Ba'Al Shem

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BA-AL SHEM (Heb. בַּעַל שֵׁם, "Master of the Divine Name"; lit. "Possessor of the Name"), title given in popular usage and in Jewish literature, especially kabbalistic and ḥasidic works, from the Middle Ages onward, to one who possessed the secret knowledge of the Tetragrammaton and the other "Holy Names," and who knew how to work miracles by the power of these names. The designation ba'al shem did not originate with the kabbalists, for it was already known to the last Babylonian geonim. In a responsum, Hai Gaon stated: "They testified that they saw a certain man, one of the well-known ba'alei shem, on the eve of the Sabbath in one place, and that at the same time he was seen in another place, several days' journey distant." It was in this sense that Judah *Halevi criticized the activities of the ba'alei shem (Kuzari, 3:53). In medieval German ḥasidic tradition this title was accorded to several liturgical poets, e.g., Shephatiah and his son Amittai of southern Italy (in *Abraham b. Azriel, Arugat ha-Bosem, 2 (1947), 181). The Spanish kabbalists used the expression ba'alei shemot from the middle of the 13th century onward. Some even said that there were different methods used by the ba'alei sefirot, the theoretical kabbalists, and the ba'alei shemot, the magicians, in their kabbalistic teachings. Isaac b. Jacob *ha-Kohen, Todros ha-Levi Abulafia, and *Moses de Leon all mentioned this tendency among the kabbalists without disapproval, whereas Abraham *Abulafia wrote disparagingly of the ba'alei shem. From the end of the 13th century, the term ba'al shem was also used for writers of amulets based on Holy Names (Oẓar Neḥmad, vol. 2, p. 133). There were large numbers of ba'alei shem, particularly in Germany and Poland, from the 16th century onward. Some were important rabbis and talmudic scholars, such as Elijah *Loans of Frankfurt and Worms, Elijah Ba'al Shem of Chelm, and Sekel Isaac Loeb *Wormser (the ba'al shem of Michelstadt). Others were scholars who devoted themselves entirely to the study of Kabbalah, such as Joel Ba'al Shem of Zamosc and Elhanan "Ba'al ha-Kabbalah" of Vienna (both 17th century), Benjamin Beinisch ha-Kohen of Krotoszyn (beginning of the 18th century), and Samuel Essingen. In the 17th and 18th centuries the number of ba'alei shem who were not at all talmudic scholars increased. But they attracted a following by their real or imaginary powers of healing the sick. Such a ba'al shem was often a combination of practical kabbalist, who performed his cures by means of prayers, amulets, and incantations, and a popular healer familiar with segullot ("remedies") concocted from animal, vegetable, and mineral matter. The literature of that period teems with stories and testimonies about ba'alei shem of this kind, some of which, however, were written in criticism of their characters and deeds. It was generally thought that the ba'alei shem were at their most efficacious in the treatment of mental disorders and in the exorcism of evil spirits (see *Dibbuk). There is a variation to the title ba'al shem, known as "ba'al shem tov." The founder of modern *Ḥasidism, *Israel b. Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov, usually referred to by the initials "Be ShT," is the most famous and practically unique bearer of this title. The title "ba'al shem tov" existed before the Ḥasid, but it did not designate a special quality or a distinction between bearers of this title and ba'alei shem. For example, Elhanan Ba'al Shem Tov, who died in 1651; Benjamin Krotoschin, who so styled himself in his book Shem Tov Katan (Sulzbach, 1706); and Joel Ba'al Shem i, who actually signed himself "Be ShT," in common with the founder of Ḥasidism. In the 18th century, Samuel Jacob Ḥayyim *Falk, the "ba'al shem of London," achieved considerable prominence. He was called "Doctor Falk" by Christians. The theory propounded by several scholars that these wandering ba'alei shem were responsible for spreading Shabbateanism has not been proved. Several books by these ba'alei shem have been published concerning practical Kabbalah, segullot ("remedies"), and refu'ot ("healing"). These include: Toledot Adam (1720) and Mifalot Elohim (1727), edited by Joel Ba'al Shem and based on the works of his grandfather Joel Ba'al Shem i, Shem Tov Katan (1706) and Amtaḥat Binyamin (1716). The deeds of the ba'alei shem became legendary. Fictitious characters of the same type were sometimes invented, such as Adam Ba'al Shem of Binger, the hero of a series of miraculous stories in Yiddish which were printed as early as the 17th century. Ḥasidic legend subsequently created an imaginary connection between this character and Israel Ba'al Shem Tov. The leaders of the Haskalah generally regarded the ba'alei shem as charlatans and adventurers.


N. Prilutski, Zamelbikher far Yidischen Folklor, 2 (1917), 40–42; J. Guenzig, Die "Wundermaenner" im juedischen Volke (1921); B. Segel, in: Globus, 62 (1892); Adler, in: jhset, 5 (1908), 148–73; G. Scholem, in: Zion, 20 (1955), 80. add. bibliography: G. Nigal, in: Sinai, vol. 118 (1996), 88–95; M. Oron, Samuel Falk, The Ba'al Shem of London (Heb., 2002).

[Gershom Scholem]