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Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye

(c. 1710—1784)


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Disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and foremost Hasidic author. Jacob Joseph (d.c. 1784), when serving as the Rabbi of Shargorod, came under the influence of the Baal Shem Tov whose doctrines he began to disseminate to the consternation of his congregation; he was obliged to relinquish his post, eventually becoming a Maggid, ‘Preacher’, in the town of Polonnoye. Jacob Joseph's work Toledot Yaakov Yosef (The Generations of Jacob Joseph), based on Genesis 37: 2, was the first Hasidic work to be published (in Koretz, 1780) and as such set the tone and style for subsequent Hasidic publications as well as bearing the brunt of the attacks on Hasidism by opponents of the new movement, the Mitnaggedim. The scorn Jacob Joseph poured out on Rabbinic scholars who studied with impure motives and his statement that one should not be overscrupulous in observing the precepts because this diverted the mind from true devotion to God, were seen as a special cause of offence. Jacob Joseph is known among the Hasidim as ‘the Toledot’, after his first work.

Jacob Joseph stresses that God is omnipresent. The Hasid should not lead an ascetic life. He should eat and drink and participate in social life but always with his mind on God. The masses, too, can be brought nearer to God through their attachment to the Zaddik, the holy master, who is, in turn, attached to God; as the Talmud states, ‘the fear of God was but a small thing’ to the people in the wilderness who were closely attached to Moses. The Zaddik is, moreover, the channel through which the divine grace and blessing flows.

It appears that Jacob Joseph had hoped to be the Baal Shem Tov's successor but it was the other chief disciple of the master, Dov Baer of Mezhirech, who became the acknowledged leader. Jacob Joseph retreated into himself to some extent and established no Hasidic following of his own. Yet his Toledot Yaakov Yosef is seen by all later Hasidim as the main record of the authentic teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, whose sayings Jacob Joseph quotes repeatedly with the formula: ‘I have heard from my master.’

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.


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