Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works
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Hebrew Name(s): בעל שם טוב, רבי ישראל בן אליעזר
Other Names: Besht, Baal Shem Tov, Yisroel ben Eliezer, Yisrael Ben Eliezer, The Holy Baal Shem
Period: Acharonim — 18th Century
Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer known as, Baal Shem Tov or Besht, was a Polish rabbi (1698-1760). He is considered the founder of Hasidic Judaism, a branch of Orthodox Judaism where the spiritual focus is the internalization of a mystical spirituality. Hasidic Judaism arose partly as a reaction to overly legalistic Judaism and elite scholarship and transformed the lives of ordinary people through encouraging an appreciation of the place of holiness in their lives. The notion of the immanent Divine gave pious devotion, prayer and acts of kindness new value for the poor and uneducated, raising their perceived status to an equality with the scholarly study of texts. Hasidic mysticism which stemmed from the charismatic person of the Baal Shem Tov took traditional mysticism (kabbalah and ascetism) and transformed it to a mysticism characterized by optimism, and a joyful pietistic faith. The Baal Shem Tov himself became, as did many Hasidic leaders after him, to be seen to possess divine and intercessory qualities.
Israel ben Eliezer was born in Poland in 1698, the son of Eliezer and Sarah, both of whom died while he was a young child. Biographical information is surrounded by many tales passed down by his followers so that it is difficult to extract history from popular tales. From the stories that emerged about his life it appears that the young Israel was reared by the community and received a rudimentary Jewish education before becoming an teacher’s assistant and perhaps also a shammash (helper at the synagogue). It is related that Israel was wont to wander in the woods and commune with nature and God. It appears he married at a young age but his wife died young. He later married Chanah who, tradition relates, helped to support his studies while the two lived in the Carpathian mountains. Israel be Eliezer was considered a simple man who hid his knowledge and learning until he emerged into public life around the year 1734. Settling first in Talust and later moving to Medzeboz, Israael ben Eliezer gained fame as a holy man and attracted a great many followers. It was at this time that he became known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name).
The teachings of the Baal Shem Tov centered around the teachings of kabbalah but with a focus on the importance of prayer and love of God and of one’s fellow Jews. These practices where the means of achieving great spiritual heights. In a time when the pursuit of traditional Torah and Talmudic scholarship was accessible to only a few the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov enabled the unlettered and simple people to realize that a life of holiness and fulfillment and the means of drawing near to God was in their own hands and accessible. He did not teach that Torah scholarship was not important, however, insisting that a close relationship with a Rebbe was essential for each community. While the life of the Hasidut (the Pious ones) might be a simple one, it must be noted that the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples and successors showed a deep knowledge in spiritual and scholarly fields.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that a Jew should strive to attain devekut (dedication, cleaving [to God], communion with God; a state in which one is not conscious of a separate existence) through joyful prayer characterized by joy, enthusiasm and ecstasy—prayer in with one becomes inflamed in the act of worship (hitlahavut), singing, and dancing in the fellowship with Hasidim.
The Bshit taught that the fire that is kept burning on the altar continually, never to go out (Lev. 6:6), is within the person.
Fanning the flame through the practice of Deveket is a necessary ingredient of true worship of God. In this approach the Baal Shem Tov differed from the teaching of Lurianic kabbalah, where devekut was seen as a response to fasting, penance, asceticism, and self-denial. In the view if the Baal Shem Tov, God was present in the world, not as pure emanations but intrinsic in the nature of all things. Holiness is to be found in all things and connected to all things and by cleaving to the Holiness within a person can become holy and overcome evil, for the mind as is the universe, and indeed all matter, are a manifestation of God. Tradition has recorded the words of the Baal Shem Tov:
While the Baal Shem Tov is remembered as a spiritual leader who made God accessible to ordinary people he was also a great influence on the learned and it was these devoted disciples who took Hasidism far and wide through Eastern Europe in the generations following the death of the Master. From there Hasidism spread to Western Europe and America in the 1880s. Many branches of Hasidism exist.
Israel ben Eliezer left no writings, his teachings and tales being disseminated in oral tradition and recorded in writings of his followers who developed them. He was succeeded by his pupil, Rabi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, The Maggid.
The Baal Shem Tov did not publish his teachings, which we know today through his disciples. Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Polonoye, was the author of the first Chassidic work ever published, Toldos Yakov Yosef, and later wrote Ben Poras Yosef, Tzafnas Paneach, and Kesones Pasim. These works contain direct quotes from the Baal Shem Tov. Other sources for his teachings are Keser Shem Tov, Tzavaat HaRiva'sh, Magid Devarav L'Yakov (written by the Mezericher Maggid, R. Dov Ber, the Baal Shem Tov's successor), Degel Machaneh Ephraim, and Ohr HaMei'ir.
Last database update: 20 January, 2021
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