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.
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.
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.
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.
Buber, Martin. The Legend of the Baal-Shem. New York: Harper, 1955. Reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Heschel, Abraham J. A Passion for Truth. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Pub., 1995.
Heschel, Abraham J. The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov: Studies in Hasidism. Edited by Samuel H. Dresner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
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.