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.


Source:

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