BA'AL SHEM (; plural, "Ba'alei Shemot," more correctly "Ba'alei Shem," i.e., Master of the Name):
Designation of certain people who were supposed to work miracles through the name of God. This belief in the miraculous power of the Sacred Name is very old, having a history that covers more than two thousand years (compare Shem ha-Meforash and God, Names of); but the designation "Ba'al Shem" seems to have originatedonly with the German-Polish Jews when they became acquainted with the practical Cabala of the school of Luria. The payyeṭan Benjamin b. Zeraḥ is indeed called "Ba'al Shem," which, however, only indicates that in his piyyuṭim he frequently alludes to the various mystical names of God. The first one who is known to have borne this name, Elijah of Chelm, flourished about 1500, at the period when the study of the Cabala was wide-spread in Poland. The Ba'al Shem, which first was undoubtedly applied only as a special distinction to particular men who were considered great saints and in whose miraculous powers the people believed, had two centuries later developed into a profession. These "Ba'ale Shem" represented a mixture of quack doctor, physician, and cabalist. They wrote amulets, prescribed empiric medicines, with which they were well acquainted, and engaged also in casting out or summoning spirits. Their profession was such that they incurred the hostility of physicians, with whom they often entered into serious competition. The following prayer, composed by a Ba'al Shem for himself and his compeers, is indicative of the attitude toward the physicians: "Preserve me from enmity and quarrels; and may envy between me and others disappear. Let, on the contrary, friendship, peace, and harmony prevail between me and the physicians, . . . that I may be respected in their opinion, . . . that they may not speak evil of me or of my actions" ("Toledot Adam," Zolkiev, 1720). Solomon Maimon speaks, in his autobiography (i. 217), of a Ba'al Shem who possessed medical knowledge and sufficient astuteness to make him a formidable competitor of the physicians.
Following is an approximately complete alphabetical list of persons known to have been Ba'ale Shem:
(1) Elḥanan, rabbi in Vienna, seventeenth century (Dembitzer, "Kelilat Yofi," 78b); (2) Elijah, rabbi at Chelm (government of Lublin), a progenitor of Ẓebi Ashkenazi, flourished about 1500 (Responsa of Ẓebi Ashkenazi, No. 93; Emden, "Megillat Sefer," 4); (3) Elijah b. Moses Loans (1555-1636); (4) Falk, Ḥayyim Samuel, 1708-1782; (5) Gedaliah of Worms, an eminent Talmudist, died between 1622 and 1624 (Kaufmann, "Ya'ir Ḥayyim," Bacharach, p. 20, note 2); (6) Israel b. Eliezer (1700-1760), commonly known as Ba'al Shem-Ṭob (see article); (7) Joel b. Isaac Heilprin, middle of the seventeenth century; (8) Joel b. Uri Heilprin, beginning of the eighteenth century; (9) Selig of Lublin, beginning of the eighteenth century (Kahana in the passage cited below, p. 63); (10) Wolf, who, like most of the Ba'ale Shem, lived in Poland in the beginning of the eighteenth century (Kahana l.c.); (11) Sekl Loeb Wormser (1768-1846), the Michaelstadter Ba'al Shem, still known in Germany under that name.
- Kahana, R. Yisrael Ba'al Shem-Ṭob, 1900, pp. 59-64;
- Dembitzer, l.c.