Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the “Baal Shem Tov,” founded the chasidic movement in Eastern Europe and began spreading his teachings circa 1734. One of the results of this movement was the practical application of Kabbalistic concepts and ideas into daily Jewish ritual. If until then most Eastern European Jews followed the (generally non-Kabbalistic) customs and traditions that they inherited from their Western European forebears (known as Minhag Ashkenaz), chasidut now felt that Kabbalah should be dominant. One of the results of this was the complete change of nusach (prayer liturgy) from the Ashkenazic tradition to the Sephardic one. The reason for this change was because the chasidim felt that the Sephardic liturgy was more Kabbalistically oriented and therefore superior. This radical change was accompanied by much controversy and was one of the leading complaints against them by their opponents (known as the mitnagdim).
To be sure, the chasidim did not adopt the Sephardic nusach in its entirety, (they also did not adopt the dialect), but rather modified the existing Ashkenazic nusach and incorporated within it many Lurianic formulae. The master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari, was himself part Sephardic and part Ashkenazic; however, he was raised and studied in a mostly Sephardic milieu.
It is important to note that from the siddurim of the Baal Shem Tov that have come down to us, we see that he prayed Nusach Ashkenaz (with Lurianic kavanot). Parenthetically, the chasidic master Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (whose yahrzeit is on the 21st of Adar) writes in response to a query whether one should switch from Ashkenaz to Nusach Sefard that it isn’t so simple and that certain conditions must be met (proper intentions, lofty status etc.). The letter can be found in the back of many versions of his magnum opus, Noam Elimelekh.
It was only in subsequent generations that this new nusach was formed.
To confuse matters even more, different versions of this new hybrid called “Nusach Sefard” abounded. Various hasidic groups have different versions of it. The founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was the first to publish a new prayer book “according to the rite of the Arizal,” known as “Nusach Ari.” However, as mentioned, his version was not accepted by all chasidim as in fact being that of the Arizal.
A note: in some parts of 19th-century Eastern Europe, Orthodox Jews sometimes used the term “sephardic” to distinguish themselves from their less-traditional coreligionists. In Hungary, the election of a moderate religious Zionist, Rabbi Moses Glasner, to the post of chief rabbi of Cluj, Transylvania (better known as Klausenburg), in 1878 precipitated the establishment of a newly formed “Sephardic” community in that city. The group consisted of about 100 hasidic families who decided they could no longer remain subject to the authority of a Zionist rabbi. The term “Sephardic community” was a sort of legal fiction designed to gain the recognition of the secular authorities that would recognize only one Orthodox community within a given town or district. The only “Sephardic” aspect of the community was that they recited prayers in “nusach sefard.” There were other such “sephardic” communities in Hungary and Transylvania (there were also sometimes authentic Spanish Sephardic communities in those locales, but about that for a different time).
A Chasid or a Sephardi?
The portrait of Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Falk (1710-1782) known as the “Baal Shem of London” is often confused with that of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov and founder of the chasidic movement.
An indication of the confusion that the misuse of the term “Sephardic” often engenders can be seen from the following example.
Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain Rabbi Dr. Herman Adler in his fascinating biographical sketch of Rabbi Falk writes that Falk referred to himself in his personal book as “the son of Raphael the Sefardi.” However, Adler is quick to point out that the term “Sephardi” in this case does not necessarily denote Iberian origins but rather refers to the (then) newly emerging sect of chasidim who were often called “Sephardim” or “Anshei Sfard” because they prayed in a modified Sephardic rite. In a later republishing of the same article, Adler provides more clues as to the origins of Falk. This time no mention of his possible chassidic connection is made. Adler merely wonders, “It is unclear why and how he (Raphael the Sephardi) received this appellation (Sephardi). Had he immigrated from Spain or Portugal?” and adds that “Falk’s Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew may have been due to his parentage.” Additional evidence seems to bear this out. In the comment on that passage, Adler writes that Falk gives his name in his commonplace book as חיים שמואל יעקב דפאלק מרדיולה לנידו (Chaim Shmuel Yaakov d’falk Mardiola Laniado) and wonders whether he might possibly be related to the Laniados, a Sephardic family that settled in Italy and the Middle East. The answer seems to be in the affirmative.
Falk’s personal assistant, a Polish Jew by the name of Zvi Hirsch of Kalisch. Parenthetically, Kalisch’s descendants later anglicized their name to Collins and became part of the upper crust of British society) kept a personal journal where he described his master’s daily activities and magical experiments. The journal is an intimate window into Falk’s life; it describes Falk’s frequent quarrels with his wife. One entry records an incident where he threw a dish of food at her head, saying it was cooked so badly that any Sephardi who tasted it would laugh outright...
Falk’s Sephardic ancestry is also briefly mentioned in the recently published “Mibaal Shed L’baal Shem” (translation mine): “It seems that his father, Rabbi Joshua Refael the Sephardi, was a descendant of Marranos who arrived in Poland in the 16th century and returned openly to Judaism. Additional information on Falk’s family is unknown.”
So it can be stated with assurance that the portrait that is purportedly that of the Baal Shem Tov is in fact not the Baal Shem Tov at all, but rather a Polish (Podolian) Kabbalist of Sephardic origin.
By Joel S. Davidi Weisberger
Joel S. Davidi Weisberger runs “Jewish History Channel,” a grassroots group dedicated to the dissemination of Jewish history and culture. You can also hear him at the wonderful Cong. Beth Tefillah in Paramus, NJ where he serves as an assistant. He resides with his wife and son in Fair Lawn and would love to hear from you at [email protected]