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Both the practical Kabbalah and its practitioners, the Ba'alei Shem (Tov) (Masters of the [Good] Name), have been causes of dissension, debate, and controversy as long as they've existed. There has always been a faction, sometimes large, sometimes small, which looked on the practical Kabbalist's actions as distasteful, dangerous, and even heretical. Since there were also a number of charlatans and false messiahs who preyed on people's ignorance and emotions, there was also a healthy dose of distrust of the Ba'al Shemat least in the minds of the more purist rabbinical leaders. In many places and times efforts were made to forbid practical Kabbalah altogether.
The term "Ba'al Shem" first appears in the writings of Genoic-era (500-1100 AD) Babylonian Jews, in a negative connotation. Hai Gaon (939-1038), a leader of Babylonian Jewry, strongly denounced them, writing off their wondrous activities as "nonsense". Rabbi Judah ha-Levi (c. 1150-1217) suggested they were misguided, believing that when a "prophet" spoke and something came of it, "they thought that this speaking [meaning, the words uttered] was the cause of this wonder." Maimonides (1135-1204) not only opposed Ba'alei Shem, but the use of Divine Names in any activity.
Even those masters who studied Kabbalah (practical or theoretical) were known to express their reservations. "Indeed it is worthwhile to study these matters for the sake of knowing the power and dynamics of the creator of the world," one anonymous author wrote, "but not in order to do [them]. You shall study them in order to comprehend and teach." (from The Secret Name of 42 Letters. Translation: Moshe Idel.)
Rabbi Judah he-Hasid (1150-1217) advised that mystical books containing Divine Names were to be hidden from sudents, lest they study it without supervision and "incur punishment." He also commented that anyonewho "conjures" angels or demons, interprets dreams, or invoke the Divine Name to accomplish something would come to a bad end.
Although Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla (13th century) wrote an entire book on the mystical properties and uses of the Hebrew language and Names of God called Garden of the Walnut, he later changed his position, warning against that route of study in a later, theoretic work, Gates of Light.
European Jews of the medieval period, however, displayed a more favorable attitude toward them, and preserved numerous stories of both real and fictitious Ba'alei Shem.
The mainline, conservative rabbinical view is reflected in the character of Rabbi Benish Askenazi, one of the protagonists in Isaac Bashevis Singer's Satan in Goray, which is set in the late 17th century. He strongly opposes the study of Kabbalah by young men, and does not tolerate practical Kabbalah at all:
Ruth R. Wise, commenting on the novel, suggests that the rabbi is a symbolic authority for Ashkenazic Jewrythat is, Jews west of the Iberian peninsula"stand[ing] firmly in this rational tradition of legal authority and political conservatism." (p. xxxi) Taking her view a step further, "Ashkenazi" originally meant simply "of Germany", a country which, along with others in Western Europe in more recent centuries, was more likely to be intolerant of practical Kabbalah than those of Eastern Europe.
Despite the varying opinions and controversies, the Ba'al Shem Tov or any practical Kabbalist is meant to be a profoundly good presence. It takes someone very special to be a Ba'al Shem Tov. He must first be pious, unwavering in faith and character. He is likely a scholar of one sort or another. He must have access to hidden knowledges. He most likely is skilled in meditation and self-discipline. He also must use and handle the Names of God with utmost care and respect, as if they were volatile chemicals. One mistake in their use could spell disaster.
The practical Kabbalist must never abuse his power or use it for personal gain. Practical Kabbalah should only be used for good, and in emergencies. (Though what constituted "good" and "emergency" varied by time and place, and what procedures were considered acceptable also varied.)
The Ba'al Shem Tov had to be prepared for adversity. He had to be impervious to threats, ridicule, and disbelief, often from his own people due to the bad reputation sometimes attached to the title. In centuries past, he sometimes had to be ready to face charges of witchcraftor flee for his life. In some stories he is portrayed as risking his life to take a stand and defend the community against attack or reprisals. While some were well-established in a community, many are portrayed as wanderers, with no real home, at least for some portion of their lives. He might have traveled at a time when highwaymen were plentiful and the locals had a low tolerance of Jews in general, less for one who couldn't be accounted for. In addition, some of the work itself was dangerous, and could result in physical and mental harm, or even death.
It is no surprise, then, that some of these wonder-workers seem to have been viewed as mild eccentrics. Perhaps it was the way they dressed, or how they said their prayers, or the uncanny way they seemed to come and go without warning, they way they seemed to know and see things from afar, an odd personality trait, strange meditative practices, etc. A number of them were young prodigies?or oddly (at least apparently) late bloomers.
What would compel someone to take on this somewhat controversial and risky lifestyle? In the worst scenarios, it's the lure of power or greed. Men who followed this path were dangerous, and typically ended up getting what they deserved in the end (at least if you believe the folklore and other accounts which claim to be factual reports).
The true Ba'al Shem had the desire to do good coupled with a deeply spiritual nature, with a dash of activist thrown in. It has been suggested, particularly in Elliot R. Wolfson's essay "Walking as a Sacred Duty" (found in his book Along the Path), that his wandering was a spiritual quest, or even an obligation. The wanderer "uplifts the sparks" of his own soul through his experiences, turning the fallen holy and elevating the spiritual status of those he meets through his actions. He also might "accompany" or embody the Shekhina, God's Presence among the Jews in exile.>
The most enlightened spiritual leaders, Kabbalists or not, are sometimes called Tzaddikim, which means "righteous men". Tzaddik is also found translated as "saint" in many books, though obviously not in the Christian sense. It was his job to set the best example, to spiritually guide people, to act in their interests, to "uplift" the mundane world to a divine level, and to try to achieve an ideal state of life suitable for the coming of the Messiah.
A man called a Tzaddik by his community often commanded respect and influence, and may have been held in a sort of awe by the people around him. It is not surprising, then, that many stories exist concerning Tzaddikim who save the innocent by means of their almost superhuman virtue.
The concepts of Tzaddikim and Ba'alei Shem Tov sometimes overlap in their activities and attributes, and in their tendency to travel. A Tzaddik need not be a practical Kabbalist (or a Kabbalist at all), though it's more likely a Ba'al Shemat least a true oneis a Tzaddik. By this same token, being a rabbi and/or a Kabbalist does not mean that one is a Tzaddik. It is a title for the truly exceptional.
One theme which occurs periodically is the idea of the secret tzaddik, a wondrously righteous man who gives no outward clue as to his capabilities. This is not to be confused with a simply humble Ba'al Shem Tov. Sometimes these people are the most powerful, only revealing themselves in a time of great need, often vanishing once their duty has been done. Such a figure is found in literature in the strangely knowing and subtly powerful character of Schemajah Hillel in Gustav Meyrink's The Golem, who is not a rabbi or leader, but the Jews' registrar in Prague.
A related variant of interest is that of the lamed-vovnick: "One of the Thirty-Six". (The letters lamed and vov represent that number.) There arose from a figure of speech in the Talmud the legend that there are thirty-six righteous souls in every generation upon whom the world rests. They are also called "hidden saints", as they operate very discreetly. Sometimes a lamed-vovnick will disguise his righteousness in boorishness, poverty, modesty, and even apparent stupidity, so as to divert attention from his true identity. If he's found out, he'll deny it all, move to another community where he's unknown, and continue to quietly work for the good of all.
Although Ba'alei Shem are mentioned in fairly early literature, stories and records of individuals (real and fictitious) seem to be more common from the 11th century on. A book from this period, originally called Sefer Yuhasin and known today as Megilat Ahimaaz (The Scroll of Ahimaaz, after its author), details the lives of a number of Ba'alei Shem active in Italy in the 10th and 11th centuries. These include Abu Aharon, who used a Divine Name of God to force a lion to turn a mill; Ahima'az the Elder, who temporarily resurrected a young man by slipping a parchment with a Divine Name on it under the skin of his arm; and Rabbi Shephatia, who exorcised a demon from the daughter of Emperor Basil the Wicked, and also used Names to travel faster than humanly possible to get to his destination before the Sabbath using a technique called Kefitzat ha-Derekh, "The Shortening of the Way".
In the Maaseh Bukh (1763), Rabbi Judah he-Hasid (who lived c. 1150-1217, and is actually never explicitly called "Ba'al Shem"), is said to use Names to locate thieves, revive the dead, use amulets, and travel by means of Kefitzat ha-Derekh. This is somewhat interesting, considering that in Rabbi Judah's own book Sefer Hasidim (The Book of the Pious), he is against the use of amulets and advises extreme caution (though is not totally against) the use of the Divine Names.
In the book Maaseh Nissim (1696), Rabbis Leizer and Reuven of Worms use Divine Names to produce a man from a jug and put him back again; Leizer also knew how to trap demons in bottles and make them reveal information to him, particularly the identification and location of criminals. From this period we also encounter Adam BA'al Shem of Bingen, a ficticious hero of Yiddish stories.
Some Ba'alei Shem were important rabbis and talmudic scholars, such as Elija Loans of Frankfurt and Worms, Elija Ba'al Shem of Chelm, and Sekel Wormser of Michelstadt. Others who bore the title were scholars who devoted themselves to the Kabbalah, such as Joel Ba'al Shem of Zamosc, Benjamin Beinisch ha-Kohen of Krotoszyn, Samuel Essigen, and Samuel Falk, the "Ba'al Shem of London". All of these men were active in the 16th to 18th centuries. Some had the personality of a wandering wonder-worker, while others are described as community rabbi-leaders who made occasional forays into the practical Kabbalah.
Rabbi Naphtali Katz of Poznan (d. 1718) had a deer head mounted on the wall which had Holy Names hidden inside of it, and because of this there were never any fires on his street; he had a ring engraved with Names, probably for use in exorcisms; it is said he once resurrected a dead man, saved a groom from the forces of evil, and won a battle with a sorcerer. His German contemporary, Rabbi Ephraim Reischer, was known for exorcising evil spirits from people and places.
Later in the 18th century, we encounter two men whose reputations are mixed. The first is Rabbi Samuel Essigen, who by some accounts is a miraculous healer and exorcist, but by others is a showman and a quack who accidentally caused the death of a young woman while attempting to drive a demon out of her. The other is Rabbi Eybenschuetz, a popular leader and amulet-writer who made a dead man indicate a liar in a dispute and caused the arm of a man trying to shoot him to be paralyzed. He also was said to be able to cure infertility, read other people's thoughts, cause sins to appear written on the sinner's forehead, and identify people's past incarnations. He also practiced physiognomy. However, it is also related of him that he made a calculated effort in promoting stories about himself, was evasive in answering questions about events he described in printed material, and that a servant whom he treated rudely later claimed he had helped Eybenschuetz fake a haunting.
Following this somewhat dubious pair is the more respectable Rabbi Hayyim Azulai, also known as Hida (1724-1807). Active in northern Africa and Israel, he was a charismatic spokesperson who collected donations for yeshivot, (Jewish religious study schools) and was a founding member of the Jerusalem yeshiva Bet El. His travels and status granted him access to numerous libraries, and he even owned several manuscripts written by the great Kabbalist Isaac Luria. With the help of these resources eventually became an expert in the study of Kabbalah. He himself wrote treatises on Kabbalah, prayer, Names of God, angels, and the use of amulets. His exceptional knowledge made him friends among both Christian and Jewish scientists, philosophers, and royalty. Hida made a living by writing and selling amulets, which were greatly valued; after his death his signature was regarded as an amulet and the people of Tunis swore oaths on his name as late as 1912. Despite his immense popularity, Hida lived a fairly humble life, and his sincerity helped repair the bad reputation which had attached itself to the practice of amulet-writing.
The most famous man to bear the title Ba'al Shem Tov was Israel ben Eliezar Ba'al Shem Tov, or "the BeShT" (1698-1760), the founder of modern Hasidism. An orphan who worked various jobs, he appeared to have little interest in scholarship, and often came across as a solitary dreamer. The truth, however, was that he was wise beyond his years, and spiritually very gifted, but as a result of a decree from heaven, could not reveal his true nature or his capabilities until the age of thirty-six. There are, however, a body of stories which tell of episodes from his youth in which he discreetly "saved the day".
We encounter another figure, this time fictitious, in modern literature. Although never explicitly called a Ba'al Shem Tov, the character of Reb Gedalia the ritual slaughterer in Singer's Satan in Goray is a particular example of the negative variety, and Singer portrays him with plenty of distaste. Like a traveling evangelist, he comes to the town of Goray, shining with health and optimism, singing the praises of a wondrous man soon to be revealed as a false messiah, Shebbetai Zevi. The hopeless people in town are quite taken by him. But Gedaliah has gone astray. He is not a deliberate con artist; rather, he has wrongly put his faith in and performs his wonders in the name (and supposedly power) of Zevi, whom history generally regards as a very human, deluded heretic. Under the sway of darker powers, Gedaliah gradually reveals himself to be straying farther from goodness, and eventually finds himself in over his head.
Although a number of authors, including Scholem, Trachtenberg, and Schwartz, discuss or relate stories of Ba'alei Shem and wonderworkers, Gedalyah Nigal dedicates a very thorough chapter to the portrayal and actions of the Ba'alei Shem in literature in his book Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism. Many of the people mentioned in this section are discussed at length by Nigal.