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Life Stories: Gedolim Ma'aseh Zaddikim

by Moshe Rosman

An Excerpt from Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba'al Shem Tov

(For another excerpt, please read Life Stories: Shivhei Ha-Besht.)

Another example of alternative traditions is the collection Gedolim Ma'aseh Zaddikim: Hasidic Tales (Jerusalem, 1991), which Jacob Margoliot recorded, based on stories told about the Besht by Margoliot's own father and grandfather. These reflected personal incidents that occurred between the Besht and members of the author's family in the generation of his grandfather and great-grandfather, in the 1720s or 1730s.

This collection is much less problematic than Shivhei Ha-Besht in that the provenance of the stories is clear, the stories were redacted only once, and the textual problems are minor. It, too, is an anthology that the author declared he wrote in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in response to a request by the Rebbe of Sadigora.(53) Some of the traditions recounted in it are not only plausible in content and context but contain few folkloristic elements and supplement information from other sources. They merit examination as possibly containing historical reports.

For example, in contrast with Shivhei Ha-Besht, which purports to trace the Besht from his miraculous birth through his hero-conditioning childhood and young manhood, Gedolim Ma'aseh Zaddikim does not profess to know anything about the Besht prior to the contact established between him and Margoliot family members in Jazlowiec an association also attested by Rabbi Meir Margoliot in his own book, Sod Yakhin U-Boaz.(54)

The first story in Gedolim Ma'aseh Zaddikim recounts how the brothers, Isaac and Meir Margoliot, sons of the rabbi of Jazlowiec, Zvi Margoliot, were attracted to the Besht.

The Besht was then a ritual slaughterer in the village of Kaszelowiec near Jazlowiec. He kept to himself and nothing had yet been heard from him. He was a slaughterer like the rest of the slaughterers. Suddenly, there arose in the hearts of each of the brothers a burning desire to go to the ritual slaughterer from Kaszelowiec. They did not know any reason for this, the why or the wherefore, only the overpowering desire in the heart of each one, burning without let-up. Each one spoke to his brother saying, "What has God done to us? Is this not a queer thing without explanation?" They could not reveal it to their father or to anyone, for they knew that it would appear weird, with everybody saying "What's this?" They themselves felt they could not conquer this burning desire. They had to sneak away from their father and their home, and the two of them went to the village in secret and came to his house. What they did there, what he spoke with them, how he dealt with them all the days they were in his house, they did not reveal to anyone - even their father - all their days.

They intended on staying in his house. Who knows how long they wanted to be detained before him? In their home there was a great noise and a tremendous commotion because these two great lights were lost. Many people spread out to every road junction to investigate and seek. Finally, after two weeks, someone said that on the road near the village he saw two people like these walking. They [the searchers] went to the village, from house to house, until they found them in the house of the ritual slaughterer and they were compelled to return home. Due to his great joy at their being found, their father did not ask them, "What about this terrible deed?" After a while he asked them: "My sons, please tell me what is the greatness of the slaughterer of Kaszelowiec that people such as yourselves would stay with him such a long time?" They replied: "I [sic] cannot describe for you the nature of this man because you have not seen him or dealt with him. But believe us in this: [in Yiddish] He is smarter than everyone else and more pious than everyone else. " Afterward, when the Besht, of blessed memory, became famous they traveled to him every year.(55)

With regard to the Besht, the lack of elaborate plot and the few, simple details argue for the story being an early preserved tale about the holy man. In this case, "early" means close to the time of occurrence, since the story was related by those who were the subject of it, the Margoliot brothers, and repeated primarily within the family. As noted, the actual fact of close contact between the Besht and at least one of the brothers is confirmed by Meir himself. The focus of the story is actually on what the brothers did; the information about the Besht is almost incidental. Perhaps for that reason the teller apparently stuck to the few particulars he had received about the Besht and did not embellish.

Unlike Shivhei Ha-Besht, no claim is made here for the Besht's pedigree or his consciously hiding his true, miraculous or holy nature until some point of predestined revelation. No attempt is made to place him in a chain of legitimate mystical figures. His virtues are not the result of secret training but could plausibly turn up In any person: they are wisdom, not learning; and piety, not possession of age-old secret traditions. The Besht was a plain shohet about whom there was no reason that anyone should suspect anything extraordinary, even if they had been acquainted with his family and personal history. Some people began to recognize his extraordinary nature. They refrained from revealing their discovery, not because the holy man forbade it or because his time of revelation had not yet come(56) but because they feared ridicule from conventional society. This attachment to the Besht could not have been formed later than 1737 when the lads' father, Rabbi Zvi, died. However, it could have occurred much earlier. If the Besht was born around 1700, then he could have been a shohet in a village as early as the 1720s.

This mode of revelation for a holy man - recognition by important individuals who came to spend time in his company and were so impressed that they did not want to leave - had precedents in Polish Jewish society. When Shabbetai Zvi was proclaimed the Messiah, two famous Polish rabbis spent several days with him and wanted to stay longer. In the end they announced that Shabbetai Zvi was indeed the Messiah.(57)

The goldsmith Heschel Zoref (1633-1700) was, until 1666, "a simple man without wisdom and engaged in goldsmithing. He always performed abnegations and would cry before the ark to gain wisdom and knowledge." From the late 1650s, he studied intensively on his own, and when the news of Shabbetai Zvi reached him he began to expound on the Zohar and to prophesy. People said that owing to his study of the Zohar and the spirit of wisdom that graced, him, "he knew everything God would do in the upper spheres and what He was going to do until the coming of the Redeemer. His reputation as a man of the holy spirit spread throughout Poland and while he remained in seclusion several rabbis came to stay in his presence." He became one of the main continuators of Sabbateanism in Poland.(58)

In the generation after the Ba'al Shem Tov, when Solomon Maimon sought out the Maggid of Mezerich because he had heard of his spiritual reputation, he requested an interview with the holy man. But there were too many such people and the interview had to be a group affair, which ultimately led to Maimon's feeling that the rabbi's spiritual powers were superficial and even fake.(59)

Each of these descriptions is partially reminiscent of the meeting between the Margoliot brothers, of a distinguished rabbinic family, and the Besht, as described in Gedolim Ma'aseh Zaddikim. The Heshel Zoref story, in particular, illustrates how a seemingly simple man suddenly is believed to possess the divine spirit as a result of his newfound familiarity with the Zohar and Kabbalah in general.(60) This facility attracts bona fide rabbinic scholars to his home, where he lives in seclusion. As with the Besht in the Gedolim Ma'aseh Zaddikim story (and unlike the construction in Shivhei Ha-Besht), it is not pedigree or destiny or secretly granted esoteric knowledge that determines his sudden, newfound greatness but his piety and his wisdom.

This alternative explanation of how the Besht came to prominence, which corresponds to Meir Margoliot's own written description of how the Besht instructed him in piety and the proper preparation and method for study,(61) fits the circumstances of the eighteenth century with its nonscholarly, Kabbalistic holy men (62) better than the Shivhei Ha-Besht description. There, as noted, the Besht was made to resemble a nineteenth-century zaddik with a pedigree, an inherited body of esoteric knowledge, and a court. I think it much more likely that, as Gedolim Ma'aseh Zaddikim purports, the Besht turned from unknown shohet to respected Kabbalist as a result of his own efforts and because his behavior conformed to what was expected from a holy man type, like Heschel Zoref. As we have already seen with regard to his halakhic practices and his relationship to communal institutions, the Besht's style of spiritual leadership was not radically different from what was accepted in Jewish society of his time; rather, it evolved out of known models.


(53). The reasons for this warrant a separate study. By the time the Besht had been dead one hundred years, and Hasidism had spread and strengthened, it reflected well on the Margoliot family to have "discovered" the Besht back when he was an unknown. For analysis of this collection and how it reflects both history and the era of its publication, see M. Altschuler, "Kevuzat Ya'acov: Between Biography and Hagiography" [H], in Proceedings of the XIth World Congress of Jewish Studies, vol. C2, 153-160; R. Haran, "Ideological Controversies within Hasidism" [H], Ph.D dissertation, Hebrew University, 1993, 62.

(54). Chap. 8, near nn. 56-63; see also Scholem, "Image," 352. The terminus ad quem for the initial contact is 1737 because that is when Zvi Margoliot died, and it was in his lifetime that his sons Isaac and Meir first came close to the Besht.

(55). Gedolim Ma'aseh Zaddikim, 13-14.

(56). As in SB revelation stories concerning the Besht; see pp. 28, 30-31, 34, 45-46.

(57). Leib ben Ozer, The Story of Shabbetai Zevi [Y/H], trans. and annotated Z. Shazar, ed. S. Zucker and R. Plesser (Jerusalem, 1978), 80-84.

(58). G. Scholem, Studies and Texts Concerning the History of Sabbateanism and Its Metamorphoses [H] (Jerusalem, 1974), 84-85.

(59). S. Maimon, "On a Secret Society and Therefore a Long Chapter," in EP, 19-21.

(60). See SB stories, pp. 49, 165, 198, on the Besht's use of the Zohar for clairvoyance and protection.

(61). Chap. 8, near nn. 56-60.

(62). See chap. 1.

As published in Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba'al Shem Tov Reprinted by permission of the publisher, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. (For another excerpt, please read Life Stories: Shivhei Ha-Besht.)



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