Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The inventor of the Segulah Ring, Reb Yoel Baal Shem Tov

A different segulah ring
As mentioned in the advertisement from current producer of the segulah ring, this segulah stems from Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem Tov , {see comment section for the reason for the strikethrough} zatzal. (Admittedly, they also bring the sefer Kav Hayosher and the Chida in Avodas Hakodesh as support. See Yeranen Yaakov's extensive writeup of this, pro and con.)

But who is this? Most people hear 'Baal Shem Tov' and think that this is the famous Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov. But several other people took that title, and are in no way related to him. This is Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem Tov.

A Baal Shem was a practical kabbalistic magician. And even if you believe that some of them were the real deal, that does not mean that some of them were not charlatans. After all, look around today, and see how many people are putting themselves out as miracle workers or kabbalist magicians, and yet are charlatans. And people were less educated, and 'Westernized', back then, and fell for these fakers, just as people fall for kabbalistic con-men today.

So some people will look at the segulah ring and dismiss it as nonsense and a modern way of parting people with their money. But two other approaches are: (a) it is the real deal, with well-meaning people behind it, just as it was back then, or (b) it is a con, but it was a con back then as well!

This is from Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem of Zamosc, according to Kav Hayashar. There were actually two men named Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem, and I don't know which one is being referred to.

There is the earlier one, Baal Shem I, with the following biography in Jewish Encyclopedia:
HEILPRIN, JOEL BEN ISAAC:   (print this article)   

By : Gotthard Deutsch   S. Mannheimer

Polish Ḥasidic rabbi; lived at Ostrog in the middle of the seventeenth century. He was known as "Ba'al Shem I.," and, owing to his Talmudic and cabalistic learning, enjoyed a great reputation among his contemporaries, who called him "a man of God." In the cabalistic "Toledot Adam" (Zolkiev, 1720) it is recorded that in 1648 he miraculously saved some Jews who, pursued by enemies, had taken refuge in a ship. Some of his writings were printed in the cabalistic "Mif'alot Elohim" (Zolkiev, 1724). See Ba'al Shem.

And there is the second one, here:
HEILPRIN, JOEL BEN URI   (print this article)   

By : Joseph Jacobs   Isaac Broydé

Galician thaumaturge; lived at Satanow in the first half of the eighteenth century. Possessed of a fair knowledge of medicine and physics, he pretended to effect cures and perform miracles by means of the Cabala and the Holy Name. In 1720 he published anonymously a work entitled "Toledot Adam," describing various remedies attributed to prominent cabalists. The preface of the work constitutes a continuous panegyric of Heil-prin and his miracles. Heilprin had many pupils, who, on the death of their master, formed a band of charlatans who shamelessly exploited the credulity of their contemporaries.
Is this Toldot Adam the same work in both instance? It seems so... The second Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem is the son of the son of the first Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem, as the later one states in his haskama to Toledot Adam.

I am not sure which one our innovator of the segulah ring, and if we are dealing with the one explicitly labeled a charlatan. Zamosc is described as being in southeastern Poland, but the same place is described as a district in Galicia. I would therefore make the guess that we are dealing with the second one, who is also associated with these cures and miracles by means of kabbalah, and whose pupils formed a band of charlatans. The details fit much better. And Toldos Adam, by Baal Shem Tov II, has a bunch of such segulos for pregnancy and for for tumas keri, such as this one, and so perhaps we would find this segulah there as well.

However, in A heart afire: stories and teachings of the early Hasidic masters, by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yepez, they clearly identify Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem of Zamocz as Baal Shem Tov I, that is, Rabbi Yoel ben Yitzchak.

{Update: On the other hand, in the The Besht: magician, mystic, and leader, by I. Etkes, they clearly identify Yoel ben Uri Baal Shem, that is, #2, as Yoel Baal Shem of Zamocz.}

The following from Jewish magic and superstition: a study in folk religion, by Joshua Trachtenberg and Moshe Idel. It details a case in which the innovator of this segulah ring, involved in an exorcism:

People from different backgrounds will likely react in different ways. An unscrupulous person 'possessed of a knowledge of medicine and physics' can fool the uneducated, particularly if they are already superstitious.

For example, they may not know the art, and sleight-of-hand, of ventriloquism, which was practiced by the Greeks in 6th century BCE, and may well be the Biblically prohibited yidoni. It was only when this Baal Shem came that he performed the appropriate rites and, though unseen, they began to speak. It seems quite possible that it was really Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem II who was speaking for them.

I also laugh at the sham of the court case. Do you really think for a minute that these demons had a chance of winning the case, and that the humans would be the ones thrown out? This was all pretext, and so the rabbis on the Beis Din in making their decision did not use Choshen Mishpat to decide the case. Did the demons really think they would get a fair shot?

No, this was a silly ceremony that the participants most likely seriously participated in, just as in modern times Rav Batzri has presided over two major public exorcisms of demons, both which turned out to be a hoax.

(As to the manifestation of these spirits, I was not there to be able to investigate and debunk. But to attempt this, assuming that it is not made up of whole cloth, I would note that the residents of the house were spooked by the death in the cellar, of a fellow who perhaps tripped, was killed by ruffians, or had died of an unknown ailment. Spooked by the thought that there were demons living in the cellar, they became more attuned to things which seemed 'off' in the main house. Hygiene was not good, and perhaps there were gusts of wind in the shoddy house, and so ashes fell into the pots in the hearth and items were cast against walls and furniture. The residents were superstitious to begin with, and this snowballed as they attributed random events to the presence of demons. Finally, they became so hysterical that they had to flee the house. They then sought the charlatan who put on a show and eased their spirits, and undoubtedly collected a tidy sum as his fee.)

Another story about Reb Yoel Baal Shem Tov of Zamosc, this time from A hear afire, linked and mentioned above:


S. said...

Not that this nitpick is of major importance, but there is only one Baal Shem who was called Baal Shem Tov. Thus, Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem was not and should not be referred to as Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem Tov. On the one hand it could be a simple mistake. On the other hand it serves to make things more gray and mix people up. As you correctly pointed out, people could confuse the two, which is consequential if they are taken by what they think originates with the Baal Shem Tov, whereas really it's something from a man they had never heard of before.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. i was following the path set by the advertisement. i'll correct it, with strikethroughs.


yaak said...

Thanks for the link.

I've actually heard the second story you brought (about the cat) in the name of the Ba'al Shem Tov. Assuming your source is accurate, it shows how easy it is to confuse the two (or the three).

Devorah said...

Selling a segula ring with a misleading rabbi's name....
So right from the start, they are dishonest. Some clarification in their ad would have been the way to go... but that may discourage a few potential buyers who think it is really from the Baal Shem Tov.

It's called geneivas da'as: deliberately confusing people, when we're already confused enough.

By the way, is it a segula to blog about a segula? :)

ChaimH said...

see in the following link how that cat myth came to be:

ChaimH said...

see in the following link how that cat myth came to be:

Devorah said...

The following is taken from "Faith and Folly" by Rabbi Yaakov Hillel:

How can we see through a charlatan?

The truth about these miracle workers must be that they are using one of three things: deception, the forces of impurity, or Practical Kabbalah.

As for us, Heaven is testing us to see whether we cleave to G-d in perfect faith; and our redemption depends on our passing the test.

* Beware of anyone who asks for money.
It is not fitting for one to whom G-d has given a share in Kabbalah to accept any benefit from man. Unbearably heavy is the sin of those who use Practical Kabbalah to frighten people into giving them handsome gifts. [Zecher David, ma'amar 1, perek 59, 151a]

Z said...

In the book "The Besht: magician, mystic, and leader" Immanuel Etkes writes extensively about R. Yoel and Baalei Shem in general. See here for the beginning of the section dealing with R. Yoel.

joshwaxman said...


note that it refers to Baal Shem #2 as of Zamosc!


Z said...

Yes, and from his description it seems that R. Yoel II was a scholar and held in high regard by his contemporaries so I think it's unfair to single him out as a charlatan. The Jewish Encylopedia article about him doesn't call him a charlatan only his pupils. It does say that he "pretended to effect cures and perform miracles by means of Cabala" but the same can be said for all Baalei Shem including R. Yoel I if one doesnt believe in the efficacy of kabalistic cures.


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