Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov
Founder of Hasidism
born c. 1698, died 1760

The life of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov is as much the stuff of legend as of fact. Yisrael was born in the Ukrainian town of Okop. His parents were already old when he was born, and they passed away when he was young. As an impoverished orphan ward of his community, Yisrael grew up spending much of his time wandering through the forest talking to God, a personal approach to religion that forms the backbone of Chassidus, or Hasidism.

As a young man Yisrael served as a teacher's assistant, and was responsible for taking small boys to cheder, or primary school. One legend has him assisted by a miracle while fighting off a bear that was attacking the children. He later served as a gabbai, the sexton of a synogogue. Yisrael eventually left Okop, living for a time near the town of Brody, and then settling with his wife Leah Rochel in a town in the Carpathian mountains. He later moved to Talust, and lastly to Medzeboz.

While Rabbi Yisrael originally maintained an image of simplicity and ignorance, throughout his life he acquired a deep knowledge of Jewish mysticism, as well as continuing his reclusive, eccentric, forest wandering habits. In his era, the title of Baal Shem, "Master of the Name", and its variant Baal Shem Tov, "Master of the Good Name", were both given to Jewish mystics who ostensibly knew the secret names of God that could be invoked to perform miracles. Rabbi Yisrael himself began to be called the Baal Shem Tov during the period when he lived in Talust.

During this time the Baal Shem Tov, a title frequently abbreviated to "BeSHT", also began to attract disciples to his new philosophy of Chassidus. Chassidus, based in large part upon the Kabbalistic interpretations of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572), taught that prayer, love for God, and love for other Jews were more essential than scholarly knowledge, and that a close connection to God was available to even the simplest Jew, indeed, it was most available to simple, uneducated Jews.

The Baal Shem Tov never wrote his teachings down. They were most directly conveyed by his pupil Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Polonoye, author of the books Toldos Yakov Yosef, Ben Poras Yosef, Tzafnas Paneach, and Kesones Pasim, which are replete with direct quotes of the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov was succeeded as Chief Rabbi of Chassidus by his pupil, Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch. Rabbi Dov Baer's own chain of transmission splintered into the numerous Hasidic sects which soon dotted Eastern Europe. The Hasidic movement spread rapidly during the 18th and 19th century, and was at least partially responsible for the intellectual, scholarly backlash that was Misnagdut.


Childhood indoctrination, as augmented by "Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov 1698 – 1760", by Eliezer C. Abrahamson, members.aol.com/lazera/baalshemtov.html

Hhasidut, the new approach to Judaism posited by the Baal Shem Tov involved aspects of Kabbalah, and focused in large part on 'Joy'. Contrary to popular belief, The Besht was not actually a Rabbi, the title Ba’al Shem means that he was a sort of wandering mystic, not necessarily involved in matters of tradition (although the Besht was) and not necessarily ministering to personal problems of the congregants. His teachings revolved around the Kabbalistic idea of the creation of the world. The Kabbalists believed that the world was created when G-d (who occupied everything) had to contract inwards to make space for the world. The world was then created, using G-d's light, which was sent down to earth in vessels, to ensure that the earth was created in an orderly fashion. But the light was too powerful for the vessels, and the vessels shattered on the way down, and the shards of the vessels became part of the creation of the earth, and are the root of evil. The Kabbalists believed that by good deeds, observing the tradition and, most importantly, praying, they could repair the world (the origin of the phrase 'Tikkun Olam' - repair the world). The Besht took this further, saying that prayer was not doing the job well enough, and that a better way to do it would be to tell stories that uplifted the mind, and just by telling the story, would help repair the world. Whilst the only two Hhasidic Rebbes to undertake this task were the Besht himself, and his grandson, the Nachman of Breslov, Hhasidim are noted for telling spiritual stories to this day. His philosophy was that every aspect of life was an aspect of Judaism, and that in order to fully repair the world, every aspect of Judaism should be undertaken with joy, starting the tradition of singing, dancing, drinking and all sorts of other activity to raise the soul. After the death of the Baal Shem Tov, one of his disciples, the Maggid of Mezeric, gathered many of the other disciples (roughly a dozen or so) and they then proceeded to shut themselves in his house, discussing, developing and eventually writing down the ideas. After a dozen years, the Maggid died, and the disciples spread throughout the world becoming the 'Tzadikim' or 'Rebbes' of different Hhasidic factions. The Rebbe is not necessarily a Rabbi (although now days almost always is), but acts as a sort of spiritual conduit to offer prayers and joy up, in order to repair the world. Each faction is extremely competitive, always telling stories of their Rebbe, and previous Rebbes in order to outdo each other. The only exceptions to this rule are the Bratslavers (or Breslovians) and the Lubavitchers, neither of whom have a Rebbe any more, because they felt that their Rebbes were irreplaceable after they died (The Nahhman of Bratslav and Menahhem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe), both of whom have been linked to varying degrees to the Messiah. Very orthodox Jews (Hhareidim) are usually from one of two factions, the Hhasidim and the Mitnagdim. Mitnagdut, the -ism of being a mitnaged, comes from the verb Lehitnaged, to oppose, the opposition being to Hhasidut, which was entirely responsible for the creation of Mitnagdut.

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