Rabbi Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer (רבי ישראל בן אליעזר August 27, 1698 (18 Elul) – May 22, 1760), often called Baal Shem Tov or Besht, was a Jewish mystical rabbi. He is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism (see also Mezhbizh Hasidic dynasty).
Besht was born to Eliezer and Sara in Okopy, Ternopil Oblast a small village that over the centuries has been part of Poland, Russia, and is now part of Ukraine. He died in Medzhybizh, which had once been part of Lithuania, then Turkey, Poland and Russia, and is now in Ukraine.
Besht is better known to many religious Jews as "the holy Baal Shem" (der heyliger baal shem in Yiddish), or most commonly, the Baal Shem Tov (בעל שם טוב) . The title Baal Shem Tov is usually translated into English as "Master of the Good Name", with Tov ("Good") modifying Shem ("[Divine] Name"), although it is more correctly understood as a combination of Baal Shem ("Master of the [Divine] Name") and Tov (an honorific epithet to the man). The name Besht (בעש"ט) — the acronym from the words comprising that name, bet ayin shin tes—is typically used in print rather than speech. The appellation "Baal Shem" was not unique to Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer; however, it is Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer who is most closely identified as a "Baal Shem", as he was the founder of the spiritual movement of Hasidic Judaism.
The little biographical information that is known about Besht is so interwoven with legends of miracles that in many cases it is hard to arrive at the historical facts. From the numerous legends connected with his birth it appears that his parents were poor, upright, and pious. When he was orphaned, his community cared for him. At school, he distinguished himself only by his frequent disappearances, being always found in the lonely woods surrounding the place, rapturously enjoying the beauties of nature. Many of his disciples believed that he came from the Davidic line tracing its lineage to the royal house of King David, and by extension with the institution of the Jewish Messiah.
Because of his recognized honesty and his knowledge of human nature, he was chosen to act as arbitrator and mediator for people conducting suits against each other; and his services were brought into frequent requisition because the Jews had their own civil courts in Poland. In this avocation he succeeded in making so deep an impression upon the rich and learned Ephraim of Brody that the latter promised Besht his daughter Chana in marriage. The man died, however, without telling his daughter of her betrothal; but when she heard of her father’s wishes, she did not hesitate to comply.
Besht's wooing was characteristic. In the shabby clothes of a peasant he presented himself at Brody before Abraham Gershon of Kitov (Kuty), brother of the girl, head of a rabbinical court in Brody, and a recognized authority in the Kabbalah and the Talmud. Abraham Gershon was about to give him alms, when Besht produced a letter from his pocket, showing that he was the designated bridegroom. Abraham Gershon tried in vain to dissuade his sister Chana from shaming their family by marrying him, but she regarded her father's will alone as authoritative.
After his marriage Israel ben Eliezer did not remain long with his brother-in-law, who was ashamed of him (for he kept up the pretense of being an ignorant fellow); and he went to a village in the Carpathians between Brody and Kassowa. His earthly possessions consisted of a horse given him by his brother-in-law. Israel ben Eliezer worked as a laborer, digging clay and lime, which his wife delivered every week by wagonload to the surrounding villages, and from this they derived their entire support. But the magnificent scenery in this, the finest region of the Carpathians, and the possibility of enjoying it without the interruptions of city life, compensated him for his great privations. Israel ben Eliezer and Chana had two children: Udl and Zvi Hersh. Udl was born in 1720. Zvi Hersh was born some fifteen years later.
The Besht's condition was bettered when he took a position as a ritual butcher in Kshilowice, near Iaslowice. He soon gave up this position in order to conduct a village tavern that his brother-in-law bought for him. During the many years that he lived in the woods and came into contact with the peasants, Israel ben Eliezer had learned how to use plants for healing purposes and to effect wonderful cures. In fact, his first appearance in public was that of an "ordinary" Baal Shem. He wrote amulets and prescribed cures.
After many trips in Podolia and Volhynia as a Baal Shem, Besht, considering his following large enough and his authority established, decided (about 1740) to expound his teachings in the shtetl of Medzhybizh and people, mostly from the spiritual elite, came to listen to him. Medzhybizh became the seat of the movement and of the Medzybizh Hasidic dynasty. His following gradually increased, and with it the dislike, not to say hostility, of the Talmudists. Nevertheless, Besht was supported at the beginning of his career by two prominent Talmudists, the brothers Meïr and Isaac Dov Margalios. Later he won over great and universally recognized rabbinic authorities who became his disciples and attested to both his scholarship and saintliness. These include Rabbi Meir Margolius, chief rabbi of Lemberg and later Ostroha, and author of Meir Netivim (a work of halachic responsa) and other works; Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Hakohen, rabbi of Polnoy; Rabbi David Halperin, rabbi of Ostroha; Rabbi Israel of Satinov, author of Tiferet Yisrael; Rabbi Joseph Heilperin of Slosowitz; and Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezrich to whose great authority as a Talmudist it was chiefly due that Besht's doctrines (though in an essentially altered form) were introduced into learned circles. Noteworthy is that the renowned Sefardic Rabbi Chaim David Azulai (Chida) cites the Baal Shem Tov in his works in great laudatory terms.
Some direct historical evidence remains of the Besht during the days he lived in Medzhybizh. Rosman discovered numerous legal documents that shed light on this period from the Polish Czartoryski noble family archives. The Besht's house is mentioned on several tax registers and his house is given tax-free status, thus indicating that he was well-known to the Polish Magnate as an important town resource. Several of the Besht's cohorts in his stories from Shivhei HaBesht also appear in Polish court records, notably, Wolf Kitses and David Purkes. Rosman contends that the Polish documents show the Besht and his followers were not outcasts or pariahs, rather they were part of the mainstream Jewish communal life and were themselves respected in the community. Medzhybizh at the time was not some backwater village as some contended. Instead, it was a thriving, prosperous, and important community in the Czartorysky estate.
Other direct evidence includes the Besht's daily prayer book (siddur) with his handwritten personal notes in the margins that is owned by the Agudas Chabad Library in New York. Finally, his grave can be seen today in the old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh.
Israel ben Eliezer left no books; for the Kabbalistic commentary on Ps. cvii., ascribed to him (Zhitomir, 1804), Sefer mi-Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem-tov, may not be genuine. In order to get at his teachings, it is therefore necessary to turn to his utterances as given in the works of his disciples Hasidim. Most are found in the works of Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoy. But since Hasidism, immediately after the death of its founder, was divided into various parties, each claiming for itself the authority of Besht, the utmost of caution is necessary in judging as to the authenticity of utterances ascribed to Besht.
Chapin and Weinstock contend that the Besht was essentially the right person, in the right place, at the right time. Eighteenth century Podolia was an ideal place to foster a sea-change in Jewish thinking. It had been depopulated one generation earlier due to the Khmelnitsky Massacres. A Turkish occupation of Podolia occurred within the Besht's lifetime and along with it the influence within this frontier territory of Shabbetai Zvi and his latter day spiritual descendants such as Malach and Frank. Once the Polish Magnates regained control from the Turks, Podolia essentially went through an economic boom. The Magnates were benevolent to the economic benefits the Jews provided and encouraged Jewish resettlement to help protect the frontier from future invasions. Thus, the Jewish community itself was essentially starting over. Within this context, the Jews of Podolia were open to new ideas. The Besht's refreshing new approaches to Judaism were welcome, expanding with little resistance in a community hungry for change.
This panentheism would have been ignored, had Besht not been a man of the people. He gave his metaphysical conception of God an eminently practical significance.
The first result of his principles was a remarkable optimism. Since God is immanent in all things, all things must possess something good in which God manifests Himself as the source of good. For this reason, the Besht taught, every man must be considered good, and his sins must be explained, not condemned. One of his favorite sayings was that no man has sunk too low to be able to raise himself to God. Naturally, then, it was his chief endeavor to convince sinners that God stood as near to them as to the righteous, and that their misdeeds were chiefly the consequences of their folly.
Another important result of his doctrines, which was of great practical importance, was his denial that asceticism is pleasing to God. "Whoever maintains that this life is worthless is in error: it is worth a great deal; only one must know how to use it properly." From the very beginning Besht fought against that contempt for the world which, through the influence of Isaac Luria's Kabbalah, had almost become a dogma among the Jews. He considered care of the body as necessary as care of the soul; since matter is also a manifestation of God, and must not be considered as hostile or opposed to Him.
In connection with his struggle against asceticism, it is natural that he should have fought also against the strictness and the sanctimoniousness that had gradually developed from the strict Talmudic standpoint. Not that Besht required the abrogation of any religious ceremonies or of a single observance. His target was the great importance which the Talmudic view attaches to the fulfillment of a law, while almost entirely disregarding sentiment or the growth of man's inner life. While the rabbis of his day considered the study of the Talmud as the most important religious activity, Besht laid all the stress on prayer. "All that I have achieved," he once remarked, "I have achieved not through study, but through prayer". Prayer, however, is not merely petitioning God to grant a request, nor even necessarily speaking to God, but rather ("cleaving", dvekut)— the glorious feeling of 'Oneness with God Almighty', the state of the soul wherein a man or woman gives up their consciousness of separate existence, and join their own selves to the Eternal Being of God Supreme. Such a state produces indescribable bliss, which is the foremost fruit of the true worship of God.
A second and more important result of the doctrine is that through his oneness with God, man forms a connecting link between the Creator and creation. Thus, slightly modifying the Bible verse, Hab. ii. 4, Besht said, "The righteous can vivify by his faith." Besht's followers enlarged upon this idea and consistently deduced from it the source of divine mercy, of blessings, of life; and that therefore, if one love him, one may partake of God's mercy.
On the opposite side of the coin, the Baal Shem Tov warned the Hasidim:
Though Besht may not be held responsible for the later conceptions, there is no doubt that his self-reliance was an important factor in winning adherents. It may be said of Hasidism that there is no other Jewish sect in which the founder is as important as his doctrines. Besht himself is still the real center for the chasidim; his teachings have almost sunk into oblivion. As Schechter ("Studies in Judaism," p. 4) finely observes: "To the Hasidim, Ba'al-Shem [Besht]…was the incarnation of a theory, and his whole life the revelation of a system."
Since every act in life is a manifestation of God, and must perforce be divine, it is man's duty so to live that the things called "earthly" may also become noble and pure, that is, divine. Besht tried to realize his ideal in his own career. His life provided the best example for his disciples; and his relationships with the innkeepers (a number of whom he raised to a higher level) furnished a silent but effective protest against the practice of the rabbis, who, in their inexorable sense of strict righteousness, would have no dealings with people fallen morally. The Hasidim tell of a woman whom her relatives sought to kill on account of her shameful life, but who was saved in body and soul by Besht. The story may be a myth, but it is characteristic of Besht's activity in healing those in greatest need of relief. More important to him than prayer was a friendly relationship with sinners; though the former constituted an essential factor in the religious life. The story of Besht's career affords many examples of unselfishness and high-minded benevolence. And while these qualities equally characterize a number of the rabbis of his day, his distinguishing traits were a merciful judgment of others, fearlessness combined with dislike of strife, and a boundless joy in life.
Moreover, Besht's methods of teaching differed essentially from those of his opponents and contributed not a little to his success. There are many satirical remarks directed against his opponents, an especially characteristic one being his designation of the typical Talmudist of his day as "a man who through sheer study of the Law has no time to think about God." Besht illustrated his views of asceticism by the following parable:
Not by fleeing from earthly enjoyments through fear is the soul's power assured, but by holding the passions under control.
Much of Besht's success was also due to his firm conviction that God had entrusted him with a special mission to spread his doctrines. In his enthusiasm and ecstasy he believed that he often had heavenly visions revealing his mission to him. In fact, for him every intuition was a divine revelation; and divine messages were daily occurrences.
Besht is quite naturally one of the most interesting figures in modern Jewish history. As a man of the people and for the people, it is not strange that he should have been honored and glorified in story and in tradition. Of the many narratives that cluster about him, the following are given as the most characteristic:
About his parentage, legend tells that his father, Eliezer, whose wife was still living, was seized during an attack (by the Tatars perhaps), carried from his home in Wallachia, and sold as a slave to a prince. On account of his wisdom, he found favor with the prince, who gave him to the king to be his minister. During an expedition undertaken by the king, when other counsel failed, and all were disheartened, Eliezer's advice was accepted; and the result was a successful battle of decisive importance. Eliezer was made a general and afterward prime minister, and the king gave him the daughter of the viceroy in marriage. But, being mindful of his duty as a Jew and as the husband of a Jewess in Wallachia, he married the princess only in name. After being questioned for a long time as to his strange conduct, he confessed his race to the princess, who loaded him with costly presents and aided him to escape to his own country.
On the way, the prophet Elijah appeared to Eliezer and said: "On account of thy piety and steadfastness, thou wilt have a son who will lighten the eyes of all Israel; and Israel shall be his name, because in him shall be fulfilled the verse (Isaiah xlix. 3): 'Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.'" Eliezer and his wife Sarah, however, reached old age childless and had given up all hope of ever having a child. But when they were nearly a hundred years old, the promised son (Besht) was born.
Besht's parents died soon after his birth; bequeathing to him only the deathbed exhortation of Eliezer, "Always believe that God is with you, and fear nothing." Besht ever remained true to this injunction. Thus, on one occasion, when he was escorting schoolchildren to synagogue, a wolf was seen, to the terror of old and young, so that the children were kept at home. But Besht, faithful to the bequest of his father, knew no fear; and, on the second appearance of the wolf, he assailed it so vigorously as to cause it to turn and flee. Now, says the legend, this wolf was Satan (or, in some versions, a werewolf inspired by Satan). Satan had been very much perturbed when he saw that the prayers of the children reached God, who took more delight in the childish songs from their pure hearts than in the hymns of the Levites in the Temple in Jerusalem; and it was for this reason that Satan tried to put a stop to Besht's training the children in prayers and taking them to synagogue. From this time on, successful struggles with Satan, demons, and all manner of evil spirits were daily occurrences with Besht.The true meaning of the story is that even the wolf/(Satan) had a spark of the Divine that was in a shell.
For Besht's methods of teaching, the following works are especially valuable:
Tzava't Harivash and Keter Shem Tov are the most popular anthologies and have been reprinted numerous times. All editions until recently, however, are corrupt, with numerous omissions, printing errors and confused citations. Both texts have now appeared in critical annotated editions with extensive corrections of the texts. (Tzva'at Harivash 1975, fifth revised edition 1998; Keter Shem Tov - Hashalem 2004, second print 2008.) These new authoritative editions were edited by Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet who also added analytical introductions, copious notes of sources and cross-references, commentaries, numerous supplements and detailed indices, and were published by the Chabad publishing house Kehot in Brooklyn NY.