Mystical Hasidisim: Hillel Ba’al Shem’s enchanted journey


In this episode, Yael and Schwab delve into the world of 18th-century Jewish mysticism through the life of Hillel Ba’al Shem and his manuscript “Sefer HaCheshek.” Exploring failed miracles and comedic exorcisms, they contrast Hillel’s legacy with the revered Ba’al Shem Tov, uncovering profound philosophical insights and historical context, from Kabbalah to controversies surrounding figures like Shabbetai Tzvi.

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Schwab: Welcome to Jewish History Nerds, where we do exactly what it sounds like. Nerd out on awesome stories in Jewish history.

Yael: I’m Yael Steiner and my childhood dream was to stay in school forever.

Schwab: I’m Jonathan Schwab, and I am in school forever.

Yael: Schwab, this week I got a little more time to myself because you are going to regale us with some amazing story.

Schwab: Yes. Yeah, let me regale you. This week is a little bit different because we’re going to be talking a lot more about mysticism and demons and angels than we usually do. I feel like on a history podcast, we often do a lot of books and social movements and we’ll have all of those things, but also just a lot of magic.

Yael: Okay, so this is like YA fiction, witches, wizards, vampires, that kind of thing? Really?

Schwab: Honestly, yeah, I don’t think there are any vampires, but there are a lot of adjacenty-type, you know, evil spirits that aren’t humans.

Yael: So I’m not embarrassed to say that I watch this vampire show on Amazon. It’s the only vampire show I’ve ever watched. I’ve never seen a Twilight movie or anything like that. But Rabbi Isaac Luria is a character in the vampire show. I don’t know if we’re gonna be talking about him, but.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. We’re not. I feel like that’s a really interesting one for the future.

Yael: But I thought how did this Jewish mystic end up in my vampire show?

Schwab: Yeah, and that’s actually a great transition, I think, to the overall lesson here, which is that, I don’t know what your Jewish education was like. I feel mine was very steeped in a very intellectual and rational tradition. And I sometimes forget how much mysticism has been a huge part of Jewish life.

Yael: I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the way we look at Hasidim now is as living a very stringent and rigid lifestyle and we’ve kind of put the spiritual element that really started all of Hasidism to the back because from the outside you don’t see it.

Sculpture of the Hasidic movement’s celebration of spirituality on the Knesset Menorah (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Schwab: Yeah. I’m so glad you said that because that’s exactly sort of where our story centers. And that’s the origins of Hasidism and what Hasidism means, you know, right? Exactly what you’re saying. We today equate it with ultra-orthodox observance and a stringency, but along with that, especially when it was first starting, there was a lot of other stuff that wasn’t just about strict adherence to laws. And in fact, that was one of the things that it was reacting to. It was a reactionary movement about not just strictly adhering to laws.

Yael: It almost evokes for me that 1960s being a radical reaction to the, My Three Sons, Leave It To Beaver, very traditional, quote, boring maybe 1950s life. And then all the kids who grew up in that sort of going in the total opposite direction by becoming spiritual and listening to their feelings and their emotions, a lot more than they were raised to do.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yes, so there’s so much to do. Before we even get to the main character, there’s a different person I wanna briefly mention. And you probably will not have heard of the main person we’re speaking about, but you probably have heard of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Yael: I have. I think he was the founder of Hasidism.

Schwab: Yeah, at the time, he didn’t say, I’m founding Hasidism, but now that’s how we see him.

Yael: Got it.

Schwab: And I never really thought that much about what that name meant. I know what all three of those Hebrew words mean, but never thought, what does it really mean? And I’m curious if you had the same assumption I had of what a Ba’al Shem Tov means.

Yael: Well, just to translate it literally into Hebrew, it’s the man of a good name, the man with a good name or good reputation. And I’m guessing based on the way you phrase the question that is not the answer.

Schwab: So it’s hard to tell for sure, but there is another, that’s totally possible. There’s another possibility, and this is what we’ll talk a lot about, he was not the only person using the title Ba’al Shem. In fact, that was almost a profession, a Ba’al Shem, a person in possession of or who had mastery of a name. Ba’al Shem was someone who could wield the mystical powers by using the name of God.

Yael: Oh, interesting. I feel like the name of God, or the is it 70 names of God that we have? Something like that.

Schwab: There are a lot and they all have different powers and you mentioned before, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who’s the one who invents the golem, right?

Yael: Yes, yes. Right.

Schwab: And that’s that legend, right? If somebody uses the power of a name or of a certain word and is able to bring something to life? And that’s, as I always say, there’s something very Jewish about this. There’s something very Jewish about the power of a text. You know what’s the most powerful thing in the world? Words and books, and we can use them to transform things and perform all sorts of miracles.

Yael: Well, Abracadabra comes from the Talmud, Abra kids Abra, it was created through speech. So I guess going back even thousands of years in Judaism, we have this conception of words being able to conjure material things.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Yeah, to affect our reality. Yeah.

Yael: But it does make sense to me that someone who is tapped in to mysticism would call themselves a man of names or of God’s name because we learn that all the different names carry different characteristics and that to me speaks to a certain level of esoteric mysticism, if that makes any sense.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So the title Ba’al Shem Tov, you know, if there’s this concept, a Ba’al Shem, a person who has mastery of a name, you might think, and it’s possible that Ba’al Shem Tov is somebody who has a mastery of a good name, can use a name for good. But another possibility is that the Ba’al Shem Tov, he was, yeah, a good one. As opposed to, there were a lot of people who were kind of charlatans. 

Yael: Yeah, that makes sense. Snake Oil Salesman.

Schwab: Exactly. The person we’re going to talk about today went by the name of Hillel Ba’al Shem. His name was Hillel and his profession was a Ba’al Shem.

Yael: And he is not the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Schwab: He is not the Ba’al Shem Tov. In fact, he, as we’ll talk about, he was not very successful and is not very well known now. In the very few writings about him from the very few people who have studied him, one person refers to him derogatorily and also somewhat tongue in cheek as the Ba’al Shem Ra, the bad Ba’al Shem.

Yael: That’s worse than what I was gonna say, which was that he’s the Ba’al Shem Meh, but Ra’s worse.

Schwab: Yeah, Ba’al Shem Meh would be a good title for him, I think.

Yael: No reason to call him bad unless there is, which you’re gonna tell me he was very bad. He was mad. He was, he was mad.

Schwab: Yeah. Yeah, no, he was not he. No, he wasn’t really evil. He was just he was very meh at it, it seems like. Yeah, he was mid. Yeah. Continuing our use of. Generation Z slang. Yes.

Yael: Our adventure into youth lingo, and even by calling it lingo, I’m old, I know. Okay, so yet we are talking about him tonight on this podcast. So why?

Schwab: Yeah. We are talking about him. And you and our listeners are about to be in the absolute tiny circle of people who know about this person at all. One of them is Professor Henry Abramson, who we refer to all the time, who’s the education lead on our podcast. And in writing about it, he refers to the other two people who also refer to each other. So there’s basically three historians who’ve done any work on Hillel Ba’al Shem at all. So you’re about to be, I don’t know, within probably the first hundred people who know anything about this topic.

Yael: I like exclusive clubs, so I’m okay with that. I’m nothing if not cliquey.

Schwab: Yeah. And this story is so perfect. If you trained an AI on our podcast and said, now make up a story that would be perfect for Jewish history nerds, it would include some sort of discovered or hidden text or something like that, which just seems like it comes up all the time in this podcast. So of course that’s at the center of this story. In this case, there’s a manuscript that was just sitting in a library until it was uncovered by a brilliant historian by the name of Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, very recently. And in talking about him with Professor Henry Abramson, Professor Abramson was very clear that Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern is one of the most brilliant, perhaps the most brilliant person he’s ever met in his life.

Yael: I think I came across him in my Mendelson research actually quite prominently. So he knows a lot apparently.

Schwab: And he is, I think he was working in a library and comes across this manuscript and sort of figures out, I don’t think anyone knows about this book. And he sets about, just making this book known and reading more about it. The book’s title is Sefer HaCheshek and it’s written by this guy Hillel Ba’al Shem. 

Yael: That is not a word that I know. Chesheck.

Schwab: I think it means something like desire or striving for, or could also mean a connection maybe. There are a couple of other books by that same title or use a very similar title, and it almost immediately becomes clear. It’s not any of those. This is some sort of other book that really, like I said, has never been discussed before by anybody. This is the only version of it that we have is this manuscript.

Yael: It’s the only copy that we know of?

Schwab: It’s the only copy that we know of. Hillel Ba’al Shem is not discussed anywhere else by anybody. There’s no other source for him. The only thing we know about him is that he wrote this manuscript that we have one copy of. That by the way, just in case you were wondering, it’s not like somebody made it up and put it in the library 50 years ago. This definitely is a real artifact of the mid 1700s, around 1740.

Yael: What was so special about the contents of this book that we’re taking one book written by one guy who nobody else has heard of and focusing an episode about it?

Schwab: That’s a great question. It’s a very large book in which he details so, so much about what it is that he does as a Ba’al Shem that it sheds an incredible amount of light onto what was going on at the time, what it means to be a Ba’al Shem. Because here’s this first person perspective on what this job is , a lot of magical instructions for all sorts of stuff. And it’s not written by somebody else about him. It’s not an account of his career from someone else. It’s not later in time looking back, but just directly from his perspective, tells us a lot about what the average Ba’al Shem’s life was at the time.

Yael: It’s a book of spells?

Schwab: Let me read to you a quick list of things, that he gives instructions for, what you can use these holy names, and impure names, because I don’t know if you know this, but the world is split into two spheres, sort of the upper world and the lower world, and then each of those worlds is split into another two worlds and then by using the parallel things from the bottom world and the top world, you can affect things. So you wanna use the good names to invoke the good angels and the bad names to invoke the bad angels. Yeah, that was mostly my reaction.

Yael: Sure. Are those the names that are in brackets in the Artscroll prayer book where it says only scan them with your eyes, don’t say them out loud?

Schwab: Yeah. That’s what it made me think a lot about, prayers that we say at certain times of the year, there are names of angels or names of God that you should not say out loud during this portion, but you may only look at them.

Yael: And I think that’s part of the priestly blessing, which is a special prayer, at least for Ashkenazi Jews, that is only said on holidays. Sephardim, I believe, say it every Shabbat, and maybe every day, but at least every Shabbat.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And in Israel.

Yael: And you’re not supposed to look at the priests while they’re giving this blessing. And until this day, I am terrified of maybe accidentally looking at them because I always thought that I would see ghosts or something really creepy would happen to me. So yeah, I definitely have bought into this mystical power. I definitely have this little part of me that subscribes to religious mysticism.

Schwab: Yeah. Like I said, my education, especially in high school and after high school, was of the extreme rational variety. And I learned during that time that the custom of not looking at the priests while they are performing this blessing is based on a polite thing that you’re not, when someone is blessing you, you should not make direct eye contact with them. That was so relieving to me when I learned that, because one time I did accidentally look and was convinced that I was going to immediately go blind. I’m not as worried about it now, now that I know it’s just based on a custom of being polite. 

Yael: I took us way astray into my psyche.

Schwab: Yes, okay, so I was gonna read a list. I’m gonna read a non-exhaustive list of things that Hillel Ba’al Shem covers in his work that you can do. 

Stop epidemics. Treat a sick child. Prevent epilepsy, dizziness, craziness, headache, and night fears. Treat fever, wounds, pollution, diarrhea, insomnia, bad smell from the mouth. Expel evil forces from a house. Cure a barren woman. Regulate menstruation. Regulate heart beating.

Yael: So it’s a panacea, it’s a cure-all.

Schwab: Well, they’re different things. It’s not like here’s the one thing and this helps everything. These are all on different pages, different instructions for how to do any of these different things. Stop girls’ hair from growing, prevent thieves from coming to your house, stop fire, identify thieves.

Yael: And this is all verbal, this all happens with words, or are there potions and things like that?

Schwab: Yeah, a lot of using these names either verbally saying them out loud or writing them in certain ways. And very importantly, he does mention elsewhere that key to the power of all of this is belief. You have to really believe that it’s going to work. If you don’t believe it’s going to work, it’s definitely not going to work.

Yael: Well, the believing thing is a pretty good out, because if whatever he does doesn’t work, he can just tell you that it’s because you’re not a true believer, and that you have doubt.

Schwab: Yes, yes, if you’re the snake oil salesman, right, you can just say, oh, it didn’t work because you didn’t believe it enough. He, in his writing, he doesn’t use it as an out. He seems genuinely really aggrieved that people are not utilizing these things as much as they should and that there are people who are going around and faking all of this and he says the fact that people are faking all of this is undermining people’s belief and thus taking away the power that we could be using to create so much good in the world because people are becoming skeptical because of the bad guys. Now they are not going to believe enough and the belief is so important and it really would be so much better if we could restore faith in these things which would help them work and help people.

Yael: Does he write in this book records of people he has helped? Does he talk about, Mrs. Smith down the road had leprosy and I cured her of it with my amulet?

Schwab: I was planning on getting there, but I’m so glad you asked. The best story, you almost feel bad for him reading this because he’s not that successful in this career as a Ba’al Shem. And he seems just way too honest in his own work about this, and records way too many of his own failures in this book. And he has a lot of them. So he talks about this one case where he performs basically, even though this word is really more steeped in the Christian tradition, an exorcism, removing of an evil spirit from a person’s body.

Yael: Okay. Okay.

Schwab: He is in a town called Ostrov in Western Ukraine nowadays, I believe, and there is a woman who is suffering from all sorts of mysterious and terrible ailments. And finally, finally after resisting this for some time, the town council finally says, look, there is a Ba’al Shem here in our community. And even though we all have very little respect for him, and don’t think he will do anything, we’ll actually ask him to help. In his own book, he’s saying how little respect people have for him. So he comes and he speaks to this woman, and through his powers, he is able to speak to the spirit occupying this woman.

Yael: It’s good to be self-aware.

Schwab: And then records, you know, what it tells him, which is a crazy story. This is what he writes is this spirits story is Something I don’t even fully understand the story. But basically a long time ago in this town , a Jewish man had a relationship or possibly married a non-Jewish woman. They had children together. Related or unrelated, this same Jewish man somehow becomes involved in a murder case.

Yael: Okay. Okay.

Schwab: But of a different person, not anyone in his family, it seems like. The local Jews in the town, try to arrest him and bring him to a beit din, to a Jewish court. And to sort of avoid that, he converts to Greek orthodoxy, to a form of Christianity. So therefore he can’t be prosecuted in the Jewish court because he’s converting to a different religion. And escapes the court and then some sort of terrible accident happens to him and he dies. So because there was a lot of real unresolved issues here, his spirit remains as some sort of malignant force on earth and goes, where all malignant spirit forces go, into a tree.

Yael: Okay.

Schwab: Hillel Ba’al Shem is recording this in his book as being narrated by this spirit, through this woman to him. So the spirit is in this tree, a completely unrelated Jewish woman from the town who is pregnant rests by the tree one day, and the spirit comes out of the tree and enters this woman’s body through her right eye, thus blinding her in her right eye, and then proceeds to, in its possession of this woman, really torture her for some extended period of time, makes her baby unhealthy, her husband gets sick and dies, her baby is born and is sick but then recovers, but this woman just, her life keeps getting worse and worse, and just all sorts of horrible things seem to keep happening for her over the course of seven years. And the people from the town are trying all sorts of different medical interventions, rabbinic interventions, and finally, begrudgingly, they turn to this Ba’al Shem who is visiting the town to see if he can intervene in some way, and he speaks to this woman and speaks to the spirit possessing her, and the spirit possessing her is just in awe of Hillel Ba’al Shem. Again, this is what he writes down in his book. The spirit is like, you are amazing. You are one of the most talented ba’alei shem I have ever met. The community does not respect you enough because you are so masterful at this. I’m gonna tell you exactly what to do so that you can properly exercise me from this body. And gives him a whole set of instructions. The end of the story is, it fails, the woman does not get better, and he is sort of drummed out of town and goes on to his next thing.

Yael: Why is he just recounting this failure?

Schwab: They didn’t respect me.

Yael: And they were right.

Schwab: Ultimately, it turns out that they were right because I was not successful in resolving this. And now I will move on to the next thing that happened to me in the next town.

Yael: So are we sure that the book isn’t a diary?

Schwab: Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, who I mentioned before, his theory is this was written, Hillel Ba’al Shem clearly was not that successful as a Ba’al Shem. And this book maybe was his last ditch attempt to try to get some respect in the community and see if he can get some sort of tenured secure position in a town that would hire him and pay him locally to be their Ba’al Shem, which is, by the way, sort of what the Ba’al Shem Tov does. He also started out going from town to town, but ultimately a community values and respects him and sort of pays him to live there and be their local miracle worker, spiritual leader. So maybe that’s what Hillel Ba’al Shem is trying to do is say, if you read this manuscript, you’ll see how great I am. But he is unflinchingly honest to a fault, by recording this failure.

Yael: Right, he’s trying to be honest up front before they go to his references and the references tell them, by the way, he lied.

Schwab: Yeah, but you know what references of his are impeccable from this story, who holds him in great respect is the spirit. And this happens many times! There are multiple stories like this where he has these encounters, and even though other people, both the regular people and the esteemed and elite members of the community don’t have this great respect for him, the spirits that he encounters are all, oh my God, you are the best at this. You are so great. And he records this.

Yael: And does anyone take the word of the spirit?

Schwab: We don’t know because the only thing we have is this book, but it does seem really compelling because the spirit in this case held him in such high regard that he, the spirit gave him the instructions for the exorcism, which also, by the way, it sounds cool. He’s got to wait seven days and he’s got to take seven Torah scrolls and he’s got to get seven young boys to assist him.

Yael: Got it. Okay. That’s not weird.

Schwab: Purify themselves, that part’s a little weird. But the idea, like he’s not saying, I found this formula in a book or it was taught to me by a secret rabbi. He’s directly conversing with the spirit world. That’s where he’s getting these instructions and ideas from. That seems, I don’t know, pretty legitimate if you believe in such things.

Yael: It just kind of reminds me of Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Ghost. I don’t know if you’ve seen Ghost.

Schwab: I have not, no.

Yael: She’s a fortune teller type and she, the spirits of the ghosts that she talks to inhabit her body and then are able to tell the people who wanna hear what they wanna hear through her. I am trying to give this story more weight than I give to the movie Ghost, as you mentioned earlier, there is this history of mysticism in the Jewish world and the Ba’al Shem Tov seems to have been someone who actually could possibly do some of these things. So I don’t want to denigrate it completely and say, you know, this is on the level of, Linda Blair and the Exorcist or Ghostbusters, but I don’t know what kind of esteem I’m supposed to give it.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. I hear what you’re saying. I also feel, are we supposed to, be doing anything other than kind of laughing at Hillel Ba’al Shem in his manuscript?

Yael: It could be a novel, for all we know.

Schwab: It seems like it’s the manuscript of this person who is a really tragic figure because he’s really desperately trying to convince people his whole life and the reader of this manuscript, that he’s trying to do this thing, but at the same time, tells his story in such a way that it’s really hard to believe he’s not good at even convincing the reader that he’s good at it.

Yael: So why do we study him? Why has anyone studied him? Why isn’t he just written off in history as just another dude, okay?

Schwab: He’s remarkably interesting because it’s the exact same time and nearly the same location as the Ba’al Shem Tov. And there are some differences between them, but largely they’re doing the same things.

So what’s incredibly interesting is what the story or the manuscript of Hillel Ba’al Shem as a foil, as a contrast to the Ba’al Shem Tov and what is it that the Ba’al Shem Tov was doing that allowed him to create an entire movement when Hillel Ba’al Shem couldn’t get people to pay attention to a word he was saying.

Yael: Does he have any records in his book of actually being effective and successful?

Schwab: Occasionally, but few and far between, right? Certainly by the time he writes the book and the book, like Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern theorizes, is maybe his attempt to try to do that in some way, but we have no reason to think that happened at all. But his contemporary, the Ba’al Shem Tov, was not and became incredibly respected and revered and to this day is an incredibly important character.

Yael: So what did the Ba’al Shem Tov do that landed him this esteem?

Schwab: The Ba’al Shem Tov had, yeah, had a deeper and universal message. The Ba’al Shem Tov, yes, was also involved in amulet making and magic, but it wasn’t just about the one-time magical exorcisms and one-offs and this spell to cure this, but he had a message about personal spiritual growth and accountability and there was something to that was really attractive to people. And Hillel Ba’al Shem seems like it was all about the magic for him, you know? There wasn’t an underlying philosophical thing he was trying to get to. And therefore people just moved on. But the Ba’al Shem Tov was saying something that really got through to people in some way. And that became something really inspiring that they followed.

Yael: Do other Ba’alei Shem appear in, in other popular histories?

Schwab: Yes. We have lots of records of people going by the term Ba’alei Shem. Hillel Ba’al Shem refers to a whole bunch of others. He’s like, oh yeah, and Isaac Ba’al Shem, I know him. And some of the people he counts as his contemporaries or even teachers, we know of as people of some renown from other sources. But the Ba’al Shem Tov is the only Ba’al Shem we talk about nowadays, other than on this podcast.

Yael: Is this coming from Kabbalah? Is this coming from a previous generation of enchanted people?

Schwab: It’s coming from Kabbalah. Hillel Ba’al Shem talks a lot about his main teacher, who is Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch, who is someone who is talked about in other sources, we do know something about. And a lot of it is based in this Kabbalah. Also, underlying all of this is a lot of sabbatianism and crypto sabbatianism and all sorts of reactions to followings of Shabbetai Tzvi. Hillel Ba’al Shem never mentions Shabbetai Tzvi, but it is clear that he is sort of obtusely talking about him in a number of places. He’s like, oh, and here we had a person who is not doing exactly the right kinds of things and was inserting the wrong names into the Torah, but then the historians who have studied him are, oh, what this is referring to is a thing that crypto, or open followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, Sabbatians would do is sometimes erase the name of God and write Shabbetai Tzvi in those places in the Torah, and people had to check for this. And if they found that they would have to destroy the scroll, I did not know this, you cannot then erase Shabbetai Tzvi and write God’s name back, you gotta destroy the whole thing.

Yael: You have, wow. That is a really, if you can get your followers to erase God’s name in a holy book and replace it and write in your own, that is quite something. That is charisma.

Schwab: And that was the thing people were doing. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, and if you wanna know about the type of charisma that will lead you there, and you haven’t already listened to it, you gotta go back to, I think the third or fourth episode we ever did was on Shabbetai Tzvi, way back in season one.

Yael: Remind me what year this was?

Schwab: It seems like the manuscript was probably written in 1740 or 1741 based on the style and the printing and the materials and a couple of things he refers to.

Yael: So do we think that this movement is a direct response to the enlightenment?

Schwab: Yes, it’s a response to a couple of things right like Hasidism in general which this is or it emerges from this is sort of this backlash to an elite system of textual learning that’s very much about strict observance of the law. There’s sort of the geographic center we talked about this a couple of episodes ago in Lithuania of Vilna, and the concept of textual learning and knowledge and the accumulation of social power through that, this is a popular and populist movement that emerges in response to that, that says maybe we move away from just the ideas and find a place for feeling and inspiration and connection that’s less about something that’s really hard to achieve and very removed, but something that’s that’s very achievable and connectable for a wide range of people. It’s less do whatever you want, and more you can pray later in the morning than, you know, just at this exact time.

Yael: if it speaks to you.

Schwab: In taking your time finding a way to find yourself in prayer is more important than doing it in this narrow window that you know that we say this is the exact right time to pray.

Yael: Interesting. I don’t want to downplay this, but do we think that he was someone who was mentally ill, who was finding other people who were mentally ill to prey upon? Or do we think he was of sound mind and preying upon the mentally ill?

Schwab: Hmm, interesting. I actually wanna say neither. I really feel the version that comes through is that he is a person who genuinely believed in what he was doing. He genuinely believed in the power of magic. And was just not great at it and not great at being charismatic and convincing people. He wasn’t a con man because he wasn’t good enough to be a con man.

Yael: This was all a good faith effort to try to help people.

Schwab: And he was bad at it.

Yael: Did he take money from these people?

Schwab: Very little.

Yael: Very little because he failed or very little just because he didn’t ask for that much.

Schwab: Well, he couldn’t have asked for that much because it’s not like people would give it to him. They’d be like, what are you talking about? He’s just sort of a failed wizard. He believes in the spells, he knows that the spells are real, they just never seem to work right for him, and everybody knows it.

Yael: And it’s amazing that he left that record for us. If he had not left the record, I wouldn’t be kind of raining insults or criticisms upon him right now.

Schwab: Yeah, it’s such a fascinating book because he could have written a book where he’s like, I am amazing and here’s a record of all the miracles that I wrought and all the people who respected me so much. But he didn’t write that book. He wrote a book that’s an honest accounting of basically repeatedly failing at this thing that he’s so desperately believed in.

Yael: I like the level of self-awareness. I find it admirable.

Schwab: Yeah. I beg forgiveness from the spirit of Hillel Ba’al Shem for our merciless roasting of him.

Yael: If the spirit of Hillel Ba’al Shem is out there right now and you ever encounter him at an exorcism, he is not going to think highly of you, just so you know.

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