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Tsoref, Yehoshu‘a Heshel ben Yosef

(Heshel Tsoref; 1633–ca. 1700), Sabbatian prophet. Yehoshu‘a Heshel Tsoref was born in Vilna and had little formal education, earning his living as a silversmith. During the Polish–Swedish war, he sought refuge in Amsterdam, where he learned of the advent of Shabetai Tsevi. After returning to Vilna in 1666, Tsoref became the most important personality of the Sabbatian movement in Lithuania; he particularly advocated urgent ascetic acts of penance. In contrast to other Sabbatian leaders, Tsoref’s claim to leadership was based not on personal learning or the development of novel theological doctrines, but on his personal charisma as expressed in prophecy. He had a number of visions, and was known to impart profound interpretations of the Torah despite his lack of rabbinic learning.

A group of followers assembled around Tsoref, and stories concerning his miracles started to circulate. He related numerous prophecies, many of which related to political events and developments. He also maintained a lively correspondence with Sabbatians in Italy and the Ottoman Empire. After the death of Shabetai Tsevi, Tsoref put forward his own messianic claim, maintaining that he was the messiah of the House of Joseph, whose task was to prepare the ground for Shabetai’s second coming.

In late 1698 or early 1699, Tsoref participated in the Sabbatian council in Nikolsburg (Mikulov) and became a supporter of the ḥavurah kedoshah (“holy society”) of Yehudah Ḥasid. Heshel did not take part in the journey to the Land of Israel; instead, he moved to Kraków, where he is said to have married the daughter of Ya‘akov Eli‘ezer Fischhof, a partisan of Yehudah Ḥasid.

Tsoref was a prolific writer, and his manuscript corpus is said to number many thousands of pages. Most of his works have been lost, but some were collected in a volume known as Sefer ha-Tsoref. The book was known to the members of the kloyz of Brody as well as to some Hasidic leaders, including Mordekhai of Chernobil, Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev, and Aharon (the second) of Karlin. According to an anti-Hasidic document, Levi Yitsḥak attempted to have the book printed; the attempt, however, was thwarted by Efrayim Zalman Margoliot of Brody, who recognized its Sabbatian character. Copies were preserved in the courts of several tsadikim—who were, however, completely unaware of its Sabbatian nature. The text was reportedly also known to the Ba‘al Shem Tov, who ordered it to be copied by his disciple Shabetai of Raszków. The parts of the book that survived and are available to scholars are based entirely on an elaboration of gimatriyot—numerological calculations—surrounding the verse “Shema‘ Yisra’el” (Hear O Israel; Deut. 6:4).

The historian and scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem identified Tsoref with Adam Ba‘al Shem, the mythical teacher of Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem Tov. This theory has been rejected, however, largely because similar stories about Adam Ba‘al Shem circulated in the Czech and German lands from the sixteenth century.

Suggested Reading

Gershom Scholem, “Le mouvement sabbataïste en Pologne,” Revue de l’histoire des religions 143 (1953): 30–90, 209–232; 144 (1953): 42–77, also in Hebrew in Meḥkarim u-mekorot le-toldot ha-shabta’ut ve-gilguleha (Jerusalem, 1947); Chone Shmeruk, Sifrut yidish be-Polin (Jerusalem, 1981), pp. 119–146.