Sunday 1 January 2023

411) The Baal Shem Tov of “Okopy”?

The legendary synagogue of the Baal Shem Tov in Piatra Neamț in Western Moldavia


All the literature we read on the Baal Shem Tov (1690[1]/1698/[2]1700[3]-1760) gives his birthplace as Okopy, in Podolia, Western Ukraine. However, relatively recent research by Romainian-born Professor Moshe Idel,[4] upon which this article is extensively based, suggests that his birthplace may have been “in the state of Walachia." 

It is amazing how names, dates and ideas sometimes become accepted as truths just because they are repeated often enough. The same thing may apply to the town of Okopy which is always given as the birthplace of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht). Idel draws our attention to the fact that there is no “reliable” (Idel 2011:69) source to corroborate this detail.

Kherson Letters

I am fascinated by the Kherson Letters (300 of which I have translated for the first time into English. The letters are said to have been written by the Besht and other important leaders of the first three generations of the Chassidic movement. See Kotzk Blog: 123) 26 TAMMUZ - THE CHASSIDIC HOLIDAY THAT NEVER WAS:) According to these letters, Okopy is hinted at as the birthplace of the Besht. However, although two Lubavitcher Rebbes and some other groups accept the Kherson Letters as authentic, most (I think all?) academic and some Chassidic groups maintain that they are forgeries and “fabricated during the early twentieth century” (Idel 2011:70).


Simon Dubnow (1860-1941), the first “accomplished historian to dedicate a full-fledged study to the history of Hasidism” (Idel 2011:69) initially expressed some uncertainty but eventually came to accept Okopy as the birthplace of the Besht. This view was then reiterated in Encyclopaedias and became accepted as factual.

“A rather stable ‘tradition’ has thus been manufactured and disseminated by Jewish historians themselves, a tradition that to my knowledge has never been subjected to scrutiny” (Idel 2011:70).

The name Okopy is Polish for “trenches” or “ramparts” which are walls or embankments forming part of a defensive structure. Okopy was close to a fortress built in 1692 on the border of the Kingdom of Poland and the Ottoman Empire during the Turkish occupation of Podolia (between 1672 and 1699). Its official name was Okop Góry Świętej Trójcy which means “the Ramparts of the Holy Trinity.” It was established to defend against the Turks who had seized the fortress of Kamenetz Podolsk, just twenty kilometres away.

But instead of the relatively urban Okopy, Idel suggests that the Besht may have been born somewhere in the rural and mountain regions of northern Romania or Moldavia, which is just southwest of Ukraine. 

This may not seem like a major or significant correction, but Romania had a different set of cultural influences that could possibly better help us understand the early period of the Besht. Certainly, the Besht operated in Podolia in Ukraine, but his formative years may have been in Romania, in an area known as Walachia (or Wallachia).

The source for Okopy as the birthplace, used by Dubnow and other historians, is found in two versions of the Chassidic hagiographical work Shivchei haBeshtIdel notices that the Hebrew and Yiddish versions of Shivchei haBesht do indeed refer to the Besht living in Okopy (Akup), but he distinguished between “born” and “living” in Okopy. 

This source is from story #7 of Shivchei haBesht and is told in the name of the legendary R. Adam, the teacher of the Besht, who was to deliver secret manuscripts to him. The story reports that the Besht was fourteen years old at that time. The source, however, does not claim that the Besht was born in Okopy. This is the only reference to Okopy in the entire book. 


Thus far, since there are not even legendary sources that the Besht was born in Okopy, Idel suggests we go, tentatively, with Walachia (northern Romania or Moldavia) which is anyway recorded in Shivchei haBesht, in its opening statement, as the place where his father, R. Eliezer, lived: 

Accordingly, the best evidence we have so far is the following:

“[T]he Besht would have been born on the Romanian side of the border or somewhere in Moldavia, would have crossed the border early in life alone or with his family, and then would have established himself in the recently created town of Okopy” (Idel 2011:73).

The Yiddish version of Shivchei haBesht says that the Besht’s father, R. Eliezer, “was dwelling in the states of Walachia.” Note the plural “states.” The Hebrew version has “was dwelling in the state of Walachia, near the border,”[5] using the singular “state” and not specifying which border. But neither version says the Besht was born in Okopy! We will return to the difference between “states” and “state” later.

Idel makes the point that this is the best conclusion we can draw, based on current evidence, all of which is hagiographic (praise literature) and not technically historical. Based on this hagiography, which he says is “a tentative picture that could always change if more reliable material were to surface” (Idel 2011:74) he constructs an interesting hypothesis:

“The Besht’s parents must, instead, have been inhabitants of the northern Romanian territories, governed indirectly and intermittently by the Turks in one way or another for several centuries” (Idel 2011:75). 

This view is backed up by some Maskilic evidence originating in the Enlightenment movement. Abraham Stern (1762–1842) writes: 

“No more than a few score years ago, an Israelite from Walachia called Israel came to Podolia to the town of Miedzyboz. He adopted the name Ba‘al Shem.”[6] 

Of course, it is possible that this could be another Maskilic attempt at claiming ‘foreign’ influences on the founder of the Chassidic movement. He would not have been the first to do so.  Idel suggests that, anyway, ‘borderlines’ did not really mean much to Jews who would have maintained their traditions irrespective of which side of the oft-changing and theoretical borderline they found themselves. But, still, Idel insists: 

“This point notwithstanding, from a broader cultural perspective being born and raised in a frontier region may have been deeply consequential for the Besht and the slowly nascent circles of Hasidic figures active in the area” (Idel 2011:76). 

Idel suggests that for Jews living in “Walachia near the border,” as Shivchei haBesht’s opening statement contends, there would have been certain dynamics of a 'mountain culture' more acute than those confronted ‘inland’:

"we should regard the specific cultural landscape of the mountains and the ambiance and popular cultures of their villages as absolutely formative for the Besht, who would later operate in more urban sites within another type of Jewish culture" (Idel 2011:81). 


Besides being exposed to Russian schismatics[7] (groups of Christians who wanted to break away from established churches and establish new ones)[8] there was the added possibility of contact with Muslim influences, as well as: 

“the possibility of contacts with the rather mysterious tribe of Csángós, a population of Hungarian extraction, which displayed Shamanic features and had been active in several villages in the Subcarpathian settlements of North Moldavia since the mid-thirteenth century” (Idel 2011:76). 

This distinction between east (Moldavia) and west (Romania) would have a bearing on what Idel maintains were additional influences from the shamanic Csángós who were located in a few small villages in the northern Moldavian slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. This would make sense if, as Idel has suggested, the Besht spent: 

“a significant amount of time in the northern Moldavian Carpathians rather than the region close to the Slovakian area designated as Carpathorus or the western areas of the Podolian Carpathians” (Idel 2011:88). 

This would account for the story about the first of the Besht’s miraculous deeds where he is said to have subdued a werewolf who was threatening children in his care, which was to have taken place just before he turned fourteen. Idel shows that there is an astounding similarity between this story and those found in the regional magic and demonology from this very area. 

Islamic and 'alien' influences

Idel acknowledges that this potential for some form of Islamic influence is moot because the occupation of eastern Podolia was only between the short period of 1672 and 1699. However, he does maintain that: 

“the presence of some more modest elements of Turkish or Muslim folklore, such as the widespread stories related to Nassr a-Din Hodja, cannot be denied” (Idel 2011:76). 

Idel reminds us that this culture of storytelling “as a crucial medium for transmitting religious messages” (Idel 2011:77) was indeed also something central to the nascent Chassidic tradition. And it was a model of instruction “relatively new to Jewish mysticism.” 

We must remember that early Chassidism was quite open to appropriating ideas from non-Jewish sources, something unimaginable to its later formulations. The Besht’s grandson, for example, R. Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudylkov, mentioned the fact that his grandfather made use of “alien” material and “stories and external matters.[9] There are also many references in Shivchei haBesht to the Baal Shem Tov’s relationships with various gentiles: 

“including Muslim merchants—on market days in the town of Balta, another town on the Podolia-Moldavia border during the early eighteenth century” (Idel 2015:77). 

Furthermore, the Besht’s emphasis on Bittul haYesh, or the nullification of the self, seems to resemble similar Sufi ideas. This is something already noticed by Martin Buber.[10] 

A source in Shivchei haBesht describes the Besht wearing a “short coat and a broad belt,” reminiscent of Romanian peasant garb. 

More support for Moldavia

Another source in Shivchei haBesht shows him living for some years in the mountains beyond the “river of Prut”: 

“He lived in a small village and made his living by keeping a tavern. After he brought brandy to his wife he would cross the river Prut and retire into seclusion in a house-like crevice that was cut into the mountain. He used to take one loaf of bread for one meal and only eat once a week. He endured this way of life for several years.”[11] 

Idel suggests that this retreat to the other side of the river Prut may refer to his visiting his childhood origins in the northern Moldavian parts of the Carpathians where his legendary synagogue is said to have been located. Fascinatingly, Idel tells of legends collected during the late twentieth century by Jews still living in that region and transmitted mainly in Yiddish dialects and printed in Germany and Romania by Claus Stephani:[12] 

“According to tales told by Jewish and Christian farmers, the Baal Shem Tov lived in the nearby Carpathian Mountains. There are also those who say he was born in one of the nearby villages.” 

In Piatra Neamtz, located in the historical region of Western Moldavia, there still exists an old wooden synagogue, which local legend claims is the place where the Besht prayed. 

The idea mentioned in Shivchei haBesht that the Baal Shem Tov sustained himself on a loaf of bread for a week whilst living in seclusion, finds correspondence in mystical practices from that same area: 

“A mystical practice that consists in techniques for reaching experiences of calmness (Hesychia)[14] and communion with God when performed in a state of seclusion, hesychastic asceticism crystallized in the mid-fourteenth century… and slowly spread into the Balkans and the northern part of Romania, especially the Carpathian Mountains” (Idel 2011:79). 

Idel continues: 

“we have here an example of a relatively ascetic way of life in a mountain cave that is reminiscent of numerous parallel forms of small retreats by individual monks in the Moldavian Carpathian Mountains from that period and beyond, when hundreds of monks lived alone in such small caves (and still do)” (Idel 2011:80). 

Five points of convergence

Idel mentions five possible points of convergence between this hesychastic mysticism and the Besht’s model of mysticism: 

1) Both practised seclusion (although the followers of the Besht, as the movement developed, did not adopt the approach of seclusion).

2) Both spoke of the centrality of prayer.

3) Both spoke of the need to deal with “alien thoughts” (machshavot zarot). Dealing with these alien thoughts was critical to the attainment of the mystical goal.

4) Both spoke of the vital role of the spiritual mentor, the Tzadik in the case of the Baal Shem Tov, and the Starets as the holy men of hesychastic mysticism were known.

5) Both spoke of the importance of the role of the simple individual over the learned sage. Chassidic literature abounds with stories of simple folk like shepherds and innkeepers. Significantly it is in Chassidism that the importance of simple people - like the model of storytelling - “make their first extensive appearance in the history of Jewish mystical literature” (Idel 2011:89). 

A 'wild and crazy' side

Then there is another source from the Hebrew version of Shivchei haBesht which also references Walachia: 

“Once the Besht was in the state of Walachia, where they have grape wine so strong that even when you mix two or three drops in a glass of wine it is too strong to drink. The householder offered the Besht a glass of this wine. When he tasted it the Besht said: ‘Your wine is delicious. Why is your glass so small?’ The householder answered: ‘Because it is dangerous to drink a large portion.’ The Besht said: ‘I am not afraid of that.’ They gave him a large glass and he drank it all. All of them stared at him in fright as his face became red and his hair stood up as though it were on fire. But the Besht passed his hand over his face and at once he returned to normal. All of them were very surprised but he said that our Rabbis, blessed be their memory, said: ‘Wine is strong but fear works it off’”[13] (Shivchei haBesht 242). 

Idel uses this reference not to show birth origins in Walachia (as this story seems to relate to an adult Baal Shem Tov), but rather to show how the Besht was apparently quite at home with ordinary townsfolk (Idel suggests they were probably non-Jews, but that raises issues of non-kosher wine). It also seems to imply that he could speak in a Romanian vernacular without a translator (Idel 2011:78). Idel speaks of an early “wild” and non-conformist stage of Chassidism “that was attenuated in the later reports but survived in early criticisms of Hasidism.” Perhaps what Idel refers to as an early “feral stage”: 

“was characteristic of the Besht’s pre-Miedzyboz period, and was domesticated as the Great Maggid of Mezeritch and his disciples disseminated Hasidism in larger Jewish centers” (Idel 2011:78). 

We also see that the Besht called R. Nachman of Kosov wild and “crazy,” and the latter responded that the Besht was also “crazy”. 

Uncertainty is better than an accepted myth

Idel agrees that not all of these ideas are convincing without a doubt, but: 

“at the very least, by introducing the possibility of a Moldavian or Bukovinian background we inject some uncertainty over the setting of the Besht’s birth and early life. Uncertainty is surely preferable to an Okopy myth created and embraced by twentieth-century historians of Hasidism and lacking any reliable textual support.” 

"State" or "states" of Walachia

We return to the observation made at the beginning of this article, concerning the Yiddish version of Shivchei haBesht referencing the “states of Walachia” while the Hebrew version has “state of Walachia.” 

We began by identifying Walachia as part of Romania but ended by placing Walachia in northern Moldavia. It seems that at that time there were two regions known as Walachia, Great and Little Walachia: 

“the term Walachia indeed refers to two main Romanian provinces, Moldavia and Muntenia, designated respectively as Great and Little Walachia. Thus, it seems that the Besht was acquainted with an interesting detail that even scholars in contemporary Romania rarely know: as late as the eighteenth century the single term Walachia referred simultaneously to two distinct geographical areas differentiated only by the adjectives small and great. This was certainly also known to some of his followers, who were among the redactors of the hagiography” (Idel 2011:84). 

Scholarly disclaimer

Idel has given us some interesting and controversial points to ponder but he does conclude with a scholarly disclaimer:

“The possible contacts with Csángós, Hutzuls, Hesychasts, and perhaps groups of wandering Gypsies, to name only a few of the salient religious groups in the region, in addition to the majority Orthodox and Catholic religious forms, should all be taken in consideration….I certainly do not propose to reduce his teachings as a whole, even less so his religious behavior, to any of these external religious phenomena, nor even to depict it as a synthesis with them, just as it would be unwise to restrict his most formative views on Hasidism to just one kabbalistic school or another or to one ethical book or another” (Idel 2011:89).

[1] The birthdate as given by Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth (1974:3).

[2] The birthdate as given by Chabad and others. It is often said to correspond to the Hebrew year “Nachat,” but that would make the year 1696?

[3] The birthdate perhaps most often suggested. Used, for example by Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer, a student of Gershom Scholem and found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry.

[4] Idel, M., 2011, ‘R. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov "in the state of Walachia": widening the Besht’s cultural panorama’, in Holy Dissent; Jewish and Christian Mystics in Eastern Europe, Edited by Glenn Dynner, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 69-103. 

[5] Shivchei haBesht 1.

[6] Marcin Wodzinski, M., 2005, Haskalah and Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland, History of Conflict, Littman Library, Oxford, 261.

[7] For more on this see Eliach, Y., 1968, ‘The Russian Dissenting Sects and Their Influence on Israel Baal Shem Tov, Founder of Hassidism’, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, vol. 36, American Academy for Jewish Research, 57-83.

[8] This is how Encyclopaedia Britannica defines schismatics: “In the early church, ‘schism’ was used to describe those groups that broke with the church and established rival churches. The term originally referred to those divisions that were caused by disagreement over something other than basic doctrine. Thus, the schismatic group was not necessarily heretical. Eventually, however, the distinctions between schism and heresy gradually became less clear, and disruptions in the church caused by disagreements over doctrine as well as disruptions caused by other disagreements were eventually all referred to as schismatic.” Online source: Retrieved 30 December 2022.

[9] Degel Machane Efraim (Jerusalem, 1995), 50.

[10] Buber, M., 1988, The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism, Edited and translated by Maurice Friedman Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands, 221–23.

[11] Shivchei haBesht 19.

[12] Basme Evreiesti, Culese pe meleagurile Carpatilor, Translated by H. Ruxandra Georgeta (Bucuresti: HaSefer, 2004), 34, 36, 172–73, 176–79, 208–15.

[13] This seems to be a reference to a slightly different Bava Batra 10a: “Fright is strong but wine banishes it. Wine is strong but sleep wears it off.”

[14] Spiritual calmness, pronounced: Hesychia pronunciation - Google Search.

No comments:

Post a Comment