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Israel ben Eliezer, Baal Shem Tov

Israel ben Eliezer, Baal Shem Tov, or Besht (1700–60). Founder of E. European Ḥasidism. Many legends are circulated about the life of Israel Ben Eliezer. On his thirty-sixth birthday, he is said to have revealed himself as a new charismatic leader. He worked as a teacher and a healer, travelling round the Jewish communities of E. Europe, attracting many followers by his charm and magnetism. His teachings were partly derived from the Kabbalah, but his main emphasis was on individual salvation through which the world would be redeemed. He maintained that ‘every Jew is a limb of the Shekhinah’, but some individuals have superior spiritual qualities (the Zaddik). Not only should the Zaddik teach his people to worship God, he should help the sinner to repent and, through special acts, restore the souls of sinners who have died.

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