The Besht

Magician, Mystic, and Leader

Immanuel Etkes

Founded in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century, the Hasidic movement and its religious thinking have dramatically transformed modern Judaism. The figure of the Ba’al Shem Tov (known in acronym form as the BeSHT)—the purported founder of the Hasidic movement—has fascinated scholars, Jewish philosophers, and laypeople interested in popular Jewish mysticism in general and the contemporary Hasidic movement in all its variety. In this volume, Etkes enters a rich and heated debate over the origins of the movement, as well as the historicity of its mythic founder, Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, who lived much of his life as a miracle worker. The eighteenth century, as Etkes vividly portrays, was the heyday of the kabbalists, who dabbled in the magical power of letters and words to solve personal and communal problems—and to earn a living. Etkes sheds light on the personality of the Besht, on his mysticism, and on his close circle of followers. But equally important, he challenges the popular myth of the Besht as a childlike mystic, wandering the fields in prayer, seeing visions and engaging in acts of godliness and piety. Although Etkes shows great empathy for his subject, the Besht who emerges in these pages is much more down to earth, much more a man of his times. Indeed, according to Etkes, it was never the intention of the Besht to found a religious movement. Etkes looks at the Besht’s mystical roots, examining him not only from the vantage point of a social historian, but as a religious figure. Moshe Rosman, author of Founder of Hasidism, a biography of the Besht, claims that In Praise of the Besht—a volume published about the Besht in 1814, many years after his death, which portrayed his character by means of stories told by his close followers—could not be a reliable source. Etkes, disputing this claim, shows definitively that this well-known text (translated and interpreted by, among others, Martin Buber) may indeed offer trustworthy accounts of the Besht’s life and thinking.

Paper: $40 | E-book: $39.99
ISBN-13: 9781611683080
Pages: 350 | Size: 6 in. x 9 in.
Date Published: December 21, 2004

“Etkes’ full control of the relevant historical and religious material makes this a major study that will influence all subsequent discussion.” 



  • Different understandings and portrayals of the Besht abound in the works of scholars . . . Etkes's book makes an important and valuable contribution to our understanding and in many ways goes beyond the efforts of previous scholars.

    Association of Jewish Studies
  • Etkes' book is less of a biography than an analysis, an attempt to understand who and what the Besht was within the context of his times . . . I was particularly intrigued and impressed by the section on the Besht as a mystic and a pioneer.

    Jewish Book World
  • Etkes' full control of the relevant historical and religious material makes this a major study that will influence all subsequent discussion.

  • Immanuel Etkes has produced a major, highly erudite re-evaluation of the Besht that both clarifies and clearly contextualizes the work of many earlier scholars, and as well presents a well-documented and deeply learned portrait of the still-mysterious Israel Baal Shem Tov. This book is essential reading for those working in the field of East European Judaism, as well as for anyone interested in the origins and early history of Hasidism.

    The Journal of the Association for Jewish Studies
  • Etkes’ study adds a most important and original contribution to the ongoing study of Hasidism’s origins. He is a social historian with a keen grasp of the religious mind, a combination critical for understanding this movement. He has also written a highly readable and consistently interesting book.

    Arthur Green, Brandeis University
  • Critical scholarship in recent years has managed, perhaps for the first time, to locate the legendary Israel Besht within his proper social and historical context in mid-eighteenth-century Poland. However, this fresh contextualisation has had the effect of obliterating much of the individuality and stature that the Hasidic movement had traditionally ascribed to the man it construed as its unique founder. On the basis of skillful selection and analysis of admittedly problematic hagiographical and other Hasidic literary sources, Etkes succeeds in reconstrcuting the reality of the historical personality and impact of the Besht, presenting him afresh as an extraordinary figure and an original spiritual master.

    Ada Rapoport-Albert, University College, London

About the Author

Immanuel Etkes

Immanuel Etkes is emeritus professor of history of the Jewish people at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement (1993); The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image (2002); The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader (2005); and The Invention of a Tradition: The Messianic Zionism of Gaon of Vilna (2023).

Table Of Contents