Jewish History

, Volume 27, Issue 2–4, pp 153–169 | Cite as

Hebrew Sources on the Baal Shem Tov: Usability vs. Reliability



This article begins by arguing that there is no such thing as a typical or unbiased historical source. Every source genre and each source has limitations and strengths. For any given source these characteristics can change depending on the purpose the source is used for. In approaching any source the historian should ask how, given its nature, the source can appropriately be used. The criterion for evaluating sources should be usability rather than reliability.

The author then goes on to discuss the usability of three key sources associated with the biography of the putative founder of Hasidism, Israel Baal Shem Tov: The Holy Epistle, his sayings as quoted in the books of Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye [Połonne], and the stories in Shivhei habesht. While pointing out some ways in which he understands these sources to have been used inappropriately, the author concludes that all three sources do indeed have historiographical uses. These depend on a critical understanding of their genres, of how and why these sources came to be written, and of the history of each text.


Hasidism Eastern Europe Baal Shem Tov Methodology Source Criticism 



Israel Baal Shem Tov


Ben Porat Yosef




The Holy Epistle


Rothschild manuscript


Shivhei habesht


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bar-Ilan UniversityRamat GanIsrael

Personalised recommendations