Sunday 26 November 2023

453) Kherson Geniza - the greatest Chassidic find / or forgery?



About six years ago, after translating over three hundred Kherson Letters for the first time into English, I wrote a post Kotzk Blog: 137) WHY THE LETTERS OF THE CHERSON GENIZA MAY NOT BE FORGERIES: However, having researched the matter in more depth I am no longer of that view. This is why:

The Kherson Geniza even though it is overwhelmingly accepted by scholars to be a forgery. The Geniza and its close relationship to the Chassidic hagiographical biography of the Baal Shem Tov as portrayed in Shivchei haBesht is examined here in detail because it can be viewed as a test case, demonstrating that large segments of Chassidic literature were not averse to a tendentious and revisionist reconstruction of its own history. I show that this recasting and adjustment of early Chassidic history took place in a number of ways.

1) In one respect the Kherson Geniza favours and promotes the hagiographical narrative of a particular sect of Chassidim, namely the Chabad dynasty. The letters in the Kherson Geniza advance the notion that R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad Rebbe, was:

“the most authentic heir of the original Hasidism of the founders” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:137).

The Kherson Geniza does so by generally following the narratives of Shivchei haBesht which was published by a student of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi in 1814.[1] The Geniza then offers an abundance of written testimonies as  ‘evidence’ in the dramatic form of hundreds of personal letters allegedly exchanged between the main characters involved in the early Chassidic period. There is a distinct anomaly in the writing style of the letters of the Kherson Geniza which is evident in the opening and closing sections of these communications. Lineage, pedigree and relationships, such as signing off the letter with expressions like רבך ומורך  (from your rabbi and teacher), חברי ובן גילי (my friend and colleague), תלמידי (my student)  are overemphasised − compared to other letters that we know are genuine. This indicates an apparent intention to demonstrate authoritative lines of transmission. In a similar sense, the letters from the Magid of Mezeritch refer to R. Shnuer Zalman of Liadi by the sobriquet זלמינא (Zalmina) implying a great sense of familiarity with the future leader of the movement. “Zalmina,” however, was a nickname commonly used in regions of Ukraine but not in Lithuania and Russia (Hilman 1953:242).[2] Thus, these letters seem determined to portray and ‘confirm’ the storyline as presented in Shivchei haBesht:

“From the point of view of the modern forgers [of the Kherson Geniza]…the tales [in Shivchei haBesht] represented the [actual] history of Hasidism…and it was this that they were proposing to reinforce with documentation” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:130 n.58).[3]

As a general observation, Shivchei haBesht is buttressed and completed by the ‘documentary evidence’ as found in the Kherson Geniza which favours the Chabad narrative (Meir 2023-).

2) In another respect, the Kherson Geniza together with its ‘parent’ or ‘source’ literature of the Shivchei haBesht, unequivocally dispel the question of Sabbatian influences on the Chassidic movement.[4] If it can be shown that significant parts of Shivchei haBesht are tendentious reconstructions of history and that the Kherson Geniza is a forgery, we would have a stronger case supporting the supposition that potential Sabbatian influences could have easily been suppressed in various internal layers of subsequent Chassidic written testimonies, records and hagiographies. 


In 1918 rumours began to spread about the origins and status of a large collection of Chassidic letters − allegedly exchanged between the Baal Shem Tov, his students and his students’ students − that was found in Kherson (Southern Ukraine), an area not generally known for its Chassidim. This was during during the Russian Revolution (1917-1923). A newspaper in Cracow reported that these letters were from the private collection of the Chassidic Rebbe, R. Yisrael of Ruzhin (1796-1850), who was arrested on a charge of murder in Kiev in 1838. His belongings and writings were confiscated by the Russian police as he had no money (for bail). When he was eventually released, the documents remained in the custody of the police. These documents were moved from police archive to archive, eventually making their way to Kherson in 1918 (Meir 2023-). The collection was either sold by, or stolen from, the Kherson archive of the secret police. This collection made its way to Odessa and parts were sold for large sums of money. The sellers refused to reveal how they attained the letters which were all stamped with the official seal of the government, numbered, and signed by an official (Schneerson 1975:11).

According to R. David Tzvi Hilman, the official stamps and markings in Russian were:

“used as proof of the authenticity of the letters by those who ‘authorised’ them (machshirim), but these [proofs] are simply misleading” (Hilman 1953:242).[5]

The language is poor and defective and could not have been written by anyone familiar with Russian. It describes how the collection of Hebrew writings was confiscated to be translated into Russian. Hilman questions why the collection would have been sent from a large centre like Kiev to the much smaller Kherson for investigation.

In any case, with this exceptional new find, it was expected that the letters would finally serve as documentary evidence concerning the early undocumented period of the Chassidic movement. There were three distinct groups of people extremely interested in these personal letters:

1) The first group was the mainstream Chassidic courts. Needless to say, these documents, thought to have once been in the possession of R. Yisrael of Ruzhin, garnered the attention of many Chassidic Rebbes. These included the family of Ruzhin and the Chassidim of Husiatyn who put forward claims for this collection of letters. Additionally, another rabbi, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson also expressed particular interest in this collection. He was not yet a Rebbe because his father R. Sholom Dovber Schneerson (known as the Rebbe Rashab) − the fifth Chabad Rebbe − only passed away in 1920, a year and a half after the manuscripts were discovered in 1918.

2) The second group interested in this collection of letters was the emergent ‘BeshtianChassidim.[6] Besides the mainstream and traditional Chassidic courts, there was a breakaway movement of Chassidim that also claimed ownership of the Baal Shem Tov. These were Chassidic believers who did not want to be led by a line of Rebbes and they were particularly active between the two world wars They left their respective traditional Chassidic courts and adopted the earlier model of the Baal Shem Tov and his circle. They wanted to experience the ‘original’ form of Chassidism that may be called ‘Beshtian Chassidism.’ In this spirit, these new Chassidim began to publish books about the Baal Shem Tov and his ways − which in their view, had soon become corrupted by the various official Chassidic courts under the hegemony of the many Rebbes. The Kotzker Rebbe (d. 1859) had already been promoting the idea of the tyranny and corruption of the Rebbes, many decades earlier (Heschel 1974:9).

3) The third group comprised modern and secular Jewish writers and thinkers. They too, were extremely keen to see the original letters of the Baal Shem Tov. Martin Buber described how the Baal Shem Tov was a great reformer of the Jewish world; how he came to do battle with the fossilised rabbinic establishment and its laws; and how he tried to restore the Jews to an intimate relationship with the Divine and return them to their connection with nature. These often-secular romantic notions surrounding the Baal Shem Tov were very common during this period, and they paralleled many sentiments of the religious model of Beshtian Chassidim. Numerous other authors like Micha Josef Berdichevsky (1865 –1921), Hillel Zeitlin (1871–1942), and Shmuel Aba Horodezky (1871− 1957) wrote about the Baal Shem Tov. All these writers saw the Baal Shem Tov as a great religious reformer who was only to be defeated by the subsequent generations of the Chassidic Rebbes who, as it were, reigned him in (Meir 2023-).

This means that the Baal Shem Tov did not just belong to the camp of traditional and Beshtian Chassidism but to all people including modern writers. Against this backdrop, one begins to understand the tremendous excitement that swept across all segments of the Jewish world, when rumours circulated that genuine writings of the Baal Shem Tov had been discovered. So many interested parties wanted to know just what was hidden in this extraordinary find.

A certain Husiatyn Chassid who lived close to Kherson, by the name of Naftali Tzvi Shapira, a poor and itinerant bookseller, obtained fragments of this collection which became known as the Kherson Geniza, and began selling them. One text made its way to the writer and poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) who was living in Odessa. He published it and declared it to be a wonderful find. But he also noted that there was something suspicious about this text as if it had been touched by foreign hands (Meir 2023-). 

Chabad’s relationship to the Kherson Geniza

Also living in Odessa at that time was a wealthy Chabad Chasid, Shmuel Gourarie, who decided to purchase the entire collection of letters, and gift it to his Rebbe, R. Sholom Dovber Schneerson.[7]

At the same time, some tens of letters also reached the Chassidim of Ruzhin, and in 1920, they began to publish these new findings in a series of booklets. However, from the language of these texts that were published by the Ruzhiner Chassidim, it soon became evident that although they appeared to be relatively reasonable, they did not correspond appropriately to the era in which they were supposedly produced. This anomaly aroused some suspicion (Meir 2023-).

At this stage, the story takes on a significant turn. When the texts that were gifted to Chabad − and there were many hundreds of them – eventually became known, they appeared to be much more polished in terms of grammar and were more time-appropriate. They still aroused suspicion but not to the extent as the earlier Ruzhiner texts. This was surprising because both sets of texts had come from the same source. It appeared as though the Chabad texts had been ‘improved’ in the interim. If this was the case, the letters may have been forged twice, or forged once and then enhanced again (Meir 2023-).

Perhaps the first forger was Naftali Tzvi Shapira, the poor bookseller from Odessa. Perhaps they were forged again or at least ‘corrected’ and ‘enhanced’ while in the custody of Chabad. Referring to the letters of the Kherson Geniza, Maya Balakirsky Katz is convinced that the:

“Hasidic leader R. Yosef Yitzḥak Schneersohn (1880–1950) falsified documents…to retroactively create authoritative source material for early Hasidism” (Balakirsky Katz 2019:179).

This might explain why the collection in the hands of Chabad appeared more polished and accurate compared to the smaller collection acquired by the Ruzhiner Chassidim. Either way, between 1935 and 1938, while living in Warsaw, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson published over three hundred of the many other letters he had in his possession that originated in the Kherson Geniza.

Earlier, in 1922, Avraham Schwadron (1878-1957), one of the founders of the Israel National Library in Jerusalem, sent samples of the fibres of the paper on which the letters were written to Vienna for testing. The results showed that they could not have been written before 1846. This was some years after R. Yisrael of Ruzhin was arrested in 1838, so he could not have owned the collection. R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson responded six years later through his secretary that the letters were not all autographs but copies of the ‘originals’ (Hilman 1953:241). R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson then doubled down and began to promote the Kherson Geniza even more. He went so far as to turn them into primary sources for actual Chassidic historiography (Meir 2923-).

It soon became evident that this was one of the greatest forgeries in the history of Chassidism. Jonatan Meir (2023-) believes this to be an example of one of the most unprofessional attempts at textual fraud ever because hardly a single letter is perfectly accurate in terms of dates, and characters. According to R. David Tzvi Hilman, who had worked with and published original and genuine letters of the early Chassidic Rebbes, the Kherson Geniza was an outright forgery:  

הזייפן לא הצליח במלאכתו, עד שרובם של המכתבים הם מזוייפים מתוכם

“The forger [not only] did not succeed in his technical forging work, but [as is evident in] most of the letters, even the very content was false” (Hilman 1953:240).

Some individuals who had passed away and were separated by a hundred years are depicted as writing to each other. In one instance R. David Tzvi Hilman writes:

הזייפן מחיה מתים

 “the forger has brought the individual back to life again” (Hilman 1953:270).

Meir (2023-) insists that any historian would immediately recognise that the texts are fraudulent. Ada Rapoport-Albert claims that:

“[T]he documents are likely to have been produced not long before their discovery [in 1918]” (Rapoport-Albert (1988:130).[8]

According to Meir Balaban (1935:320), the letters in the Kherson Geniza are זיופים גלויים  (open forgeries) and were produced just after 1914.[9]

In 1931, the historian, Simon Dubnow (1860-1941) published a book on the history of the Chassidic movement. He showed that the Kherson Geniza letters were indeed fake. The interesting thing is that Dubnow and other historians had not been able to see the entire collection of manuscripts except for a few fragments. The bulk of the letters were held by the Chassidim, because when Dubnow published his book in 1931, Chabad had not yet published the letters in haTamim. Nevertheless, Dubnow was able to make his determination on just a few samples from the collection.

Meir maintains that notwithstanding their fraudulent nature, the collection of letters is most engaging and impressive. There is no question that the first forger wanted remuneration and worked on the assumption that Chassidic courts like Ruzhin and Chabad would pay large sums of money for these letters. This is exactly what transpired. There is also no question that the original forger was exceptionally talented and creative. He had extensive albeit sometimes distorted knowledge of the period. However, he knew exactly which types of texts and ideas would be most sought-after and desired by Chassidim – and he produced results that corresponded to those needs (Meir 2923-).  

The story takes on another significant and surprising turn. Years later, in 1954, the seventh and last Chabad Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, produces a letter supporting the absolute authenticity of the Kherson Geniza. He acknowledges some of these discrepancies we have pointed out but uses them as arguments in favour of their legitimacy:

מזייף הרוצה לזייף ולמכור אח״ך את המכתבים לאחד מבתי האדמו״רים, היינו לאלו שיש להם ידיעה בקורות ימי החסידות ותורתה הרי בודאי ידייק ויגיה כמה פעמים, כיון שיחשוש שאים ימצאו טעויות כאלו יגלה קלונו ברבים ויפסיד את כל העסק שלו. ולכן מציאות הטעויות הנ״ל (לאחר שננכה מהם הטעיות שנתוספו ע״ד הבחור הזעצער של ״התמים״) הן אדרבה הוכחה שהמכ׳ לא נכתבו ע״י מזייף

“A forger, however, who would want to sell the writing to a Chassidic court where they have knowledge of Chassidic history, would have made the effort to ensure there were no mistakes as this would reveal the fact that the writing was a forgery. So, the existence of mistakes (after dismissing the additional mistakes incurred by the youth who acted as the typesetter) actually proves their authenticity” (Schneerson, Igrot Kodesh, vol. 8, 1998:249).[10]

Many of the letters in the Kherson Geniza were clearly not autographs but copied from the supposed ‘original’ letters which are no longer extant. R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson probably based himself on R. Sholom Dovber Schneerson, the fifth Rebbe of Chabad who, as mentioned, had been gifted the collection just before his passing in 1920, and who had made the same point. Testimony exists that R. Sholom Dovber Schneerson examined the manuscripts. He detected a foreign element in the letters but generally accepted their authenticity while aware that they were copies and not the original letters. R. Sholom Dovber Schneerson writes:

“all the writings and letters are only copies of the original autographs but their contents are authentic. Even if they should be found to contradict some points of fact, this is insignificant in relation to their remarkable contents, and must be the result of errors by the copyists" (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.1, 1975:11-12).[11]

On the other hand, Hilman (1953:242) points out that − based on testimony from those who saw the early collection of the letters − the overall appearance of the letters did not look like copies. Instead, they were presented as older, genuine and original letters, and not as copies. A copier would have no business to make the letters look old and worn.

Nevertheless, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson continues to provide statistical evidence to bolster his approbation of the copied letters:

“The major argument of those who doubt the authenticity of these letters is that the dates[12] do not correspond appropriately. Anyone who has ever worked on copying and editing will know that mistakes are likely to occur in about five per cent of the work. This is especially the case where one copies in haste” (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.1, 1975:11-12).[13]

This is difficult to understand because, as we shall see, there appear to be major and significant historical inconsistencies over and above just dates that do not correspond.

There are some very unusual entries in these letters. Most of these letters are relatively short and the grammar is incorrect. The writing does not correspond to the style of language used by Chassidim in the time of the Baal Shem Tov. Additionally, family names like Rappoport and Horowitz are commonly used in the Kherson Geniza, even though family names were not customary during those times (Hilman 1953:242).[14]  

The Baal Shem Tov’s nature and character are also depicted very differently in the letters from the way he had generally been portrayed until that time. Before the publication of the letters in haTamim in 1935, there existed only two or three letters of the Baal Shem Tov, but now there were about seventy. In the published letters in haTamim, the Baal Shem Tov is generally presented as a scholar of Halacha[15] who commands a thorough knowledge of the law. He is depicted as corresponding in writing to the leading rabbis of his time on matters of Halacha. This is in sharp contradistinction to the romanticised notion as propounded by the more secular writers. In the Kherson Geniza, the Baal Shem Tov doesn’t suddenly emerge from a vague background because the figure of his alleged teacher, R. Adam Baal Shem, writes to him and hands over secret writings. Thus, from the outset, the Baal Shem Tov is portrayed as being part of a structured and organised continuum. He is also associated with, and leads, a group of thirty-six hidden Tzadikim (righteous men). The letters convey repeated calls from R. Adam Baal Shem for the Baal Shem Tov to reveal himself and begin to openly manage and lead the new Chassidic movement (Meir 2923-).

R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson clearly uses the Kherson Geniza as an absolute basis for, and source of, historical facts. He writes, for example, about details of the group of hidden Tzadikim:

הצדיקים הנסתרים (אשר שמות איזה מהם אנו מוצאים בהגליונות והמכתבים של הגניזה שנתגלתה זה לא כבר, כמו ר׳ מרדכי, ר׳ קהת ועוד)

“[Regarding] the hidden Tzadikim (some of whose names we find in the sheets and letters of the [Kherson] Geniza, [and] these [individuals] were not yet known to us [before the discovery of the Geniza], like R. Mordechai, R. Kehat and others)”  (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.1, 1975:138).[16]

Significantly, this idea that the Baal Shem Tov was part of a well-structured organisation of hidden Tzadikim:

“does not occur in the hagiographical or any other Hasidic sources, but makes its first appearance in the Kherson material” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:142).

This structural imagery, peculiar to the Kherson Geniza, creates a backdrop of organisation and authority in the early Chassidic movement, and challenges the idea of the Baal Shem Tov as a free-wandering mystic, alone in the forests and mountains. It emerges, now, through the Kherson Geniza, that the Baal Shem Tov immediately formulates and controls a vibrant movement. Continuing in this manner, the letters describe how towards the end of his days, the Baal Shem Tov hands over the organisational reins of leadership to the Magid of Mezeritch who in turn transfers the leadership to R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Chabad:

“[T]he Kherson material often appears to reflect a peculiarly HaBaD perspective on the early history of Hasidism, and to serve HaBaD interests” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:137).

The letters depict the Baal Shem Tov as a more contemporary rabbi, not living in the eighteenth century − but rather conducting himself along the lines of the thought and behaviour of rabbis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Meir 2023-).

Some of the letters seem to exhibit anachronistic Chabad/Chassidc innuendos. In one letter, reference is made to the Baal Shem Tov travelling the night after Shabbat, still dressed in his specialבגדי שבת   (Shabbat garments) and his הטיליג העליון (overcoat) (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.1, 1975:16).[17]  This may just be a benign reference to smart Sabbath clothes but, in later Chassidic culture and custom, special garments like the long flowing frock coat or Kapota became recognisable as specific Chassidic attire. Wearing a Kapota after Shabbat on Saturday nights remains a distinctly Chabad Chassidic custom to this day. 

Another letter mentions that the Magid of Mezeritch sent the girdle belonging to the Baal Shem Tov to R. Kehat who was ill, as a healing amulet. אני שלחתי לו אבנט אחד מאבנטי אדו״מו״ר לשמירה (I sent him one of your girdles (gartel) as protection) (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.2, 1975:560).[18] Wearing the special long girdle or belt (gartel) belonging to a holy man or Rebbe is considered to have protective qualities. Although not only Chassidim wear belts, the Chassidic gartel is a distinctly symbolic and recognisable mark of the movement.

In another example, the Baal Shem Tov writes to his daughter Adel informing her that שכחתי את האבנט המשי של שבת קודש (I have forgotten my Shabbat silk girdle [gartel]) (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.1, 1975:345)[19] and requests that she send it to him. Silk frock coats and gartels were to become important markers in the later Chassidic movement.

The last Chabad Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson writes:

“In general, the conduct [of Chassidei Chabad] should be distinctive, and this should express itself in the fact that on Shabbat and Festivals, one wears a silk kapota [זיידענע זופיצעס]…

שבגדי שבת ויו״ט צריכים להיות של משי

…The special Shabbat garments [בגדי שבת][20] should be made out of silk” (Schneerson, Torat Menachem, 1950, vol. 1, 53).[21]  

Besides these apparent and anachronistic Chabad/Chassidic innuendos, a more pressing issue is the historicity of Baal Shem Tov’s alleged participation in the debates with the Frankists.[22] The ferocious deliberation by historians and theologians over the Baal Shem Tov’s opposition or association with Sabbatianism is swiftly dealt with in the letters. In the Kherson Geniza, there is no discussion whatsoever. He is unequivocally opposed to Sabbatianism and he excommunicates the Frankists in the famous debates of Kamenetz-Podolsk (1757) and Levov (1759) − although there is no historical evidence of his participation in the debates. Regarding the way the Frankist debates are depicted in the Kherson Geniza:

“This apparent corroboration of what had been established as a false report, and its ill-informed embellishment, so that a victory is announced when in reality the outcome was defeat, was in fact one of the first Kherson documents which aroused the suspicion of scholars and led to their exposure as forgeries” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:133).

Far from a victory, the historical defeat at the debate in Kamanetz-Podolsk, for example, was a terrible blow to the Jews:

“Bishop Dembowski ruled in favour of the Sabbatians and cartloads of Talmudic books were confiscated from Jewish homes in Kamenetz, Lvov, Brody, Zolkiew and burned in the marketplace of Kamenetz-Podolsk and hundreds of Jews converted to Catholicism (Doktór 2015:396-411).

Kamanetz-Podolsk was no glorious victory. The debate in Levov was no better either because, after that debate, Jacob Frank claimed that five thousand of his followers were ready for conversion to Christianity (Scholem 1987:296).

Notwithstanding, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson persists in defending the historicity of the alleged participation of the Baal Shem Tov in these ‘victorious’ debates, citing the Kherson Geniza as historical evidence. He writes:

מורנו הבעש״ט ערך כמה ויכוחים עם הפרנקיסטי׳ עד אשר נצחם - כמבואר בארוכה בכתבי הגניזה הנ״ל - והנצחון הזה גרם לשנאה כבושה מצד הפרנקיסטים אל מורנו הבעש״ט ותלמידיו

“Our master the Baal Shem Tov presided over a number of disputations with the Frankists until he defeated them – as is explained at length in the writings of the aforementioned [Kherson] Genizah” – and this victory triggered pent-up hatred from the Frankists towards the Baal Shem Tov and his students (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.1, 1975:139).[23]   

This way, difficult historical questions and missing information are all resolved by the ‘evidence’ exhibited within these letters. These observations and discrepancies were widely noted long before the letters were eventually published by R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson in 1935. Yet, surprisingly, while aware of the allegations of forgery, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson still went ahead and published a large section of the letters in haTamim, and he even included an Introduction.

Meir (2023-) suggests that the only way to understand this conundrum is by considering the context and Sitz im Leben of those times. While R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson was living in Warsaw, many of his followers were still in Russia undergoing hardships. The Chabad community was fractured and he needed to create a new and inspiring forum for the refugees. This was a very difficult time because back in Russia:

“the Jewish ‘sections’ of the propaganda department of the Russian Communist Party were engaged in the systematic eradication of all national and religious institutions of Jewish life: community councils, synagogues, religious academies and schools, ritual baths, ritual slaughter houses and butchers, Hebrew libraries and books were being liquidated with the help of the internal security forces” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:145).

R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson responded boldly to these challenges. He conducted:

“an underground operation, sending out secret emissaries - rabbis, teachers, ritual slaughterers, and other specialists in Jewish lore - as well as material resources to Jewish settlements which had been cut off and were becoming estranged from their tradition” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:145).

It seems that he began to view the early Chassidic movement as a reflection of his own religious activism and organisational acumen. In 1930, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson wrote:

מאז ומקדם תפסו ההסתדרות והתעמולה מקום חשוב מאד במחנה החסידים, ועוד טרם שנתגלה מורנו הבעש״ט נ״ע, בהיותו עוד בהסתר, הי׳ הוא וחבריו הצדיקים הנסתרים...מסודרים בהסתדרות חזקה וקבעו להם מרכזים במקומות שונים וכל אחד מהם הי׳ עובד במרכז שלו, ומזמן לזמן היו שולחים הרצאות מפורטות להמרכז שאצל מורנו הבעש״ט נ״ע.

“Since its very inception, the notion of order and propaganda has played a most primary role within the Chassidic camp. Even before our master the Baal Shem Tov was revealed, while he was still in hiding, he and his colleagues, the hidden Tzadikim…were managed with intense organisation. They established centres in various places and each would run their own centres. At regular intervals, they would send detailed reports to the [main] centre of the Baal Shem Tov” (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.1, 1975:138).[24]

Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Chabad movement today would immediately recognise this familiar archetype of structure, marketing and the dispatching of global emissaries who report regularly to the centralised authority. The use of language and the description of the ‘original’ Chassidic organogram does appear anachronistic as if the Baal Shem Tov was living in, and adopting the strategies of, the later generations of Chabad Rebbes.

There is a certain irony to R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson’s unshakable promotion of this Chassidic version of history because, in 1814 when Shivchei haBest was first published, its author apologised to its audience for the ahistorical and legendary style of the book. However, just over a century later, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson was promoting the historicity of the Kherson Geniza which was supporting the very narratives in Shivchei haBesht:

“in the second decade of the nineteenth century, the author of Shivkhey ha-Besht still needed to apologize for writing apparently ‘meaningless narratives’ or ‘histories,’ and to derive the legitimacy of this medium from the value of edification which it promoted…[yet] by the first half of the twentieth century the Admor Joseph Isaac could take for granted the full legitimacy of the historiographical medium [of the Kherson Geniza]” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:153).[25]

R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, however, only published one photocopy of the actual letters while all the others were printed versions. Some of the Geniza writings were produced on parchment and others on paper.  In his Introduction to the first edition of haTamim in 1935, he writes that the Geniza did not only comprise letters but also personal items belonging to the authors, including the Baal Shem Tov’s pipe, his walking stick and his private collection of books (Schneerson 1975:11). This creates the impression that the entire body of the Kherson Geniza findings is authentic.

Meir (2023-) tries to understand the motivation behind R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson’s intense desire to promote the Kherson Geniza against the flow of scholarship that overwhelmingly pronounced its fraudulent origins and content. R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson is known for his dedication to building and strengthening the Chabad movement during difficult times, but also had aspirations to be a writer. Had he not been involved in the leadership of his movement; he may have become one of the great Hebrew and Yiddish writers. He had lived in Warsaw which was the centre of Jewish literature. He loved literature, writing and history, particularly Chabad history. He collected oral accounts from older Chabad Chassidim and recorded them in his diary:

“[M]any of his publications were in the historiographical genre, a genre in which none of his HaBaD or general Hasidic predecessors had ever expressed [themselves]” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:139-40).[26]

Meir (2023-) points out that, in effect, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson had created a masterpiece of hagiography comprising a particular narrative of Chassidic history through the idiom of the Kherson Geniza. He could easily have placed the collection of letters in his private collection, but it seems that he doubled down, and between 1935 and 1938, he chose to publish them in his haTamim journal.

“It could, had he so wished, have been suppressed and quickly forgotten. The Admor Joseph Isaac elected to risk discredit by association with the Kherson Genizah because he clearly recognized its immense value to his novel historiographical enterprise” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:139).

In R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson’s narrative, the Baal Shem Tov is no longer a reformer. He is no longer a simple wandering mystic.

“This historiography developed as…a reaction against…the Jewish Enlightenment of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:130).

The Baal Shem Tov is now a master of Halacha and his leadership style coincides with, and was reflected in, the style of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi and the later Chabad Rebbes. R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson offered a powerful counter-narrative. This would have served to challenge the three narratives of: 

1) the mainstream Chassidic movements;

2) the style of ‘Beshtian Chassidism’ active between the two world wars which longed for a Chassidic ‘renaissance’ and a return to a purer Chassidism, without the need for the structure of the Rebbes, and;

3) the modern writers’ fascination with the romanticism and freedom of the Baal Shem Tov.

R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson showed the fractured Chabad community reeling from the hardships in Russia and grappling with integration into the new world, just how important traditionalism, structure, Halacha and the Chassidic organogram were. To this end, one may assume that it didn’t matter to him whether the texts were forgeries or not. He was restoring the honour of the Baal Shem Tov. He was also rescuing the Baal Shem Tov from the three hegemonies of mainstream Chassidim, the ‘renaissance’ Chassidim, and the enlightened writers. He used the Kherson Geniza for his theological and literary goals while simultaneously regaining and maintaining ownership of the ‘historical’ Baal Shem Tov narrative (Meir 2023-).

Eventually, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson arrived in New York in 1940 and – perhaps quite tellingly after he transitioned to a new and more historically critical environment − he hardly mentioned the Kherson Geniza, which accompanied him to the United States, again. The Khesron Geniza had now assumed a backstage position. That is, until 1954.[27] In that year, the last Chabad RebbeR. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, suddenly wrote a sharp defence of the Kherson Geniza in support of his father-in-law R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson who had passed away in 1950. R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson committed himself to officially endorsing the authenticity and historicity of the Kherson Geniza.

This formal approbation in 1954 was not without context. R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson issued this statement of approval because, in the previous year 1953,[28] R. David Tzvi Hilman had just published a book entitled, Igrot Baal haTanya uVenei Doro, containing the genuine letters of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi. The letters of the Kherson Geniza, however, were blatantly excluded from this collection because R. David Tzvi Hilman was convinced of the fraudulent nature of these letters.

Perhaps alluding to this, R. David Tzvi Hilman writes in the Introduction to his anthology:

לא הבאתי השערות או שמועות שבעל פה וכד׳ שאין להן עדות ברורה

“I have not included oral assumptions or rumours and suchlike, all of which have no clear evidence” (Hilman 1953:3).[29]

Being familiar with the genuine writing style of the early Chassidic Rebbes, he soon concluded that:

כל מכתבי הגנידה שראו את אור הדפוס הנם מזויפים

“all the letters of the [Kherson] Geniza that were published, are forgeries” (Hilman 1953:240).[30]

He goes so far as to state that:

ורבים הוטעו להאמין באמיתותם של מכתבים אלו

“many were deceived into believing in the authenticity of these letters” (Hilman 1953:241).[31]

This created a tremendous scandal in Chabad and R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson chose to defend the absolute authenticity of the Kherson Geniza. Meir (2023-) doubts that the last two Chabad Rebbes personally believed in the authenticity of the Geniza because he maintains that not one historian or scholar believes in the authenticity of this Geniza. It must be noted that not all sects of Chassidim unanimously accepted the authenticity of the Kherson Geniza either:

“A number of Hasidic leaders were quick to dissociate themselves from the discredited Genizah while others continued to endorse it as authentic; in scholarly circles the condemnation of the letters as forgeries has become virtually universal” (Rapoport-Albert 1988:129).

The leadership of Chabad, however, did (at least publicly) promote the Geniza as an authentic repository of genuine and vital Chassidic manuscripts. The problem was that there were no good options for them. There was no way to deny the existence of the Geniza. Sections of them had been published in 1935 and the rest were located in the Chabad Library. Within Chabad circles, there remains some tension over the matter of the Geniza to this day, although the officially published and popular works on Chassidic history follow the narrative of the Geniza Letters which serve as authoritative historical sources.

In any event, the much larger bulk of the Kherson Geniza, which was not published in haTamim, remains housed in the Chabad Library. However, this collection of letters is inaccessible to the public, let alone researchers who might want to revisit the matter and put an end to the controversy, whatever the outcome. Our knowledge of history today (for the copied letters) coupled with modern technology (for the original autograph letters) would hastily resolve the issue once and for all.

Meir (2023-) concludes that even were it to be established beyond a shadow of a doubt that the letters in the Kherson Geniza are forgeries, there would still be great literary and theological value in their study, as they have taken upon a life of their own. In the meantime, this vast literature remains under lock and key, awaiting its redemption. Having translated into English the more than 300 published letters of the Kherson Geniza, I would have loved to continue and translate the rest of this fascinating unpublished collection. I have twice requested permission to view the other letters but to no avail.

[1] It must be noted, however, that Rapoport-Albert (1988:138) does not entirely endorse this position, because “it is difficult to discern a particular HaBaD [Chabad] bias in the In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov [Shivchei haBesht]…even though the printer of the first edition was a follower of the leader of the HaBaD school, R. Shneur Zalman of Liady.” Square brackets are mine. Nevertheless, Rapoport-Albert (1988:137) does generally agree that the Kherson Geniza does “reflect a peculiarly HaBaD perspective on the early history of Hasidism,” and this early period is our concern here.

[2] Nicknames, like אברהמיני, זושע and  בעריניא are commonly used throughout the Kherson Geniza, although Hilman (1953:242) points out that in reality the Rebbes generally addressed their interlocutors by their formal names.

[3] Square brackets are mine.

[4] Shivchei haBesht emphasises how opposed the Baal Shem Tov was to Sabbatianism by recording that “it was decreed that the Besht would soon pass away because of his fight against the sect of Shabbetai Tsevi” (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1994:255). Other anti-Sabbatian references are evident in Shivchei haBesht: See the story of the alleged Sabbatian work Chemdat Yamim; the story of the Baal Shem Tov attempting to provide a Tikun (spiritual rectification) for Shabbatai Tzvi (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1994:86-7). Ironically, sometimes veiled Sabbatian references may have slipped in, such as the story of the ‘second coming’ of the Baal Shem Tov, sixty years after his passing − paralleling the similar legend concerning Shabbatai Tzvi, also believed to return after sixty years of his passing (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1994:xxvi and 169). 

[5] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[6] Literally “Chassidim of the Baal Shem Tov.”

[7] The Chabad dynasty had seven Rebbes: 1) Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the ‘Alter Rebbe’ (1745-1812); 2) Rabbi DovBer, the ‘Mitteler Rebbe’ (1773-1827); 3) R. Menachem Mendel, the ‘Tzemach Tzedek’ (1789-1866); 4) R. Shmuel, the ‘Rebbe Maharash’ (1834-1882); 5) R. Sholom Dovber, the ‘Rebbe Rashab’ (1860-1920); 6) R. Joseph Isaac Schneerson, the ‘Rebbe Rayatz’ (1880-1950); and 7) R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the ‘Rebbe’ (1902-1994).

[8] Square brackets are mine.

[9] Balaban, not yet able to see the entire collection, is technically referring here to the documents dealing with the debates with the Frankists, but Rapoport-Albert (1988:133) suggests that the same dating (i.e., around 1914) may apply to the rest of the collection as well as this would be “compatible with the circumstances of the Kherson discovery” which was discovered in 1918. 

[10] Translation is mine.

[11] Translation is by Rapoport-Albert (1988:138). It is extracted from the same letter by R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, mentioned above, in support of the authenticity of the Kherson Geniza.

[12] On the matter of dates, however, Hilman (1953:242) points to a persistent irregular pattern that the writer of the letters seems to have overlooked. Whenever R. Yakov Yosef of Polonnoye is mentioned even before 1769 (5530), he is referred to as the rabbi of Polonnye. These references do not correspond to the fact that he was only appointed as rabbi of Polonnye after 21 Tevet 5530, when the previous rabbi, R. Yehuda Leib Mochiach passed away. This mistake is not random as it occurs in eighteen instances in the Kherson Geniza. Another observation concerning the dates, is that most of the genuine letters (outside of the Kherson Geniza) do not generally have dates at all, and if they do, just the year is referenced. In the Kherson Geniza, however, the dates are more specific and detailed. But the date details are somewhat misleading because they correspond only to the days in the week (e.g.: the fourth day in the weekly Torah potion of ….) and not to the actual days of month. This form of dating protects a forger from having to know the calendar extremely well where the day of the week would have to correspond precisely to the date the month (e.g.: Wednesday the 23 of …). It would also protect the forger from mistakenly depicting the writer as writing on Shabbat.

[13] Translation is mine.

[14] While the use of family names for the general population did begin from around the eleventh century and was well-established at around the end of the sixteenth century, this was not the case for Jews who, having previously lived in ghettos, only adopted family names from around the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Online source: Retrieved 7 December 2023.

[15] I do notice, however, that a letter in the Kherson Geniza has the Baal Shem Tov call on his student, R. DovBer of Mezeritch to help him debate with the ‘enemy’ because he does not have the knowledge to “to respond accurately according to the law…[nor know] how to base his words on the Talmud” (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.1, 1975:124, Unnumbered document). According to this document, at least, it seems that the Baal Shem Tov is not being presented as great master of Halacha and Talmud. He is, however, still framed as an organisational leader because the letter opens with “we need to debate with our enemies,” implying that he is leading an official representative body or delegation. On the other hand, what follows is another letter, this time indeed framing the Baal Shem Tov as a typical scholarly rabbi: “And see the Twelve Lessons of the Ran, of blessed memory, [who cites] two reasons and wonderful proofs on this [matter]. See his golden language. And even though the immortality of the soul is true and fixed, without [any need for a] proof or reason - just like the [concept of] the revival of the dead - nevertheless our rabbis gave proofs for them…You should also reference the Midrash Talpiyot, Anaf Chidush haOlam, honourable and holy one, where it brings a proof from the Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, of blessed memory. And after that [see] the holy teaching of the Maasef, of blessed memory. See his holy and pure language, and your eyes will be enlightened” (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.2, 1975:447, Document 257). Translations are mine.

[16] Translation is and square brackets are mine. Round brackets are in the original Hebrew in haTamim.

[17] Translation is mine.

[18] Translation is mine.

[19] Translation is mine.

[20] Compare this reference to the similar “special Shabbat garments” mentioned above (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.1, 1975:16).

[21] Translation is mine.

[22] The Frankists were the more radical branch of the Sabbatian movement.

[23] Translation is mine. 

[24] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[25] Square brackets are mine.

[26] Square brackets are mine. 

[27] The letter in Igrot Kodesh (Schneerson, Igrot Kodesh, vol. 8, 1998:249) has the date as Iyar 1954.

[28] R. David Tzvi Hilman published his Igrot Baal haTanya uVenei Doro (Hilman 1953) in 1953.

[29] Translation is mine.

[30] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[31] Translation is mine.


Balaban, M., 1935, Le-Toledot ha-Tenuah ha-Frankit [History of the Frankist Movement] (Hebrew), part 2, Dvir, Tel Aviv.

Balakirsky Katz, M., 2019, ‘Iconography’, in Studying Hasidism: Sources, Methods, Perspectives, Edited by Marcin Wodziński, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 178-196.

Hilman, D.Z. 1953, Igrot Baal haTanya uVenei Doro [The letters of the author of the Tanya and his contemporaries] (Hebrew), Jerusalem.

Meir, J., 2023, ‘Херсонская гениза || Стертые следы [Kherson Geniza: Erased Traces]’ (Lecture). Online source:  Retrieved on 15 November 2023.

Rapoport-Albert, A., 1988, ‘Hagiography with Footnotes: Edifying Tales and the Writing of History in Hasidism’, Essays in Jewish Historiography, Wiley for Wesleyan University, 119-159.

Schneerson, Yosef Yitzchak, haTamim, vols. 1 and 2, Otzar haChassidim, Brooklyn 1975.


Further Reading 









Kotzk Blog: 138) BAAL SHEM TOV EXPLAINS HIS INITIAL LACK OF TORAH EDUCATION (And other fascinating letters): Part 8. 

Kotzk Blog: 139) WHY DID THE BAAL SHEM TOV REFUSE TO DISCLOSE HIS HIDING PLACE TO HIS TEACHER? (And other fascinating letters) Part 9. 

Kotzk Blog: 141) THE 'OTHER BAAL SHEM TOV' WAITING IN THE WINGS (And other fascinating letters): Part 10. 

Kotzk Blog: 142) 'IF YOU DON'T COME OUT OF HIDING THEN BURN THESE TEACHINGS' (And other fascinating letters): Part 11.