Sunday 29 November 2020



A Taytch (Yiddish)-Hebrew edition of Kav haYashar.


The Chassidic movement, founded by R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (1698/1700-1760) is known as a populist movement which swept through the Jewish world like a religious revival if not a revolution. We are often told that prior to its emergence in around 1730, the Jewish religious world was primarily the domain of a combination of non-mystical scholars and elitist mystics - and that the simple populace was excluded from any meaningful involvement with Judaism. Then the Baal Shem Tov came and, for the first time, brought the hitherto elitist mystical traditions to the ordinary people and opened new channels of mystical experience for the average individual seeking spiritual nourishment.

Historically, however correct some of these assertions may be, this is only part of the story of the Jewish spiritual renaissance of the eighteenth century. Its roots went back deeper in time to two previous extremely effective spiritual movements beginning about a century earlier. 

Both these movements successfully brought mysticism to the masses:


Although the Safed-based[1] R. Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572) - the Ari Zal - founder of Lurianic Kabbalah, was active during the sixteenth century, he did not commit his teachings to writing. It was only a generation later, through his various (and competitive) students that the teachings were eventually disseminated. [See The Battle for the Soul of the Ari Zal.]

The date given for the emergence of Lurianic Kabbalah is 1630 (almost sixty years after the passing of the Ari Zal) because that was when these mystical teachings were first published. [See Root Causes of the Sabbatian Movement.]


Building on the fast-spreading and very popular Lurianic Kabbalah, the Sabbatian movement of the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) [See Roots Run Deep] was able to build upon the notion of exile and redemption, tikkun and geulah which was to become so crucial to Sabbatian messianic ideology. It could be said that the Sabbatian movement was the most successful Jewish movement in millennia when one considers that close to if not the majority of Jews and respected rabbis subscribed to it during its peak at around 1666.

Essentially, both movements had one thing in common – the dissemination of previously elitist and exclusive mysticism to the masses. The Sabbatian ideology as developed by Shabbatai Tzvi's 'prophet'  and idealogue, Natan haAzati (Nathan of Gaza), was extremely Kabbalistic and radically mystical. One must remember that this was not just a fringe messianic movement of the few but a full-fledged mystical awakening with writings, teachings and books directed at the masses.

Both the Lurianic Kabbalah movement and the Sabbatian movement successfully brought Kabbalah to the people.


The Chassidic movement of 1734/6[2] was the third successful attempt within a century to create a popular movement bringing mysticism to masses.


One unusual field of inquiry is the role ethical and mystical texts newly translated into Yiddish, had to play as a conduit for Kabbalistic thought during the latter part of the seventeenth century - particularly during the period between Shabbatai Tzvi and the Baal Shem Tov. 

On reflection though, this is not all that surprising because Yiddish was the vernacular and therefore an obvious means of communicating these mystical ideas to the populace.

This article is based extensively on the research of Professor Jean Baumgarten[3], the Director of Research at Centre de Recherches Historiques in Paris, France. He is a specialist in Old Yiddish Literature[4].

What emerges from his investigation into this little-known field is that as the mystical teachings became popular and widespread during the seventeenth century - in addition to their theosophy - mystical theurgical practices such as amulets for protection, demonology, exorcisms became common. The medium often used to discuss these phenomena was Yiddish. Primary mystical texts had previously been predominantly in Hebrew and Aramaic but they were now being translated into Yiddish so as to become more accessible to all the people.

Three centuries later, I recall my bobba and zaida who hailed from Russia and Lithuania, still being proud of their Yiddish literature which included prayer books and some commentary. I wish I would have kept those texts.

The works which were beginning to get translated into Yiddish in the seventeenth century included some rather technical material as well. These dealt with ethical, mystical and theurgical matters.


To give an idea as to how popular mysticism was becoming, the (original) Zohar had only been published twice during the seventeenth century[5], but it was edited fifteen times during the eighteenth century. Additionally, these were followed by about twenty commentaries on and anthologies of the Zohar.[6]

Baumgarten (2007:74) points out that during that period, the study of Kabbalah had become so popular that it was “a major ingredient of the religious culture”.

Faierstein (2005)[7] shows that in Basel in 1602, quotations from the Zohar and other mystical texts were appearing in Yiddish literature such as the Brantshpigl. In Frankfurt in 1674 parts of the Ari Zal’s liturgy, such as his viduy, were translated into Yiddish.

Interestingly, this seems to have been part of an ongoing tradition to write mystical literature in Yiddish. One of the most important early writers in Old Yiddish was Eliyahu Bachur (1469-1549). [See Elihahu Bachur -Teaching Kabbalah to Cardinals?]


A very popular mystical work emerged in 1705, Kav haYashar by R. Tsvi Hirsh Koidanover. The work is very much fire and brimstone. Its goal was to awake the fear of sin and transgression, to stress the sinfulness of the generation and to call for collective repentance. Simple Jews are criticised for their improper behaviour as are the wealthy and powerful leadership of the communities. They are responsible all for the delay in the process of redemption. It is a fiery ethical work exhorting people to mend their ways and to fulfil G-d's commandments. It contains wondrous tales emphasising the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. 

A bilingual edition in both Hebrew and Yiddish came out in 1709.

The work was so popular that it was reprinted more than fifty times up to the twentieth century and there are about eighty editions to date.


Although Kav haYashar was extremely popular, Baumgarten writes that:

Several indications prove that the author could be related to the Shabbatean movement.

1) One of these can be seen in the very title where those familiar with the Kabbalistic writings of Shabbatai Tzvi’s prophet and promoter, Nathan of Gaza, will recognise his signature version of Tzimtzum taken from Lurianic Kabbalah. G-d’s Or haMachshava (thoughtful light), as opposed to His ‘thoughtless light’, is said to beam into the Tehiru (vacated space) by means of the Kav haYashar (straight line) which penetrates it.

2) Another indication is the book’s mention of a Sabbatian activist R. Yehudah Chassid known as the Maggid of Sziedlow (1660-1700).[8] He promoted an early aliya to the Land of Israel, and travelled around Europe promoting asceticism and teshuva, gathering a group of about 1 500 people. His followers were known as Chassidim.[9] A third of them died of hardships on the journey and between 500 and 1000 Ashkenazim eventually arrived in Jerusalem on October 14, 1700, creating a crisis in the city which already had 200 Ashkenazim and 1000 Sefaradim and could barely sustain itself.

The Jewish community of Jerusalem lived off charities collected from Europe and the community couldn’t cope with this large influx of immigrants. Besides this, the group was suspected of being Ma’aminim (Believers) as the Sabbatians were then called.[10] The opponents were called Kofrim (Deniers), giving some idea of how popular the Sabbatian movement was in its day. The new arrivals built their own synagogue but the community could not sustain itself, and as a result, all Ashkenazim were banned from Jerusalem. The synagogue became known as the famous Churvat Yehuda Chassid[11], or destroyed synagogue, after the Ottoman authorities demolished it in 1721 when the Jews did not pay their taxes.

3) Furthermore, Kav haYashar quotes R. Herschel Tzoref, who is referred to as “our teacher”. The author writes [This] is what I received of the divine person, our master Rav Heschel Tsoref, za’l”. R. Herschel Tzoref was known to have associated with, at first the early Nistarim, and then the secret Sabbatians.

4) The very style of the work also fits in with the style of ethical writings popular at that time by (what Scholem calls) the “moderate Shabbateans” who by the turn of the century had become part of the rabbinical mainstream. Because of the messianic disruption and devastation in the aftermath of Shabbatai Tzvi (d. 1676) it was felt that penitential and ethical writings were necessary to ‘uplift’ and restore the ‘fallen’ sparks.

Baumgarten writes:

This desire for individual improvement and collective purification led to the publication of treatises that attempted to create a synthesis of ascetic, penitential practices, messianic speculations and kabbalistic themes, in particular through the use of kavvanot, yihudim and meditation on the letters of the prayers….

Tsvi Hirsh Koidanover stressed ethical values and penitential practices typical of the post-Shabbatean literature of the 18th century…

The main theme of the work is the battle between good and evil. The world is saturated with negative forces controlled by Lilith, Ashmedai and Samael who want to control creation.

This book is a remarkable example of the penetration of magic and kabbalistic notions in the popular Jewish literature, especially demonology, the life after death and the transmigration of the souls.

At the centre of this cosmic drama is man and his every deed has direct bearing on the balance between Satan and Redemption. R. Tzvi Hirsch Koidanover warns his readers of the damage sin has on the upper realms which can only be mitigated by penitence, fasts, mortification, confession and the recitation of the divine names.[12]


With the Yiddish translation of Kav haYashar in 1709, we see how that language was used (either inadvertently or intentionally) as means of disseminating the authority of neo-mystical and possibly Sabbatian ideology.

Although the work was clearly interested in disseminating mysticism to the people, in an interesting section in chapter 102, there is an explanation as to why certain matters must nevertheless still remain hidden. The Yiddish translation reads:

[U]n ikh hob oykh deroyf ayn terets nor men tor dos nit megale zayn nor tsu frume layt.

And I have an explanation [regarding a certain matter], but we may not reveal it to just anyone, only to ‘frum’[13] people.

The Hebrew text reads: “And there is another secret [regarding a certain matter] that I do not want to reveal to everyone…”

Even though classical Kabbalah does discuss sod or secrets, considering the time and context one wonders just what that particular “explanation” or “secret” was that was being withheld and only privy to the initiated?[14]

The question becomes compounded when we consider, as Baumgarten continues, that:

In Central and Eastern Europe, after the mystical apostasy and the death of Shabbatai Tsvi (1676)…[there was][15] a circulation of Shabbatean propaganda, especially in small underground groups of ascetic pietists and mystics in which the ideology of the « believers » (ma’aminim) was diffused and Nathan’s writings were copied, studied, along with the Zohar and ethical and kabbalistic texts.


R. Yechiel Michel Epstein[16]  produced his Derech haYashar leOlam haBa which was intended for “simple readers, women and young girls.” He was also suspected of being a secret Sabbatian. He writes in his preface to the book:

Those who live in large communities where there are one or more rabbis, learned men or doctors of the law, can pose a question to the rav. But (this is not the case for) those who live in small communities and yeshuvim, where there is no one to teach (unter rikhtn) or advise (unter vayzn) them from time to time. That is why I have produced this book, so that people may learn from it…

I hope it will be of use to them, that they will follow what they find in it, and will read other books in Yiddish (taytsh) in which they will find laws (dinim)[17], like Lev tov, Brantshpigl or Sefer ha-yire”[18]


R. Yechiel Michel Epstein’s reference to “women and young girls[19] is significant in light of the fact that one of the less-known contributions of the Sabbatain movement was their elevation of the role of women in Judaism.

Baumgarten writes:

Shabbatean theology gave a major role to women. This transformation could be seen, especially, in the aliyah of women in shul, the promotion of equality of sex and the participation of women to circles of study. We have testimonies of Jewish women from Shabbatean circles who studied the Zohar in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Altona…

There also is a collection of letters and responsa where opponents of the Sabbatian movement, like R. Moshe Chagiz and the Nodah beYehuda objected to seeing the Zohar studied in Yiddish by men, women and children, who had no technical knowledge of mysticism.[20]


The first chapter of another work entitled Sefer Tikunei haMoadim reads:

Everyone thinks that when he as learned how to study a page of Gemore, he has become a scholar and he never looks at another holy book. But, dear people, know that when a man has studied the entire Gemore and the Toysefes without having any knowledge of the secrets and wisdom of the kabbalah, he is, in comparison to those who do have such knowledge, like a child who has only begun to study….

Rabbi Shimeon bar Yohai wrote the Zohar so that everyone could take pleasure in it and so that, thanks to that splendid instruction, one might attain the world to come….

Some people think that when it is a matter of the science of the kabbalah, then it is necessary that one be a master of the Holy names and have all kinds of knowledge about how to vanquish demons and evil spirits. But that is a different kind of wisdom, called practical kabbalah of the celestial realm, [where][21] the grandeur and power and the holiness of the Holy One, blessed be He, is taught.[22]

This is a significant extract because, although published in 1725, it foreshadows an attitude that was later adopted by the Chassidic movement where the mind is similarly set at ease to permit delving into the mystical teachings. This is because:

1)     Mysticism is essentially the core spirit of Torah knowledge.

2)     Its study is indeed permitted as it falls under the rubric of theosophy (mystical theology or theoretical Kabbalah) as opposed to theurgy (magic or practical Kabbalah).

As Baumgarten (p.75) puts it:

The semi-literate could now become initiated into the « mysteries of the world » through [what was until then][23] “sealed books”…

These were ideas that were sent out in the vernacular to the masses of ordinary people, prior to the advent of Chassidism, encouraging the study of mysticism. The problem was, as we have seen, that many of these Yiddish works were somewhat tainted with allegations of Sabbatian mystical propaganda.


An abridged Yiddish translation of the Zohar was written by R. Tzvi Hirsh Chotsch and published in Frankfort in 1711, again showing how popular Kabbalah was with the wider community. By the twentieth century it had been reprinted about fifty times, later under the title Nofet Tzufim.

R. Tzvi Hirsh Chotsch explains in his book why he chose to translate parts of the Zohar into Yiddish:

In our country, the language for everyone is Yiddish, so that those who are educated should not think it shameful to read holy books in Yiddish (taytshe sforim). Thus it is that here the language of the Zohar should be Yiddish. I have therefore introduced into this book many fine peshotim that appear in the Zohar… so that this holy book should awaken the fear of God in the hearts of everyone….

The redemption could not come quickly, except if we read it (the Zohar), each (Jew) according to his perception and comprehension…. The learned (yodei sefer) must not be ashamed to read the Zohar in the language of the people, because it was written in the popular language [i.e. Aramaic][24] of the former generations…

Scholem writes:

It is not accidental that the author of the first attempt to vulgarize parts of the Zohar in Yiddish was a Shabbatean…[25]


In 1706, R. Tzvi Hirsh Chotsch wrote a commentary on the Tikkunei Zohar which was regarded as so controversial due to its alleged Sabbatian ideology, that he was forced to flee from Poland (where he was associated with R. Herschel Tzoref) to Germany.


To fully understand the rabbinic milieu of the two decades between Shabbatai Tzvi and the Baal Shem Tov, we must consider the surprisingly large number of rabbis who were Sabbatians. To list just a few: 

In Bohemia, there was R. Yisachar Behr Perlhefter (1650-1713), the travelling Sabbatian preacher who was related to R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz (1690-1764) who was also famously suspected of being a Sabbatian. R. Perlhelfer was the first Maggid who taught in the Sabbatian yeshiva established in Jerusalem in 1701 by R. Avraham Rovigo.

In Prague there was R. Mordechai Eisenstadt (c.1650-1729), an ascetic preacher, and his brother, probably R. Meir Eisenstadt (the teacher of R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz), who travelled through Germany and Italy attracting a large following. He was a “moderate Sabbatian” claiming that Shabbatai Tzvi was only Mashiach ben Yosef, and exhorting the people not to lose faith in the immanent redemption.

In Moravia and Silesia, R. Leibele Prossnitz (1670-1730) was connected to R. Tsvi Hirsch Chotch, author of Nachalat Tzvi, and (also) proclaimed himself to be the Messiah.

In Chevron there was R. Meir Rofe, regarded as the greatest scholar in Chevron and the Rosh Yeshiva of Chessed leAvraham. He had earlier been associated with Nathan of Gaza, the great Sabbatian ideologue.

In Reggio there was R. Binyamin Cohen who brazenly displayed a portrait of Shabbatai Tzvi in his home.

In Amsterdam and London there was R. Shlomo  Aailion who had also studied with Nathan of Gaza and went on to headed the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam which was the focus of much Sabbatian activity.


Commensurate with the list of just some of the secret Sabbatians mentioned above, Baumgarten points out that:

Many of the most influential moral preachers and authors of moral literature of a radical ascetic bent were secret Shabbateans. Some musar-sefarim of this period belong to this category…

Thus we see how Sabbatians were taking advantage and control of the Yiddish language (taytch) to reach wider audiences than just Hebrew readers, “thus making the vernacular language a vector for the themes of Jewish mysticism.”

This concurs with the view of Scholem who writes:

Some kabbalists who also wrote moral tracts in Yiddish belong to this camp (the secrets Shabbateans) such as Tsvi Hirsh ben Yerahmeel Chotsch and Yehiel Mikhl Epstein.[26]

On the other hand, there is the view of Yehoshua Horowitz, who writes:

It is very doubtful whether he [Yechiel Michel Epstein][27] had any associations with the Shabbatean movement.[28]

However, there is certainty that both R. Tzvi Hirsh Koidanover (Kav haYashar) and R. Tzvi Hirsh Chotsch (Nachalat Tzvi/Taytch Zohar/Nofet Tzufim) were linked to the circle of the known Sabbatian R. Heschel Tzoref.


Besides the some of the Yiddish texts brushing against elements of Sabbatianism, there was also the more general concern for the ‘de-sanctification’ of the original Hebrew and Aramaic rabbinical texts. Baumgarten (p.88) puts it as follows:

The “vernacularization” of the Jewish tradition leads to a de-sacralisation of the authoritative nature of the text which does not cause the same kind of respect, but rather introduces a more free, individual, reading and rewriting, independent of the talmidei hakhamim...

The novelty comes from the practices of reading canonical texts, as the Zohar, which was grasped by new groups of readers on the fringes and read in a way that escaped the control of the rabbis.


Baumgarten (p.90) explains that from the text and style of Nachalat Tzvi we can discern the role of a particular type of roving preacher, or magid, who would have led small but independent study circles for less learned men, women, and children, gathering in private homes and delving into basic mysticism of the Zohar:

The Nahalat Tsvi is an interesting testimony about the ways the Zohar was disseminated in Yiddish in 18th century Ashkenazi society…

These testimonies show new channels of diffusion of the “mystical” tradition in vernacular, especially among small Shabbateans fraternities, parallel to the communal authorities and constituting an alternative sociability.

Interestingly, this style of disseminating mysticism to the masses was later adopted by the Chassidic maggidim who appear in dominant roles as that movement begins to grow during the eighteenth century.


The early itinerant preachers of the Chassidic movement continued to use this style and approach in further empowering the laity. This is why so many early Chassidic leaders were tainted with allegations of Sabbatian influence particularly from R. Herschel Tzoref and R. Yaakov Koppel Lifschitz. [See Sefer haTzoref – Were these the Secret Writings which had to be Hidden?]

[See Yaakov Koppel Lifschitz – A Sabbatian who Influenced the Baal Shem Tov?]

Baumgarten (p. 91) writes:

It should be noted that most of the mystical texts in Yiddish and above all the Kav ha-yashar were published in the period just preceding the rise of Hasidism…

[M]any themes seem to prepare the reception and dissemination of Hasidic ideas among Jewish people. We can consider Kav ha-yashar as a kind of pre or proto-Hasidic text in Yiddish…

 When such books as Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye’s Toledot Yaakov Yosef, Dov Ber’s Maggid Devarav Le-Yaakov or the anonymous Tsava'at ha-Ribash (“The Testament of the Besht”) were published, the cultural ground or background was prepared to receive such Hasidic treatises.

Moshe Idel[29] shows how themes prevalent in Kav haYashar were soon to reoccur in later Chassidic literature. These included deveikut, specific kavanah, hitbodedut and hamshacha and other similar ideas that were to become associated with Chassidism.

It is for these reasons that Baumgarten argues that:

[W]e must analyze and put back the Yiddish ethical-mystical printed production in the continuum of the history of the Jewish mystics, as an intermediate landmark, a point of contact between the kabbalistic books and the major Hasidic texts.

[1] The Ari Zal actually only spent the last three years of his life in Safed arriving there in 1569 (after little success in Jerusalem). Although born in Jerusalem, he spent most of his life in Egypt.

[2] The Baal Shem Tov is said to have revealed himself and his teachings to the world when he was 36 years old.

[3] Baumgarten, J.  2007. Yiddish ethical texts and the diffusion of the Kabbalah in the 17th and 18th centuries. Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem, 18. Pp. 73-91.

[4] Old Yiddish is considered to have existed between 1300 to 1780; Haskalah and Chassidic Yiddish literature from 1780 to about 1890; and modern Yiddish from 1864 to the present.

[5] This was in Lublin, 1623 and Sulzbach, 1683.

[6] B. Huss, “Hashabbtaut ve-toldot hitkabelut Sefer ha-Zohar”, Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, The Sabbatian Movement and Its Aftermath. Messianism, Sabbatianism and Frankism, Rachel Elior ed., tome 17, Jerusalem, Hebrew University, 2001, pp. 59-60.

[7] M. M. Faierstein, the Influence of Kabbalah on early Modern Yiddish Literature prior to 1648, paper delivered at the Congress of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, 2005.

[8] See Kav haYashar, Chapter 11.

[9] Not to be confused with the Chassidim of the Baal Shem Tov who emerged three decades later.

[10] See Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish religious radicalism. 1996, page 228

[11] This synagogue was rebuilt in 1864 by the Perushim (the students of the Vilna Gaon) only to be destroyed in 1948 by the Arab Legion. It was restored in 2010.

[12] See Baumgarten, J. 2004 “From Translation to Commentary: The Kav ha-yosher (Francfort, 1709)”, Journal of Jewish Studies, pp. 269-287.

[13] The Hebrew reads latzenuim, to the ‘humble’.

[14] Sometimes the Yiddish translations revert to the expediency of sod, for mere pragmatic reasons, such as when the original text is too complicated, technical and cumbersome. Baumgarten (p.86) shows how in the introduction to Nachalat Tzvi, for example, we read :“when an ordinary man (gemeyner man) wants to study Zohar, he will choose the ethical teachings (muser), the revealed parts, the simple words (devorim peshutim) and stories according to the literal meaning (deyrekh peshute)”. In these instances the technichalities are omitted and the translator refers to them as sod.

[15] Parenthesis mine.

[16] Not to be confused with R. Yechiel Michel haLevi Epstein (1829-1908), author of Aruch haShulchan.

[17] In Yiddish, dinim could not only mean technical law as in Halacha but also refer more generally to customs, approaches and even religious attitudes.

[18] See another paper by Jean Baumgarten, The Printing of Yiddish Books in Frankfurt-on-the-Main (17th and 18th Centuries) L’impression de livres yiddish à Frankfort aux xviie et xviiie siècles. Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem, 20, p. 9.

[19] A similar reference to women is also found in the Yiddish translation of parts of the Zohar, entitled Nachalat Tzvi by R. Tzvi Hirsh Chotch. In an approbation to Nachalat Tzvi, R. Wolf of Dessau explains that the author “has the pure intention to print revealed words of the Zohar which could be said in any language that women can hear (understand)”. (See the section further on Nachalat Tzvi.)

[20] See A. Rapoport-Albert, “Al ha-ma’amad ha-nashim be-shabbtaut”, Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, tome 17, R. Elior ed., Jerusalem, Hebrew University, 2001, pp. 239-249.

[21] Parenthesis mine.

[22] Sefer Tikunei haMoadim, Fürth, 1725, fol. 13b.

[23] Parenthesis mine.

[24] Parenthesis mine.

[25] While Baumgarten (p. 84) does point out that the process of a Yiddish translation of the Zohar actually began with R. Tzvi Hirsh Chotch’s great-great grandfather as far back as 1601, however, the process was refined, imbued with a spirit of messianism and completed around 1711. Baumgarten writes (p.88): “This dismembering of the Zohar introduced a distance towards scriptural authority, a form of de-canonization of the literality aspect of the Zohar which could be subject to textual manipulations and transformations.”

[26] G. Scholem, “Shabbatai Zevi”, Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 14, col. 1248.

[27] Parenthesis mine.

[28] Y. Horowitz, “Epstein, Jehiel Michal ben Abraham ha-levi”, Encyplopedia Judaica, vol. 6, col. 833. 

[29] M. Idel, Absorbing Perfections, Kabbalah and Interpretation, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 150-152.

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