Wednesday, May 01, 2013

A 19th century letter concerning the Baal Shem of London

Here's my almost-but-not-quite-perfect transcription of a letter to Hermann Adler, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain concerning the Baal Shem of London. Adler wrote a fascinating paper on Chaim Shemuel Yaakov Falk, the aforementioned Baal Shem (of Dr. Falk, as he was known). Evidently this letter was part of his research - fully 8 years before he read the results of his research, which you can read here - consisting of various inquiries that he made of old timers and people with connections to those who did remember Jewish London in the 18th century. 

Unfortunately, I cannot make out the signature here, but I believe the man is surnamed either Myers or Alexander on the basis of some hopeful searches of his street address. He refers to his grandfather, evidently a rabbi, active in the 1850s 1820s (see plausible correction in the comments). Alexander seems the likelier candidate, perhaps because a Rabbi Michael Myers (d. 1814) actually knew the Baal Shem, and while not all Myers would be related, one surmises that this writer would surely have mentioned the aforementioned Myers who knew the Baal Shem personally. And if I am wrong, and if I've made mistakes in the transcription - please let me know.

ETA: I would like to thank Simon, Marc Kirschbaum, and David Wolfson for their helpful corrections and suggestions. Go crowdsourcing!

24 Sandy's Row
Bishopsgate. E 
Nov 8, 1895 
Dear Rev Sir 
In answer to your enquiry regarding facts connected with Dr. Falk the בעל שם I am sorry that I cannot furnish you with any that I can rely upon as such. I have heard the late Dr. Hirschell ז'ל refer to him but he seemed very reticent to state anything of him as facts. 
,,Facts are stubborn things" is the common Aphorism. They are sometimes so stubborn that [they?] cannot be easily brought out from their hidden places, such I believe to be the case with respect to Dr. Falk - the legend of his repleneshing his Coal Cellar without any of his servants knowing how they came there, you know doubt have heard before now. My grandfather ז'ל did speak of him
P.T.O. (=Please Turn Over.) 
as having been in his house in Devonshire Square and that no one knew from where he obtained the means up living up to the stile of a respectable Merchant - of course suspicions of his having discovered the Philosopher's Stone &c. gained hold upon some minds, but Dr. Hirschell himself generally spoke of his, Dr. Falk's performance with a decided sneer - If I recollect rightly Dr. Hirschell did not obtain the כתבים but found them among his father ר' הירש בערלינרs books and manuscripts. In my own time about 40 years ago I went with my grandfather to visit a dying man named ר' שמואל שעטע who was a former משרת of the בעל שם  When we left him he gave my grandfather a slip of paper with the verse ולבני הפילגשים אשר לאברהם נתן אברהם מתנת וישלחם וגו which was a permit for us to be מתעשק ? unto him when he died. This man was reputed to have known most of the בעל שםs performances. In fact he stood in the same station to the בעל שם as the Scriptural גיחזי stood to אלישע but I never recollect meeting any one who could state any thing of the בעל שם as First hand Facts. 
I am sorry that I cannot furnish you with anything more tangible on the subject but I think that the majority of his reputed miracles are like the Epitaph on his מצבה neither legible nor plausible. 
with profound respect
I beg to remain
Dear Rev. Sir
Yours truly
J. (?) Myers (?)

Couple of notes. It's interesting how Falk's writings wound up in possession of Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell - through his father, no less. This rabbinic family was closely related to R. Jacob Emden, who condemned Falk as a Sabbatian (see here). It is hardly surprising, yet interesting, to see Hirschell remembered referring to Falk with "a decided sneer." Secondly, it is also interesting that the writer names a servant of Falk, R' Shmuel Schotte (?), whom he says died about 1855. Falk died in 1782! So an old man this Shmuel Schotte must have been - and to be compared to Gehazi no less! If anyone can make heads or tails out of the strange amulet this Schotte gave the writer's grandfather, please do tell.

The source for this letter is here.


  1. I think it's "70 years ago", not 40, which is a whole lot more likely

    Perhaps the writer was writing from the Sandys Row synagogue and was one of the ministers or officers there? The shul is at 4a Sandys Row today, but street numbering can change.

  2. Yes, that makes sense. Both suggestions.

  3. I assume the reactions are a reuslt of the importing of comments, the count looks as if they are in a loop

  4. "know doubt" should be "no doubt."



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