Home Culture Books & Authors Tracing the power of the Baal Shem Tov

Tracing the power of the Baal Shem Tov

Historical Atlas of Hasidism by Marcin Wodzinski (Princeton University Press)

In his innovative new book, Historical Atlas of Hasidism, Marcin Wodzinski, a professor of Jewish studies in Wroclaw, Poland, shines a probing spotlight on the Baal Shem Tov and the Hasidic movement he sparked.

Although scholarly, Historical Atlas of Hasidism resembles a coffee table book: it is an attractive, oversized volume that’s brimming with illustrations. There are fine portraits of dynastic rabbis and their courts, illustrations and photographs of synagogues and shtiblach and a diverse assortment of colourful maps and schematics. Some of these items are of extremely rare and are breathtaking.

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), who became known as the Baal Shem Tov (or Besht for short), was an itinerant maggid (teacher), who was credited with miraculous healing powers. He was centred in Miedzyboz, in the former Russian province of Podolia, now eastern Galicia in Ukraine. Renowned during his lifetime, he left behind a couple of disciples who continued to popularize his name and his revolutionary outlook on Judaism. (The mitnagdim, a counter-movement opposing Hasidism, also took root in the late 18th century.)

The Besht’s fame grew significantly after the publication of Shivhei ha-Besht, a hagiographical collection of stories and legends about his life and deeds first published in 1814, more than half a century after his death. That epoch saw the rise of great Hasidic rabbinical dynasties throughout Europe, eventually extending to the U.S. and Canada.

One of the first maps in the book uses localities mentioned in Shivhei ha-Besht to illustrate the Baal Shem Tov’s varied travels to towns throughout Galicia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. His many journeys are depicted as supple green arrows radiating in spiderweb fashion from Miedzyboz, some extending as far as Grodno and Istanbul.

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism represents a significant paradigm shift in the historiography of Hasidism, as it shifts the traditional focus away from the charismatic rabbis who headed the Belz, Ger, Bobov and many other dynasties that arose in Galicia, Poland, Hungary and other regions. The book focuses not on the priestly class, but instead on the demotic class: the multitudes of followers living in small towns, their houses of prayer, their pilgrimage routes, their economic life, their dispersion.

By the 19th century, pilgrims would crowd the courts of famous tzadikim in Opatow, Warka, Kock, Ger, Belz, Sadagura and scores of other towns. Many presented gifts of money, called pinyon ha-nefesh, to the tzadik’s coterie, along with a written kvitl (request) for help with a pressing personal problem, often involving “issues of health, sources of income, a good marriage for one’s children, military service or the education of their sons.”

Because they typically identify the petitioner’s place of origin, Wodinski studied a unique collection of 7,000 kvitlach from the court of Rabbi Eliyahu Gutmacher of Grodzisk Wielkopolski. They date from 1847 and are held by the YIVO Institute in New York. Putting the information into a database allowed Wodzinski and his cartographer to map out the sources of the petitions. The result offers a means to understand the wide sphere of influence of a single tzadik: some pilgrims came or mailed requests from as far as 650 kilometres away.


To gain fresh evidence on a much-studied phenomenon, the author unearthed many other original sources of data, including records pertaining to more than 130,000 Hasidic households in 1,200 localities on six continents. “The atlas clearly demonstrates that rich and valuable historical resources still exist and, with the advent of digital humanities, might be easily available for research,” he writes.

The nine chapters chart a timeline from the 1700s to the present. They deal with the emergence of Hasidism, its expansion, the rise of the dynasties, its architectural manifestations in courts, synagogues and shtiblach, its transplantation to the New World, its devastation in the Holocaust and rebirth in the modern age. It also details the various sites of mass pilgrimage that continue to draw Jews today.

Although accessible visually at a glance, many of the accompanying maps are dense with detail and need to be studied carefully to be understood. This is not so for some of the photographs and illustrations, which evoke an aura of simple Old World piety that tugs instantly at the heart.

One remarkable photo, spread largely over two pages, shows the interior of the Besht’s beit midrash in Miedzyboz, as it was photographed by S. Ansky’s famed ethnographic expedition shortly before 1914. Regarding a photo of a magnificent Hasidic synagogue in Sadagura, Wodzinski observes that it “consciously imitated the style of noble manors.” Equally powerful is another Ansky photo of the old, partly destroyed Husiatyn synagogue on a landscape devastated by war. It was “one of the loveliest and most splendid in Galicia,” Ansky wrote at the time. “When I saw it in ruins, without doors or windows, its regal magnificence nonetheless stood out against its surroundings.”

There are many portraits of rabbis, including Rabbi Yudel Y. Rosenberg, the sage and author who lived in Toronto and Montreal. No photo or image exists of the Baal Shem Tov, but the Historical Atlas of Hasidism reproduces a copy of his signature, as well as a page from the Miedzboz tax register of 1758, showing him listed as “Balsam,” along with his son-in-law, stepson and a disciple.

A drawing of a pilgrimage scene from a century ago shows masses of people crowded amongst gravestones in a cemetery for the yahrzeit of three tzadikim.

Lest you think such hagiographic imagery is a throwback to a more romantic or superstitious time, leaf ahead a few pages to the map pinpointing dozens of Hasidic pilgrimage sites in Europe in 2016. Apparently, the grave site of Nahman of Bratslav in Uman, Ukraine, still attracts upwards of 50,000 pilgrims each year on Rosh Hashanah. Clearly, there’s something about the spark the Baal Shem Tov ignited that still has the power to set souls on fire.

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