Baal Shem[pronunciation?] (Hebrew plural: Baalei Shem) in Hebrew meaning "Master of the Name", refers to a historical Jewish occupation of certain kabbalistic rabbis with knowledge of using names of God in Judaism for practical kabbalah healing, miracles, exorcism and blessing. The unofficial title was given by others who recognised or benefited from the Baal Shem's ability to perform wonderous deeds, and emerged in the Middle Ages, continuing until the early-Modern era. Baal Shem were seen as miracle workers who could bring about cures and healing, as well having mystical powers to foresee or interpret events and personalities. They were considered to have a "direct line" to Heaven evoking God's mercies and compassion on suffering human beings. In Jewish society, the practical theurgic role of Baalei Shem among the common folk was one mystical institution, contrasted with the more theosophical and ecstatic Kabbalistic study circles, who were isolated from the populance. The Baal Shem, the communal Maggid preacher, and the Mokhiakh preacher of penitence were seen as lower level unofficial Jewish intelligentsia, below contract Rabbis and study Kabbalists.
A few people received the title of Baal Shem among Eastern and Central European ashkenazi Jewry. The name is most well known in reference to the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov (Besht-"Master of the Good Name")-Israel ben Eliezer (1698–1760) in the Ukraine. However, this is misleading. The Baal Shem Tov started public life as a traditional Baal Shem, but with his teachings of Hasidism, introduced a new way into mystical thought and practice. His role is distinguished from other, predominantly earlier, Baal Shem by the addition of Tov-Good to his title. Hasidism popularised esoteric Kabbalah into a social mysticism movement. The new mystical role of the Hasidic Tzadik leader replaced Baal Shem activity among the populance, combining Kabbalist and Maggid, and replacing practical kabbalah with the Tzadik's divine intercession. The 1814-15 Praises of the Besht sets the Baal Shem Tov's teaching circle against his remaining occupation as travelling Baal Shem.
The activity of Baalei Shem among the community, as well as the influence of kabbalistic ideas, contributed to the popular belief in Tzadikim Nistarim (Concealed Righteous). Hasidic tradition records Eliyahu Baal Shem in the 16th century, founding a "Nistarim" mystical brotherhood to offer physical and spiritual encouragement to the Jewish populance, from which Hasidism later emerged.
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The "Name" referred to in "Master of the Name" is the most holy Four-Letter Name of God or Tetragrammaton. In Jewish tradition, this Name was pronounced only by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. With the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the true pronunciation was presumably lost. (Jews today do not pronounce the Name out loud, and substitute another Hebrew word, usually Adonai, in prayers and texts.) In some accounts, a Baal Shem was believed to have re-discovered the true pronunciation, perhaps during deep meditation, and could use it in magical ways to work miracles. Some stories say he pronounced it out loud, others say he visualized the Name in his mind. He also used the names of angels in this way.
There are two differentiated streams in Kabbalah, that leading Kabbalists separated over concerns of illegitimate use of Practical Kabbalah:
The leading Kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534–1572) forbade our generations to use Practical Kabbalah. As the Holy Temple is not standing, and we do not possess the ashes of the Red Heifer, we are unable to become pure. Without this, he said, Practical Kabbalah is very damaging. Yitzchak Ginsburgh describes the connection of Jewish amulets to Practical Kabbalah:
Amulets are on the border between Practical Kabbalah and an external manifestation of Kabbalah, such as name calculation. There is a source for amulets in the Torah. When a great sage writes Holy Names, without pronouncing them, on parchment and puts it into a container which is worn by the recipient, it can possess healing and spiritual powers. At the beginning of the Baal Shem Tov's life, since he was a healer, he used amulets. Sometimes the amulet works because of the faith of the recipient in the spiritual power of the amulet. At the end of his life, the Baal Shem Tov never wrote the Names of God, only his own signature, Yisrael ben Sara or Yisrael ben Eliezer. This was the ultimate amulet given by the Ba'al Shem Tov.
The Sages teach us that whoever receives a coin from the hands of Job (a tzadik) receives a blessing. This is the source in the Talmud that receiving a coin from a great tzaddik brings with it a blessing. Thus we see that there are amulets that are permissible. The determining factor is the righteousness and intentions of the person giving the amulet.
Not many people with this title have been recorded (outside of the Baal Shem Tov, the Baal Shem of Michelstadt was one example) and none have it today. The first recorded person to receive the title was Eliyahu of Chelm. Other Baalei Shem include Rabbi Eliyahu of Worms (the founder of the movement variously known as "Macheneh Yisrael", the "Nistarim", and the "Holy Brotherhood"), Rabbi Joel of Ropshitz (a student of Rabbi Yoel Sirkis), Rabbi Adam Baal Shem, and Hayyim Samuel Jacob Falk (known as the Baal Shem of London).
The name "Baal Shem" mainly survives in Jewish surnames of people descending from Ba'ale Shem such as Balshem, Balshemnik and Bolshemennikov.
In recent years, some new age Jewish groups have revived the term as referring to the Jewish equivalent of a shaman or folk healer.
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