Sunday, 30 October 2022

403) Hillel Baal Shem Ra: the Master of the Evil Name.


Petrovsky-Shtern discovers the Sefer haCheshek


Many are familiar with the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good name) but who was the Baal Shem Ra (Master of the Evil name)? I have drawn extensively from the research by Professor Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern,[1] who in 1993, whilst senior librarian at the Vernadsky Library in Kiev, discovered an unusual manuscript, entitled Sefer haCheshek.


Petrovsky-Shtern knew he had discovered something interesting because it had no resemblance to another work by the same title, written by R. Yitzchak Luria (Ari Zal). He realised that, at some stage, it must have been a very well-used manual of sorts because of the greasy and worn edges of the paper. But he could not easily identify the work.

He immediately assumed that this work, written in eighteenth-century Ashkenazic semi-cursive script, was not of a scholarly rabbi because it did not resemble the usual rabbinic script and even had words that were misspelt. But the author seemed to have had access to a large resource of books, some of which are unknown to us. The last date that appeared in this manuscript was 1740. Most of the book is written in the same handwriting but few sections appear to have been written by a professional Sofer, or Torah scribe. The author's name, Hillel Baal Shem, appears throughout the book.

Hillel Baal Shem was obviously a mystic because the book begins with:

"And these are 32 rules against 32 paths of wisdom."

The “32 paths of wisdom” is a common Kabbalistic metaphor, going back to the mystical work Sefer Yetzira[2] and the Zohar.[3]

The book contains ninety mystical drawings of charts, amulets and Kabbalistic imagery:

“The most amazing are the anthropomorphic amulets that establish the links between kabbalistic abbreviations and members of the human body” (Petrovsky-Shtern 2004:219).

Professor Moshe Rosman encouraged Petrovsky-Shtern to write about his findings because he considered this unusual work to be:

"the most extensive exposition of ba'al shem techniques and experiences that I know of."

A ‘baal shem’ is a term that describes a magical and theurgical wonder-worker who is believed to be able to heal and to restore harmony. The interesting thing about Hillel Baal Shem is that he lived and worked at around the same time and in the same area as R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov. He appears to have been a similar age, give or take a few years, as the Baal Shem Tov.


Petrovsky-Shtern explains how, over hundreds of pages, Hillel shows:

“how to use holy names (shemot ha-kedushah) and impure names (shemot ha-tum'ah) in order to stop epidemics (14a, 20a); treat a sick child (23b); prevent epilepsy, dizziness, craziness, headache, and night fear (24a-b, 159b, 279b); treat fever, wounds, pollution, diarrhea, insomnia and bad smell from the mouth (117a, 145b, 254a, 255b, 260a-b, 295a,); expel evil forces from the house (31 b, 296b-297b); protect a feeding (32a-b, 267a); cure a barren woman (166a, 178a-b), regulate menstruation (168b- 169a, 262b-264b) and heart beating (274b-275a, 278a); prevent evil forces from harming a newly born child (270a); keep healthy dietary laws (107b); stop girls' hair from growing (145b); protect an individual and his habitat from an evil eye (156b, 293b, 385b), thieves (174a-b), fire (188b), bandits (293b), Lilith (329b); identify a thief through talking to a homunculus[4] in a bottle (163a-164a); …” (Petrovsky-Shtern 2004:221).

What immediately strikes one is that not only are the holy names used to heal, but also the impure names are invoked. Hillel connects his Kabbalistic practices with common elements within Jewish law, bedtime prayer, charity, family purity, Shabbat observance and Torah study.

Hillel’s biography as reconstructed from his text

Hillel gives some information about himself in his book and based on that, Petrovsky-Shtern is able to weave a picture of his biography. His use of Yiddish punctuated with Slavicisms (Polish and Ukrainian), including Polish-Ukrainian incantations, indicates he was born in Eastern or Central Poland:

Zive boze, pomozni, pomohi ten ohon ohniski i otruski, od silaiu, od glovi, ochi i od beloho kosti, od chervoni krev = Living God, [my Helper], help [to take out] that poisoning fire of fires, out of [his/her] strength, out of [his/her] head, out of [his/her] eyes and white bones (368a-369a).”

Hillel refers more than a dozen times to R. Avraham Yitzchak Fortis (known as Chazak), who had apparently studied medicine at the University of Mantua but was also a Kabbalist, having studied under R. Moshe Zacut (1620-1697). Hillel refers to R. Fortis as:

Rofe mumheh ha-nikra ha-rav R. Yizhak Fortis, = The expert doctor known as R. Yitzchak Fortis (46a).”

Hillel claimed he had studied under R. Fortis, copied his amulets and remedies and learned about hygiene in light of the 1730 cholera epidemic in Podolia. He may have learned a little of the Latin which he uses, from R. Fortis as well.

Melancholy or depression was a common problem and he refers to it as marah shechora (black bile). Hillel said he had learned the remedy for it from “professional doctors in the country of Poland.” The remedy was often an enema with milk and sugar. He also said that he had learned how to protect a person from evil spirits, from R. Fortis, and he claimed to have learned how to save someone who had consumed poison (sam mavet) from a certain Dr Zalnick (108a).

Possible Sabbatian connections

But essentially, Hillel was a Kabbalist. He recommended the recitation of Tikkun Leil Shabbat (a midnight pietist liturgy) which originated with the Lurianic Kabbalists. Hillel said he had learned this liturgy from his “friends in Venice and Prague,” and he encouraged other to recite it.

Yet, unlike his frequent and liberal reference to his medical friends and teachers, he does not, for some reason, mention the names of his Kabbalistic friends and teachers. He claims to have studied manuscripts by a certain Efraim, who was a preacher (magid mesharim) from Vissa (Bessarabia) but he tells us no more about his identity:

“This is yet another mysterious pattern of Hillel's writings. It appears as if he wanted to conceal their names. The 1720s were the years of a fierce battle against crypto-sabbateans from Altona to Prague and Zolkiew. As a number of scholars have demonstrated, sometimes it was not feasible to draw the line separating regular kabbalists from crypto-sabbateans” (Petrovsky-Shtern 2004:224).

It seems probable, therefore, that his Kabbalist teachers may have been secret Sabbatians (followers of the false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi).

“Was Hillel hinting at his proximity to the sublime mystical knowledge while simultaneously hiding his personal relations with those who balanced on the brink of heresy?” (Petrovsky-Shtern 2004:224).

Ze’ev Gries explains that during the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, it was a common phenomenon to find Jewish wanders and beggars in Eastern Europe. Gries includes in this category regular beggars, Sabbatians and Chassidic preachers, rebukers (Mochichim), exorcists and fundraisers for the Land of Israel.[5]

Perhaps Hillel’s main teacher was R. Tzvi Hirsh of Mezrich, who is described as the preeminent authority of both revealed and secret law. Hillel writes:

“And I stayed with him and in my thirst I drank the words of the great Rabbi until I understood little by little the smaller face [of God] (mi-z'eyr anpin) of his sacred writings and copied them" (118a).

Petrovsky-Shtern makes the important point that:

“practical Kabbalah had already become part and parcel of general Jewish culture - even prominent rabbis were engaged in it, to say nothing of itinerant healers, well-established doctors, and ba'alei shem” (2004:226).

Hillel preferred the Jews of Ashkenaz (Germany) to those of Poland. He also seemed concerned about messianic redemption:

“As I have observed in different communities in Poland, Podol, and Volhyn, they [the Jews] pray in their houses of learning (batei midrash) in such a loose way, that only some of them will go to Paradise. It is because of that [loose prayer] that the Redemption is not coming. However, I praise the [Jews in the] countries of Ashkenaz, let them see the Redemption!" (80a).

The exorcism in Ostrah

Sometime in the 1730s, Hillel visited the Polish city of Ostrah. He describes an event, involving an “evil spirit’ that refused to leave the body of a certain woman:

“One evening the evil spirit [ruah] sent for the honorable man, the former beadle [shamash] of the Rabbi, a great hasid and the Kabbalist Naftali Kohen Zedek, of blessed memory. The spirit instructed him that he should immediately find Reb Hillel Baal Shem, who had just come to their community. ‘He [Reb Hillel Baal Shem] will put an end to my days with the help of holy names in the synagogue. He might be able to find a kind of remedy for me.’ And that man [the beadle] did not want to listen to the spirit and started to talk in public. Later, the demon told the beadle from the body of the woman: ‘If you do not go to the Baal Shem, you will be sorry, for it will definitely be too late (126a)."

At first, Hillel was treated harshly in Ostrah:

“They brought me [by force] from the ritual bath before the morning prayer…they opened their mouths against me… " (126a-b).

Establishing societal authority

It seems that Hillel was attempting to win their favour and to establish his reputation as Baal Shem by proving adept at an exorcism. Yoram Bilu explains that this was a common process of demonstrating authority:

"The validation of the moral ascendancy of religious leaders through the dybbuk idiom contributed to social control ... The exorcistic ritual constituted a conservative mechanism that facilitated the perpetuation of the traditional status hierarchy in the community."[6]

What is significant in Hillel’s account is that it was the ‘evil spirit’ (dybbuk) that guided him through the process of exorcism, and allegedly said:

 "And you, Rabbi, should not be scared and do not run away from me" (125b).

Apparently, the woman has been promiscuous and now:

"The [the evil spirit] revealed publicly horrible and nasty things which had happened in that town among the Jews. And the Jews understood that the bird from heaven raised its voice, the time had come, and the end of all ends. All the secrets became known due to the powers of heavenly and earthly oaths. All the secrets impossible to convey here that happened in that town were finally disclosed" (127a).

In the end, it all turned out well because Hillel was successful:

“I pronounced one great oath and one great petition in the presence of ten appropriate people and the Torah scrolls. Thursday, Elul, 5493 [1733], the spirit left the body of that woman through the little toe of her left leg from under her little nail so that some blood came out of her toe. After that she began seeing a little bit and she started going to the synagogue, to the cemetery, and to all other places as she found fit. However, she could not see at all through the only eye by which the spirit had entered her body” (127a).

Incidentally, Hillel was probably basing himself on the writings of R. Chaim Vital, who writes in his Sha’ar Ruah ha-Kodesh in the name of the Ari Zal,  that it is strongly recommended that Kabbalistic practitioners should use the toe as the exit point for the evil spirit, so that it doesn’t do damage to the rest of the body.

The use of ‘evil’ forces

Besides the illustrative story, as mentioned, what is significant is that Hillel ascribes his mentorship, not just to doctors and rabbis, but to the ‘forces of evil’ or the dybbuk itself. In this case:

“[H]is only spiritual instructor - his personal maggid - was the dybbuk… While the kahal [community authorities][7] used Hillel to instill fear of promiscuity and restore social and psychological order in the community, Hillel used the dybbuk to instruct his audience and instill some awe toward, if not belief in, the ba'al shem's magic…[T]his pragmatic usage of the dybbuk for self-promotion was not atypical for Hillel's modus operandi” (Petrovsky-Shtern 2004:229-30).

Taking this one step forward, paradoxically, the evil dybbuk even attempted to get the townspeople to behave more morally and keep the laws of the Torah. And this dybbuk (allegedly the soul of a dead Jewish convert) respectfully addressed Hillel as haRav, the Rabbi. Hillel was relying on the evil dybbuk to springboard him to fame and recognition and he wrote in the name of his evil mentor:

"The only thing I would tell you - through my stories and the deeds of my wicked hands is that people should learn from me and through me how to serve the blessed Name" (125b).

This baal shem is skating on thin ice claiming to fight fire with fire.


Hillel complains that there is too much competition from other ba’alei shem, who he refers to as Chassidim shakranim, or false Chassidim. He claims they only do this work for the money and sometimes perform bogus miracles. They even falsify their documents of endorsement. He insisted that these ba’alei shem give the sincere practitioners a bad name.

The great ‘Sabbatian hunter,’ R. Yakov Emden, as one would expect, had identified most of these questionable ba’alei shem as Sabbatians.[8] But Gershom Scholem brings evidence thereof.[9]

Hillel describes an incident when one of these questionable ba’alei shem took a perfectly kosher and valid Sefer Torah, belonging to “the great hasid and Kabbalist Yosef Hols, of blessed memory” (94b), and intentionally made a ‘mistake’ in it to render it invalid. Hillel does not inform us exactly as to the nature of the ‘mistake,’ but considering the dominant Sabbatian culture of the times:

“The followers of Sabbatai Tsevi…were known to insert the name of the pseudo-Messiah instead of the tetragrammaton [G-d’s name] into sifrei STAM - phylacteries, mezuzas, and Torah scrolls” (Petrovsky-Shtern 2004:233).

On a number of occasions, Hillel mentions that he is “repenting.” For what we don’t know. Petrovsky-Shtern (2004:233) suggests that it is possible he was repenting for his association with Sabbatianism. To bolster this hypothesis, he explains:

“[B]efore he left for the Land of Israel, R. Naftali Kaz from Posen, named in SH [Sefer haCheshek][10] among prominent ba'alei shem, was reported to have met the Angel of Death in the disguise of a beggar. But it is well-known that the ‘Angel of Death,’ Mal'akh ha-mavet, was the euphemism for the notorious sabbatean Hayyim Malakh used in all the bans of excommunications pronounced, repeated, and enforced in Central and East Europe against him and his followers. Was R. Naftali Kaz using the language that was transparent for his contemporaries but obscure only for us?” (Petrovsky-Shtern 246).

The play on the words Malach haMavet and Chaim Malach should not be lost, making Malach ha Mavet a devious insult to the Sabbatian leader, Chaim Malach.

One also wonders whether Hillel's embracing of the 'evil side' may not have been part of the wider Sabbatian notion of sin for the sake of redemption, where it is believed one must first enter the sin, or the realm of evil, so as to elevate it back to holiness. This usually antinomian concept is also known as 'holy sin.'

Hillel’s obsession with the ‘other side’

Hillel believed that demons are everywhere. They multiply better and faster than humans (83b). They cannot be combated by holy items, even like Sifrei Torah (94b). Great rabbis can’t help either, no head of a Beit Din or Rosh Yeshiva, nor the studying of scholars (107a). Only special secret evil names - which Hillel claimed he knew - have the ability to mitigate against evil (341b).  Some would suggest that Hillel was securing his share of the market and trying to minimise and outdo his opposition.

But, as we saw earlier, Hillel went a little too far:

“Hillel extensively employs the names of abomination (shemot ha-tum'ah)…he even establishes an immediate dialogue with evil powers. Hillel not only designs amulets against the powers of kelipah (here: evil), but also makes kelipah instrumental in achieving practical purposes…[His book][11] offers amulets that disable people (195b), induce sleep (196a), interrupt rest (212b, 293b), bring evil powers into a house (196b), prevent successful copulation between a husband and a wife (197b), and revive the dead in a dream (310a). It also offers effective imprecations against enemies. [His book] offers one of these curses among its amendments to the Eighteen Benedictions prayer [Amidah], including it, quite surprisingly, in the petition of health and recovery (refa'en[u][12])” (Petrovsky-Shtern 2004:241).

This is how Hillel changed and inserted a new prayer into the daily Amidah:

“May the name of Ploni ben Ploni [so and so] be cursed according to the words of the Holy One, blessed be he, due to the permission to fight the Christians. God of Yisrael, may the sons of this man become orphans and his wife a widow and may all the diseases and punishments recorded in this Torah befall him. For he is the trustworthy and merciful King” (68a).

Closing words

This fascinating account of Hillel and his Sefer haCheshek gives us an understanding as to why he is referred to as the Baal Shem Ra (the Master of the Evil name). Perhaps more importantly, it gives us a glimpse into the world of the eighteenth-century baalei shem in general and the Jewish communities in which they operated, in particular. A far cry from the common hagiographical accounts we are so used to.

[1] Petrovsky-Shtern, Y., 2004, ‘The Master of an Evil Name: Hillel Baal Shem and his Sefer Ha-Heshek’, AJS Review, 28:2, 217-248.

[2] Sefer Yetzira 1:1.

[3] Zohar, Teruma, 106.

[4] A homunculus is defined as a representation of a small human being, originally depicted as small statues made out of clay, or sometimes produced, supposedly, by an alchemist - but I’m not sure what it means in this context GM.

[5] See his review essay of Marc Saperstein, Jewish Preaching 1200-1800, An Anthology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 4 no. 1 (1994): 113-122, esp. 117-119.

[6] Yoram Bilu, Y., 2003, ‘The Taming of the Deviants and Beyond: An Analysis of Dybbuk Possession and Exorcism in Judaism’, in Spirit Possession in Judaism: Cases and Context from the Middle Ages to the Present, Edited by Matt Goldish, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 64.

[7] Parenthesis is mine.

[8] See how Emden refers to Eliyahu Ulianov, Shmuel Essingen, and Moshe Prager in Ya'akov Emden Sefer hit'abkut 28; idem. Torat ha-kin'aot 118-119.

[9] Scholem, G.,1994, ‘Mehkarim u-mekorot le-toldot ha-shabta'ut’, Edited by. Yehuda Liebes, Zalman Shazar, Jerusalem, 110-111. Hundert takes the view that some were Sabbatians and others were not. See Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania, 121-122, 152.

[10] Parenthesis is mine.

[11] Parentheses are mine.

[12] Parenthesis is mine.


  1. Bizarre obsession on this blog with sabatanism. Very much enjoyed the articles not relating to sabatianism. Wish you would go back to that genre......

  2. Counter voice! I think reflecting on Sabbatianism is super interesting and super relevant. Under some the bumps in the duvet of the world it's still Shabtai's feet, and not just the Jewish world either. The tensions between rationalism and mysticism, lawfulness and antinomianism, rumor and reality and so on that surround Sabbatianism continue to push and pull pretty much every one of us around. Anyway. I dig it.