If it had not been for the stubborn persistence of Rabbi Yaakov Emden in his war against the Sabbateans, it would be doubtful if we would even have known the name of the kabbalist, the Baal Shem and Sabbatean[*1] Rabbi Moshe David of Podhajce. Our knowledge of him stems, at least for the moment, only from the letters of debate of Yaavetz[*2], in which he is mentioned dozens of times, not only in the words of the zealous rabbi himself, but also in testimonies and letters relating to Rabbi Moshe David. From these documents, a few fragments remain for us from the words of Rabbi Moshe David, and a few praises that one of his followers said about him. However, the knowledge that we have about the events of his life, primarily from the words of his enemies and persecutors, are very sparse and coincidental. Nevertheless, by examining and dissecting them, we are able to not only expose a portion of the story of the life of Rabbi Moshe David and to obtain somewhat of an idea of his personality, but also to paint a fascinating portrait of the Sabbatean underground as it existed and operated. Similarly, we can learn no small amount about his ties with other Sabbateans of his era, and about the principles of his doctrine. Here, I feel duty-bound to point out that the remnants of the doctrine of Rabbi Moshe David would be to me like a sealed book, had not new vistas of understanding the Sabbatean doctrine been opened up by incisive research of Professor Gershon Sholem regarding Berechya, the head of the Sabbateans of Salonika. I am indebted more to the research of Professor Sholem and the words that I heard from his mouth more than I can point out in the body of this article, and I am happy to emphasize this with my words of thanks as a preface to my article.
Rabbi Moshe David was a kabbalist and Baal Shem who first became known in eastern Poland. Zusman Sachnowitz, who met him in London in the year 5519, writes about him: He was known in the area of Wolyn, he was a kabbalist, a renowned man of G-d, our rabbi and teacher Moshe David may G-d protect him, who is known as Rabbi Moshe David the Baal Shem of the holy community of Podhajce. It is further stated there, the renowned rabbi and teacher Moshe David may G-d protect him is very elderly, a great kabbalist. He previously lived in Podhajce, and was known as a Baal Shem. (Yaavetz in this manner obscured the two sources and turned them into words of derision.) Other information about his deeds in Poland comes to us from the mouths of his enemy, who of course only saw him from one side. In the letter of Pesach the son of Yeshoshua of Lissa we read among everything else: Here we have in the house of the rabbi a guilty elder may his name be blotted out, Moshe David. Indeed, it is known to all that he is one of those who was persecuted and expelled from Poland, of the accursed sect. We can learn more about the past of Rabbi Moshe David from Yaavetz himself. In his book Beit Yonatan Hasofer he writes (page 17 folio b): The guilty accursed one (from the words used in a ban of excommunication. Yaavetz purposely chose this language that implies apostasy.) Moshe David, who misled many in the holy community of Rogozany and also through the amulets that he issued written with nonsense. Since a plague, G-d protect us, fell upon that community after this disgusting person filled the place with filthy amulets, a court deliberated, found him to be a Satan, and expelled him from the city. He was also expelled from the holy community of Lissa and other places on account of his disgusting deeds. Furthermore, it was testified regarding him that he abandoned the permissible and ate forbidden food (according to Avoda Zara 39 folio b). Also in Prstice, they saw him strangling chickens and eating them[*3]. Those acquaintances who knew him said that for many years, he did not eat ritually slaughtered meat, and he was also suspected on having relations with married women. From these few words of the Yaavetz, we can learn several details. They must be analyzed in detail. We have already seen that Rabbi Moshe David was a Baal Shem. From what is related here and in other sources, it seems that he wandered from place to place, wrote amulets and performed wonders – like the Baal Shem Tov and other Baalei Shem – and he apparently earned his livelihood in this manner. In Rogozno (Posen region) a court of law exposed apostasy in his amulets, and he was expelled from the city on a wagon filled with dung. He was also expelled from Lissa (also in the region of Posen), apparently in the same timeframe. Yaavetz exaggerates, apparently, when he states that Rabbi Moshe David was excommunicated and expelled from all of Poland. However there is no doubt that he was accurate when he mentions his expulsion from various places. We have supporting testimony to this from one of the letters of Avraham HaKohen of Zamosc, who writes on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 5520 (Shamush Book, chapter 2, page 2): And it was when G-d expanded things for us and justified our case in the city of Warsaw, we then took the appropriate opportunity to judge the evil men, sinners and rebels – including of course the iniquitous evil person Moshe David of Podhajce, who was excommunicated and banned in our state for several years already. Later, when we will deal with the events of Rabbi Moshe David in the land of Germany, we will see that he appears there not only as a Baal Shem and worker of wonders, but also as a Sabbatean teacher and preacher. Therefore, it is perhaps fair to surmise that during his wanderings through the communities of Poland, he occupied himself not only in the writing of amulets that secretly borer the symbols of his faith, but he also attempted to win over souls. It is especially important to note his visit to Prstice in Moravia. In such an important Sabbatean center, it was possible for Rabbi Moshe David to learn a great deal, and also perhaps to teach. It is interesting that especially in that place, according to the testimony of the Yaavetz, he was seen strangling chickens and eating them. If this testimony is true, the matter was no coincidence. We must remember that the Sabbateans in Prstice belonged to a radical branch of the movement. Therefore, it is no wonder that a Sabbatean would permit himself to behave with more freedom and less caution in Prstice, for there he was amongst his own. Yaavetz states that it was told to him that Rabbi Moshe David accustomed himself to eating non-kosher food, and he was also suspect in marital infidelity. If these statements are true, the way of life of Rabbi Moshe David proves that he was numbered among the radical Sabbateans. However, we must not ignore the fact that there is no corroboration of this testimony from any other source. Indeed, such transgressions were commonplace among the radical Sabbateans, and in the eyes of the Yaavetz, all of the radical Sabbateans and sins of this nature were relevant to his cause. More important is the fact that there is a sound principle to believe the words of the information of the Yaavetz regarding a less common matter. I mean the amulets of Rabbi Moshe David. Yaavetz relates that in the amulets that were opened in Rogozno, words of nonsense were found. The three letters of shua[*4] are none other than the acronym for woof and warp shti vaerev, that is to say, the sign of the cross was drawn in these amulets. This is a surprising and astonishing fact, which demonstrates the way some elements of Christian faith were intermingled in the Sabbateanism of Rabbi Moshe David, an intermingling that found its expression in the inscription of the classic symbol of Christianity in an amulet of a Jewish Baal Shem. This fact demands interpretation. However, until I attempt to find the historical meaning, we are able to debate its veracity.
His place of birth is not known definitively. That which is implied in the transcription of Mr. Pichutto of Aleksandrow, that his place of origin was Furth, is not correct at all, for engraved on his gravestone is
that he came from the country, and Emden, who lived in his generation and apparently knew his entire past very well, specifies that he came from Poland. It is almost certain that he was born in Podhajce, a city in Podolia, from which also came his friend Moshe David. Nothing is known about his father, aside from the statement that his name was Rafael the Sephardi. This does not imply that his origins were from the Jews of Spain and Portugal, bur rather that he belonged to the new group of Hassidim who called themselves Sephardim, since they adopted the Sephardic prayer rite.
Despite the fact that the false Messiah Shabtai Tzvi died in the year 1676, specific groups that believed in his Messiahship continued to exist in Judaism. This gave rise to sects, some of which who intermingled Torah and Kabbalah. One of these sects was founded by Yehuda Chasid, who taught that the coming of the Messiah would be hastened by living a life of suffering. He and his friends made aliya from Poland to Jerusalem in the year 1700, passing through Furth, Tirol and Venice. Did Falk arrive in Furth with the intention of waiting for the actions of his teacher, and making aliya to the Holy Land? We know that his mother died in Furth and was buried there, and at a later date, a monument was erected over her grave in accordance with his instructions. The community of Furth claims that she helped him when he was in difficulty – a claim that is substantiated by the fact that he sent sums of money to the community of Furth at various occasions, and in his will, he left her an appropriate inheritance from the fortune that he left behind.
Was Falk a member of the Sabbatean movement? Thanks to the work of Professor Schechter, we have the ability to uncover the connection between Falk and Sabbateanism, for he cites several sources and turns his attention to various places in the books of Yaakov Emden, where he castigates Falk with a poisonous tone as a member of the sect, nicknaming him the master of the demon.
Such accusations cannot be accepted definitively. Emden saw the purpose of his life to emulate his father Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi and to put an end to the apostasy that endangered the moral life of Judaism. He authored several books on the sources of the false Messiah and his faithful supporters. The prime reason that Emden attacked Falk was the matter of his friendship with Moshe David of Podhajce, upon whom he spread his protection after he was expelled from various communities of the continent. Nevertheless, it is reasonably accurate that Falk felt himself close to him, to his fellow native, since he was also a student of the school of Rabbi Yehuda Chasid. The second reason for the castigation of Emden was the amulet that bore the names Shmuel and Tzvi. Indeed, there were many other Shmuels in Jewry aside from Shmuel Falk. We can also state in Falk's merit, in his book that is known, that nobody ever looked askance at him, and that nothing can be found that can support the strong castigation of Yaakov Emden. Nevertheless, one other thing is certain – that he was a kabbalist and that he boasted of magical powers. He lived in an era when many misleaders and misled people were floating around Europe. Among them were misled people who claimed that they were able to reveal mighty treasures through the staff of magic, incantations and amulets. These were people of the type of Schriffer and Caliostro. This was an era where people dreamed of the philosopher's stone and the potion of the essence of life, at a time when even the great giants of science deceived themselves and their fellows that they were able to turn silver into gold through the means of the dark science of white magic. Other examples of the deeds of Falk in that era are related in the book of Arkenholtz, who states that a noblewoman of the name of Da Ranchov, who died in France in the group of marshal Da Kamp, tells in her published memoirs about works of kabbalah and magic that were performed by Falk in front of her eyes on the land of Brunsweig and the estates of her father, in the presence of many wonderful personalities whose names were mentioned in that book. In the opinion of Arkenholtz it is possible that the unbelievable magic was performed by him came as a result of the fact that he had specific professional knowledge of chemistry. During one of his trips, this mysterious doctor reached Westphalia, a place where the authorities – who were in uproar on account of his delving into hidden treasures – condemned him to burning, as was the custom with witches. Falk saved himself from this punishment by fleeing, and he arrived in London. Emden cites a letter that at that time, Falk married a woman with a questionable past. This fact cannot be true and correct, since Emden was always prepared to believe in desecration of the Name by those who were suspect in his eyes of being apostates or supporting Sabbateanism. Falk had no children. However in his will, he mentions the name of his stepson Gedalia.
He was received pleasantly in London, in the manner in which that country related to refugees who arrived there, without excessive inquiry into their past. It would seem that he continued there with the ideas that brought him into conflict with the authorities of Westphalia. However, apparently he acted in a more cautions manner. He acquired a reputation with his wondrous deeds that were seen as beyond bounds of natural. Among the wonders that were told of him, his ability to light a small lantern without oil that would remain lit for several weeks stands out. When he requested coal, he would only have to whisper a kabbalistic incantation, and the pieces would slip obediently into his cellar. Metal table utensils that he dragged to a lender on ropes would find their way back to his table, contrary to the laws of nature. When a fire threatened the Great Synagogue in London, it was said that he stopped the progression of the fire by inscribing four Hebrew letters on the door lintel.
When he first arrived in England, he apparently earned his livelihood as a worker of wonders, playing on the nonsensical beliefs of the masses. The books of his generation as well as his diary that he left behind give evidence to information of
mysterious trips to the Forest of Accusations, and from there, explanations about meetings that took place, and chests of gold that were buried there. Did he keep his treasures in the aforementioned forest in order to test, to exalt, or to melt?
The Baal Shem continued to attract a crowd of followers by cloaking himself in the cloak of holiness. In one letter that was preserved by Yaakov Emden, written by Falk's friend Zusman Shachnowitz, he is described as some sort of sublime person. His room is illuminated with silver lamps on the walls and with a central eight-branched chandelier made of a solid piece of pure silver. Even though it only held enough oil to last for one day and night, it remained lit for three weeks. On one occasion, he closed himself off in his house in isolation for a period of six weeks, without food or drink. At the end of that period, ten men gathered to enter to him. They found him sitting on a royal throne, with a golden miter on his head, and around his neck a gold chain with a gold star upon which holy names were inscribed. Indeed, this man is unique in his generation on account of his knowledge of holy mysteries. I cannot describe to you in detail all of the wonders that he performed. I consider it a great honor and mercy that this man found me worthy to be numbered among those who sit in his shadow and wisdom.
News of events similar to these spread very quickly to the outside world. We find him maintaining close relations with people of high rank. Arkenholtz mentions one royal prince who turned to Dr. Falk in his search for the philosopher's stone, but left disappointed as he was rebuffed by him. The Chida (Azoulay) mentions in his little book that describes his travels that when he visited Paris in 1778, he met the nobleman Da Suma and the noblewoman Da Krona, who saved several Jews from the talons of the Spanish Inquisition. The noblewoman implied to Rabbi Azoulay via an innuendo that the Baal Shem of London had taught her practical kabbala. This revelation raised the ire of the honorable scholar. It seems that Falk maintained close relations with the eccentric adventurer Baron Theodore Da Neuhauf, who was coronated as the king of Corsica because he stood at the helm of Corsican revolutionaries against the Genoans. He was later exiled and settled in London in 1749. The exiled king fortified himself with the hope of returning his good fortune that had soured by revealing treasures hidden in the depths of the ocean. To actualize his desire, he turned to an elderly Jewish rabbi for help. (The rabbi is identified as our Baal Shem). Falk mentions a mysterious meeting with Prince Czartoryski, apparently Adam Czartoryski (1734-1823), the ruler of Podolia, and with a personality by the name of Emanuel, who was described by him as a servant of the king of France (Louis XVI). Similarly, the Baal Shem gave a ring as an amulet to a duke from Orleans in order to assure him the royal crown. This ring, it is related, was sent by Philippe Egalite to a Jewess by the name of Juliet Gusho, who transferred it to her son, Baron Da Charter, who later became King Louis Philippe. Before his death, the king bestowed the ring to the nobleman Da Paris, and it is assumed that today it is found in the House of Stob in Twickenham.
The bankers Aaron Goldschmid and his son George were among the most important friends of Dr. Falk. They are frequently mentioned in his diary as having given him wonderful advice in business affairs. He became a wealthy man during his final two decades of life thanks to his investments in lending and speculation, and successful business investments. He lived in a spacious house in Welclose Square, where he established a synagogue served by two cantors. This synagogue also had a sukka. We see him using riding utensils on his travels, which he swapped constantly. He loved books, since he was a man who studied a great deal. In his diary, we find a list of books that he possessed, including books of grammar, philosophy and disputation. He maintained contact with the chief rabbi Rabbi David Tavli (our Rabbi and Teacher David Tavli the son of Shlomo Zalman HaKohen Shiff), the author of a book of responsa and sermons that was published with the title Lashon Zahav (Golden Tongue) by Rabbi Gabriel Adler and the new rabbi that was appointed in the New Synagogue, Moshe Meyers.
Just as we do not have information about the means that he attained his wealth, we also do not know how he disbursed it. He was of good status, he was liked by people, and concerned himself greatly with the performance of good deeds. In his diary, we find several hints to the disbursement of sums of money to charitable needs. In his will dated April 14, 1782, preserved in the archives of the United Synagogue, he appoints Aaron Goldschmid, his son George Goldschmid and his son-in-law Leon Da Simons as executors. His main bequest was two small Torah scrolls in a silver ark, and annual payments of 100 Sterling to the Great Synagogue; annual payments of ten guineas to the Beis Midrash of the Ashkenazim and Sephardim; twenty guineas to the community of Furth for various charities; ten guineas to the chief rabbi of the era, and other sums for distribution to the poor. These annual payments were distributed in an organized manner by the supervisors of the United Synagogue. However, on account of low returns, the sums became smaller. He died a few days after he arranged his will, on April 17, 1782, and was buried the next day on the Glebe St. Cemetery, Mile End. The inscription on his grave notes that he observed the Torah and Mitzvot during his forty years of living in London, and he disbursed all of his money to charity at the time of his death. His portrait, now in the possession of V. H. Goldschmid, was drawn by Kopley,
and testifies to the talents of the artist. The following is the inscription on his grave.
Here is buried Sh. Y. Ch. (Shmuel Yaakov Chaim)
An elderly man of fine stature, the important man who came from the state, the complete scholar, the kabbalist, our rabbi and teacher Rabbi Shmuel the son of our rabbi and teacher Rafael of holy blessed memory, who was known throughout the land and far off isles. For the forty years that he was here, he erected the banner of Torah and service, fulfilled the Torah, commandments and statutes, and at the time of his death, he disbursed all of his great wealth to several distinct charities. In this merit, may the Creator of the Heavens and the Founder of the Earth bind his soul in His Garden of Eden with the other righteous people, and may he merit to arise at the time of the resurrection with all the dead of Israel who will eventually arise. He died with a good name on Thursday, 4 day of the month of Ziv that is the month of Iyar, and was buried with honor and eulogies the next day, Friday, the 20th day of the Omer, 5542.
May his soul be bound in the bonds of eternal life.
This illustration corroborates the image of the Baal Shem that was described by those of his generation. He was walking outside wearing a floral suit that was suited to his long white beard and noble facial expression. Relating to him, we can make use of the famous words of Pope with a small change: if some human failings fell to his lot, look at his face, and this will all be as if it was not.
Mordechai Mendel Oyzerkes was born in Podhajce in the year 1848. He worked in the distilling industry, producing liquor from potatoes, and wandered a great deal through Galicia, Russia and Romania. Later, he returned to his hometown and became a private teacher.
We know very few details about his life and chronicles. Apparently, his father was also a private teacher. In any case, he was so taken by the special ambience of people of this profession, that he dedicated his first book to describing this reality. The Private Teacher was also the name of the book, which served as a sort of autobiography of the author. In his introduction to his book, he admits and confesses that his knowledge comes from private study, and not from a teacher or a guide, and from contact with people during his many days of travel. He goes on to describe the challenges of a private teacher, who must bear all of the nonsense of the children of the wealthy in order to earn his livelihood, and the disparaging relationship with their parents, who provide his livelihood.
Oyzerkes' motif and style of writing draws from the influence of the Haskalah literature, with a clear style in order to educate and guide the reader. His entire story contains lessons, and frequently these lessons are expressed explicitly. However his primary positive trait is that he chooses topics from the life going on around him. The expressions, the mottoes, the blessings and curses that are found in plentiful fashion in his books are a comprehensive treasury of the style of speech that was commonplace among the residents of Galicia in those days.
Of his wide-ranging creations, only a few books were published, as follows:
It is clear that Oyzerkes did not gain much satisfaction from his livelihood as a teacher or an author. He loved his land of Galicia, and its people. Along with this, he mercilessly castigated their deficiencies. He finally left Galicia at the end of his days in order to find rest in the land of the future, America. However, he disappeared completely from our eyes in this vast expanse of land. All that is known is that he died in 1913, in the 65th year of his life.
From the Yiddish monograph by Nachman Blumenthal.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Podgaytsy, Ukraine Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright ©1999-2014 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 21 Mar 2007 by LA