The Baal Shem Tov. Founder of the Chassidic movement.
Founder of Chassidism
The early life of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov is surrounded by mystery. As founder of what is possibly the single most important religious movement in Jewish history, Chassidut, many legends have grown around him.
Rabbi Yisrael was born in Okop, a small village in the Ukraine on the Polish Russian border (Podolia). His parents, Eliezer and Sarah, were quite old when he was born and they passed away when he was a still a very young child. Many legends are told about Eliezer, the father of the Baal Shem Tov. We are told that his last words to his son were "Fear nothing other than God."
The young orphan was cared for by the community and presumably received the same education most children received. Nevertheless, he was different from most children. He would wander in the fields and forests surrounding his home and seclude himself, pouring out his heart to God. Young Yisrael had an unusually strong emotional relationship with God. This relationship was perhaps the defining characteristic of the religious approach he would ultimately develop and which came to be known as Chassidut.
When he entered his teens the community's responsibility to support him ended and he was given a job as a teacher's assistant. One of his tasks was to escort the children to and from school, a task which he performed in his own unique way, leading the children in song and praise to God.
His next job was as a caretaker in the local synagogue. This provided the young Yisrael with the opportunity to study and develop. During this period he attained an outstanding level of knowledge in the entire body of Jewish knowledge, including eventually, the mysteries of Kabbalah. Nevertheless, publicly he maintained an image of simplicity, and the townspeople were completely ignorant of his stature.
During this period Yisrael developed a relationship with other nistarim (hidden tzaddikim). Most significant was a tzaddik named Rabbi Adam Baal Shem, who bequeathed his writings to Yisrael.
He later moved to a town near Brody where he was hired as a teacher for young children. He became acquainted with Rabbi Efraim of Brody, who somehow discovered that Yisrael was not the simple fellow he appeared to be. He was so impressed with Yisrael that he offered his daughter, Leah Rochel, to Yisrael for a wife. However, Rabbi Ephraim passed away a short time later, so when Yisrael went to Brody to marry his wife, he met the bride's brother, Rabbi Gershon Kitover, also a major scholar. When Yisrael presented himself as the groom, Rabbi Gershon was shocked, since Yisrael was dressed in the manner of an ignorant peasant. However, Yisrael produced a letter of engagement and Rabbi Gershon begrudgingly agreed. Leah Rochel however, was apparently more perceptive and saw that there was more to Yisrael than appeared on the surface. After their marriage, Rabbi Yisrael and his wife moved to a small town in the Carpathian Mountains. Supported by his wife, he spent this period immersing himself in prayer, contemplation, and the study of Torah and Kabbalah.
Finally, when he was thirty-six years old in the year 1734, Rabbi Yisrael revealed himself to the world. He settled in Talust and rapidly gained a reputation as a holy man. He became known as the Baal Shem Tov – Master of the Good Name. (The title Baal Shem (Master of the Name) was used for holy men who were known as miracle workers since they used the power of the Name of God to work miracles.) Later he moved to Medzibosh in Western Ukraine, where he lived for the rest of his life, and was the nucleus of his newly emerging Chassidic movement.
Rabbi Yisrael's fame spread rapidly. Many important rabbis and scholars became his disciples. The Baal Shem Tov's teachings were largely based upon the Kabbalistic teachings of the Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-72)) but his approach made the benefits of these teachings accessible even to the simplest Jew. He emphasized the profound importance and significance of joyful prayer, singing, dancing, love of God, and love of one's fellow Jews.
He taught that even if one was not blessed with the ability or opportunity to be a Torah scholar, one could still reach great spiritual heights through these channels. It is important to note that while the Baal Shem Tov taught that Torah study was not the only way to draw close to God, he did not teach that Torah study was unimportant or unnecessary. On the contrary, he emphasized the importance of having a close relationship with a rebbe, a great Torah scholar who would be one's spiritual mentor and leader. The essence of his message was: Don't fret about the sins of the past. Turn over a new leaf: find strength, joy, and ecstasy in ahavat Hashem, the love of God, Who knows and delights in your good intentions and your happiness.
Through prayer mitzvot and other spiritual actions you are linked to him. Furthermore, it should also be noted that while Chassidut was (and continues to be) of great benefit to the unsophisticated, it is a very sophisticated system of thought. As anyone with any experience in Jewish studies can attest, the many major Chassidic works were written at a very high level of scholarship by men who had reached the pinnacle of Torah knowledge.
The masses of simple, hardworking Jews, uplifted by the message of Chassidism, joined the charismatic leader in creating a vibrant movement that spread rapidly through all of Eastern Europe. The Baal Shem Tov did not commit his teachings to writing. His disciples, such as Rabbi Yaacov Yosef of Polnoye, often quoted his thoughts in their works.
As the Baal Shem Tov and his followers came soon after the episode of Shabtai Tzvi, they met harsh opposition from traditionalists who feared another false messianic movement.
The Baal Shem Tov felt a powerful love for the land of Israel and his entire life he wanted to immigrate there. Many times he attempted to do so, once even reaching Constantinople, but always something prevented him from fulfilling his dream. One of his motives to go to Israel, was to meet Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar (Ohr HaChaim) and together with him bring the final redemption.
There is an opinion that the root of soul of the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar came from King David.
Despite his personal inability to move to the land of Israel, the Baal Shem Tov succeeded in inspiring many of his disciples and followers to do so.
The Baal Shem Tov claimed that his main teachers were the prophet Achiya HaShilony (teacher of Elijah the prophet), and The Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) who appeared to him frequently.
In 1759, about a year before the Baal Shem Tov passed away, there was an incident that illustrated his immense love for his fellow Jew. At that time there was a heretical sect led by a man named Jacob Frank. These Frankists had begun agitating amongst the Christian authorities against the Jews with specific emphasis against the Talmud. (In a previous "debate" in 1757 the Frankists had succeeded in causing the Talmud to be burnt in Lvov.) The bishop of Lemberg decreed that a debate should be held between the Jews and the Frankists. The Baal Shem Tov was a member of the three man delegation that represented the Jews. They were successful in averting this evil decree, and the Talmud was not burnt. At the same time however, the defeated Frankists were then forced to convert to Christianity. While most of the Jewish leaders were happy at the downfall of these evil men, the Baal Shem Tov was not. He said. "The Divine Presence wails and says, 'So long as a limb is attached to the body there is still a hope that there can be a cure, but once the limb is cut off there is no cure forever.' And every Jew is a limb of the Divine Presence."
The Baal Shem Tov passed away on the second day of Shavuot. He left behind a son and daughter and a movement which continues to be significant force in the Jewish world today, in virtually every corner of the world. He was succeeded as leader of the Chassidic movement by Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch.
A Baal Shem Tov story...
The son of the Rabbi Yisrael of Rizin, Rabbi Avraham Yaacov of Sadigora once told this story. One Erev Shabbat the Baal Shem Tov appeared in a town unexpectedly. Declining invitations from all the locals, he elected to remain alone in the Shul after Shabbat evening prayers. The wonder of the residents turned to alarm when they saw his fervent praying and Tehillim continue the whole night long. Something was surely the matter. But in the morning the Baal Shem Tov was relaxed and joyful, and he accepted the invitation of one of the locals for the morning Shabbat meal. Naturally, all of the townspeople crowded into the house of the host to see the Holy Baal Shem Tov. As they were sitting at the table, a local peasant came around looking for a drink of vodka. They were about to drive him away when the Baal Shem Tov called out that he should be brought in, and provided with a generous glass of vodka. He asked him to tell what he had seen in the mansion of the Poritz (wealthy Polish estate owner) the previous night. The peasant's tongue, loosened by the vodka, related that the Poritz, believing that he had been cheated in a business deal by a Jewish merchant, assembled his peasants and armed them with knives and hatchets telling them to be on the ready to avenge themselves on the Jews at his command. They would then all be able to liberate their stolen riches from the Jews. "The whole night we waited for the command, he continued, "But the Poritz had closeted himself in his office with an unexpected visitor, an old friend that he hadn't seen for 40 years! Finally,
he emerged and told us all to go home, that the Jews were upright and honest people and nobody should dare lay a hand on them. We all went home and that's the whole story!"
"This old friend", explained the Sadigorer Rebbe, "Had been dead for decades. The Baal Shem Tov had dragged him from the grave to influence his friend the Poritz." "But I always wondered," queried the Rebbe, "Why did the Baal Shem Tov have to travel all the way to that town for Shabbat to avert the decree? Couldn't he just as well have remained in his hometown of Medzibuz?" "But I understand now. The Baal Shem Tov said to himself, if I can succeed in saving the town, fine...but if not, then I will perish together with them!"
The Soul of the Baal Shem Tov
In the city of Tzfat in Eretz Yisrael, once lived a simple Jew who only knew how to pray. Nevertheless he was extremely modest and straight-forward. One night, as he was saying the Tikun Chatzot, (the midnight lamentation over the destruction of the Holy Temple), there was a knock at the door. A man entered and introduced himself as Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet). He came to reveal to this simple Jew when the Mashiach (messiah) will come. But first, the man must reveal to him what he did on the day of his bar-mitzvah which earned him the privilege of receiving this information.
The man declined to tell. Even though it was Eliyahu HaNavi asking, what he did was completely l'shem shamayim, (for the sake of Hashem alone), and therefore a secret between him and the creator. Then he agreed not to recieve the information.
Eliyahu HaNavi went back up to heaven where there was a tremendous tumult over this man's purity. They ordered Eliyahu to return and to teach this man deep secrets of Torah. The man became a great tzaddik nistar (hidden righteous man). When he died, the Heavenly Court decided that his reward would be to return to earth and reveal a new path in Torah that would renew souls, purify the world and hasten the redemption. This was the soul of the Baal Shem Tov.
May the merit of the tzaddik Rabbi Yisrael - The Baal Shem Tov, protect us all, Amen.