Baal Shem Tov
Baʿal Shem Tov
BAʿAL SHEM TOV
BAʿAL SHEM TOV (master of the good name), popular designation for Yisraʾel ben Eliʿezer (c. 1700–1760), the founder of the Hasidic movement in eastern Europe, who is also known by the acronym BeSHT (commonly written "Besht"). There are few historically authentic sources that describe the life of the Besht; most information must be gleaned from nineteenth-century hagiography, especially the collection of more than three hundred stories about him, known as Shivhei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Besht; first printed in 1815), and the works of later Hasidic writers.
Born in the small town of Okopy in the southern Ukraine, Yisraʾel ben Eliʿezer is said to have begun preaching around 1738, after a long period of seclusion in the Carpathian Mountains with his wife. According to other accounts, he served throughout his life as a popular healer, writer of amulets, and exorcist of demons from houses and bodies, which were the traditional roles of a baʿal shem (master of the name) or baʿal shem tov (master of the good name)—in other words, the master of the name that empowered him to perform what he wished.
In his wandering around many Jewish communities, the Besht came into contact with various circles of pietists. In some cases he was criticized by the rabbis, but his powers as a preacher and magician attracted disciples, including masters of Jewish law and Qabbalah such as Yaʿaqov Yosef of Polonnoye (d. 1782) and Dov Ber of Mezhirich (1704–1772). As Gershom Scholem has suggested, the Besht should be regarded as the founder of the great eastern European Hasidic movement, even though our knowledge of his organizational work is scanty, and even though the first Hasidic center was established only after his death by Dov Ber, who became the leader of the movement.
Although he was not a scholar in Jewish law, the Besht was well versed in Qabbalah and in popular Jewish ethical tradition, on which he relied when delivering his sermons and formulating his theories. He saw the supreme goal of religious life as devequt (cleaving), or spiritual communion with God; this state can be achieved not only during prayers but also in the course of everyday activities. In his view, there is no barrier between the holy and the profane, and worship of God can be the inner content of any deed, even the most mundane one. Indeed, the Besht did not insist on following the complicated qabbalistic system of kavvanot (intentions) in prayers and in the performance of the Jewish religious commandments, but substituted instead the mystical devotion of devequt as the primary means of uplifting the soul to the divine world. His teachings also included the theory that evil can be transformed into goodness by a mystical process of returning it to its original source in the divine world and redirecting it into good spiritual power; this idea was further developed by his followers.
The Besht believed that he was in constant contact with the divine powers and saw his mission as that of correcting and leading his generation. In a letter preserved by Yaʿaqov Yosef (whose voluminous works contain the most important material we have concerning the Besht's teachings), the Besht indicates that he practiced ʿaliyyat neshamah, or the uplifting of the soul. In this way, he explained, he communicated with celestial powers who revealed their secrets to him. According to the document, these included the Messiah, who told him that redemption would come when his teachings were spread all over the world (which the Besht interpreted as "in a long, long time").
The Besht was convinced that his prayer carried special weight in the celestial realm and that it could open heavenly gates for the prayers of the people as a whole. His insistence that there are righteous people in every generation who, like himself, carry special mystical responsibilities for their communities laid the foundations for the later Hasidic theory of the function of the tsaddiq, or leader, a theory that created a new type of charismatic leadership in the Jewish communities of eastern Europe.
Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz have translated and edited Shivhei ha-Besht as In Praise of the Baʿal Shem Tov: The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism (Bloomington, Ind., 1970). Gershom Scholem has discussed the Besht in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 3d rev. ed. (New York, 1961), pp. 330–334, 348–349. Three papers concerning the Besht and Hasidism are included in Scholem's The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York, 1972), pp. 176–250. Additional bibliographic references accompany his article "Israel ben Eliezer Baʿal Shem Tov" in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1971).
Several monographs dealing with the Besht and the beginnings of Hasidism were published in the 1990s, some of them concentrated around the historical figure and others on his theology and religious message. Rachel Elior emphasizes the Besht's mystical theology of divine immanence and omnipresence in her Herut ʿal Ha-luhot (Tel Aviv, 1999), whereas Moshe Idel's Hasidism between Ecstasy and Magic (Albany, N.Y., 1995) tries to integrate the Besht and his teachings with medieval mystical-magical models; Immanuel Etkas, in his historical analysis Baʿal Hashem: The Besht—Magic, Mysticism, Leadership (Jerusalem, 2000, in Hebrew), emphasizes the Besht's social message and minimizes the magical one. Moshe Rosman's Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Baʿal Shem Tov (Berkeley, Calif., 1996) presents a critical analysis of the historical sources and a detailed study of contemporary Polish documents.
Joseph Dan (1987 and 2005)
Baal Shem Tov
Baal Shem Tov
Born: c. 1700
Died: c. 1760
Polish religious leader
The founder of modern Hasidism was the Polish-born Israel ben Eliezer, who is generally known as Baal Shem Tov.
Israel ben Eliezer was born to aged parents in Okopy, Poland, a small town that is now in the Ukraine, Russia. Most of what is known of his childhood is the product of legend and is difficult to verify. He was apprenticed (worked underneath someone in order to learn a trade from them) to the local teacher. Later he worked as an aid to the sexton (a person who looks after the grounds and building) of the synagogue (Jewish religious site), where he spent his nights studying the Cabala, or Jewish mystic lore.
Ben Eliezer married at the traditional age of eighteen, but his wife died shortly afterward. He then moved to Brody, in Galicia (a region of Eastern Europe), where he met and married the rabbi's sister. They moved to a distant village in the Carpathians (a mountain range in Eastern Europe). There Ben Eliezer worked as a laborer, but he managed to devote considerable time to prayer and contemplation in the forest.
Becomes a religious leader
At this time Ben Eliezer learned the use of medicinal herbs for treating disease and became known as a healer and a worker of wonders. He was called the Baal Shem Tov, which means Good Master of the Name (of God). He ministered (treated) to his rural neighbors, both Christians and Jews, and performed miraculous cures of both body and soul. He is said to have undergone an important self-revelation at the age of thirty-six through the intervention of a divine spirit.
About 1740 the Besht (the common abbreviation of Baal Shem Tov) settled in Miedzyboz, Podolia. His kindliness and holiness attracted many followers, who were called Hasidim (the pious). The Besht's teachings emphasized spiritual communion (a meeting that takes place, not between physical bodies, but between spirits) with God, which was achieved not only in prayer but also in every aspect of everyday life. He taught that all man's deeds must express his worship of God. He disagreed with people who studied the Torah (Jewish religious writings) and worshipped as if it were a school lesson, precise and academic. He told his followers that worshipping should be done with a complete act of body, mind, and soul and should be joyous.
The Besht angered other Jews, who preferred to emphasize the rational discipline of prayer and study of the Torah. The Besht believed that he was a righteous person whose prayers opened the gates of heaven. He believed that others who had superhuman powers like him were born in every generation. He called these righteous leaders the tzaddikim (the "righteous ones"). His teaching especially appealed to those who were uneducated, because he said that the way to reach God did not require great learning. He used anecdotes (short, clever, or amusing stories) and parables (short stories told for the purpose of teaching a virtue or a religious idea) to illustrate his ideas. He criticized asceticism, the practice of denying oneself worldly pleasure in order to illustrate spiritual devotion. Instead he emphasized joy in observing Jewish law.
His followers, the Hasidim, changed many of the ways Judaism was traditionally practiced. For instance, they prayed in small rooms instead of in synagogues. This practice horrified other Jews, who felt it was too big a break with tradition.
Becomes a legend
Many legends grew up about the Besht. It was said he understood the language of plants and animals, and that he could walk on water. Some said that he talked to the Messiah (the king of the Jews who had been foretold by the prophets) on a regular basis. Still others believed that freedom would come to all Jews when the teachings of Baal Shem Tov were believed all over the world.
Baal Shem Tov wrote no works, but after his death his followers published compilations of his sayings and teachings. The Besht and the Hasidism had, and continue to have, a notable impact on Jewish life.
For More Information
Ben-Amos, Dan, and Jerome R. Mintz, eds. In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov; the Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. Reprint, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993.
Heschel, Abraham J. A Passion for Truth. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Pub., 1995.
Klein, Eliahu. Meetings with Remarkable Souls: Legends of the Baal Shem Tov. Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1995.
Rosman, Murray Jay. Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Baal Shem Tov. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Baal Shem Tov
Baal Shem Tov
The founder of modern Hasidism was the Polish-born Israel ben Eliezer (ca. 1700-ca. 1760), who is generally known as Baal Shem Tov (Good Master of the Name).
Israel ben Eliezer was born to aged parents in Okopy, a small town in the Ukraine. He was apprenticed to the local teacher and was later employed as an aid to the sexton of the synagogue, where he spent his nights studying the Cabala, or Jewish mystic lore.
Israel married at the traditional age of 18, but his wife died shortly afterward. He then moved to Brody in Galicia, where he met and married the rabbi's sister. They moved to a distant village in the Carpathians. There Israel worked as a laborer, but he managed to devote considerable time to prayer and contemplation in the forest. He learned the use of medicinal herbs for the treatment of disease, and he became a Baal Shem, a master of the occult art of manipulating the name of the Ineffable and his ministering angels as a means of exorcising demons, driving out ghosts, and avoiding other evils. He ministered to his rural neighbors, both Christians and Jews, and performed miraculous cures of both body and soul. He is said to have undergone an Hitgalut (self-revelation) at the age of 36, through the mediacy of a divine spirit.
About 1740 the Besht (the common abbreviation of Baal Shem Tov) settled in Miedzyboz, Podolia. His kindliness and sanctity attracted many followers, who were called Hasidim (the pious). The Besht's teachings emphasized the love of God and trust in Him. God is everywhere and there is no place free of Him. The Besht taught that devoted and fervent prayer was a channel through which divine light flows to man and leads his soul to God. Gloom and sadness were anathemas to the Besht; one of his principles was, "Serve the Lord with gladness." To aid men in their religious life, he introduced a new functionary into Judaism—the Tzaddik (the righteous), who has a highly developed awareness of the divine. The Tzaddik has become the hereditary leader of the Besht's followers.
The Besht used anecdotes and parables to illustrate his teachings. He wrote no works, but after his death compilations of his sayings and teachings were published. Hasidism had, and continues to have, a notable impact on Jewish life.
Rosman, Murray Jay., Founder of Hasidism: a quest for the historical Baal Shem Tov, Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1996.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua, A passion for truth, Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Pub., 1995. □
Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760)
Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760)
Founder of the Jewish mystical movement called Hasidism that swept through Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Born as Israel, son of Eliezer, he became known as the Baal Shem Tov, "Master of the Good Name," or the Besht. Many legends circulated around the zaddikim, or holy leaders, of Hasidism, who were credited with miracles and spiritual insight. Hasidism had, and continues to have, a notable impact on Jewish life.
Buber, Martin. The Legend of the Baal-Shem. New York: Schocken Books, 1955.
——. Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters. New York: Schocken Books, 1947.
Hilsenrad, Zalman Aryeh, comp. The Baal Shem Tov: His Birth and Early Manhood. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Kehot Publication Society, 1967.
Kaplan, Aryeh. Chassidic Masters: History, Biography, and Thought. New York: Maznaim Publishing, 1984.