Baal Shem

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Marianne von Werefkin, Police Sentinel in Vilnius (1914), showing east European life with occult influences

Baal Shem (Hebrew pronunciation: [ˈbaʕal ʃem], Hebrew: בַּעַל שֵׁם, pl. Baalei Shem) in Hebrew meaning "Master of the Name", refers to a historical Jewish occupation of certain kabbalistic rabbis with knowledge of using names of God in Judaism for practical kabbalah healing, miracles,[1] exorcism[2] and blessing.


The unofficial title of Baal Shem was given by others who recognised or benefited from the Baal Shem's ability to perform wondrous deeds, and emerged in the Middle Ages, continuing until the early modern period. Baalei Shem were seen as miracle workers who could bring about cures and healing, as well as having mystical powers to foresee or interpret events and personalities. They were considered to have a "direct line" to Heaven, evoking God's mercies and compassion on suffering human beings. In Jewish society, the practical theurgic role of Baalei Shem among the common folk was a mystical institution, contrasted with the more theosophical and ecstatic Kabbalistic study circles, which were isolated from the populace. The Baal Shem, the communal Maggid preacher and the Mokhiakh (מוֹכִיחַ "preacher") of penitence were seen as lower level unofficial Jewish intelligentsia, below contract Rabbis and study Kabbalists.[2]

The activity of Baalei Shem among the community, as well as the influence of kabbalistic ideas, contributed to the popular belief in Tzadikim Nistarim "the Concealed Righteous". Hasidic tradition records Elijah Ba'al Shem of Chełm in the 16th century, founding a Nistarim mystical brotherhood to offer physical and spiritual encouragement to the Jewish populace, making him the first Baal Shem, and from which movement Hasidism later emerged.[3]

The Baal Shem Tov[edit]

A few people received the title of Baal Shem among Eastern and Central European Ashkenazi Jews. The designation is most well known in reference to the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov (Besht – "Master of the Good Name") – Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698–1760) in Ukraine. However, this is misleading. The Baal Shem Tov started public life as a traditional Baal Shem, but with his teachings of Hasidism, introduced a new way into mystical thought and practice. His role is distinguished from other, predominantly earlier, Baalei Shem by the addition of Tov – Good to his title. Hasidism popularised esoteric Kabbalah into a social mysticism movement. The new mystical role of the Hasidic Tzadik leader replaced Baal Shem activity among the populace, combining Kabbalist and Maggid, and replacing practical kabbalah with the Tzadik's theurgic divine intercession. The 1814–15 Praises of the Besht sets the Baal Shem Tov's teaching circle against his remaining occupation as travelling Baal Shem.[4][5]

Baal Shem practice and Kabbalah[edit]

The "Name" referred to in "Master of the Name" is the most holy Four-Letter Name of God or Tetragrammaton. In Jewish tradition, this Name was pronounced only by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. With the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the true pronunciation was presumably lost. (Jews today do not pronounce the Name out loud and substitute another Hebrew word, usually Adonai, in prayers and texts.) In some accounts, a Baal Shem was believed to have rediscovered the true pronunciation, perhaps during deep meditation, and could use it in magical ways to work miracles. Some stories say he pronounced it out loud, and others say he visualized the Name in his mind. He also used the names of angels in such a way.

Amulets and Practical Kabbalah[edit]

A Jewish amulet with various Divine Names, attributed to the post-Baalei Shem, Hasidic mystical leader Moshe Teitelbaum (1759–1841)

There are two differentiated streams in Kabbalah, that leading Kabbalists separated over concerns of illegitimate use of Practical Kabbalah:[6]

The leading Kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534–1572) forbade people of his time to use Practical Kabbalah. As the Temple in Jerusalem is not standing, and no one possesses the ashes of the Red Heifer, people are unable to become pure. Without those things, he said, Practical Kabbalah is very damaging. Yitzchak Ginsburgh describes the connection of Jewish amulets to Practical Kabbalah:

Amulets are on the border between Practical Kabbalah and an external manifestation of Kabbalah, such as name calculation. There is a source for amulets in the Torah. When a great sage writes Holy Names, without pronouncing them, on parchment and puts it into a container which is worn by the recipient, it can possess healing and spiritual powers. At the beginning of the Baal Shem Tov's life, since he was a healer, he used amulets. Sometimes the amulet works because of the faith of the recipient in the spiritual power of the amulet. At the end of his life, the Baal Shem Tov never wrote the Names of God, only his own signature, Yisrael ben Sara or Yisrael ben Eliezer. This was the ultimate amulet given by the Ba'al Shem Tov.

The Sages teach us that whoever receives a coin from the hands of Job (a tzadik) receives a blessing. This is the source in the Talmud that receiving a coin from a great tzaddik brings with it a blessing. Thus we see that there are amulets that are permissible. The determining factor is the righteousness and intentions of the person giving the amulet.[7]

Recorded Baalei Shem[edit]

Signpost for the grave of Sekl Loeb Wormser (1768-1847), Baal Shem of Michelstadt, Germany

A rare group of people have been recorded as holding the title of Baal Shem. The first recorded person to receive the title was Eliyahu of Chelm.[1]

Other Baalei Shem (besides the above) include:

Hasidic replacement of the Baalei Shem[edit]

From the 1730s, the Baal Shem Tov (Besht) headed an elite theurgic mystical circle, similar to other secluded Kabbalistic circles such as the contemporary Klaus (Close) in Brody, but with the innovative difference to use their psychic heavenly intercession abilities on behalf of the common Jewish populance. From the legendary hagiography of the Besht as one who bridged elite mysticism with deep social concern, and from his leading disciples, Hasidism rapidly grew into a populist revival movement. Central, and most distinctively innovative, in Hasidic thought was its new doctrine of the Hasidic Tzadik, which replaced the former Tzadikim Nistarim private pietists and Baal Shem Practical Kabbalists in Eastern Europe. As doctrine coalesced in writing from the 1780s, Jacob Joseph of Polonne, Dov Ber of Mezeritch, Elimelech of Lizhensk, Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin and others shaped Hasidic views of the Tzadik, whose task is to awaken and draw down the flow of divine blessing to the spiritual and material needs of the community and individual common folk.

Contemporary legacies[edit]

The name "Baal Shem" mainly survives in Jewish surnames of people descending from Ba'ale Shem such as Balshem, Balshemnik and Bolshemennikov.

In recent years, some new age Jewish groups have revived the term as referring to the Jewish equivalent of a shaman or folk healer.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  • Some Notes on the Social Background of Early Hasidism and A Circle of Pneumatics in Pre-Hasidism, in Studies in East European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism, Joseph Weiss, Littman Library pub.
  • Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs: Tracing the Origins of the Chasidic Movement, 3 Volumes, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, translated by Nissan Mindel, Kehot publications. Traces the early Nistarim brotherhood circle of Baal Shem and associates, in which the Baal Shem Tov became a member, and from which Hasidism emerged
  • Der Ba’al Schem von Michelstadt. Ein deutsch-jüdisches Heiligenleben zwischen Legende und Wirklichkeit. Mit einem Neuabdruck der Legenden aus der Hand von Judaeus und Arthur Kahn, Karl E. Grözinger, Frankfurt/New York (Campus) 2010. A latter-day Baal Shem


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Kohler, Kaufmann; Ginzberg, Louis (1906). "Ba'al Shem". Retrieved October 28, 2014.
  2. ^ a b Studies in East European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism, Joseph Weiss, Littman Library: chapter 1 "Some Notes on the Social Background of Early Hasidism", chapter 2 "A Circle of Pneumatics in Pre-Hasidism"
  3. ^ Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoires, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Kehot publications, 3 volumes
  4. ^ Life Stories: Shivhei Ha-Besht Archived 2012-12-07 at the Wayback Machine by Moshe Rosman,
  5. ^ Two recent studies of the historical Baal Shem Tov: Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba'al Shem Tov, Moshe Rosman, California University 1996; The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, Immanuel Etkes, Brandeis 2004
  6. ^ What is Practical Kabbalah? from
  7. ^ Are Amulets Considered Practical Kabbalah? Do they work? from
  8. ^ a b Etkes, Immanuel. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader. p. 25. Retrieved Nov 5, 2014.
  9. ^ Schneersohn, Yosef Y. (2004) [First published 1960]. Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs (PDF). 2. English Rendition by Nissan Mindel (Revised ed.). Brooklyn, New York: Kehot Publication Society. p. 32. ISBN 0-8266-0622-9. Retrieved Aug 17, 2016.
  10. ^ Schneersohn, Yosef Y. (2004) [First published 1960]. "The Baal Shem of Zamoshtch". Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs (PDF). 2. English Rendition by Nissan Mindel (Revised ed.). Brooklyn, New York: Kehot Publication Society. p. 89. ISBN 0-8266-0622-9. Retrieved Nov 18, 2014.
  11. ^ "Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem, Charms And Amulets". 2014. Retrieved Nov 18, 2014.
  12. ^ Etkes. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader. p. 33. Retrieved Nov 5, 2014.
  13. ^ Etkes. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader. p. 27. Retrieved Mar 26, 2015.
  14. ^ Etkes. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader. pp. 17, 27. Retrieved Mar 26, 2015.
  15. ^ Amtahat Binyamin אמתחת בנימן (in Hebrew). Retrieved Mar 24, 2015.
  16. ^ a b Etkes. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader. p. 26. Retrieved Mar 26, 2015.
  17. ^ Etkes. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader. pp. 18, 291. Retrieved Mar 25, 2015;
    Kantzelnbogen, Pinchas. Yesh Manchilin יש מנחילין (in Hebrew). Jerusalem. p. 96. OCLC 232936737. Retrieved Mar 25, 2015.

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