Sunday 19 November 2023

452) Was R. Heshil Tzoref intentionally conflated with R. Adam Baal Shem?

[Note: This article is an abridged version of my current research project - G.M.]


R. Yehoshua Heshil Tzoref was born in Vilna in 1633 and passed away in Cracow in 1700 or 1720 (Rabinowitsch 1939:126). He had no significant religious education and made a living as a silversmith (‘tzoref’ is the Hebrew for ‘silversmith’). During the series of wars between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden, he sought refuge in Amsterdam, where he was exposed to the ideas of Shabbatai Tzvi. When he returned to Vilna in 1666, he became “the most important personality of the Sabbatian movement in Lithuania” (Maciejko 2010b:n.p.).[1] Put more directly, R. Heshil Tzoref:

“became the outstanding spokesman of the believers in Shabbetai Zevi and persisted in this belief throughout his life” (Scholem 2007a:670).

Unlike other Sabbatian leaders who excelled in doctrinal ideology, R. Heshil Tzoref’s main appeal lay in his charismatic attributes. These included combinations of Hebrew letters, numerology as well as his claims to prophecy.[2] He soon attracted a large group of followers for whom he acted as an oracle; and Scholem (2007a:670) describes him as a prefigure of later Chassidic Rebbes as “[s]tories told about him already have a noticeably ‘hasidic’ flavor.” His followers thronged to him, not just from Vilna but from all corners of Poland. He even took care of their personal needs and they believed he could save them from evil decrees as well as provide a tikkun (spiritual remedy) for their souls.

After Shabbatai Tzvi’s passing in 1676, R. Heshil Tzoref announced himself as Mashiach ben Yosef who was to be the pre-curser to Shabbatai Tzvi’s perceived second coming. 

Sefer haTzoref

R. Heshil Tzoref authored a most controversial work, Sefer haTzoref which is perhaps one of the most enigmatic and elusive of the Sabbatian works not only for its content but also because of later attempts at hiding all traces of this work. Parts of this work survive − about three hundred pages in the author’s handwriting − and are held at the National Library of Israel.[3] However, the other sections appear to have been hidden away, which only adds to the intrigue as to the possible reasons why they were made unavailable.

The Baal Shem Tov (c.1700-1760) reportedly had a manuscript of Sefer haTzoref and “ordered it to be copied by his disciple Shabetai of Raszków” (Maciejko 2010b:n.p.). However, according to Scholem (2007a:671),this order was executed only more than 20 years after his death.”  Liebes (2007:16-20) traces a trajectory of the early transmission of Sefer haTzoref. According to Liebes, the Baal Shem Tov had the original or ‘autograph’ version of Sefer haTzoref, written by R. Heshil Tzoref himself. This was eventually copied by R. Yehoshua of Dinowitz. It remained in the archives of his teacher, R. Yeshaya haLevi of Dinowitz. From that copy, another copy was made by R. Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl. He then passed his copy on to his son, R. Mordechai who, in turn, divided the book into three sections, giving one section to each of his three sons.

Later, when R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev wanted to publish Sefer haTzoref, R. Efraim Zalman Margoliot prevented him from doing so because he “recognised its Sabbatian character.” Scholem (1941b:41-2) supports the general accuracy of this event although he maintains that some embellishments may have been added. The basic story, however, is corroborated by other sources, one of them being an account in a letter written by R. Efraim Zalman Margoliot’s grandson, namely, R. Tzvi Hirsch haLevi Horowitz from Brody:

“[My grandfather, R. Efraim Zalman Margoliot] argued with the holy Gaon [R. Levi Yitzchak] of Berdichev…about manuscripts of [Sefer ha] Tzoref…and the printing thereof. But…R. Margoliot prevented them from being published because he said a foreign hand had dominated them [the writings] and he was able to prove this with a number of clear examples” (Scholem 1941b:42).

Although Scholem authenticates this event, he still steadfastly holds that:

“the Baal Shem Tov and his great students, and his student's students did not know of the [Sabbatian] character of the ‘holy writings’ that came into their possession” (Scholem 1941b:42).[4]

Maciejko similarly maintains that although copies of Sefer haTzoref were circulated “in the courts of several tsadikim” (i.e., Chassidic Rebbes), nevertheless, they were “completely unaware of its Sabbatian nature” (Maciejko 2010b:n.p.). Liebes, on the other hand, considers the Sabbatian nature of the work to have been quite evident:

“[Sefer haTzoref] had an important influence upon future generations. In this book, which is also the personal diary of the author, [information on] the Sabbatian world is combined with intimate secrets of R. Heshil, who is also the hero of the book, second [only] to Shabbatai Tzvi” (Liebes 2007:4).[5]

It is, indeed, difficult to accept that the Baal Shem Tov was unaware of the Sabbatian nature of Sefer haTzoref, considering that the kabbalist R. Shabbatai of Rashkov, a close student of the Baal Shem Tov, transmitted the following statement which he claimed he heard directly from the Baal Shem Tov:

באשר בשנת ת"ח היה עת רצון, קול ה׳ יחולל אילות להוליד נשמת משיח. וכאשר  היה בעו"ה קיטרוג ר"ל,  קיבל אותה הרב המחבר וחיבר כמה ספרים ע"י מעשה התשובה שהיה בידו בעת

“Because the year 1648 was a time of grace, ‘The voice of God causes hinds to calve’ in that [in that year] the soul of the Messiah was born. And because of our many sins, there was an accusation, Heaven forefend, [and] the rabbi and author [Heshil Tzoref] accepted it [the soul of the Messiah] and he compiled a number of books by means of the act of repentance which he had at that time” (Rabinowitsch 1939:129).

If this statement is accurate, it indicates that the Baal Shem Tov would have been fully aware of the origins of Sefer haTzoref and its Sabbatian associations.

For a period of at least twenty-nine years − from 1666 to 1695 − R. Heshil Tzoref was occupied with writing his Sefer haTzoref. It was a lengthy book, divided into five sections corresponding to the five sections of the Pentateuch – and comprised many thousands of pages. There is testimony in the Pinkas of Cracow, that the fifth section of Sefer haTzoref, alone, contained “a thousand and a few hundred pages” (Rabinowitsch 1939:126).

In 1937, seven hundred sheets (comprising 1400 pages) of Sefer haTzoref were discovered in a Geniza in Stolin (in present-day Belarus) belonging to the Stoliner Chassidim, by David Bachlinsky, a researcher who worked for Dr. Zev Rabinowitsch. Bachlinsky copied parts of this work. Later, Rabinowitsch wrote to one of the Stolin rabbis[6] asking for permission to publish the entire collection of Sefer haTzoref but received no response to his request (Melamed 2012:n.p.). Unfortunately, the manuscript was soon lost together with its owners who perished in the Holocaust (Liebes 2007:16). Thus, ironically, Sefer haTzoref, along with a vast collection of other works, were discovered just before they disappeared. Rabinowitsch writes:

“Thus were lost important original documents which could have provided valuable source-material for the study of Jewish history” (Melamed 2012:n.p.).

Melamed notes that if the lost collection of books from the Stolin Geniza were to be recovered even to some small degree “it would be one of the greatest Hebraica finds of our time.” He continues:

“There is good reason to believe…that the collection of literary treasures…still exists somewhere…There are members of the community who still scour Judaica libraries and the black and grey markets of Hebraica for further signs of its survival” (Melamed 2007:n.p.).

Liebes narrows down the search grid for the ‘missing’ Sefer haTzoref somewhat:

“Most of this huge corpus [of Sefer haTzoref], which R. Heshil dedicated to the teachings of Melech haMashiach [King Messiah], is not to be found in the hands of researchers (although it still exists in courts of the Chassidim)” (Liebes 2007:4).[7]

Thus, according to Liebes, the Sefer haTzoref continues to exit although its location remains restricted knowledge. 

Associations between Sefer haTzoref and R. Adam Baal Shem

Building on the enigmatic figure of the mystical, or mythical, teacher of R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov R. Adam Baal Shem I want to examine R. Adam Baal Shem’s projected ‘association’ or ‘conflation’ with R. Heshil Tzoref in greater detail. Scholem (1941b:43) notes that before 1937 when Rabinowitsch discovered Sefer haTzoref in a Geniza in Stolin scholars thought that the story of R. Adam Baal Shem (as it is told in Shivchei haBesht)[8] and his secret mystical writings which he is said to have handed over to the Baal Shem Tov, was either a fabrication or a weak historical claim. The name Adam was not even a common Jewish name, particularly in Poland at that time. In the original Hebrew accounts in Shivchei haBesht, Adam appears without any honorifics at all. It is only in the Yiddish translations that he is referred to as a “Baal Shem Tov” and “R. Adam” (Scholem 1941b:45). However, Scholem continues, the discovery of Sefer haTzoref and particularly the account of the First Copyist, R. Yehoshua of Dinowitz where he testifies that the Baal Shem Tov had possession of Sefer haTzoref lends credence to the general tenor of the story of the Baal Shem Tov receiving ‘secret writings’ from a previous important figure.

Scholem (1941b:43), as mentioned earlier, argues that the early generations of Chassidim were unaware of the Sabbatian nature of Sefer haTzoref.  He maintains that it was only later, after the altercation between R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (d. 1809) and R. Efraim Zalman Margoliot (d. 1828) over the printing of Sefer haTzoref in around 1790 that Sabbatian suspicions were first aroused. This would have been about twenty years before the hagiographical biography of the Baal Shem Tov, the Shivchei haBesht, was published in 1814. This means that the allegations of the Sabbatian nature of Sefer haTzoref would have been well-known by the time Shivchei haBesht was published.

Scholem (1941b:44) maintains that the contributors to Shivchei haBesht intentionally obscured the name of R. Heshil Tzoref as the author of the ‘writings’ which were now simply presented as having ‘manifested’ during five previous periods in history, including the times of the biblical Abraham and Joshua (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1994:32). This was the fifth ‘manifestation.’ According to Shivchei haBesht, these writings were found by R. Adam Baal Shem “in a cave” (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1994:13). These writings were later “sealed” and hidden away by the Baal Shem Tov in a “stone in a mountain… [and he][9] placed a watchman there” (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1994:31). This way Shivchei haBesht retains the concept of the ‘secret writings,’ while negating the incident between R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev and R. Efraim Zalman Margoliot some twenty years earlier, and there is no mention of Sefer haTzoref or its author R. Heshil Tzoref. In its place, we have the episode of R. Adam Baal Shem. The name Adam is reminiscent of the biblical Adam, to whom the mystical tradition also ascribes the revelation of mystical writings through the agency of Raziel the Angel. Thus, the germ of historicity surrounding ‘secret writings’ remains while the taint of Sabbatian suspicion is entirely removed and R. Heshil Tzoref becomes conflated with R. Adam Baal Shem. Without R. Heshil Tzoref, R. Adam Baal Shem would not have existed, and:

“all the stories about [R. Adam Baal Shem] serve to cover over through ‘mists of purity,’ the paradox of the Baal Shem Tov possessing a Sabbatian book in his house…and hid the name of the actual author of the writings” (Scholem 1941b:44).[10]

Chana Shmeruk (1963:100) rejects this theory of Scholem that the Shivchei haBesht merged the two characters of R. Heshil Tzoref and R. Adam Baal Shem into one. She insists that the overall style of Shivchei haBesht is indeed hagiography. Its primary intention is to emphasise the supernatural and magical nature of its characters and therefore the work is unlikely to be concerned with character misattribution.

According to Scholem (1941b:44), R. Yisrael Yofeh who printed Shivchei haBesht in 1814 and who was a follower of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) the first Rebbe of the Chabad dynasty of Chassidim may have been motivated to some degree, to favour the Chabad narrative as adduced by his teacher. Since R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi promoted the ‘actual’ and ‘historical’ existence of R. Adam Baal Shem, it is not surprising that Shivchei haBesht followed suit.

This interpretation is reflected in the Translators’ Note to the English translation of Shivchei haBesht by Ben-Amos and Mintz (1994:xvi) who write that R. Yisrael Yofeh “could not resist inserting a lengthy account which he had  heard from his own master’s lips.” This included the early section comprising the first sixteen stories of Shivchei haBesht which include the story of R. Adam Baal Shem.[11] This supports the suspicion of Scholem (1941b:44) that there may have been tendentious motivations behind the “nurture sources” of Shivchei haBesht, perhaps promoting the narrative of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Corroborating this idea that R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi seemed aware of questionable influences on the early Chassidic movement, is the Mekor Baruch by R. Baruch Halevi Epstein. He claims that R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi acknowledged the Vilna Gaon for his role in keeping Chassidism within the framework of traditional Judaism [see Kotzk Blog: 414) Did the first three Rebbes of Chabad credit the Vilna Gaon for saving Chassidism?].  

In a similar vein, according to Scholem (1941b:45), the Kherson Letters (see Kotzk Blog: 137) WHY THE LETTERS OF THE CHERSON GENIZA MAY NOT BE FORGERIES:) are said to have been fraudulently written to ‘verify’ the ‘historicity’ of Shivchei haBesht, although on occasion their narratives do part ways. One notes that about three hundred of these Kherson Letters were first published around 1935 by the sixth Rebbe of Chabad, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson in his journal entitled haTamim. Jonathan Meir (2023-)[12] explains that in 1953, the last Chabad Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson published a letter testifying to the authenticity of the Kherson Letters. It seems that the last Rebbe was supporting his father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe. This was in response to the head of the Chabad Library, R. David Zvi Hilman who had just published a book[13] in that same year, 1953, containing the genuine letters of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi. The Kherson Letters, however, were blatantly excluded from this collection because R. Hilman was convinced of the fraudulent nature of those letters. Perhaps alluding to this, he writes in his Introduction:

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

“I have not included oral assumptions or rumours and suchlike, which have no clear evidence” (Hilman 1953:3)

In any event, the much larger bulk of the Kherson Letters, which were not published in haTamim, remain in the Chabad Library but are inaccessible to the public. I have twice requested access these letters but to no avail. 

Associations between Sefer haTzoref and the Baal Shem Tov’s son R. Tzvi Hirsch

Liebes (2007:15) explains that the Baal Shem Tov, was not satisfied with just his autograph of Sefer haTzoref, and he wanted to copy it. To this end, he handed over the manuscript in his possession to R. Shabbatai of Rashkov for him to copy. According to Scholem (2007a:671), however, the work was only finally copied two decades after the Baal Shem Tov’s passing. This is how the First Copyist of Sefer haTzoref, R. Yehoshua of Dinowitz describes the provenance of this work, in his Introduction (which, in turn, was later copied by Bachlinsky when he was researching the archive in Stolin):

וסיפר לי מו״ר ר׳ שבתי שהיה בדעת הריב״ש להעתיקו. ונתן לו להעתיקו ולא גרמה הזמן עד שנתבקש הרב הריב״ש בישיבה של מעלה ובא בן הרב ר׳ צבי הירש זללה״ה ולקח מביתו הספר הזה עד שנתגלגל הדבר לעת ובא הספר הזה ליד בן ר׳ צבי הירש ה״ה החכם מו״ה אהרן נ״י והסכים בדעתו לדעת רבי ומורי ישעי׳ הלוי אשר היה מ״ם בק׳ דינאוויץ להעתיק את הספר הזה בראות את יקר הספר הזה אשר הולך לאיבוד כי הדפין הולכין למחוק. והנה קמתי אני הצעיר אשר מתאבק תחת רגלי הצדיקים, וציוה לי הרב מו״ר הרב ר׳ ישעי׳ להעתיקו

“R. Shabbatai [of Rashkov] informed me [R. Yehoshua of Dinowitz] of the intention of the Baal Shem Tov to have had [Sefer haTzoref] copied. He [the Baal Shem Tov] then gave it to him [R. Shabbatai of Rashkov] to copy. In the meantime, the Baal Shem Tov was called to the Heavenly academy. Then the rabbi’s [i.e., the Baal Shem Tov’s] son, Tzvi Hirsch…came and took the book from his [i.e., R Shabbatai of Rashkov’s] house. With the passage of time, the book came into the possession of his [i.e., R. Tzvi Hirsch’s] son…R. Aharon…and he agreed with my [i.e., R. Yehoshua of Dinowitz’s] rabbi and teacher, R. Yeshaya of Dinowitz who was the righteous preacher the community of Dinowitz, to have this book copied when it became evident that this precious book was deteriorating as the pages were worn. I [R. Yehoshua of Dinowitz] then rose [to the occasion] as my rabbi and teacher [R. Yeshaya of Dinowitz] instructed me to copy [this book]” (First Copyist’s Introduction to Sefer haTzoref).[14]

The handing down of the autograph of Sefer haTzoref through the three generations from the Baal Shem Tov to his son R. Tzvi Hirsch, and in turn to his son, R. Aharon of Titov as a family heirloom is further support attesting to the Baal Shem Tov’s possession of this important work.

One of the great mysteries of the Chassidic movement is why the Baal Shem Tov’s only son, R. Tzvi Hirsch, is somehow lost to its recorded history. This opaqueness surrounding R. Tzvi Hirsch is all the more conspicuous when one considers the emphasis the Chassidic movement places on dynasty and lines of transmission of leadership that pass from father to son, often for generations. Yet with the Baal Shem Tov, the line seemed to pass, instead, through his daughter, Adel.[15]

Liebes (2007:15) suggests that the excessive allegiance of both R. Tzvi Hirsch and his son R. Aharon of Titov to Sefer haTzoref was at variance with the new spirit of Chassidism as developed under the leadership of the Magid of Mezeritch, the official successor to the Baal Shem Tov.[16] On this view, it was because of their continual and unconcealed touting of Sefer haTzoref, that R. Tzvi Hirsch and his son R. Aharon of Titov were essentially side-lined by the Chassidic movement.[17] Perhaps, in support of Liebes’ contention that the Baal Shem, his son and his grandson, fell under the influence of Sefer haTzoref, is the indication by the First Copyist, R. Yehoshua of Dinowitz, that the book was well-used and “deteriorating as the pages were worn.” 



Ben-Amos, D. and Mintz, J.R., 1994, In praise of the Baal Shem Tov, Jason Aronson, New Jersey/London.

Liebes, Y., 2007, ‘The Sabbatian Prophecy of R. Heshil Tzoref of Vilna in the writings of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, the student of the Gaon of Vilna and the founder of the Ashkenazi settlement in Jerusalem’ (Hebrew), Kabbalah 17, Idra Press, Tel Aviv, 107-168 (1-91).

Maciejko, P., 2010b, ‘Tsoref, Yehoshu’a Heshel ben Yosef’, in YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, Online source: Retrieved on 25 July 2023.

Melamed, Y.Y., 2012, ‘The Lost Textual Treasures of a Hasidic Community’, Jewish Review of Books. Online source: Retrieved on 22 August 2023.

Rabinowitsch, W.Z., 1939, ‘Min haGeniza ha Stolinit [From the Stolin Geniza]’ (Hebrew), Zion, vol. 5, Historical Society of Israel, 125-132.

Scholem, G., 1941b, ‘haNavi haShabbatai R. Heshil Tzoref – R. Adam Baal Shem [The Sabbatian Prophet R. Heshil Tzoref – R. Adam Baal Shem]’ (Hebrew), Zion, vol. 1, nos. 1/2, Historical Society of Israel, 89-93 (41-45).

Scholem, G., 2007a, ‘Zoref, Joshua Heshel Ben Joseph’, in Encyclopedia Judaica, Second Edition, vol. 21, Keter, Jerusalem, 670-671.

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

Shmeruk, C., 1963, ‘haSipurim al R. Adam Baal Shem veGilguleihem beNuschaout Sefer Shivchei haBesht [Tales About R. Adam Baal Shem in the Versions of Shivchei haBesht]’ (Hebrew), Zion, vol. 28, nos. 1/2, Historical Society of Israel, 86-105.

Further Reading

[1] R. Heshil Tzoref’s return from Amsterdam to Vilna is most significant to this study because it underscores the often-overlooked phenomenon of Sabbatianism influencing Vilna which is generally considered to have been the bastion of Lithuanian opposition to the Chassidic movement and free of any taint of Sabbatianism. It was the Lithuanian Mitnagdim who, after all, had accused the Chassidim of their Sabbatian associations.

[2] Many of these prophecies were related to political events of the time.

[3] Ms. Heb.38°465.

[4] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[5] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[6] R. Asher, the brother of the Stoliner Rebbe.

[7] Translation and square brackets are mine. Round brackets are Liebes’.

[8] See Ben-Amos and Mintz (1994:15-18). See also the different version in the Kherson letters which has the Baal Shem Tov describe the ‘secret writings’ from R. Adam Baal Shem being hidden, for him to find, under a large stone: “And my [i.e., R. Adam’s] son…will hide them under a [certain] stone, amongst the mountains which surround the holy community of Kitov. This way, with God’s help, they [the writings] will surely reach your holy hand” (Schneerson, haTamim, vol.1, 1975:18, Document 75/a). Translation and square brackets are mine.

[9] Square brackets are mine.

[10] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[11] The story about R. Adam Baal Shem is story number 7 in Shivchei haBesht. The printer, R. Yisrael Yofeh, worked from the original biographical manuscript produced by R. Dov Ber ben Shmuel. However, the original author’s work only begins to appear much later, from story number 17. This means that the story about R. Adam Baal Shem was heard from Yofeh’s teacher, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, and was not part of the original collection. “The sixteen tales added in the beginning by the printer have a distinctly bookish flavor. The Hebrew employed in the original manuscript, on the other hand, is simple and often colloquial” (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1994:xvii).

[12] Online source: Retrieved on 15 November 2023.

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

[14] See Rabinowitz (1939:129). Square brackets, translation and punctuation are mine.

[15] R. Efraim of Sidilkov (1748-1800) and R. Baruch of Medzebuzh (1753-1811) became great Chassidic leaders and they were both sons of Adel. Her grandson, through her daughter Feiga, was R. Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810).

[16] Liebes also distances the Magid of Mezeritch from Sefer haTzoref, and denies the allegation in Perl’s account, that the Magid of Mezeritch had copied sections of Sefer haTzorefword for word”.

[17] It is of interest to note that contemporary Chassidic hagiography somewhat plays down the role of R. Aharon of Titov who is described being “exceedingly humble” and a “reluctant Rebbe” who “refused to leverage his noble lineage to generate charitable donations.” Online source: Retrieved on 20 September 2023.

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