Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov
(1698 - 1760)
The early life of Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, also known
as the Baal Shem Tov (Besht), is surrounded by mystery. As founder
of what is possibly the single most important religious movement in
Jewish history, Chassidus,
many legends have grown around him and it is difficult for us to know
what is historical fact. Even the year of his birth is a matter of controversy,
some sources say it was 1700.
Rabbi Yisrael was born in Okop, a small village in
the Ukraine on the Polish
Russian border (Podolia). His parents, Eliezer and Sarah, were quite
old when he was born and they passed away when he was a still a very
young child. Many legends are told about Eliezer, the father of the
Baal Shem Tov. We are told that his last words to his son were "Fear
nothing other than God."
The young orphan was cared for by the community
and presumably received the same education most children received.
Nevertheless, he was different from most children. He would wander in
the fields and forests surrounding his home and seclude himself,
pouring out his heart to God. Young Yisrael had an unusually strong
emotional relationship with God. This relationship was perhaps the
defining characteristic of the religious approach he would ultimately
develop and which came to be known as Chassidus.
When he entered his teens the community's
responsibility to support him ended and he was given a job as a
teacher's assistant (bahelfer). One of his tasks was to escort
the children to and from school, a task which he performed in his own
unique way, leading the children in song and praise to God.
His next job was as a caretaker in the local synagogue.
This provided the young Yisrael with the opportunity to study and
develop. During this period he attained an outstanding level of
knowledge in the entire body of Jewish knowledge, including
eventually, the mysteries of Kabbalah.
Nevertheless, he publicly he maintained an image of simplicity, and
the townspeople were completely ignorant of his stature.
According to legend, during this period Yisrael
developed a relationship with other hidden tzadikim (righteous
men). Most significant was a tzadik named Rabbi Adam Baal
Shem, who bequeathed his writings to Yisrael.
He also apparently married during this period, but
his wife passed away. At some point after the death of his first wife
he moved to a town near Brody where he was hired as a teacher for
young children. He became acquainted with Rabbi Ephraim of Brody, who
somehow discovered that Yisrael was not the simple fellow he appeared
to be. He was so impressed with Yisrael that he offered his daughter,
Leah Rochel, to Yisrael for a wife. However, Rabbi Ephraim passed
away a short time later, so when Yisrael went to Brody to marry his
wife, he met the bride's brother, Rabbi Gershon Kitover, also a major
scholar. When Yisrael presented himself as the groom, Rabbi Gershon
was shocked, since Yisrael was dressed in the manner of an ignorant
peasant. However, Yisrael produced a letter of engagement and Rabbi
Gershon begrudgingly agreed. Leah Rochel however, was apparently more
perceptive and saw that there was more to Yisrael than appeared on
the surface. After their marriage, Rabbi Yisrael and his wife moved
to a small town in the Carpathian Mountains. Supported by his wife,
he spent this period in study and worship.
Finally, when he was thirty-six years old in the year
1734, Rabbi Yisrael revealed himself to the world. He settled in Talust
and rapidly gained a reputation as a holy man. He became known as the Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name. (The title Baal Shem (Master of the Name) was used for holy men who were known as miracle
workers since they used the power of the Name of God to work miracles.)
He was also known by the acronym of "Besht." Later he moved
to Medzeboz in Western Ukraine, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Rabbi Yisrael's fame spread rapidly. Many important
scholars became his disciples. It was during this period that the movement,
which would eventually be known as Chassidus (piety), began. The Baal Shem Tov's teachings were largely based upon
the Kabalistic teachings
of the AriZal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-72)) but his approach made
the benefits of these teachings accessible even to the simplest Jew.
He emphasized the profound importance and significance of prayer, love
of God, and love of one's fellow Jews. He taught that even if one was
not blessed with the ability or opportunity to be a Torah scholar, one
could still reach great spiritual heights through these channels. It
is important to note that while the Baal Shem Tov taught that Torah study was not the only way to draw close to God, he did not teach
that Torah study was unimportant or unnecessary. On the contrary, he
emphasized the importance of having a close relationship with a rebbe,
a great Torah scholar who would be one's spiritual mentor and leader.
Furthermore, it should also be noted that while Chassidus was (and continues to be) of great benefit to the unsophisticated, it
is a very sophisticated system of thought. As anyone with any experience
in Jewish studies can attest, the many major Chassidic works were written
at a very high level of scholarship by men who had reached the pinnacle
of Torah knowledge.
There is no way that this essay can really do
proper justice to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. Let us simply
conclude that while there was no particular element in his teachings
that could be viewed as new to Judaism, nevertheless his teachings
revolutionized the Jewish world. At the time of his death the
Chassidic movement had grown to approximately ten thousand followers
and after his death it grew to include a significant portion of
The Baal Shem Tov felt a powerful love for the land of
Israel and his entire life he wanted to immigrate there. Many times
he attempted to do so, once even reaching Constantinople, but always
something prevented him from fulfilling his dream. Despite his personal
inability to move to the land of Israel,
the Baal Shem Tov succeeded in inspiring many of his disciples and followers
to do so.
The Baal Shem Tov did not write down his
teachings, and today we only know them through the writings of his
disciples. Much of what we know is from the writings of the Baal Shem
Tov's foremost disciple, Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Polonoye, the author of
the first Chassidic work ever published, Toldos Yakov Yosef.
He also published Ben Poras Yosef, Tzafnas Paneach, and Kesones Pasim. Together these works contain literally hundreds
of direct quotes from the Baal Shem Tov. Other major sources for the
teachings of the Baal Shem Tov are Keser Shem Tov, Tzavaas
HaRiva'sh, Magid Devarav L'Yakov (written by the
Mezericher Maggid, the Baal Shem Tov's succesor), Degel Machaneh
Ephraim, and Ohr HaMei'ir.
In 1759, about a year before the Baal Shem Tov
passed away, there was an incident that illustrated his immense love
for his fellow Jew. At that time there was a heretical sect led by a
man named Jacob Frank. These Frankists had begun agitating amongst
the Christian authorities against the Jews with specific emphasis
against the Talmud.
(In a previous "debate" in 1757, the Frankists had
succeeded in causing the Talmud to be burnt in Lvov.) The bishop of Lemberg decreed that a debate
should be held between the Jews and the Frankists. The Baal Shem Tov
was a member of the three man delegation that represented the Jews.
They were successful in averting this evil decree, and the Talmud was not burnt. At the same time however, the defeated Frankists were
then forced to convert to Christianity. While most of the Jewish
leaders were happy at the downfall of these evil men, the Baal Shem
Tov was not. He said. "The Divine Presence wails and says, 'So
long as a limb is attached to the body there is still a hope that
there can be a cure, but once the limb is cut off there is no cure
forever.' And every Jew is a limb of the Divine Presence."
The Baal Shem Tov passed away on the second day of Shavuous,
in the year 5520 (1760). He left behind a son and daughter and a movement
which continues to be significant force in the Jewish world today. He
was succeeded as leader of the Chassidic movement by Rabbi
Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch.
Jewish Leaders, OU