The first collection of hasidic tales that recounts the adventures of the Besht (Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, ca.1700-1760) was published in 1814, fifty-four years after the demise of the hero of the work. The collection was entitled Shivhei HaBesht (In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov) and it did much to fashion the collective perception of the person who inspired the hasidic movement. While some of the tales may be historically circumspect, they accurately capture the 1814 image of the nascent movement.
One such tale recounted the tension surrounding prayer rites – an issue that was repeatedly mentioned in the eighteenth century bans issued against the hasidim. The tale describes how Rabbi Nahman of Kossov (d. 1741), a colleague of the Besht, was travelling through Zolkiew at the time of the morning prayers. He stopped his wagon outside the synagogue, and together with his tallit and tefillin he entered and stepped up to lead the prayers without being asked and without asking permission.
The locals were incensed: How dare this visitor lead the service without first asking permission! Yet as they heard the sweetness of Nahman’s prayer, they held their tongues. While they did not remove Nahman, they were still uncomfortable with the fact that he chose the prayer rite favoured by the hasidim, rather than the traditional rite followed by Ashkenazi Jews that was the norm in Zolkiew.
Thus the people in Zolkiew were torn that morning: Should they continue enjoying Nahman’s piety as his moving prayers swept them away? Or should they remove this interloper for his brazen disregard for propriety and prayer customs?
The dispute continued through the service and at the end, some of those present turned on Nahman: “How dare you lead the services without permission and change the prayer rite that our illustrious forefathers used!”
Nahman retorted casting aspersions on those very forebears: “Who said that they are in the Garden of Eden?” Such an audacious response further angered those present.
One of the Besht’s most senior disciples, the author of Toledot Yaakov Yosef, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Hakohen of Polonne (d. 1779), had appointed one of his students – Zalman – to replace him as local preacher. This Zalman was the most vociferous of those berating Nahman.
According to the tale, Zalman’s student Alexander jumped to Nahman’s defence: “Let the man be, for he is always with God.”
The tale vividly describes the tension surrounding hasidic innovations: The excitement at new spiritual practices, coupled with a sense of disregard, perhaps even disdain, for entrenched time-honoured customs. In this sense the tale is a true reflection of the spirit of historical events. The partisan narrative is complete with the ultimate approval for the authentic spiritual path of Hasidism that is recognised as being “always with God.”
Notwithstanding the “truth” of the tale, it contains a number of puzzling details. We have no evidence of Yaakov Yosef of Polonne serving as preacher in any city, nor in any official rabbinic capacity in Zolkiew. Moreover, if this was the synagogue of one of the prime disciples of the Besht, why would the prayer rite favoured by the hasidim be so revolutionary? Also, when the fight broke out why didn’t Yaakov Yosef himself jump into the fray, rather than handing the baton to one of his disciple? It is also strange that Alexander the student of Zalman would publicly oppose his teacher.
These questions were detailed in 1981 by Rabbi Haim Liberman (1892-1991) – the personal secretary of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1880-1950) and the long-time librarian of the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad in New York. Liberman listed this questions as he announced that he had solved the mystery!
The solution was to be found in a Shivhei HaBesht manuscript that reached the Lubavitch Library in summer 1980. Liberman described his excitement: “And first, I peeked inside it at this story and my eyes lit up.”
The manuscript was incomplete and its provenance never revealed, yet Liberman’s enthusiasm stemmed from the fact that the key personality mentioned in this tale is entirely different. Instead of the author of Toledot Yaakov Yosef, it is the author of a work denoted by the initials “T.S.”
Liberman identified this work as Tevuot Shor by Rabbi Alexander Shorr (ca.1673-ca.1773). This work was first published in Zolkiew in 1733 – buttressing the link between the episode and where it happened. Moreover, in the manuscript version Alexander was not Zalman’s student but his teacher. It was therefore entirely appropriate that the teacher should publically correct the impetuous disciple.
Soon after Liberman’s discovery, Professor Avraham Rubinstein (1912-1983) used the manuscript as he prepared what was to be the first scientific edition of Shivhei HaBesht. Rubinstein passed away before he completed his work, though his family saw to it that his annotated Shivhei HaBesht was published in 1991.
In the meantime, Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine (1947-2014) – a Lubavitch hasid who worked at the National Library of Israel – was given a facsimile of the manuscript and in 1982 he reproduced the Lubavitch manuscript in a volume comparing the text with the early printed editions.
In a footnote to his edition, Rubinstein quietly pointed out that we have no evidence that Alexander Shorr ever served in an official capacity as a preacher. This raises the possibility that Liberman’s identification may not have been accurate. Liberman was right to celebrate the discovery of a Shivhei HaBesht manuscript, yet the mystery of the prayer rite tale may still be unsolved.
The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.