Israel ben Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov

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ISRAEL BEN ELIEZER BA'AL SHEM TOV

ISRAEL BEN ELIEZER BA'AL SHEM TOV (known by the initials of "Ba'al Shem Tov" as Besht ; c. 1700–1760), charismatic founder and first leader of *Ḥasidism in Eastern Europe. (See Chart: Ba'al Shem Tov Family). Through oral traditions handed down by his pupils (*Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye and others) as well as through the legendary tales about his life and behavior, he became Ḥasidism's first teacher and its exemplary saint. These tales, collected early in Shivḥei ha-Besht (Kapust and Berdichev, 1814–15; In Praise of the Ba'al Shem Tov, 1970) are also the main source for his biography. It is related that Israel was born in Okop, a small town in Podolia, to poor and elderly parents in hard times aggravated by wars in the region. Orphaned as a child, he later eked out a living first as an assistant (behelfer) in a ḥeder and later as a watchman at a synagogue. At Yazlovets, near Buchnach, where he was working as behelfer, he met and became friendly with young Meir b. Ẓevi Hirsch *Margolioth, later a famous talmudic scholar; Israel was considered by Meir both as colleague and teacher. According to tradition, in his 20s Israel went into hiding in the Carpathian Mountains in preparation for his future tasks. (He was accompanied by his second wife, Hannah, the first having died shortly after their marriage.) There he lived for several years, first as a digger of clay, which his wife sold in town; later he helped his wife in keeping an inn. In about 1730 he settled in Tluste. Israel had one son, Ẓevi, and a daughter, *Adel. His grandchildren were *Moses Ḥayyim Ephraim of Sudylkow and *Baruch of Medzibezh; *Naḥman of Bratslav was his great-grandson.

In the mid-1730s – ḥasidic tradition fixes it on his 36th birthday – Israel revealed himself as a healer and leader. The circles of Israel's followers and admirers widened rapidly. Many people were drawn by his magnetism and the widespread reports of his miracles, and several groups of Ḥasidim which had been formed earlier came under his influence and accepted his leadership and teaching to a greater or lesser degree (see *Ḥasidism; *Abraham Gershon of Kutow, Israel's brother-in-law; *Aryeh Leib of Polonnoye; *Naḥman of Kosov; and *Naḥman of Horodenka (Gorodenka)). Tradition hints that some of the members of these ḥasidic circles were at first repelled by Israel's activity as miracle healer, as a *ba'al shem, although Israel himself was proud of this work, as demonstrated by his signature "Israel Ba'al Shem of Tlust"

(Responsa Mayim Ḥayyim part one, 1858). However, contemporaries who did not belong to his circle regarded this activity favorably, as indicated by the designation of Israel as "the famous ba'al shem tov, may his light shine" (Meir Teomim in Nofet Ẓufim Rav Peninim, 1772).

For many years Israel planned to go to Ereẓ Israel. Once he had to return when he had already embarked and "he was very sad" (Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, Korets, 1780, p. 201). As late as 1751 – only nine years before his death – he wrote to his brother-in-law, "God knows that I do not despair of traveling to Ereẓ Israel; however, the time is not right" (Ben Porat Yosef, Korets, 1781).

Israel undertook journeys (Shivhei ha-Besht tells a great deal about his travels and horses) to effect cures, expel demons and evil spirits (leẓim), and to win influence. In eulogistic folk-tales, the tradition of his pupils, and in writings hostile to him (see *David of Makow), the interdependence of his healing work and the charisma of his leadership are clearly apparent. Later ḥasidic tradition, however, tried to deprecate the importance of these healing and magical practices. In tales about him as well as through his teachings, Israel's great personal charm, remarkable magnetism, and ecstatic personality and behavior are revealed. Prayer was his main ecstatic and mystic approach to God, but intellectual study and learning took a secondary place. In specially exciting moments he reached a state of mystical exaltation – aliyyat neshamah – of which he gave realistic descriptions. Future events and past personalities, both good and evil, were shown to him in dreams. In traditional tales he is portrayed as engaged in conversation and in meeting with people, even women, individually or in small groups. He is never described as preaching in a synagogue. The traditional picture of Israel, always with his pipe in his hand or mouth, emphasizes the importance of his edifying secular tales. Israel's teachings do not indicate any talmudic scholarship, and his opponents criticized him for the lack of this and for his preoccupation with healing, writing amulets, and his conversation with simple men (see, e.g., David of Makow in paajr, 25 (1956), p. 147). Material from the aggadah and moralistic and kabbalistic works and traces of an acquaintance with the writings of Saadiah Gaon are evident in his teachings.

Ḥasidic legend made Israel one of the leaders in the disputation with Jacob *Frank in 1759, but his true attitude to this is expressed in the saying attributed to him after the apostasy of the Frankists: "The Shekhinah wails and says as long as a limb is attached to the body there is hope for its cure; but when it is severed, it cannot be restored; and every Jew is a limb of the Shekhinah " (Shivḥei ha-Besht).

Israel and his followers were conscious of his mission as a leader of his people. Many of his dreams and visions, much of what was revealed to him from on high, are related to the actual problems and sufferings of the Jews in his generation. Teaching the importance of charity, he himself gave much, and he helped in ransoming captives and prisoners, a pressing problem in his time. He taught that devotional joy was the proper attitude of the Jew in every moment of his life and in particular in prayer, exemplifying this through his own attitude to life and through his own mode of prayer. His admirers told especially about the light and fire that they imagined emanating from his person, and about his fiery way of reciting his prayers. Opposing too much fasting, he advised against preaching through harsh admonition. Even more than his teachings, his idealized personality became the inspiration for the life, leadership, and aspirations of the Ḥasidim up to the present day. It is typical of hasidic appreciation of the personality of its ideal figure that tales related by Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye state that Israel's particular teacher in heaven was *Ahijah the Shilonite, the prophet of the overthrow of a misguided establishment and of a new kingdom in Israel. Whether partly true or wholly legendary, the hasidic tale that in his youth Israel miraculously came by "compositions containing secrets and mysteries of the Torah, divine and practical Kabbalah" which had belonged to *Adam Ba'al Shem expresses the awareness that the theoretical roots of Israel's teachings lay in the *Kabbalah; the story also indicates the hasidic conviction that his appearance and influence were a mystery and a miracle.

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]

Principal Teachings

R. Israel was aware of his special mission and his charismatic qualities. Despite this he feared failure and once told his grandson, Moses Ḥayyim Ephraim of Sudylkow, "Behold, I swear to you that there is one man in the world who hears Torah from God and the Shekhinah, and not from an angel or a seraph, and he does not believe that he will not be pushed aside by God as he can easily be plummetted into the deep abyss of evil" (Degel Mahaneh Efrayim, p. 113). Although the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov derive to some extent from the Kabbalah and the frequently employed kabbalistic terminology, the original content of Besht Ḥasidism lies in its emphasis on personal existence and the salvation of the soul of the individual, which must precede the redemption of the world: "For before one prays for general redemption one must pray for the personal salvation of one's own soul" (Toledot Ya'akov Yosef). This emphasis on the personal replaced preoccupation with messianism and Israel forbade any attempt at magical activity designed to accelerate the eschatological era. His attitude is made clear in a letter to Abraham Gershon (dated 1751), in which he describes his dialogue with the Messiah during a spiritual ascent on Rosh Ha-Shanah, 1747: "I asked the Messiah, 'When will you come, master,' and he answered me, 'When your learning will be made known and revealed to the world and its source will spread and all can recite yiḥudim and experience spiritual ascent as you can…' and I was astonished and deeply grieved by this, and wondered when this would come to pass" (Ben Porat Yosef). Though expressing his deep messianic faith and strong messianic longings, this attitude is far from the mystical messianism which had proved so destructive shortly before (see Jacob *Frank; *Shabbetai Ẓevi).

At the core of Israel's teaching is the principle of *devekut ("adhesion"), although for him the term had far greater emotional content than in its earlier kabbalistic usage. Averring that "faith is the adhesion of the soul to God" (Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, p. 23), he demanded that devekut exist in all daily acts and in social contacts. Man must worship God and cling to Him not only when practicing religious acts and holy deeds, but also in his daily affairs, in his business, and in social contacts, for when a "man is occupied with material needs, and his thought cleaves to God, he will be blessed" (Ketonet Passim (1866), 28a). His belief is linked with the Lurianic doctrine of the raising of the holy sparks (niẓoẓot), though he uses this concept with the limited meaning of the salvation of the individual soul alone. Because of his emphasis on the constant possibility of devekut, Israel did not advocate withdrawal from worldly life and aloofness from society. Indeed, he emphasized the element of joy in the worship of God and vigorously opposed fasts and asceticism. He warned Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye "lest he bring himself to the danger of many fasts, which contribute to melancholy and sadness" (Shivhei ha-Besht). According to Israel, physical pleasure can give rise to spiritual pleasure, i.e., devekut. A physical act can be considered a religious act if the one performing it intends to worship God and the act is performed in a state of devekut, an assumption which demands devekut on the part of every Jew, not only the spiritual elite. For Israel as well as his disciples, devekut – especially during prayer – would often assume a definitely ecstatic character.

The study of Torah is also of prime importance in Israel's teachings, although he did not interpret the traditional ideal of "Torah for its own sake" in its generally accepted sense but understood "for its own sake" as "for the sake of the letter." "Thus I learned from my teacher in this matter" (Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, p. 151). Through contemplating the letters of the text which he studies, man opens the divine worlds before him. This belief is based on the assumption that the letters of the Torah evolved and descended from a heavenly source. Therefore one who studies properly, i.e., by contemplating the letters, restores the outward forms of the letters to their spiritual prototypes, their divine source. When the student links the letters of the Torah to their root he himself becomes joined to their higher forms and thus receives mystical revelations. "The desired intention in study for its own sake is for a man to attach himself in holiness and purity to the letters, both actively and potentially; they will make him wise and radiate much light and true eternal life – and he who manages to understand and become attached to holy letters can even tell the future from these letters" (M. Margoliouth, Sod Yakhin u-Vo'az (Ostraha, 1794), 6).

Prayer is one of the main stages for the worship of God. Through prayer, a man reaches devekut and contact with the divine worlds. As in the study of Torah, so too in prayer the way to devekut is through concentration on the mystical meaning of the letters: "According to what I learned from my master and teacher, the main occupation of Torah and prayer is that one should attach oneself to the spirituality of the light of the *Ein Sof found in the letters of the Torah and prayer, which is called study for its own sake" (Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, p. 25). However prayer which directs man to the attainment of devekut is at times disturbed by undesirable (lit. "foreign") thoughts (maḥashavot zarot) and the one who prays must deal with them properly, so that they do not damage his spiritual efforts. Israel's particular way of dealing with "undesirable thoughts" came to be called "the wisdom of the Besht" and caused R. Naḥman of Horodenka to recognize his authority and join his group. Undesirable thoughts were derived from a heavenly source and were understood by Israel as the results of cosmic processes generally associated with the doctrine of the fallen holy sparks in Lurianic Kabbalah. The spark is hidden in the extraneous ("sinful") thought and aspires to rise and be redeemed. This thrust conveys the undesirable thought to the human heart. He who sublimates the extraneous thought helps the spark to return to its divine source. According to some, Israel's teaching contains hints that extraneous thoughts are the final stage in the process of aẓilut ("emanation"). They are conceived of mainly in a Neoplatonic form and identified with the kelippot ("shells," forces of evil) at the extremity of the emanation. Some undesirable thoughts must be sublimated and corrected; others must be repelled and removed. "If a man wishes to ask, 'how do you distinguish between a thought to be repelled and one to be sublimated?' he should contemplate if correction to the thought entered his mind together with the extraneous thought, and then he will seek to bring it close to him and to sublimate it, and if he cannot immediately correct this thought, then he must remove it" (Ben Porat Yosef, p. 39).

The Ẓaddik

Two assumptions are basic to Israel's doctrine of the *ẓaddik: the recognition of the existence of superior individuals whose spiritual qualities are greater than those of other human beings and who are outstanding in their higher level of devekut; and the conception of the Jewish community at large and the mutual responsibility of all members of the nation, as "every Jew is a limb of the Shekhinah " (Shivḥei ha-Besht). In order to fulfill his destiny the ẓaddik must at the same time observe the mitzvah of devekut and maintain contact with the material world through the circle surrounding him, even those who are counted among the sinners. Spiritually alone with God, he is the center of his community. He influences society and is influenced by it: the sins of his contemporaries affect him and lower his stature; his sinful thoughts stimulate others to commit sins. The task of the ẓaddik is to teach the people to worship God by means of devekut and to cause sinners to repent. The zaddik descends spiritually to the sinner, associates with him, and by his own ascent raises him and restores him to goodness, aiding him in purifying himself of his blemishes. The process of descent is executed when a weakness occurs in the devekut of the ẓaddik, but even then devekut does not cease and the descent does not signify the ẓaddik's complete severance from the divine source. Indeed, in order that he may rise from the depths and raise the sinner with him, the ẓaddik must preserve his devekut to God. "When the ẓaddik descends from his heights it is an expression of the quality of mercy, in order that he may associate with the masses and elevate them" (Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, portion Va-Yiggash). Clearly this idea of the descent of the ẓaddik recalls Shabbatean notions and some scholars view it as a hasidic transformation of the Shabbatean doctrine of the descent of the Messiah.

The ẓaddik also engages in the restitution and elevation of the soul of a sinner who has died. It is related that Israel performed special acts to restore the souls of deceased sinners: "There are ẓaddikim who raise the wicked from hell during prayer. Thus I have heard in the name of Israel Ba'al Shem Tov" (Rav Yeivi, Ostraha, 1808, p. 40). Israel even attempted to restore the soul of Shabbetai Ẓevi, saying that he "had a spark of holiness but was seized by *Samael" (Shivḥei ha-Besht), but he was compelled to abandon this attempt because he realized that what holds true for Shabbetai Ẓevi would also be true for Jesus. There is no proof, however, that Israel had Shabbatean tendencies, as some scholars hold. It is known that he severely criticized the book *Ḥemdat Yamim (Izmir, 1731/32), whose anonymous author was a Shabbatean. On the other hand, it is clear that he had seen Shabbatean writings (although their Shabbatean nature was only revealed later and he was not aware of it). Israel's doctrine of the ẓaddik was intended to express a spiritual relationship only and contained none of the later elements of "practical ẓaddikism" (see *Ḥasidism), nor any mention of the later belief that the ẓaddik must be supported by his disciples.

Reactions

Israel's reputation spread far from the areas of Podolia and Volhynia where he was active, even to circles unconnected with his religious leadership. That his activity also aroused opposition is evident in Shivḥei ha-Besht and hinted at in some of his parables. R. Ḥayyim ha-Kohen Rappaport, the av bet din in Lvov, warned his relatives in Buchach not "to turn to the 'witch doctor' who calls himself Ba'al Shem." However, the veracity of the document of excommunication in Ostraha (Ostrog; Shever Poshe'im Zot Torat ha-Kanna'ut) is questionable and its relation to Israel Ba'al Shem Tov uncertain.

The Teaching and Legend of the Ba'al Shem Tov

Israel Ba'al Shem Tov did not leave any works either in his own hand or signed by him, nor are there any contemporary portraits of him. However, several letters bearing his name have been published: to Abraham Gershon of Kutow (Ben Porat Yosef), to Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye (Shivḥei ha-Besht), to Moses of Kutow (Buẓina de-Nehora, 1880), to an anonymous individual (Shivḥei ha-Besht), and to R. Meir av bet din of Staro-Konstantinov (Responsa Mayim Ḥayyim). Various fabrications exist. In 1919 a package purporting to be documents from Israel and his disciples was found in Kherson, U.S.S.R. which had allegedly come from the government archives in Kiev where documents were preserved regarding the trial of Israel of *Ruzhin, charged by the government for instigating the murder of an informer. Apparently, however, all these documents are forgeries or copies of works that had been previously published.

Israel did not put his teachings into writing and even opposed the attempts of others to do so. Only 20 years after his death, his disciple, Jacob Joseph, presented in three of his own works – Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, and Ẓafenat Pa'ne'aḥ and Korets, 1782 – hundreds of sermons and homilies which he had learned from the Ba'al Shem Tov. At the end of Toledot Ya'akov Yosef there is a collection of Israel's sayings, and the author comments: "These are statements which I heard from my teacher and I only took down fragmentary notes because I was afraid both of writing everything and also of forgetting it." Other disciples and their disciples included in their works statements which they had heard from him or which had been cited in his name. Aaron b. Ẓevi Hirsch ha-Kohen of Opatow (Apta) claimed to have collected all the statements of Israel which had appeared up to that time in his Keter Shem Tov (Zolkiew, 1795), but most of his quotations are from the works of Jacob Joseph. The book Ẓavva'at ha-Ribash of Isaiah of Janow (1794) does not include the testament of the Ba'al Shem Tov, but only a selection of his statement, and according to *Shneur Zalman of Lyady, who had collected the statements, did not understand their meaning. Most scholars contend that the work mainly includes teachings of the school of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezhirech, but this needs further study. The most complete and best anthology of Israel's teachings is Sefer Ba'al Shem Tov (Lodz, 1938), edited and arranged by Simeon Menahem Mendel Wodnik.

The legends about the Ba'al Shem Tov have distorted his historical character. Formed even during his lifetime, the stories about his miracles became an integral part of the hasidic atmosphere and both increased the admiration for him and stimulated his opponents. Disciples who had come in contact with him and his family were among the first to assert his supernatural qualities. But people who were not among his close associates also at times told of his charismatic personality, even during his lifetime. Thus there developed a literature of shevahim (lit. "praises"). The first anthology of legends was Shivḥei ha-Besht, compiled by Dov Baer b. Samuel of Linits, the son-in-law of Alexander Shoḥat, who served for several years as Israel's scribe. The collection was copied many times and hence was full of errors. Only after the compiler's death was it printed as Shivḥei ha-Besht by the publisher Israel Jaffe, a disciple of *Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and Shneur Zalman of Lyady. Jaffe proofread the anthology, removing distortions which in his opinion resulted from copying. He rewrote the first chapter on R. Israel's birth, youth, and revelation according to the tradition given by Shneur Zalman. Thus Jaffe must be viewed as the second author and editor of the anthology, and his edition, printed in Kopys (Kapust) in 1814, has been accepted as the basic one; all other editions are based on it, with only slight changes. In that year the second book was printed in Berdichev and the third in Laszczów. Similarly, two editions appeared in Yiddish (Ostraha (Ostrog) and Laszców) which differ greatly from the Hebrew edition. The reciprocal relationship between the Hebrew and Yiddish versions of Shivḥei ha-Besht has not yet been fully investigated. Later, Shivḥei ha-Besht appeared in many versions, in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino. J.S. Bick records an unpublished translation in Polish in a letter to Mendel Lefin. But even Ḥasidim had reservations about the work, especially the strange and unreliable stories which aroused the criticism and scorn of the Mitnaggedim and maskilim, who used it as a weapon in their war against Ḥasidim. It contains some 230 stories, arranged in series united by common themes, heroes, and motifs. Despite its imaginary-legendary character, historical events are recalled along with undoubtedly reliable traditions. Many of the historical events recalled are confirmed in non-ḥasidic sources.

In the 19th century several collections of legends about the Ba'al Shem Tov, his colleagues, and disciples appeared (also in Yiddish), some of which repeated stories found in Shivḥei ha-Besht and some of which contained new tales. Only isolated ones are true. One of the propagators of imaginary legends about Israel and the leaders of early Ḥasidism was Michael Levi Frumkin, also known by the name *Rodkinson, a Chabad Ḥasid who became a maskil. However, what is related in Kevuẓat Ya'akov (1897) can be accepted as true. Isaac Eizik of *Komarno and the Shneersohn ẓaddikim should be included among the hasidic masters who cultivated the legends about Israel Ba'al Shem Tov and added new traditions. Many of the stories concerning the Ba'al Shem Tov were retold by Martin Buber (see, for example, his Tales of the Ḥasidim, 1 (19612), 35–86 and Jewish Mysticism (1931)).

[Avraham Rubinstein]

bibliography:

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