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Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism: Introduction

by Gedalyah Nigal

An Excerpt from the Introduction to Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism

My first books on Hasidism dealt with the philosophical aspects of the movement, paralleling the development of hasidic literature itself. The first hasidic compositions - the books of Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonoye, colleague and disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism - consist of intellectual discourses. But the beginnings of the storytelling branch of the hasidic literature also are to be found in Rabbi Jacob Joseph's works. The narrative material in these books is limited, and a developed literature of stories begins only with the book Shivhei Ha-Besht (1814). The genre was to provide us with hundreds of collections of hasidic stories, most of which center on the hasidic tzaddik, who performs miracles, usually on behalf of a specific individual but at times on behalf of the community as a whole.

A deeper study of the many hasidic stories revealed to me that it was the influence of these stories, and not hasidic philosophy, that led the masses to join the movement. It is not coincidental that hasidic theory also attributes great importance to the narrative act itself, especially to the story about the tzaddik. For hasidic thinkers, the telling of a story is a religious act, of no less import than the observance of the commandments, the study of Torah, or prayer.

Why was this "commandment" so successful? The tzaddikim loved to tell stories (about themselves as well) and wanted their followers to tell stories about them during their lifetime, and especially after their death. Corresponding to this desire to tell, the simple person, the hasid, loved to hear and to retell stories. In this respect there was hardly any difference between young and old, man and woman.

It was natural that such tellers of stories would base themselves on reality, on one hand, and on their fertile imagination, on the other. In the realm of the imaginary, the teller was aided by motifs, subjects, and even entire stories that had been heard in the past or read in books. It is not surprising, therefore, if we discover in hasidic stories motifs and subjects from Jewish stories, beginning from the Bible and extending through the Middle Ages and to the hasidic story itself.

Since most hasidic stories deal with miraculous events, the sources of their motifs and subjects should be sought in the sphere of the magical and mystical Jewish story throughout the generations. The first of the hasidic storytellers was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov - the founder of Hasidism. He was both the philosopher and the leader of the movement and a baal shem (wonder-worker). As a baal shem, his livelihood came from the blessings he gave to those seeking his help in matters of health, offspring, and livelihood. These blessings were generally connected with the giving of an amulet written by a special scribe employed by the Baal Shem Tov for this purpose. Obviously, many hasidic stories relate the successes of the Baal Shem Tov and of other tzaddikim in these realms.

My first step was to examine this "profession" of the Baal Shem Tov. Did other baalei shem precede him? When did they begin to appear in Jewish literature, and how was their activity expressed? I discovered, to my surprise, that such wonder-workers have a long history among the Jewish people. The first document relating to the matter is a halakhic query from the period of the geonim, in which Rav Hai Gaon was asked by the Kairouan community in North Africa whether or not to believe in such people. The profession of baal shem spread to southern Italy, central Europe ("Ashkenaz"), and Eastern Europe. Among the ranks of the baalei shem could be found leaders of communities, rabbis, and legal experts, along with simple folk. Their activity was, for the most part, supernatural, in which the individual in need of salvation was given succor, the ill person was healed, and the one who sought to harm the Jews was punished.

It is of interest that some of the stories about baalei shem were spread in letters sent by their disciples, and others were published at the initiative of the baalei shem themselves. The first chapter of this book discusses the baalei shem.

The second chapter discusses one of the motifs characteristic of the activity of the baalei shem: kefitzat ha-derekh, the miraculous "shortening of the way." It was assumed that by means of the "holy names," knowledge of which was essential for the activity of a baal shem, it was possible to shorten the traveling time of a journey and arrive at a faraway destination in a relatively short period of time. kefitzat ha-derekh also could take place at sea or in the air. In most instances, kefitzat ha-derekh was necessary in order to arrive in time before the beginning of the Sabbath, before the beginning of a holiday, or in time for a circumcision or wedding ceremony. The motif of kefitzat ha-derekh also entered the hasidic story, but in contrast with other supernatural motifs, it appears only in the first generations of Hasidism, before it disappeared entirely. The reason for this is quite prosaic: mankind's quest to shorten the journey was achieved, by means of fast trains and airplanes; the miracle had become everyday reality.

The baalei shem dealt with the magical. Magic, or "sorcery," as it appears in the sources, was forbidden by Jewish law, and presumably, there was no such thing as Jewish magic. The Torah states this clearly: "You shall not suffer a sorceress to live" (Exodus 22:17). Sorcery was, however, prevalent in different periods, and it could not be fought frontally. It is possible that the opposition to sorcery, on one hand, and the realization that the masses "needed" it, on the other hand, led to its restriction and to its attribution to a certain type of people. The Jew was no different from the non-Jew in the "need" for people possessing supernatural powers and for their activity. In the non-Jewish world, however, these individuals were called "sorcerers," while among the Jewish people they were known as "baalei shem." The Jews evaded the prohibition against sorcery by determining that there were powers of sanctity - the use of which was permitted - and powers of impurity, and only these constituted sorcery and therefore were prohibited.

The following chapters of this book deal with transmigration (reincarnation) and exorcism. Transmigration falls into the realm of the mystic, while the exorcists of dybbuks, like those of demons, used means from the sphere between the mystic and the magical. These topics also are of great importance in the hasidic story, but they predate it. The first extant stories about transmigration, and those about the exorcism of dybbuks, come from sixteenth-century Safed. Since then, there is a quite extensive literature comprising transmigration and dybbuk stories. Although dybbuk stories have decreased in recent generations, such stories are still to be found occasionally; the belief in transmigration is deeply rooted among hasidim and kabbalists.

A favorite topic among storytellers throughout the ages is that of demons. The rabbinical literature already dealt with the qualities and essence of demons, and extant developed stories regarding demon-human intermarriage date from the Middle Ages. The topic is discussed at length in this book, with special attention devoted to the well-known story "Maaseh Shel Yerushalmi" ("The Tale of the Jerusalemite"). The topic of demons also entered the realm of the hasidic story, although there are not many stories about demons in this genre.

Close to the preceding topic is that of sorcery performed by sorcerers or priests. An entire chapter of this book discusses those engaged in the war between "the forces of sanctity" - those acting on the side of the Jews and on their behalf - and the "forces of impurity," those of sorcery or of the priesthood - which fight either the Jew as an individual or the entire Jewish people and its religious values.

Additional supernatural topics discussed in the book are the Garden of Eden, the power of the fruit of the garden, and the power of amulets.

It seems that the isolation of the motifs, indicating their passage from generation to generation, paradoxically testifies to the uniformity of the Jewish story over the course of time. There is nothing new, because everything was already present in previous stories. The innovation in the hasidic story consisted of the recomposition of these elements and their appearance in new situations. It should be emphasized, however, that never was there such a plethora of stories as there is in the hasidic storytelling genre.

As published in Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism, by Gedalyah Nigal. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson, Inc., Northvale, NJ. Permission was also obtained from the author. To order: The Jason Aronson Home Page

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