On May 22, 1760, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov (or “Besht,” in acronym form) died in Medzhibov, in present-day Ukraine. The Besht is considered the founder of the modern Hasidic movement.
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Nearly every biography of the Baal Shem Tov (Hebrew for “Master of the Good Name”) stresses that very little is known about his life so it's difficult to distinguish between legends and facts. As one of his followers, Rav Shlomo of Rodomsk, is supposed to have said, ironically: “One who believes all the stories told about the Ba'al Shem Tov is a fool; one who does not believe they could have occurred is an apikoros [heretic].”
Whoever he really was, however, the power and influence of the figure of the Besht and of his followers on Judaism is almost immeasurable, as his teachings empowered the individual Jew, suggesting that his actions and experiences could be as meaningful and important as the intellectual efforts of a small caste of rabbinical leaders.
Israel ben Eliezer was born in or around 1698 in the town of Okup, in Poldolia, Poland, which today is in Ukraine. According to one version of his life, he was orphaned of both parents by the age of five, and was brought up by members of his community. Another version has him taking off at an early age with a band of holy men. At some point, he is believed to have resettled in the town of Brody, where he married either once or twice, to Hanna or Leah, or one and then the other, after Hanna died.
After his marriage, ben Eliezer is said to have moved away from Brody to the Carpathian Mountains, where he began to earn a living as a digger of clay and lime. It was during this period that he also began to practice as a healer, combining an expert knowledge of herbs with the use of talismans and amulets marked with the name of God. Beginning around 1736, he and his wife moved to Medzhibozh (where his name appears on tax records), where she ran an inn and he devoted himself to spiritual pursuits. It is there that he died in 1760.
The Besht left behind almost no writings, so that what is known of his teachings has come from followers and descendants, and in some cases his rabbinic opponents. His grandson Barukh of Medzhibozh, for example, recorded him as summing up his mission in the following way: “I came into this world to point a new way, to prevail upon men to live by the light of these three things: love of God, love of Israel and love of Torah. And there is no need to perform mortifications of the flesh” – the latter a reference to the ascetic practices of many rabbinical figures of the time.
Instead, the Besht emphasized the importance of three meals on the Sabbath; the third meal, late on Shabbat afternoon, would serve as an opportunity for rabbinic sermons and tales. Many of these were collected in works by his disciples, and constitute his known teachings.
In practice, the Besht preached three points that distinguished his Judaism from what was then the norm among European Jewry: communion with God, who is immanent in all things; the holiness of ordinary existence and of all deeds done “for the sake of heaven”; and the Kabbalistic concept of recapturing the “sparks” of divinity that had been dispersed with the mystical “breaking of the vessels.”
Making mystical practice accessible to all was itself a revolutionary approach, as Kabbalah had until then been considered a dangerous field of study that only very learned and mature men were qualified to deal with.
For the Besht, who in no way derided the importance of observing the law, prayer was more important than study (or at least the study of the individual who “through sheer study of the Law has no time to think about God”). Prayer, for him was understood in the sense of achieving oneness with God, and not mere recitation of praise or petition.
His approach had a democratizing effect on Jewish practice, as it emphasized the sincerity of the individual’s prayer and actions over his or her intellectual sophistication. The Besht spent his time speaking with common people, and emphasized the importance of forgiveness. The collective memory of his personal charisma may well outweigh his specific teachings, and led to the development of the concept of the Hasidic rebbe who is both teacher and role model, a model that persists today.