Zoref, Joshua Heshel ben Joseph

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ZOREF, JOSHUA HESHEL BEN JOSEPH (1633–1700), Shabbatean prophet; the most important figure of the Shabbatean movement in Lithuania. Born in Vilna, he was a silversmith with a modest Jewish education who early inclined to an ascetic way of life. During the persecutions in the wake of the Polish-Swedish War he took refuge, around 1656, in Amsterdam, but returned later to Vilna where he started the study of moral and mystical writings, but remained without talmudic learning. During the messianic upheaval of 1666 he had visions which many compared with those of Ezekiel. He became the outstanding spokesman of the believers in *Shabbetai Ẓevi and persisted in his belief throughout his life. He continued his strictly ascetic behavior, and during several years was said to have never left his home except for the synagogue or the ritual bath. Shortly after 1666 he started to put down the revelations he received in five books, intended to correspond to the books of the Pentateuch. He assembled around him a circle of fervent followers who considered him an oracle, and played in this group a role very similar to that of the later ḥasidic ẓaddikim. Stories told about him already have a noticeably "ḥasidic" flavor. He used to make pronouncements not only about the messianic developments and the related mysteries but also concerning political events of his time, such as are recorded by Ẓevi Hirsch *Koidonover in Kav ha-Yashar (ch. 12: 1705). People flocked to Ẓoref from all over Poland to ask his advice or to strengthen their Shabbatean faith, He considered himself the Messiah ben Joseph, and Shabbetai Ẓevi the true Messiah, and saw his own role as revealer of the secrets of redemption between the first and the second coming of the Messiah. His written revelations center around the esoteric meanings of the Shema Yisrael and by the time of his death were said to have covered about 5,000 pages. Those parts which have survived show clearly that the book was completely built upon elaborate numerological speculations following the Megalleh Amukkot of Nathan Nata b. Solomon Spiro (*Spira). These speculations are essentially founded on the gematriot of Shabbetai Ẓevi and his own name Joshua (Yehoshua) Heshel (814 and 906), frequently alluding to the year 1666 (in gematria 426) as the beginning of redemption. Although the Shabbatean character of Ẓoref's revelations is clear, he did not divulge his faith except to the members of his intimate circle who had to take a formal vow to show discretion and dissimulation before unbelievers. He maintained, directly or through his confidants, a lively correspondence with Shabbateans in Italy and Turkey. A letter written by the Shabbatean leader Ḥayyim *Malakh in 1696, after some visits to Heshel Ẓoref, acknowledges his extreme ingenuity with numbers but expresses great reservations as to his kabbalistic initiation and his psychic powers. During the last years of his life, Ẓoref transferred to Cracow where he married (a second marriage?) the daughter of Jacob Eleazar Fischhof, one of the protectors of the ḥasidic group of *Judah Ḥasid and Ḥayyim Malakh. When this group prepared to journey to Jerusalem, Ẓoref participated in a meeting of its Shabbatean leaders in Nikolsburg toward the end of 1699. Ẓoref died in Cracow. His manuscripts were scattered. Some parts of the collection of his revelations, Sefer ha-Ẓoref, came into the hands of the kabbalist Nathan b. Levi, a member of the Klaus of *Brody who hid them; however, another part, including his writings from his last years, found its way to *Israel b. Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Ḥasidism, who held these writings in high veneration without seemingly having been aware of their Shabbatean character. He frequently spoke in their praise, and the tradition of his pupils identified them with those of the mythical rabbi *Adam Ba'al Shem which his son was said to have given to the Ba'al Shem. Adam Ba'al Shem, a legendary figure of the 16th century, and Heshel Ẓoref in the generation preceding that of the Ba'al Shem, coalesced into one figure. Toward the end of his life the Ba'al Shem ordered a copy of the Sefer ha-Ẓoref to be made, but this order was executed only more than 20 years after his death. Copies of these copies have been preserved among the descendants of the ḥasidic rabbis Nahum of *Chernobyl and *Levi Isaac of Berdichev. An attempt by the latter to have the book printed in Zholkva was foiled by Ephraim Zalman Margulies of Brody who recognized its Shabbatean character.


G. Scholem, in: rhr, 143 (1953), 67–80; idem, Kitvei Yad be-Kabbalah (1930), 157f., 161f., 239f.; idem, in: Zion, 6 (1941), 89–93; 11 (1946), 170–2; W.Z. Rabinowitsch, ibid., 5 (1940), 126–32;6 (1941), 80–84; Ch. Shmeruk, ibid., 28 (1963), 86–105; A. Freimann, Inyenei Shabbetai Ẓevi (1912), 99–103.

[Gershom Scholem]