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 European Jewry.
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.