The Baal Shem Tov

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The Kever of the Baal Shem Tov
The Baal Shem Tov signature

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, also known by the acronym Besht, is considered the founder of the Chassidic movement and its philosophy, from which all Chassidic courts derived. Before revealing himself as a mystic leader, the Baal Shem Tov headed a secret fellowship of hidden mystics.

The Baal Shem Tov was born on August 21 1698 (18 Elul 5458). He passed away on May 21, 1760 (6 Sivan 5520). He is buried in Medzhybizh, in present-day Ukraine.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early years[edit | edit source]

In 1648 (5408), fifty years before the birth of the Baal Shem Tov, the great Khmelnytsky Uprising took place. It was a rebellion of the Cossacks against the ruling class, during which murderous pogroms against Jews destroyed entire communities. These events are known as Gzerot Tach VeTat, an acronym for the Hebrew years [5]408–[5]409.

As a result of the horrible pogroms, the spiritual and material situation of the Jews was in great decline. Chassidic teachings refer to this period as “the fainting,” similar to a man who lost consciousness and fell into a deep sleep. Rabbi Pinchas Koritzer, a Chassidic scholar, said that the Baal Shem Tov’s soul descended into the world to awaken the souls of Israel from their state of unconsciousness.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that in the same way that a person's first name is called to awaken him when he faints because the name comes from the essence of the soul, so too, when the soul's essence awakens, he himself comes to life. Before the Baal Shem Tov was revealed as a leader, the Jewish people were sunk into unconsciousness and the Almighty sent down the soul of the Besht (with the powerful name Israel) to awaken the essence of the soul of the people and rouse them from their sleep.

The Chabad scholar R’ Hillel Paricher testified in the name of his teacher R’ Mordechai of Chernobyl, who heard from his father the Maor Einayim, that on the 18th of Elul the Besht was born in body, spirit and soul. In body—his physical birth. In soul—when his holy teacher and mentor revealed himself to him. And in spirit—when he was revealed to the Jewish people.

Background[edit | edit source]

The Baal Shem Tov's parents, R' Eliezer and Sarah, were a barren couple who lived in a settlement near Okopy, in western Ukraine, and frequently hosted people in fulfillment of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim.

A guest once arrived close to Shabbat, dirty and dressed in bedraggled clothing. R' Eliezer greeted him joyfully, paying no heed to his attire and hosting him with great care. After Shabbat, the guest revealed that he was Elijah the Prophet, coming to test him in his commitment to hachnasat orchim. The couple passed the test, and in the merit of their hachnasat orchim, Sarah gave birth to their only child, a son.

Education[edit | edit source]

The Baal Shem Tov was orphaned at the age of 5. Before his death, R' Eliezer told him: "Son, do not fear anyone but G-d Himself, and love every Jew with all your heart no matter who he is and what he does." The Baal Shem Tov internalized the message and lived by it.

The townsfolk took care of the orphan for a few short years, after which he was left to fend for himself.

In his youth, the Baal Shem Tov enjoyed spending time in the forest after cheder[1]', reviewing his studies and enjoying nature. On one occasion, he encountered a hidden tzaddik [2] engaged in devout prayer under a tree. The Baal Shem Tov observed the man and asked him to teach him Torah. After some time, the tzaddik introduced him to Rabbi Meir, the head of a secret fellowship of hidden mystics. The Baal Shem Tov studied with Rabbi Meir for 4 years, gaining knowledge of the inner dimension of the Torah and Kabbalah. In later days, the Baal Shem Tov told his disciples that during those years with Rabbi Meir, he met Elijah the prophet.

Marriage[edit | edit source]

The Baal Shem Tov moved to Brody, near Podolia, where he worked as a teacher in a cheder. There, he met Rabbi Ephraim of Brody, a city dignitary and father of the well-known Rabbi Gershon of Kitov. Rabbi Ephraim was so impressed by the young man that he offered his daughter Chana as a bride. At their wedding, after the death of Rabbi Ephraim, the Besht showed up dressed as a peasant, wishing to appear as a simple man. After the wedding, R' Israel spent time partaking in hitbodedut[3] in fields and forests while the couple moved from village to village. Eventually, the Besht became a melamed in a town in Poland, and the couple lived in dire financial straits.

Activities and leadership[edit | edit source]

Children's education[edit | edit source]

Prior to revealing himself as a tzaddik, the Baal Shem Tov worked as a teacher's assistant and his job was to walk the children from their homes to the cheder. In the course of these walks, the Besht educated the children on spiritual concepts, in particular, the concept of responding amen when appropriate. Additionally, he protected them from any danger on the way to school, such as dogs.

The Besht took on this work with joy and endless love, so much so that in later years he told his best students that "those were the happiest days of his life." His student, the Maggid of Mezritch, reflected: "If only people would kiss the Sefer Torah[4] with the same amount of love with which the Baal Shem Tov kissed the children when he walked them to cheder when he was a teacher's assistant."

At age 18, in 1716 (5746), the Besht proposed a new course of action to his friends from the fellowship of hidden mystics: to go from village to village and ensure each one had a teacher for the local children. In villages lacking a teacher, the hidden mystics would serve as teachers. During that period, the Besht also served as a teacher.

Head of the fellowship of hidden mystics[edit | edit source]

At age 14, in 1712 (5742), the Baal Shem Tov was inducted into the fellowship of hidden mystics, which was then under the leadership of the Baal Shem[5] Rabbi Adam of Ropshitz.

Before Rabbi Adam Baal Shem passed away, he was directed in a dream to pass on the "writings" in his possession to Israel, son of Eliezer from Okopy. He sent his son to search for R' Israel and asked him to deliver the writings because they belonged to the root of his soul, and if he agreed to study with his son, even better. After a long search, the son found a house of study watchman named Israel, who was then 14 years old. He asked R' Israel to teach him and he agreed on the condition that they make it appear that he is the student. As a result of this studying, the Besht was matched with a woman from Okopy and married. His wife passed away shortly after the wedding.

At age 18, the Baal Shem Tov was formally appointed as leader of the fellowship of hidden mystics.

On his 26th birthday, Achiya Hashiloni[6] revealed himself to him and taught him Torah for 10 years. During this time, he disclosed the enlightenment found in nigleh[7] and Kabbalah as he was taught in Gan Eden[8]. On the Besht's 36th birthday, his teacher urged him to reveal himself.

Revelation and name[edit | edit source]

On the 17th of Elul 1734 (5494), Achiya Hashiloni ordered the Baal Shem Tov to reveal himself to the world, and he first revealed himself in the town of Tolste. Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov began to transmit his teachings through travel and wanderings. At first, he dealt primarily with pidyon shvuyim, [9] strengthening Torah study and piety and disseminating the inner dimensions of the Torah. During his travels, he visited Horodenka, Kitov, Nemyriv, Sharhorod (In Yiddish: Shridgrod) in Galicia and Podolia, Polonne, Bila Tserkva, and Zaslaw in the district of Volhynia.

In the course of his travels, the Besht healed people with remedies as well as amulets. His amulets were written by the scribe Rabbi Alexander Ziskind, and later on, when demand increased, he was helped by Rabbi Tzvi Sofer, whose writings were of high value. Eventually, Rabbi Sofer remained as the sole scribe.

In contrast to the Baalei Shem who preceded him, the Baal Shem Tov did not summon the Divine names and the amulets he distributed did not contain the Divine names. For that reason, amongst others, his name differed from other Baalei Shem, with the addition of the word Tov[10].

In the year 1740 (5500), the Baal Shem Tov moved to Medzhybizh, where admirers and chassidim[11] began to congregate around him, among them many great Torah scholars and well-known tzaddikim. The Besht studied Gemarah with his students. The class was sharp and brilliant and also included the study of the Rambam, Rif and the rest of the commentators known as Rishonim, as applicable to the relevant Gemarah. The Baal Shem Tov translated the words from Hebrew or Aramaic to Yiddish.

During that same period, the Baal Shem Tov was also planning to move to the Land of Israel, a place that loomed large in his teachings, but his plans did not come to fruition.

Ascent to the chamber of Moshiach[edit | edit source]

On Rosh Hashanah 1746 (5507), the Baal Shem Tov experienced an ascent of the soul to the higher realms, which he related at length in the manuscript known as Igeret HaGeulah. During the ascent, the King Moshiach told him that his arrival depended on the spreading of wellsprings of Chassidut. The Besht himself wrote a description of the ascent and the words of the King Moshiach in a letter he sent to his brother-in-law R' Gershon Kitover, and it said the following:

As you know, on Rosh Hashanah 1746 (5507), I experienced an ascent of the soul through an oath, and I saw wonderful things in a vision, things I had not seen before, since the day I gained awareness... and I ascended step after step until I entered the hall of Moshiach where Moshiach was studying Torah with all the Tannaim[12] and tzaddikim as well as the 7 shepherds, and there I witnessed a great joy... and I asked Moshiach: "Eimatai ati mar (when will the Master come)?" And he replied: "You will know when your teachings will be publicized and revealed through the world, and your wellsprings will burst forth, all that I have taught you and you have understood, and they should also be able to perform unifications and elevations like you, and then all kelipot[13] will stop existing and there will be an et ratzon[14] and salvation." I wondered about this and experienced great sorrow over the length of time it would take for this to take place.

— From the epilogue of the book Ben Porat Yosef, also printed in the prologue to the book Keter Shem Tov.

During his time of sorrow, the Besht shed tears from his eyes.

Victory over the Frankists[edit | edit source]

On the 26th of Tammuz 1759 (5519), the Baal Shem Tov achieved victory over the Frankists in the city of Lviv. In letters discovered in the Kherson genizah it was found that the Besht and his students declared this day a festival. In a letter from the 8th of Kislev 1760 (5520), the Lubavitcher Rebbe replied to an individual who asked why this day is not celebrated every year, saying he had not heard an elucidation on the subject, but he thinks it is because, by the following year, the Baal Shem Tov had already passed away (in 1760).

Methodology[edit | edit source]

The Besht innovated and highlighted many points with his approach. The point of his chiddushim[15] was to discover the source, the essence of every single thing. In other words, what is its purpose, its goal, its source, and where does it lead? In this manner, he discovered the essence of the world's creation: constant creation by the Almighty, blessed be He. So, too, he discovered what exactly is a Jew, a person who is united in purpose with atzmut ein sof (and since this factor is particularly visible in simple Jews, he drew more of them close), and he particularly encouraged pure Ahavat Israel for every jew from the essence of one's soul. In this manner, he also uncovered the substance of klipat nogah (see Tanya Chapter 6) and more.

Divine Providence[edit | edit source]

The Baal Shem Tov's approach to Divine Providence can be summarized in the well-known saying, "The Master of the world is found in every single movement." The Baal Shem Tov explains that even in a place where the concealment is great, the Master of the World is present.

A well-known parable related by the Baal Shem Tov is found in his grandson's book, HaDegel Machane Efraim. It concerns a king who surrounded himself with seven fearsome walls, each one more fortified than the previous. Many attempted to scale or destroy the walls but none succeeded. Only the king's son, who knew his father had not abandoned him, dedicated his life to getting past all the walls. Once he had gotten past them, he realized it was all an illusion; there were no walls and nothing preventing anyone from approaching the king. The lesson is that when a Jew truly believes that G-d is close to him, all that is concealed will be revealed.

The Baal Shem Tov has a well-known saying that the concealment itself comes from the Almighty, as it says "Yet I will keep My countenance hidden." In any case, the punishment is that this very reality is hidden: the fact that the concealment is a concealment.


  1. Cheder (Hebrew: “room”) – A traditional Jewish religious elementary school.
  2. tzaddik (Hebrew: righteous man)
  3. hitbodedut (Hebrew: "spiritual seclusion")
  4. Sefer Torah (Hebrew: "Torah scroll")
  5. Baal Shem (Hebrew: "master of the name"), a title applied to those who possess a mastery of the kabbalistic names of God and His angels.
  6. Achiya Hashiloni, an ancient prophet.
  7. Nigleh (Hebrew: "revealed"), the revealed aspects of the Torah.
  8. Gan Eden Garden of Eden.
  9. Pidyon shvuyim (Hebrew: "ransoming of captives")
  10. Tov (Hebrew: :good")
  11. Chassidim are followers or adherents.
  12. Tannaim (Amoraic Hebrew: "repeaters") sages who lived before and after the Second Temple period.
  13. Kelipot' (Hebrew: "shells") the outer covering that conceals G-d's light.
  14. Et ratzon (Hebrew: a time of favor") a time of Heavenly mercy.
  15. Chiddushim (Hebrew: "innovations")