Sunday 3 June 2018


The Baal Shem of London's silver Sifrei Torah.

Rabbi (Doctor) Chaim Shmuel Yaakov Falk was known as the Baal Shem of London.
Of Sefaradic descent, he was either born in Bavaria or Podolia around 1708 and he died in 1782 and was buried in the Alderney Road Cemetery in Mile End, London.

[His fascinatingly well-documented story took place at just about the same time as the famous founder of the Chassidic movement R. Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) .]


While in Westfalen, Germany, he was charged with sorcery and was sentenced to be burned at the stake, but he managed to escape and was sheltered in the castle of the German Count, von Rantzau, where he performed Kabbalistic practices for the nobility.

These practices are documented in detail in Mémoires du comte Rantzow.
Around 1736 he found his way to London and took up residence at 35 Prescott Street, and then later at Wellclose Square where he had a private synagogue. He also visited Paris from time to time.


Some astounding tales are told about this very English Baal Shem:

He was a man of great wealth and made secretive trips to Epping Forrest in a carriage drawn by four horses in order to bury some treasure there. He also had the gift of locating buried treasure. They tell of a wheel breaking off and then allegedly following the carriage all the way to the forest.
His candles would burn for weeks before becoming extinguished. He could manifest a room full of coal for his fire, and objects would move from place to place when in his presence.
Once the Great Synagogue was being consumed by fire and he saved it by writing Hebrew letters on its pillars.

Notwithstanding all his mystical activities, surprisingly, there is no record of there being any outcry by his local Jewish community and no evidence of him being deemed a fraud. He continued to maintain a close relationship with London’s Chief Rabbi Tevele Schiff, and was accepted by both Ashkenazic and Sefaradic communities of London.

There have been some cynical suggestions that he was left alone because of his immense charitable contributions.


While he appears to have been well integrated within the London community, he did experience some opposition from European Jewish leaders. R. Yaakov Emden accused R. Falk of being one of the secret followers of False Messiah Shabbetai Tzvi, known as Sabbateans. [See Shabbatai Tzvi –Roots Run Deep.]

One of the reasons for this was that, amongst other indications, his closest friend happened to be the well-known Sabbatean, Moshe David[1] of Podhayce (who had connections with – and praised him [R. Falk to] - R. Yonatan Eibeschutz who also fell under R. Emden’ Sabbatean suspicions).

Gershom Scholem wrote: “The theory propounded by several scholars that these wandering ba'alei shem [such as Falk] were responsible for spreading Shabbateanism has not been proven, although some of them were indeed members of the sect."[2]

R. Falk apparently fled to Holland on the way to London, where it is suggested that he may have met R. Moshe Chayim Luzzatto - the great Kabbalist and suspected (by some) to be a Sabbatean, whose writings he would long cherish and whose books he would keep constantly by his side.[3]

The fact is that no overt reference to Shabbatai Zvi has been found in R. Falk’s diaries or writings.


Rabbi Emden wrote: 

although I do not know him personally, I have heard that he pretends to be an expert in practical Kabbalah, and that he claims to have the ability to discover hidden treasures. He is married to an immoral woman with whom he moved to London. There he found supporters – especially among the lower classes – who tried to use him to enrich themselves. Some rich non-Jews also believed in him, thinking that he could discover treasure for them. Using trickery he succeeded in entrapping one wealthy non-Jewish captain, who spent his entire fortune on him and has now been reduced to poverty, and he is only able to survive as a result of Falk’s charity. Incredibly this captain continues to praise him among wealthy Christians, so that they give him a lot of money. In this way, the Baal Shem is enabled to live as a man of wealth, and he uses his money to bribe his close followers so that they continue to spread his fame.”

Later, R. Emden published the ‘evidence of his trickery’ found in one Sussman Shesnowzi’s[4] letter to his son describing some activities he witnessed at the home of the Baal Shem of London:

R. Ya'akov Emden publishes the 'incriminating' letter from Zusman. 
R. Emden could not hold himself back and sarcastically changed Baal Shem to Baal Sheid (Master of Demons) and Mekubal to read Mechubal (Wrecked)!

Here is a translation of the letter[5]:

“Behold, the light which is called "lamp" is a great candelabrum of pure silver with doubled and trebled lights, stacked above each other, with eight flowered branches coming out of the sides, forming the shape of holy letters. With this menorah he performed an amazing miracle. On Friday he poured oil in, the typical amount for Shabbos - but the lamp stayed lit for three weeks until he personally dissolved the holy thing with his hands (and the miracle ceased). This was a new thing from the Master of the Universe, even greater than the miracle of Chanukah, when the Menorah lasted for only 8 days.

On this night of Tuesday, the 8th of Kislev, we saw an amazing thing. During the month of Cheshvan until now he had secluded himself in his home near the bridge (London Bridge). He was shut in for six weeks, literally without food or drink, sleep or lighting any fire - you wouldn't believe it! After the sixth week he commanded that a minyan of learned men should immerse in the mikvah, and at midnight we who had prepared ourselves, dressing in white kittels, met at his home. The holy man commanded the aforementioned kabbalist Rabbi Moshe David to write (something) in his ledger. 

Afterwards, he commanded this Moshe and another member of this holy Chevra, Rabbi Yaakov, grandson of R. Meir Eisenstadt (author of Panim Meiros), and they each lit a large candle. Then he commanded that the group enter barefooted into his room, and behold, we saw the holy man sitting on a throne, dressed like an angel...

The godly Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe David, known as Rabbi Moshe Ba'al Shem, wrote a letter to our master Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz, the famous Chief Rabbi of Hamburg, and told him all these great things and wonders regarding this holy man (=Falk). So R. Yonasan applied to him the words from the Tikkunim, that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, זכאה דרא דהאי רזי עיתגלי ביה, "This generation is fortunate to have such mysteries revealed."

The letter continues: 

I am grateful that I have been received into this Brotherhood, who by their piety can hasten the advent of the son, be very circumspect, and show this only to wise and discreet men. For here in London, this matter has not been disclosed to anyone who does not belong to our Brotherhood.”[6]

This letter was enough to convince R. Emden that something very suspicious was going on.


In 1830, Hayim Isaacs - who had converted to Christianity – wrote a book entitled ‘Ceremonies, Customs, Rites and Traditions of the Jews’.

In it, he included strange ‘miracles’ that ‘Dr Faulk’ had performed and claimed that this is what Jews are required to believe in. He wrote - after ridiculing the accounts of various ‘miracles’:[7]

From Hayim Isaacs' book, The Jews.

In other words, Hayim Isaacs was explaining what mainstream and normative Jews are required to believe in. These were some of the reasons why he claimed he had converted out of his faith.


R. Falk is said to have benefited financially from his ‘wonder-working’ enterprises – but he also befriended and advised bankers like Aaron Goldsmid and amassed a huge fortune and was, therefore, able to live a lavish life. Notwithstanding, he was extremely generous and donated much of his money to worthy causes. He bequeathed, for example, the amount of one hundred pounds, to be paid annually, to the Great Synagogue. He died three days after writing his will, (and according to some accounts, having no children[8]), all his money was left to charities.

The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopaedia records, “He left large sums of money to charity, and the overseers of the United Synagogue in London still distribute annually certain payments left by him for the poor.”

There are accounts of an almost constant stream of poor people flocking to his door and never leaving empty-handed.

He also became a serious book, tapestry and art collector.


R. Falk kept a cryptic diary, which was never meant to be published, with records of his dreams and names of angels which is housed in the library of the United Synagogue in London. The diaries are written in cryptic Hebrew, and tell of dreams, booklists, recipes, and Kabbalistic names of angels. They also contain accounts of failed alchemy experiments and explosions resulting therefrom.

His assistant Zvi Hirsch Kalish also kept such a diary, and it tells how his teacher arrived in London penniless and that husband and wife would often argue about finances. He also records that his teacher was very stingy with money, although he gave huge amounts to charity when he started to amass his financial fortune.


According to some accounts, while in Bavaria he became well-versed in New Testament teachings, which he utilized in religious discussions with Christians, whose patronage he sought for his alchemical and magical exploits.

It is clear that many non-Jews were enamoured by R. Falk as he “achieved considerable prominence. He was called Doctor Falk by Christians[9]. Some accounts refer to a ‘Dr Falcon’. 

It is believed that his ideas were later to influence William Yeats (1865-1939), one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Yeats was heavily involved in organizations dealing with theosophy and the occult. He wrote, “The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.[10]

According to Professor Michal Oron’s translated diaries of R. Falk, he had “dialogue with Christian scholars, and...with Freemasons and Shabbateans.”[11]

Cecil Roth (whose wife Irene, as it transpires, was a descendant of the Baal Shem of London) writes that R. Falk:

 “established a kabbalistic laboratory on London Bridge where he carried out alchemical experiments which aroused some notice. Among those who were attracted to him, was the international adventurer Theodore De Stein, who claimed to be king of Corsica and hoped to obtain through Falk's alchemical experiments sufficient gold to enable him to "regain" his throne. He was also in touch with, among others, the Duke of Orleans, the Polish Prince Czartoryski, and the Marquise de la Croix.”[12]


In my shul, we have a well-known portrait of what we always believed was the (real) Baal Shem Tov.

The 'authoritative' portrait of R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov with his personal signature - which turns out not to be so authoritative. 

 We weren’t alone – as evident from a recent auction catalogue: “For more than a century this eighteenth-century portrait of the Kabbalist Rabbi Dr Chaim Samuel Jacob Falk has been broadly misidentified and popularly thought of as being a depiction of the founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov himself.”[13]

The Baal Shem of London is not the Baal Shem Tov of Medzebuzh.

So now it is clear that what we thought was the Baal Shem Tov of Medzebuzh was, in fact, an Englishman from London! And he is holding a compass which may be related to his alleged relationship with Freemasons.

The unsigned painting remained in the Goldsmid family. At the beginning of the 1900’s British Chief Rabbi Dr Herman Adler gave a lecture about the Baal Shem of London and offered a viewing of the little-known portrait. The picture was published in 1908[14] and was widely distributed. This resulted in people confusing The Baal Shem of London with the Baal Shem Tov of Medzebuzh.


Burial place of Baal Shem at Alderney Road Cemetary, London 
Only around 2010 was it discovered that in all the articles written about the Baal Shem of London, no mention was ever made of his real name. According to the burial records of Alderney Road Cemetery his name is recorded as:
“5542 – 4 Iyar, died,  Morenu Reb Abraham Shmuel ben Morenu Raphael, buried 5 Iyar, Baal Shem.”


So who exactly was the Baal Shem of London? 

There is no doubt that R. Avraham Shmuel Falk was an extremely colourful character. His activities were interesting, to say the least. 

But apparently, there does not appear to be any record of a blatant and intentional transgression of  Jewish law (although, clearly, his behaviour was far from 'normative' halachic practice).

His apparent acceptance by the English Rabbinate and his alleged 'rooting' in teachers like Ramchal (and I even came upon a suggestion that he may have been exposed to R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov!) - need to be weighed against his unusual practices and R. Emden's suspicions that he was linked to members of the secret Sabbatean movement.

The question is: where within that broad spectrum would he have been positioned? 

Was he a charlatan, a Sabbatean, or genuine mystic?

Perhaps the closest we can get to answering that question is to leave it to the Reader to decide.

[1] Also known as R. Moshe David Baal Shem.
[2] Kabbalah, by Gershom Scholem p. 311.
[3] Marsha Keith Schuchard, DGWE, p.356-7
[4] Also known as Eliezer Zusman.
[5] The translation is from the well-informed On The Main Line.

[6]Translation from Emanuel Swedenborg, Secret Agent on Earth and in Heaven: Jacobites, Jews and ...edited by Marsha Keith Schuchard, p. 447.

[7] See On The Main Line November 9, 2010.

[8] There is evidence that he may have had a daughter, Sara Falk: “I have found several references to Samuel Falk having a daughter, Sarah, who was married to his assistant Zvi Hirsch Kalisch. I have traced my husband’s direct line (Collins) back to Hyman Collins (Kalisch) son of Zvi Hirsch Kalisch...” See Cemetery Scribes Blog, July 18 2010. This in conjunction with the fact that historian Cecil Roth’s wife (was Collins) also is related to the Baal Shem of London.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Richard Ellmann (1948). Yeats: The Man and the Masks. (New York) Macmillan. 94

[11] Rabbi, Mystic, or Impostor? The Eighteenth-Century Ba'al Shem of London: An Eighteenth-century Jewish Mystic, by Michal Oron.

[12] C. Roth, Essays and Portraits in Anglo-Jewish History (1962).
[13] The Kesterbaum Judaica Auction Catalog 2013.
[14] The earliest publication of the portrait was actually in 1886 in Great Jewish Families in Britain.

No comments:

Post a Comment