Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements

By Stephen Sharot | Go to book overview

9.

Millenarianism
and Mysticism in
Eighteenth-Century
Poland

AROUND THE middle of the eighteenth century two Jewish religious movements arose in Podolia, a region of the western Ukraine in southeast Poland: the millennialist, Sabbatian movement of Jacob Frank and the mystical Hasidic movement. Neither Jacob Frank (circa 1726-91) nor Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba'al Shem Tov (circa 1700-1760), the founder of Hasidism, attracted more than a few thousand followers of the forty to fifty thousand Jews in Podolia, but while the Frankist movement rapidly declined after the death of its leader, the Hasidic movement grew to encompass the majority of Jews in a large part of eastern Europe.

In Podolia the peak period of the Frankist movement lasted from 1755, when Frank was accepted as leader by the Sabbatians in Podolia and elsewhere, to 1759-60, when a large proportion of the Frankists in Podolia converted to Catholicism. Small groups of Frankists continued in Podolia in the second half of the eighteenth century, but following Frank's release in 1772 from twelve years of imprisonment, the center of the movement moved with its leader to Moravia and later to Germany. After Frank died, his daughter Eva and her two younger brothers assumed the leadership, but the movement quickly declined, and Frank's children were reduced to poverty. The Frankists who had remained Jews either returned to the traditional fold or, in central Europe, became secularized and reform Jews. The baptized Frankists in Poland appear to have retained some distinctive identity after the death of Eva in 1816: a preference for marriage within the group continued into the third generation, and even later in some cases. However, the majority abandoned their distinctive sectarian beliefs and shed their Jewish identity and culture. Most were finally assimilated into Polish Christian society. 1

The influence of the first Hasidic leader, the Ba'al Shem Tov (Besht being the common acronym), did not extend beyond Podolia and adjacent districts. His successor, Dov Baer, "the Great Maggid," of Mezhirech, who led the movement from 1766 to his death in 1772, resided in the province of Volhynia, north of Podolia. The move to a more central province of Poland facilitated the spread of the movement, and under Dov Baer,

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