Eliezer, Israel ben
Israel ben Eliezer
BORN: August 27, c. 1700 • Okop, Poland
DIED: May 22, 1760 • Medzhibozh, Poland
Polish religious leader
Israel ben Eliezer gave new energy to Judaism in eastern Europe in the eighteenth century by reconnecting the common people to the religion. He was the founder of Hasidism, a Jewish mystical movement that emphasizes a direct connection to God through prayer and joyous experiences such as participation in the arts. For ben Eliezer, also known as Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name"), a pure heart was more pleasing to God than a great intellect. He taught that all Jews could grow closer to God by a constant focus on Him during a person's everyday life, rather than through studying the Torah, which is the body of Jewish literature and law.
"There is no act, word or thought in which the essence of divinity is not constricted and hiding. And so when you look and see with your mind's eye … You will see nothing but the divine power inside all things that is giving them life, being and existence at every moment."
For ben Eliezer, simple and sincere religious devotion was the true path to God. This meant that the unschooled as well as the intellectual could experience God and redemption, or the forgiveness of sins. This earned him a large following in central and eastern Europe, and ben Eliezer became one of the most influential spiritual leaders of the period. He also became the subject of many tales and legends, which makes it difficult to separate the facts of his life from the fiction.
Tradition has it that Israel ben Eliezer was born in the village of Okop (also called Okopy) in the region of Podolia, long a part of Ukraine. At the time of ben Eliezer's birth, in 1700, this area was in the process of being returned to Poland after a lengthy Turkish occupation. Due to this, opinions differ as to the nationality of ben Eliezer. Most sources call him Polish, though some list him as being of Ukrainian heritage.
Confusion also exists about his family. Most sources agree that his parents, Eliezer and Sarah, were quite old when they had Israel. Some historians, however, say that his father was a rabbi (a person trained in Jewish law, ritual, and tradition), while others claim that the family, while very religious, was a poor one. Ben Eliezer was still a young child when his father died, but he was old enough to understand Eliezer's dying words, which were either "Israel my son, you have a very holy soul, don't fear anything but God," or "Fear nothing because God will take care of all." Soon after, his mother also passed away, and young ben Eliezer was put into the care of the community. This was a typical practice in the Jewish communities of Poland at the time.
Podolia, and the entire region of the Polish Ukraine, was an area that had been dominated by Judaism since the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500). In the two centuries before ben Eliezer's birth, the Jewish population grew from only fifty thousand in 1500 to about five hundred thousand in 1650. The Jewish communities in the region enjoyed a degree of self-government and freedom from the rest of Christian Poland and Ukraine. Beginning in 1648, however, pogroms, or massacres of Jews, were carried out by the Christians of Poland and Russia. These pogroms were organized by the government of Russia in an attempt to channel the political discontent felt by the workers in the region away from the tsars (rulers) and onto the Jews, whose unfamiliar religious practices made many uneasy. More than one hundred thousand Jews were killed during the next half century, and more than seven hundred communities were destroyed. Those who survived were taxed highly by the Christian authorities and were threatened by attacks from wandering bandits unless they could pay to win their freedom.
As a result, Judaism in Podolia was on the decline at the time of ben Eliezer's birth. The intellectual community of scholars and Talmudic teachers (teachers of the Talmud, a collection of holy writings about the Jewish faith) had fled to Lithuania, leaving the lower classes and poorer Jews with no access to the scholarly pursuits of Judaism. Also, while Jews in other regions lived in thickly settled urban areas close to centers of Jewish learning and teaching, the Jews of Poland and Ukraine tended to live in scattered villages away from intellectual centers. A class division emerged in Poland, with the wealthier Jews and Talmudic scholars leading the communities but not contributing their fair share of the community taxes. This put a financial burden on the poorer Jews. Because this practice was not criticized by the rabbis, the common people began to distrust the established leaders of Judaism in the region.
This conflict led to many unusual religious practices in Poland and Ukraine. Some Jewish commoners and peasants turned to the Kabbalah, a mystical movement in Judaism developed during the Middle Ages. This tradition claimed to have come from the prophet Abraham (c. 2050–c. 1950 bce; see entry) and provided a secret interpretation of the scriptures or holy books. Others were misled by mystics claiming to be prophets (people through whom the will of God is expressed), saviors, and miracle workers.
This was the cultural and historical backdrop of the region into which ben Eliezer was born and came of age. After being adopted by the community, he was educated in the village Jewish school. He learned to read Hebrew by age four, translated the Bible by age five, and began a serious study of the Talmud by age eight. As a student, ben Eliezer seems to have drawn attention to himself only because of his frequent absences from school. He was much more comfortable in the woods and fields surrounding Okop than he was in the classroom. At an early age, he began to see God in nature, not just in the teachings of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) and the Talmud.
When he entered his teenage years, ben Eliezer was no longer considered a dependent of the community, and it was time for him to decide on a course for his life. His teachers felt it was obvious from his lack of interest in his studies that he would never become a rabbi, so he was hired as an assistant at the school. His duties included taking the children to and from school, and teaching them songs and prayers. He loved to tell the children parables, or stories that had a moral lesson to them. Later he became a caretaker at a local synagogue, or Jewish building of worship, where his chores included cleaning and keeping the books in order. This position gave him plenty of time for independent study, which he used to examine the writings of the Kabbalah and to educate himself in Jewish law. This study was done in secrecy, however, and the people of his village continued to think of him as a simple young man.
Ben Eliezer married at age eighteen, but his wife died not long after the ceremony. He then left Okop, traveling and working throughout the region of Galicia before settling in a village near the city of Brody. In Brody he worked as an assistant in the school and also as a mediator, or negotiator, between people with legal disputes. As a result of his efforts as a mediator, he came to the attention of Rabbi Ephraim of Brody, who was so impressed by ben Eliezer's intelligence and honesty that he promised him his daughter, Hannah, as his bride. Unfortunately, Ephriam died before the marriage could took place, and his son, Hannah's brother, was against the marriage, viewing ben Eliezer as a rough and uncultured peasant. Hannah, however, was in love with ben Eliezer, and the two eventually did marry and moved to a village in the Carpathian Mountains, far from Brody. Here ben Eliezer began working as a manual laborer, digging clay and lime.
Becomes Baal Shem Tov
Ben Eliezer's time in the Carpathians was spent in further mystical speculation and in an exploration of the woods and forests of the area. He became an expert on the plant life of the region and learned the use of herbal medicines for illnesses. Eventually ben Eliezer left his job as a laborer and become a butcher. He and Hannah, with whom he had two children by this time, also ran an inn or tavern. Soon ben Eliezer became a baal shem, or a healer that used medicinal herbs, and served Jews and Christians alike. He also began performing ceremonies to drive out ghosts and demons. He was said to have an angel, Achiyah HaShaloni, who taught him the mysteries of the Torah and helped him cure the bodies and souls of his patients. His fame began to spread, and ben Eliezer became known as Baal Shem Tov, with tov, meaning "good," added to the title to separate him from all other healers. He was also sometimes known as Besht, a name made up of the first letters of his honorary name.
At about age thirty-six ben Eliezer underwent a profound spiritual experience and began to formulate the basic principles of the movement that became known as Hasidism or Chasidism ("the pious"). These principles were a direct communion with God, a belief that even the simplest human action could serve God, and a constant search for hints of godliness in the material world. He preached that salvation and redemption could be achieved through other means than an intense study of the Jewish religious texts. Ben Eliezer believed that God was present in everything, and therefore each human had God within him and was good. Sins and misdeeds were the result of error, not evil.
Another of ben Eliezer's lessons claimed that the common practice of asceticism, or the attainment of higher spiritual development through self-denial and self-punishment, was not favored by God. Instead ben Eliezer taught that God preferred joy to sadness or weeping. He added dancing and singing to his prayers and emphasized the importance of maintaining a healthy body. He said God's presence was in all surroundings and a person should serve God with their every deed and word. Ben Eliezer began to share these ideas with others, conveying his message in short tales and parables, just as he had with the schoolchildren he once taught. His message was welcomed by the common folk among the Jews of Poland. To aid these people in their religious lives, he added a new functionary, or official, in Judaism, the Tzaddick. This translates to "the righteous." This person had a highly developed spiritual awareness and could serve as a leader in the Hasidic movement.
Ben Eliezer was fond of saying that everything he accomplished was through prayer rather than study. He did not use prayer to ask for special requests, but simply to communicate with God and to feel as if he were one with Him. Ben Eliezer believed that this oneness, when a person gave up his separate existence and joined to God, created real joy and was the foundation of any true worship.
Hasidism in the United States
Though Hasidism has spread throughout the world, some 200,000 of its estimated 250,000 followers live in the United States. Half of these reside in the state of New York, and most live in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights, Williamsburg, and Boro Park. Several branches of Hasidism are represented, one of which is the Lubavitch Hasidism. Crown Heights is the central location of this group, which has about fifteen thousand members. Another branch, Satmar, holds strongly to traditional beliefs, and there is a degree of friction between the two, especially over issues concerning the causes of World War II and differing views on the state of Israel.
While the Holocaust in Poland was the main reason that Hasidic Jews left that area, there were already congregations in the United States long before that time. In 1875 Rabbi Joshua Segal, also called the "Sherpser Rov," came to New York City. He soon became the leader of about twenty Hasidic congregations, known as the Congregations of Israel, Men of Poland and Austria. By the 1960s the number of Hasidic Jews in the state had grown to between forty and fifty thousand. Forty years later this amount had doubled. Such growth was due partly to immigration and partly to the high birthrate among the Jews in New York, who averaged five or six children per family.
These beliefs won ben Eliezer followers but also earned him criticism and fierce attacks from many sides. The rabbis and Talmudic scholars found his encouragement of dancing and drinking to be unholy and against tradition, and they thought his lack of emphasis on scholarship posed a threat to the intellectual aspect of Judaism. However, although ben Eliezer taught that study of the Torah was not the only way to become close to God, he never preached that such study was unimportant or unnecessary.
The final years
In 1740 ben Eliezer moved to the town of Medzhibozh, in Podolia. He lived in Medzhibozh for the rest of his life, spreading the word of Hasidism and continuing to work as a healer. He attracted new followers, including Rabbi Joseph, Rabbi Dov Baer of Merzeritz, and Rabbi Pinchas, all of whom helped to spread Hasidism after the death of ben Eliezer. Some of his followers, such as Baer of Merzeritz, were Talmudists, proving that ben Eliezer's teachings also reached intellectuals and scholars, not just common folk. He personally instructed visiting lay people (non-clergy members) and rabbis in the teachings of Hasidism.
Ben Eliezer died in 1760, shortly after falling ill on his way to a religious debate. The Hasidic movement continued to grow after his death, and his followers published many of his sayings and teachings in their works. One well-known example of this is Shivhei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov) a collection published in 1815 that contains more than two hundred legends and stories about ben Eliezer.
Israel ben Eliezer gave new life to Judaism in Poland with his popular teachings. For two hundred years after his death, the Hasidic community in Poland continued to grow and prosper. As a result of the Holocaust, the mass slaughter of millions of Jews by the German government during World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), Hasidic communities were transplanted around the world, with many relocating to Brooklyn, New York. A large and vital Hasidic community still functioned there in the early twenty-first century.
For More Information
Ben-Amos, Dan, and J. R. Mintz, eds. In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (Shivhei Ha-Besht): The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Publishers, 1996.
Buber, Martin. The Legend of the Baal-Shem. Translated by Maurice Friedman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Herschel, Abraham Joshua. A Passion for Truth. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1995.
Klein, Eliahu. Meetings with Remarkable Souls: Legends of the Baal Shem Tov. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Publishers, 1995.
Rosman, Murray Jay. Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Baal Shem Tov. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.
Aberbach, David. "Mystical Union and Grief: The Ba'al Shem Tov and Krishnamurti." Harvard Theological Review (July 1993): 309.
"The Ba'al Shem Tov." OU.org. http://ou.org/about/judaism/rabbis/baalshem.htm (accessed on May 25, 2006).
"Hasidism." Religious Movements Homepage. http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/hasid.html/ (accessed on May 25, 2006).
"Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov 1698–1760." Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/baal.html (accessed on May 25, 2006).
Shulman, Yaacov Dovid, translator. "The Ten Principles of Baal Shem Tov." Baal Shem Tov Foundation. http://www.baalshemtov.com/ten-principals.htm (accessed on May 25, 2006).