Sefer Ha-Heshek

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on March 3, 2016. Click here for a video lecture on the topic.

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Working in the abandoned Judaica collection of the Kiev Vernadsky Library during the immediate post-Soviet period, a brilliant young Jewish historian named Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern discovered a rare 300-year-old manuscript. Ignored by Communist scholars for a century, the well-thumbed, 760-page manuscript, bound in leather with a wooden cover and copper breastplate, was not catalogued in any of the collections of the library. Its unusual Ashkenazic script and numerous drawings of complex Kabbalistic symbols fascinated Petrovsky-Shtern, who was on a personal journey to rediscover his ancestral faith. What was this mysterious, one-of-a-kind book?

After nine years of extensive research that took him to archives around the world, Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern published the answer. Sefer HaCheshek was a rare, secret guide to practical Kabbalah, written when Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of the Chassidic movement, was just beginning to deliver his revolutionary teachings. The author’s name itself sheds light on the significance of the text. Hillel styled himself as a Ba’al Shem, literally Master of the Name [of G‑d], a term used to describe itinerant amulet-makers who typically sold their services to simple Jews seeking Kabbalistic remedies for their problems. Shaman-like, these frequently unlearned and often unscrupulous individuals traveled from shtetl to shtetl, performing exorcisms, treating various ailments, and writing amulets for a wide variety of purposes: health, prosperity, marriage, children. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, by contrast, was known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, the “Good” Master of the Name, because his work was of an entirely different order.

The Sefer HaCheshek contains both extensive instruction in Kabbalistic healing and a surprising degree of autobiographical information. Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern, now a distinguished historian at Northwestern University in Chicago, argues convincingly that the manuscript was written as a type of curriculum vitae, as Hillel wished to end his peripatetic existence and secure a permanent position, preferably in Germany. Sefer HaCheshek was intended as a demonstration of his experience and expertise, having apprenticed to both medical doctors and reputable Kabbalists. Whether or not he received the position—an honor that was bestowed on his contemporary, the Ba’al Shem Tov, in the Ukrainian town of Medzhybizh—is unknown. Nevertheless, Hillel Ba’al Shem’s description of his prior experiences (especially a dramatic exorcism in Ostrah) illustrates the state of popular religious practice in pre-Beshtian Eastern Europe, and provides a vivid backdrop for the emergence of Chassidism.

Why did Chassidism flourish, and the populist, theurgic Kabbalah of Hillel and other ba’aleiShem decline? Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern provides a salient analysis by identifying what was absent in Sefer HaCheshek. Despite its encyclopedic coverage of remedies for every possible physical, psychological, romantic, and economic malady, Hillel Ba’al Shem delivers no message of universal human redemption. Unlike the Ba’al Shem Tov, whose teachings emphasized human potential and the value of community, Hillel relies on magical one-time fixes, not personal spiritual growth. To the crestfallen he offers no counsel; to the bereft, no benefit. The terminology employed in his work is similar—Hillel refers to Kabbalistic disciples as chassidim, for example—but the contrast between the numerous but forgotten Ba’alei Shem and the magnificent Chassidic world founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov could not be more profound.

4 thoughts on “Sefer Ha-Heshek

  1. Very interesting. Having faith in a higher power or G-d to improve and promote physical health has been scientifically quantified by health professionals. A very close friend of mine, who received his Ph.D. In Nursing from San Diego State University, Doctoral dissertation was on the effects of faith in populations with Type 2 Diabetes Melitus. I was honored to be asked by him to provide the Christian perspective of faith in the healing process. The nurses which I had the great pleasure of working with for over 20 years in ICU/CCU at WAMC understood this and we tried to facilitate, respect and honor our patients beliefs in any way that we could.

    Now my question for you is this, was this practice of “writing amulets” small scrolls or were they crafted from some material to create something more akin to a charm? I’ve only read the article and have not had time to watch the entire video.

    Thank you agin for the insightful, informative and entertaining articles and lectures you provide to the public in keeping with your personal Manifesto on Jewish History.

    May G-d bless you and keep you.

    Sincerely,
    Norm

  2. A phD in nursing? well…It is interesting that Judaism does not have too many natural cures built on faith perhaps because i believe it is not allowed to play G-d according to Judaism except if you have a seat in the Israeli parliament. That reminds me of a joke; a jew , a German ,a Frenchman, and an Englishman are all told they have six months to live, the German drinks as many beers, the Frenchman drinks as many bottles of wine, the Englishman gardens and the Jew goes to another doctor for second opinion..

    1. A Ph.D. in Nursing is a research-intensive degree that confers the skills needed to teach and perform some forms of medical research. It can take six to eight years to complete a Ph.D. degree in nursing. My good friend whom I served with is a Muslim. He could explain the role of faith in Islam, but to my great honor asked me to explain the role of faith in Christianity.

      I old him that my teacher taught, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
      28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
      31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matthew 6:25-34 NKJV

      I have devoted the vast majority of my life to easing the suffering of my patients and I still continue to do so. I do not know exactly what the majority of the great Rabbis have taught, but an elderly Jewish lady that I nursed and comforted told me, “I’ll be fine Norrm, I’m going to the lovely garden.” And when I came back in that night she had left this mortal world and I expect to see her in the next age when we can stroll in that garden together.

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