Continuation On Fake Rabbis – The Fake Mekubal Baal Shem Tov of London

Based on our previous article on fake rabbis, we will today delve into what makes a real Mekubal based on an unlikely story that might surprise you.

As mentioned here, a Mekubal/Kabbalist is a servant of Hashem of the highest caliber. By that, I mean that he distances himself from all things that might detract him from coming closer to Hashem. This is clearly a very high level that demands a lot of mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice).

Throughout Jewish history, there have been a few fake rabbis that took upon themselves to show off as pillars of holiness and righteousness. The most famous one was, of course, Shabtai Tzvi who deceived the masses as he pretended to be the the reincarnation of God, Mashiach and ultimately converted to Islam.

Today we will explore the little known story of the fake Kabbalist, the Baal Shem of London, whom many people mistake for being the real, holy Baal Shem Tov (R’ Israel Ben Eliezer). The two of them are in fact, arguably opposites.

Fake Rabbis getting a lot of money

Introduction to Alchemy and interest for fake rabbis

In addition to the profession of being a wealthy heir, no venture surpasses alchemy – the craft of transforming base metals into shimmering gold. For ages, countless individuals fruitlessly sought the mythical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, believed to change lead or mercury into gold.

This peculiar “pseudo-science” captivated millions, including Isaac Newton, who dedicated more of his writings to alchemy than to mathematics and physics, among other celebrities throughout the ages.

It’s not difficult to see why fake rabbis would be interested in alchemy: it gives credence to your “powers” as a miracle worker.

A Glimmer of Truth

The origins of alchemy are shrouded in mystery. Some theorized it was discovered by Noah, while others speculated that Moshe Rabbenu acquired the knowledge in Egypt. Indeed, the concept of converting cheap metals into gold isn’t entirely without merit. Yet many sources attest to the existence of alchemy. R’ Yaakov Chaim Sofer writes in Kaf HaChaim that the science for transmuting metals and even water in gold exists. Rav Chaim Vital was once admonished by the Arizal not to study it and focus entirely on Torah.

It’s not difficult to imagine if we consider the physical to reality to be is a manifestation of energy coming from the spiritual worlds. If we make a change in the spiritual engine behind, then the change is effected in the physical realm.

So, it exists.

Just as modern science recognizes that all elements are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons, alchemists believed that lead and gold were fundamentally identical. They posited that by purifying substances like iron or mercury, one could reveal the hidden gold within. The real challenge, however, was figuring out how to accomplish this.

Denis Zachaire, a 16th-century Frenchman, epitomizes these seekers. In his autobiography, he recounts his obsessive pursuit:

“At twenty-five, I returned home, having squandered two hundred crowns from my family on fruitless experiments. My mentor passed away, exhausted by the relentless heat of our laboratory. Desperate, I mortgaged part of my estate for four hundred crowns, influenced by an Italian in Toulouse. Sadly, the gold I extracted halved in quantity, and my funds rapidly dwindled to two hundred and thirty crowns.

“Undeterred, I again mortgaged my land for four hundred crowns and joined forces with the Abbe, pooling eight hundred crowns. In Paris, a hotbed of alchemy, I mingled with over a hundred alchemists, each with their unique theories and methods. Despite their excuses for failure, I remained resolute. Eventually, only one hundred and seventy-six crowns remained.”

To save face, Zachaire later claimed he succeeded in turning mercury into gold, retiring in Switzerland.

Monarchs and rulers also engaged actively in alchemy, sometimes supportive, sometimes oppositional.

In 1404, England criminalized the artificial creation of gold, fearing an alchemist might empower a tyrant to dominate the nation. Conversely, fifty years later, King Henry VI encouraged the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, envisioning it as a means to clear the Crown’s debts with real gold and silver. Nobles and minor rulers often lured alchemists to their courts, only to imprison them until they produced wealth – a futile wait, as many imposters languished in dungeons indefinitely.

Fake Mekubal Baal Shem of London

The Path to Destitution

Numerous alchemists cunningly capitalized on the innocence of nobles, infiltrating their households and executing elaborate deceptions as outlined in a 1722 report by the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris:

One prevalent stratagem entailed the use of a double-bottomed crucible, comprising an underlayer of iron or copper and an upper layer of wax meticulously painted to resemble metal. Concealed amid these layers lay a cache of gold or silver dust. Upon the addition of substances like lead or quicksilver and subsequent heating, a nugget of gold invariably ‘materialized’ as the finale.

Equally crafty methods abounded. Certain alchemists wielded hollow wands brimming with precious metal dust, hermetically sealed with wax or butter, to agitate the concoction within their crucibles, captivating spectators with elaborate rituals. They would perforate lead, infuse it with molten gold, then seal the perforations anew, or cloak gold with quicksilver for camouflage, later unveiling its veritable essence with aquafortis.

Another stratagem entailed nails, comprising a fusion of iron and gold or silver, with the golden segment purportedly transmuted from iron through the application of potent alcohol. Coins, bifurcated between gold and silver, were frequently manipulated by alchemists for deceitful ends.

For earnest seekers of the Philosopher’s Stone, the quest often culminated in financial ruin and disenchantment.

A poignant illustration is found in the case of Bernard of Treves, an Italian who inherited considerable wealth only to squander it from the age of 14 to 85 on charlatans in exchange for their purported aid and hospitality. During one experiment, his 42 marks of gold, intermingled with diverse substances, inexplicably dwindled to 16.

As Bernard approached his demise at 85, penniless and destitute, he arrived at the sobering realization that true contentment lay in acceptance of one’s circumstances.

The underlying rationale for the relentless pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone, notwithstanding purported multiple discoveries, resided in the belief that each aspirant must individually labor for the enigmatic secret. Consequently, alchemical literature was replete with enigmas and opaque language.

Moreover, alchemy was intertwined with the pursuit of protracted or eternal life. The 12th-century alchemist Artephius, who claimed to have lived for 1025 years, enjoyed widespread credence. In the subsequent century, Arnold de Villeneuve posited a curious regimen for longevity involving a specialized diet for chickens, incorporating snakes to be consumed every seven years alongside white wine.

The Baal Shem Tov of London and the Legacy of Alchemy

Many alchemists harbored a belief that Jews safeguarded profound secrets within their craft. Among them was Nicholas Flamel, a 14th-century Frenchman who stumbled upon a tome purportedly inscribed by “Abraham, patriarch, Jew, prince, philosopher, priest, Levite, and astrologer.” He speculated that it contained esoteric Jewish wisdom pillaged from the Temple by Titus.

After grappling with its cryptic illustrations for 21 years, Flamel’s wife urged him to seek counsel from a learned rabbi. Despite a journey fraught with adversity, Flamel purportedly achieved the conversion of mercury into gold in 1382 at the age of 80, a feat he continued until his passing at 116.

In the 19th century, a speculator who acquired Flamel’s residence in pursuit of concealed riches found himself burdened with substantial repair expenses instead.

Among Jewish alchemists, Chaim Shmuel Falk (1708-1782) stands out. Banished from several German states due to his inexplicable demonstrations, Falk eventually settled in London in 1736. Despite accusations of being a Frankist leveled against him by Rav Yaakov Emden, Falk assimilated into the Spanish/Portuguese Jewish community, earning the moniker ‘Baal Shem Tov of London’ for his practical Kabbalah and invocation of sacred names.

You may find out more about him here in the Kotzk Blog.

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The lore surrounding Falk is nothing short of captivating. Legends speak of treasures hidden in Epping Forest, a mysterious carriage wheel that trailed him, his purported ability to summon coal, and his reputed safeguarding of the Great Synagogue of London from conflagration through mystical inscriptions (i.e. Kameot, amulets).

Intriguingly, the ubiquitous depiction of the Baal Shem Tov in many Sukkot is, in fact, a portrayal of this Baal Shem of London, immortalized by the brush of American artist John Copley. Sadly, people don’t know that the real, holy founder of Chassidut, the Baal Shem Tov has no picture of him.

The allure of transmutation waned in the 19th century with the advent of scientific breakthroughs but experienced a resurgence in 1901. Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy, while investigating radioactive thorium, observed its natural metamorphosis into radium, shedding a portion of its nucleus. Despite Soddy’s enthusiasm regarding transmutation, Rutherford cautioned against employing the term to sidestep associations with alchemy.

Presently, nuclear fission yields precious metals like rhodium and ruthenium, with silver emerging as a by-product. While gold has been artificially synthesized from mercury since 1941, the process remains prohibitively expensive.

The quest to transform base materials into riches persists as an enigmatic testament to the enduring allure and perplexities of alchemy.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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