Founder of Hasidism

BookFounder of Hasidism

Founder of Hasidism

A Quest for the Historical Ba'al Shem Tov

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


June 20th, 2013



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The Ba'al Shem Tov is an elusive subject for historians because documentary evidence about his life is scanty and equivocal. Until now, much of what was known about him was based on stories compiled more than a generation after his death, many of which serve more to mythologize him than to describe him. The portrait Moshe Rosman provides is drawn from life instead of from myth. Based on innovative critical analysis of familiar and previously unexplored archival sources, and concentrating on accounts that can be attributed to the Besht or to contemporary eyewitnesses, this book goes further than any previous work in uncovering the historical Ba'al Shem Tov. Additionally, documents in Polish and Hebrew discovered by Professor Rosman during his research for the book enable him to give the first detailed description of the cultural, social, economic, and political context of the Besht's life. Founder of Hasidism supplies the history behind the legend. It presents the best, most convincing description that can be drawn from the existing documentary evidence, changing our understanding of the Besht and with it the master-narrative of hasidism.
A substantial new introduction considers what has changed in the study of Hasidism since the influential first edition was published, these changes being in part due to the effect of the book. New approaches, new sources, and new interpretations have been introduced, and these are reviewed and critically assessed. Criticisms of the original edition are answered and key issues reconsidered, including the authenticity of the various versions of the Holy Epistle; the ways in which Jacob Joseph of Polonne's books can be utilized as historical sources; and the relationship to history of the stories about the Ba'al Shem Tov in the hagiographical collection Shivhei Ha-Besht.

'The only scholarly book, in any language, that deals with the figure of the Besht in a detailed, profound, and very documented manner. Dr Rosman has mapped the background of the life and activity of the Besht, using unknown material, penetrating analysis, and a broader perspective regarding Jewish history in Poland ... A very remarkable achievement.'
- Moshe Idel, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
'The subject is crucial; the approach is bold and brilliantly chosen. The result is a persuasive revision of a fundamental chapter in the Jewish experience.'
- Gershon Hundert, McGill University
'In this quest for the historical Ba'al Shem Tov, Mr Rosman has brilliantly re-created a chapter of this alien world of our ancestors.'
- David Biale, Forward
'A model of sober scholarship that combines detective work and careful reasoning in quest of the man behind centuries of accumulated legends. Thanks to Rosman's careful historical analysis, we can now attach a recognizable biography to Israel ben Eliezer Miedzydoz and situate the man within his times.'
- Jewish Book World
'Rosman's painstakingly lucid investigation of the movement's putative founder ultimately and ironically deepens the movement's mystery ... Rosman's greatest innovation is his use of the kinds of archival materials - tax rolls, land registers, communal ordinances, and the like - usually overlooked by historians of theology. Through careful examination of the extant evidence, and a thorough investigation of the precise contours of the time and place of Besht's life and milieu, he arrives at the surprising, but compelling conclusion that the Besht, rather than being the rebel he is universally thought of, was in fact an established member of this community in Medzhibozh.'
- Jerusalem Report

Author Information

Moshe Rosman is Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He has taught and held fellowships at many universities in Europe and the United States, published several prize-winning books, and received an honorary doctorate and prestigious awards, most recently the Rothschild Prize in Jewish Studies (2020).