some works are acceptable, notwithstanding their citation of Sarug. These include the Sabbatean work Sha'arei Gan Eden by Jacob Koppel Lifscheutz...For Hillel, the odd inclusion of occasional Sabbatean less of a problem than the appearance of Sarugian materials." [8]

According to this view, there is not even a question as to the Sabbatean nature of Shaar Gan Eden.


The possible influence of Sabbateanism on early Chassidism has intrigued me since I started translating the Letters of the Cherson Archive and found numerous references which indicated a frantic need to hide certain writings from unnamed rabbis and sources.

Considering the historical timing, it is not a big jump to speculate on the nature and content of those writings.

Sabbatean writings were very mystical and messianic - and although they distorted and often even perverted Kabbalistic teachings - in principal, they presented a worldview of mysticism for the masses, not unlike that of the Chassidic movement which followed so close on its heels.

It is possible that the early Chassidim had found a model that had proven successful in terms of disseminating mystical teaching amongst the common folk and may have adopted some of those proven and positive techniques, while leaving aside the negative aspects.

This would not have been the first time in Jewish history that various elements from contemporary popular worldviews were selected and infused back into the mainstream.

[NOTE: One needs to be careful how one interprets the above-mentioned suggestion. Chassidism is a mystical movement which undoubtedly has roots in ancient Jewish mystical traditions. Whether there may or may not have been some overlap with the popular mysticism of the time is up to the Reader to decide. Any tradition can be shown to have common overlap with another - especially with another contemporary tradition.]

To be clear: The suggestion is not that the Baal Shem Tov was a secret Sabbatean – but rather that he may have used some of their neutral mystical content and approach, after eliminating and discarding the more subversive aspects of that movement.

Besides R. Yaakov Koppel, this apparent association between both movements is particularly evident with regard to the Sefer haTzoref, by R. Yehoshua Herschel Tzoref (1623-1700).

It is this connection that may have had to be hidden away because the rest of the orthodox mainstream would not have entertained the notion that anything was salvageable from the Sabbatean movement.

Were it not hidden away, it is probable that the new movement would never have enjoyed acceptance and the extensive success it managed to achieve.



[1] Sha’ar Gan Eden by R. Jacob Koppel, Cracow 1880, p. 12c:
Interestingly, he provides a reference to Sefer haTemunah or Book of the Shape (of the Hebrew letters), written in the late 1200’s but attributed to Nechunya ben Hakanah and R. Yishmael, Tanaim of the first and second centuries.
[2] Shaar Gan Eden 44b.
[3] Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism, by Shaul Magid, p.18.
[4] Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p 333
[5] Also known as HaKol Kol Yaakov.
[6] Joseph Dan, Encyclopaedia Judaica under R. Yaakov Koppel ben Moses of Mezhirech, based on Isaiah Tishby, in Netivei Emunah u-Minut (1964), 197–226, 331–43.
[7] Breslov Center, Gates of Eden, 11 Nov 2010.
[8] Shalom Shar'abi and the Kabbalists of Beit El.


  1. I think you are confusing two different individuals who had the same name.

    Rabbi Yaakov Kopel Lifshitz lived prior to the Besht. There is a very lengthy bibliography and discussion of his life and his siddur in the recent publication of it, which came out last year (a very good printing BTW) and provides a lot of clarity about who he was and his works.

    On the other hand Rabbi Yaakov Kopel Chasid, from whom the Hager family descent, was the Shliach Tzibur by the Besht. R. Kopel Hasid did not leave any writings that are know.

  2. Thank you very much EA. I did pick up a discrepancy between the death dates varying from 1740 to the late 1700's. You are absolutely correct and I have ammended the article accordingly. Thank you so much for your very considered response.

  3. Your comments are most interesting. I have two questions:1. Rav Natan says that Rabbi Nachman's reason for forbidding the Shaarei Gan Eden, was that it went into speculation about shmitin and yovelot, without coming to a conclusion.I have always assumed that the real reason was its Shabbatean foundation. That having been said, I find it strange that, at least according to the tradition quoted by the late Rav Eliezer Shlomo Schick, Rabbi Nachman would pray from the Siddur Kol Yaakov. Any insights? 2. You mention that you worked on translating the letters from the Cherson Genizah. Gershom Scholem says that they are "forgeries foisted on a gullible public", intended to "prove" the historicity of the Shivchei HaBesht. Any comments?

  4. Very interesting. I never knew that R. Nachman davenned from Kol Yaakov!!
    The Cherson letters are considered by most secular scholars and some Rebbes as being forgeries. Only two courts regard then as authentic and they are Chabad and Radzin. The Hebrew appears to be the style of about a century later. See KOTZK BLOG 137 for some other views. Either way it is a fascinating literature and contains some amazing treasures that could change parts of popular Chassidic history.