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Ba‘ale Shem

Literally, “masters of [God’s] name” (sg., ba‘al shem); alternatively, ba‘ale shem tov, or “masters of good name.” The terms, which are often interchangeable, signify the ability to manipulate “holy” names, including both the name of God and those of angels, along with the names of Satan and evil spirits, in order to obtain practical results. Anthropologically similar to shamans, ba‘ale shem mediated between empirical reality and divine realms, between this world and the netherworld, and between spirits and living beings, employing both Lurianic and popular Kabbalah, magical remedies and mystical devices, local herbal folk remedies, amulets (Heb., kemi‘im; sg., kame‘a), and contemporary medical recipes to restore social order or provide personal security.

Jews and gentiles from all walks of life, including the wealthiest Polish magnates, turned to ba‘ale shem to cure illness, infertility, and sexual disorder; to prevent nocturnal emissions; to enable childbirth; to control epidemics and protect a person or personal habitat from disasters such as murder, fire, robbery, or the “evil eye”; to predict the future, reveal suppressed desires, and interpret dreams; or to treat depression and exorcise evil spirits (dybbuks). Though ba‘ale shem share many features and practices with shamanic figures in various cultures and cults, they are distinguished by the specific use of practical kabbalistic devices that originated as magical manipulations of mystically understood Judaic rites or Hebrew letters.

The phenomenon of wonder workers similar to ba‘ale shem stems from pre-Talmudic times; the term itself was used with derogatory connotations in the period of the Babylonian geonim (ninth–tenth centuries). European Jews associated ba‘ale shem with the Ḥaside Ashkenaz, the highly esteemed mystic-minded pietists of the twelfth to thirteenth centuries; yet the spread of Kabbalah in the seventeenth century led to new developments. Contemporary witnesses such as Pinḥas Katzenellenbogen testify to the enormous popularity of the ba‘ale shem among various strata of European Jews, and to their magical knowledge. While pietists such as Yesha‘yahu Horowitz rearticulated everyday Jewish practices along the lines of Lurianic Kabbalah, ba‘ale shem cast Jewish worldview and Jewish self-perception in a kabbalistic mold. Among those who acted as ba‘ale shem were prominent communal leaders including Yonatan Eybeschütz, Seckel Wormser from Michelstadt, Eliyahu of Chełm, and Hirsh Frankel of Ansbach; reputed preachers such as Ya‘akov Pesaḥ ben Yitsḥak of Żółkiew; community-sponsored mystics and healers including Yisra’el ben Eli‘ezer of Mezhbizh (Międzyboż; known as the Ba‘al Shem Tov or Besht); self-employed sedentary healers including Yo’el Heilperin of Zamość; and itinerant kabbalists such as Binyamin Benish ha-Kohen of Krotoszyn. Sedentary ba‘ale shem, such as Efrayim Reisher, a judge in Rzeszów, or Yo’el Heilperin of Zamość, called themselves indiscriminately ba‘al shem or ba‘al shem tov, but the itinerant ba‘ale shem apparently did not add tov (“good”) to their name.

In the 1700s, the Żółkiew printing press, then the only printing press in Eastern Europe, did its best to foster the spread of books of practical Kabbalah. To market their services, expand their clientele, and foster their reputations, ba‘ale shem composed and published for popular consumption books of segulot ve-refu’ot (magical amulets and healing remedies), digests of practical Kabbalah—such as Toldot Adam by Yo’el Heilperin (1720), Zevaḥ Pesaḥ by Ya‘akov Pesaḥ (1722), and Shem tov katan by Binyamin Beinish (1706)—that enjoyed substantial commercial success. Heilperin boasted that there was no town in Poland that did not have in its possession Toldot Adam. Yet some books, such as Sefer ha-ḥeshek, a 700-page vade mecum written in about 1740 by the itinerant Hillel Ba‘al Shem, remained in manuscript and were rediscovered only in the 1990s.

The growth in the number of ba‘ale shem between the 1680s and 1750s in eastern Poland coincided with the attempts of East European communities to fight the spread of crypto-Sabbatian heresy. Although some ba‘ale shem, such as Mosheh David of Podhajce and Mordekhai Ashkenazi of Żółkiew, most likely were crypto-Sabbatians, others, among them Ya‘akov Pesaḥ ben Yitsḥak, fought Sabbatianism. Ya‘akov Emden made consistent attempts to treat ba‘ale shem as Sabbatians, but Jewish communal leaders held ba‘ale shem in high esteem and invoked their assistance. Yo’el Ba‘al Shem, for example, was commissioned to help the Poznań Jewish community expel evil spirits from the house of a Jewish town dweller, while Hillel Ba‘al Shem was asked to exorcise a dybbuk from the Ostróg Jewish community. In other cases, the failure of a ba‘al shem to cope with a difficult case led to accusations against, and persecutions of, ba‘ale shem. Successful ba‘ale shem, on the other hand (such as the Besht), enjoyed upward mobility.

East European ba‘ale shem practiced and preached ascetic conduct characteristic of the East European kabbalistic-minded and pious pneumatics (pre-Beshtian Hasidim), whose behavioral patterns were modeled on those of medieval Jewish pietists (Ḥaside Ashkenaz). Hillel Ba‘al Shem and Yo’el Heilperin argued for abstinence from physical pleasures, while others practiced regular ritual ablutions, prolonged fasting, and voluntary “exile” from their native communities, without which they thought it was impossible to prepare an effective amulet. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Besht—a practicing kabbalist, mystic, magician, and healer—strongly argued against rigorous asceticism. Practical Kabbalah books written or used by ba‘ale shem survived the rise of the mid-eighteenth-century antiascetic Hasidism of the Besht and became part of Jewish popular culture—especially Razi’el ha-malakh (1701), Toldot Adam (1720), and Mif‘alot Elokim (1725). These books were frequently reprinted.

By the end of the eighteenth century, however, tsadikim, who were new leaders of the rising revivalist Hasidic movement, replaced ba‘ale shem as communal shamans and magicians, while feldshers (paramedics) came to replace them as healers. In the nineteenth century, ba‘ale shem as a cultural phenomenon gradually disappeared from Eastern Europe or degenerated into rural charlatans.

Suggested Reading

Immanuel Etkes, The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, trans. Saadya Shternberg (Waltham, Mass., and Hanover, N.H., 2005); Karl E. Groezinger, “Tsadik and Ba’al Shem in East European Hasidism,” Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry 15 (2002): 159–168; Mosheh Hilel, Ba‘ale Shem (Jerusalem, 1992/93); Gedalyah Nigal, Magic, Mysticism and Hasidism: The Supernatural in Jewish Thought, trans. Edward Levin (Northvale, N.J., 1994); Michal Oron, Mi-‘Ba‘al-Shed’ le-‘Ba‘al-Shem’: Shemu’el Falk, ha-Ba‘al Shem mi-London (Jerusalem, 2002); Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Master of an Evil Name: Hillel Ba’al Shem and His Sefer ha-Heshek,Association of Jewish Studies Review 28.2 (2004): 217–248.