The hassidic movement was inspired by the Besht – Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov (ca. 1700-1760). And yet, the Besht did not bequeath a volume of his thoughts; his ideas come to us, perforce, secondhand.
Indeed, apart from a few scattered writings, many of which are of dubious provenance, the Besht’s legacy rests on oral tradition. His philosophical teachings were only recorded after his death.
Even the exciting stories of his escapades published in Shivhei Habesht (In Praise of the Besht) only appeared in print in 1814 – 54 years after his death! We can only wonder whether in 1814 there were many people who could testify that they had seen the Besht with their own eyes, and witnessed his exploits as described in this collection of tales.… This is most frustrating for people who yearn to know more about this seminal figure, whose legacy continues to animate and inspire.
Why didn’t the Besht bequeath a tome to posterity? Perhaps he saw his ideas as innovations within existing Jewish tradition, rather than a break with tradition that necessitated a new canonical text. Certainly, a new movement may require new texts, but in the case of the Besht there is no contemporary evidence to suggest that he had actually founded a new movement.
Alternatively, the Besht may have felt that his primary contribution was not via the written word, but by means of his oral teachings and interactions with people. It is also possible that he simply did not have the opportunity to write a book. The publishing enterprise takes time, energy, and funding – commodities that are often scarce.
Two tales in Shivhei Habesht offer a hint as to why the Besht may not have left us with a treatise presenting his ideas. One story has the great rabbi telling his stepfather’s son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Ashkenazi, to read Ein Ya’acov – a 15th-century compilation of all the aggadic material in the Talmud – before him. According to Shivhei Habesht, “He,” referring to the Besht, “lay on his bed and listened to Ein Ya’acov.”
Tellingly, the Besht is not depicted as learning the text, nor is he even described as reading it himself; rather, he is portrayed as listening to the recitation of the Ein Ya’acov. In the Yiddish version of Shivhei Habesht, this interaction is cast as a regular practice of the Besht that occurred particularly on Saturday nights, and was not a one-time occurrence. The Besht appears in this tale to prefer the auditory experience over delving into a written text.
The second tale in Shivhei Habesht goes further, by demonizing the notion of a book: “One time, a person transcribed the teachings of the Besht as he heard them from him. And once, the Besht saw a demon walking by with a book in his hand. The Besht said to him: ‘What is this book that is in your hand which you are walking around with?’ “[The demon] responded: ‘This is the book that you authored.’ “Then the Besht understood that there was a person who was transcribing his teachings. And he gathered all his people together and asked them: ‘Who among you is writing my teachings?’ “The particular person admitted it, and brought his notes to [the Besht].
And the Besht read them, and said: ‘There is not even one comment of mine here!’” This tale highlights the problematic nature of transcribing oral teachings, particularly when the writer is not the teacher. Thus, the Besht may have favored an oral tradition over a culture of books.
To be sure, the pitfalls of printing were not a phenomenon unique to the 18th century. Scribal errors date back to the beginning of writing. The advent of the printing press may have helped avoid some mistakes, but the human factor in publishing still guaranteed the possibility of errors. Reading the two tales together suggests that collective memory about the Besht was not just that he was concerned about printing errors. The Besht, it appears, promoted a culture of oral interaction and transmission, rather than reliance on books.
Of course, any idea that appears in Shivhei Habesht needs to be considered carefully: Do these tales accurately reflect his thoughts, or are we reading ideas of the early 19th-century storytellers, editors and publishers? Whatever the reason, the fact remains: The Besht did not write a book. Indeed, it would only be in 1780 – 20 years after the Besht died – that one of his disciples would publish a volume with his master’s teachings.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah and a post-doctoral fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law.