Rabbi Falk, "The Baal Shem of London"
Yakov Leib haKohain
Hayyim Samuel Jacob Falk (1708-1782) was a "wonder worker" known as "The Baal Shem of London." Although the place of his birth is uncertain, it is believed to have been the town of Podhgayce in Podolia, or possibly Furth, Germany. Falk was a student of "practical" Kabbalah who claimed to perform miracles, demonstrations of which he gave before Christian notables in Germany and elsewhere. As a result, he was siezed by authorities in Westphailia, and was sentenced to be burned as a sorcerer, but managed to escape and in 1742 came to England where he spent the rest of his life with occasional trips to Paris.
There are many legends about Falk's miraculous powers, none of them authenticated to my knowledge, and, like Yakov Leib Frank, he amassed a large fortune as a result of the "wonders" he performed. However, he was vehemently attacked by the Orthodox Rabbis of his time, particularly the emminent R. Jacob Emden who accused him of being a follower of Sabbatai Zevi. However, he also enjoyed the friendship of many notable Jews in London, including its Chief Rabbi Tebele Schiff. Concerning Falk and his alleged Sabbatianism, Gershom Scholem wrote:
"There is full proof that a fair number of men of great talmudic learning, and even officiating rabbis, joined these groups [of Jews who denounced Sabbatai Zevi in public but worshiped him in private]...Kabbalists and Ba'alei Shem from Podhgayce [Falk's alleged home town] who became known in Germany and England such as Hayyim Samuel Jacob Falk, the "Ba'al Shem of London". . . came from these circels."
On the other hand, Scholem later writes:
"In the 18th century, Samuel Jacob Hayyim Falk, the "ba'al shem of London," achieved considerable prominence. He was called 'Doctor Falk' by Christians. The theory propounded by several scholars that these wandering ba'alei shem [such as Falk] were responsible for spreading Shabbateanism has not been proven, although some of them were indeed members of the sect." (ibid, page 311)
Thus, it would appear that Falk was undoubtedly a prominent force in 18th century Kabbalah, and may even have been responsible for spreading Sabbatian doctrines to the occult schools of non-Jews such as Yeats and his group. If so, this is one more piece of evidence for the major (but little-known) influence Sabbatianism has had on western culture and religious belief - not only among Jews, but Gentiles as well.
However, Rabbi Falk somewhat pre-dated Yeats. His activities were claimed, by certain of Yeats' teachers, to have contributed to their own teachings -- but the Rabbi was already a historical figure when these claims were first made (in a seemingly pseudonymous Notes & Queries item).
One more interesting thing about Falk: it is his portrait that is widely circulated among Hasidim as the image of the Ba'al Shem Tov. This portrait, which I believe is in the family of Cecil Adler, either J.S.Copley or Philip Jacques Loutherberg and entitled "The Baal Shem." After the passage of some time it was appropriated and widely reproduced as a portrait of the Besh"t!
posted on the Donmeh mail list
Wed, 9 Jun 1999
Wed, 9 Jun 1999
Jewish Renewal, Hermetic Cabala, and Sabbatai Zevi
page historypage uploaded 14 June 1999