Baal Shem Tov is an 18th century Ukrainian rabbi credited with founding the Hasidic movement. Born Israel Ben Eliezer around 1700 in western Ukraine, his name literally means “teacher of the good name” and is often abbreviated to besht.
Much of what is known about the life of the baal shem tov is recounted in stories passed down by his followers, the historical accuracy of which is not firmly established. The difficulty is compounded by the rich collection of legends about his miraculous abilities in healing and divination, which figure prominently in Hasidic lore. The baal shem tov was said to have deep insight into human nature, had visions of prophets appearing to him with messages, and was able to ascend to heaven to commune with the spiritual realm. he also earned a reputation as a skilled healer, earning him the title baal shem, “master of (divine) name,” a term then used to refer to any gifted person. of healing powers.
It is said that Besht’s parents were poor and he was orphaned as a child. his father’s parting words to him were to love every Jew, which became the animating feature of his life and teaching. many of the best-known aphorisms attributed to the baal shem tov refer to love for one’s fellow jews. between them: when one loves a fellow Jew, he loves the inner essence of the Jew and therefore loves god.” and: “the three loves – the love of god, the love of torah and the love of neighbor – are truly one.”
Known for his sensitive nature, he worked for a time as a babysitter and was reputed to spend long periods alone in the woods, which is where he may have learned the medicinal properties of plants, knowledge that helped polish his reputation for Healer capable of performing miraculous cures. The baal shem tov would accompany the children to school while telling them stories and praying with them, and his love for them would become part of his legend. “If only we could kiss a torah scroll with the same love with which my teacher kissed the children when he took them to school as a teacher assistant,” said dov ber of mezeritch, the main disciple of the baal shem tov
after marrying a second time (his first wife died shortly after their marriage), the besht moved to a small village in the carpathian mountains. the couple supported themselves by extracting lime, which they sold in nearby towns. but most of these years were spent in prayer and meditation. he eventually settled in medzhybizh, in what is now western ukraine, where he began to develop a following as a spiritual leader.
the baal shem tov left no written works, and the disciples who came to him in medzhybizh became the main conduits through which his teachings would spread throughout eastern europe. among them were dov ber, also known as maggid of mezeritch, who succeeded baal shem tov as leader of the Hasidic movement, and jacob joseph de polonne, author of the first published hasidic work, awnings yaakov yosef, who became one of the the main sources of the teachings of the baal shem tov.
Many of the teachings of the baal shem tov had their roots in Jewish mysticism. unlike the leading Jewish scholars of the day, who viewed Torah study as the highest religious act, the baal shem tov emphasized the importance of prayer as a means of achieving d’vekut , or adhere to god. he also emphasized the centrality of joy in the service of god. The baal shem tov believed that every act, even the most mundane, could be a vehicle for holiness, and taught that the pure-hearted service of the simplest and most uneducated Jew could rival that of the most learned. all these ideas would become distinctive features of Hasidic life to this day.
baal shem tov died on the holiday of shavuot in 1760. after his death, leadership of the fledgling hasidic movement was briefly transferred to his son, tzvi hersh, who resigned after a year in favor of dov ber. Under Dov Ber’s leadership, the Hasidic movement would spread to numerous sects in Eastern Europe. Although they differ in many ways, all Hasidic groups today revere the baal shem tov and see him as the prototype of the Hasidic rabbi.