The Baal Shem Tov
By Zushia Klutzmen
Throughout the history of the Jews, we have seen many distinguished and honored rabbis. None have caused as much controversy, and change, as the rabbi who was known as the Baal Shem Tov.
His real name was Yisroel. The title of Baal Shem Tov, literally, the master of the good (Holy) name, was a title applied to numerous miracle workers. This title was given to other individuals in the past who through their knowledge of the mystical side of Judaism were able to bring about miracles.
The specific Baal Shem Tov that we are referring to is one who brought about a revival and a revolution in Jewish thought and action and perhaps more significant, began the Chasidic movement.
First we must understand the period preceding the Baal Shem Tov. It was a period of false Messiahs most heavily accented with the rise of Shabbeti Zvi. Armed with the Kabbalah, Shabbeti Zvi swept the hearts of large populations of simple Jews. Yet when given the option of death or conversion to Islam, Shabbeti Zvi shocked his followers by converting, and taking with him a small number of his followers. Shabbeti Zvi died in 1676.
This terrible misfortune caused the rabbinical authorities to look at Kabbalah practices and its practitioners as charlatans. They forbade its study. The books of Kabbalah were closed and became "hidden" from those who sought the fulfillment of the spiritual side of Judaism. Worship became the domain of the strict legal aspects which were devoid of emotional feeling.
At the same time, outside of the synagogue the secularist was gaining ground against the religionist. They were taking from the study hall the best of young Jewish minds and they found their way to the secular universities. Religious leaders felt under attack from within and from without. Innovation was forbidden and those emotional ecstatic elements of Judaism were subdued and substituted by intellectual contemplation and legalistic forms of worship.
It was in this environment that the Baal Shem Tov was born. In the year 1698, merely twenty years after the demise of Shabbeti Zvi, in a small village in the Ukraine, young Yisroel was born. He was orphaned at an early age, and his recollection of his father was his admonishment to young Yisroel to "fear only G-d". Although the Baal Shem Tov had a scant formal education, it certainly was not indicative of a dull mind. The Jewish community helped in providing the young lad with work. He joyfully worked as an assistant to bring the young children to school, a job they say he fulfilled with special enthusiasm.
One of the jobs he held was that of the Synagogue shamash, the attendant responsible for the neatness and order in the synagogue. This job enabled him to sleep in the village synagogue and to engage in his studies in private. No one was aware that the young man was utilizing his many spare hours in pouring over the various tractates that were housed in the local synagogue. During the time he spent as a caretaker of the synagogue he would immerse himself in the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah. There are those who claim that because of his great piety, Achia HaShiloni, a great sage who lived a thousand years earlier, came to visit him and teach him the various secrets of the Kaballah. Yet all of his learning and scholarship was kept concealed from his townsfolk.
What began to distinguish the Baal Shem Tov from the other great teachers was the mode in which he related to G-d. To the Baal Shem Tov, G-d was not a judgmental G-d that was looking at man's sins, nor a kind giving G-d that created man with the propensity to sin. To the Baal Shem Tov, G-d existed as a heavenly father to whom he could freely converse with and pour out his heart. The Baal Shem Tov was known to go into the forests to contemplate, communicate and connect with G-d. In the seclusion of the forest, he developed his ability to see the hand of G-d in all.
During this time, there were other individuals who would travel around the Jewish communities, visiting and helping Jews in distress. It is said that the Baal Shem Tov met and made friends with many of these nister, or hidden, saints. Yet the Baal Shem Tov remained a simple person in the eyes of his community, never exhibiting his great Talmudic knowledge or mystical abilities.
Even his marriage was clouded in mystery. It is said that he met his prospective father-in-law, a distinguished scholar who apprehended the greatness of the Baal Shem Tov. He arranged a marriage contract with him for his daughter without first getting the consent of his daughter. Before the father was able to tell his daughter about his special selection of a groom, he died. When the daughter learned of the proposed marriage, she decided to trust her father's selection, yet her brother was wont to investigate.
When the brother discovered that the "chatan" (groom) in question was a simple man, he became furious, and demanded that his sister cancel the wedding on grounds that a mistake must have been made. Yet the sister was firm in the trust of her father choice. The brother decided to take the Baal Shem Tov to a rabbi to try to undo what he perceived as a mistake.
As they entered the room to speak with the Rabbi, both the brother and the sister, as is traditional, put their hand on the mezuzah and gave it a kiss. The Baal Shem Tov merely put his hand upon it, but did not give it a kiss. The Rabbi noticed this.
Upon questioning, the rabbi decided that it best if he speak privately with the Baal Shem Tov. The brother and sister left the room. After a brief discussion the Rabbi surmised that the Baal Shem Tov was not a simpleton as the brother contended, but a learned man, and for this reason the late father had made a contract with his daughter.
When the Rabbi asked the Baal Shem Tov why he did not kiss the mezuzah as is traditional, the Baal Shem Tov replied that it was not kosher. Immediately the Rabbi down the mezuzah and checked it himself. Shocked at finding that in deed the mezuzah was not kosher, the Rabbi understood that he was in the presence of a great person. The Baal Shem Tov swore the Rabbi to secrecy, to which the Rabbi agreed.
The wedding went on as agreed. The Baal Shem Tov swore his wife to secrecy, that she never reveal his secret side. His wife accepted and supported his development of his special spiritual powers. They say that he would go into the forests with a small basket of food in the morning, and upon his return he would bring the basket back intact with all the food in it. His disciples believed that he would fast to come closer to G-d, but it is was revealed that in reality, due to his closeness to G-d he would just forget to eat!
It was finally some seven years after their marriage that the Baal Shem Tov decided to publicly reveal himself. It is said that he would have been content to live as a nister, but he came to the realization that he must reveal himself for the sake of reviving the spiritual aspects of Judaism.
He quickly gained a reputation as a healer and miracle maker. In addition, he would travel from town to town, teaching the simple unlearned Jews through the medium of stories. In these stories he would teach them many deep principles of devotion and worship. This style became a favored mode of teaching that was adopted by later Hassidic masters who continued in his way. Many stories are told about the Baal Shem Tov which serve the purpose of instilling belief and trust in the common Jew.
Having achieved an almost legendary status during his lifetime, he attracted many simple Jews who came to see the holy man and receive his blessing. In addition, many serious scholars would come to learn the mystical secrets. It is said that part of the Shabbat he would spend talking to the simple Jews who came to see him and the other half was given to instruct the scholars.
Unfortunately his popularity began a counter movement. The scholarly rabbinic authorities looked down on the Baal Shem Tov as a dangerous innovator. He and his follower were condemned and abuse was poured upon them for fear that another Shabeti Zvi disaster was impending. This caused a rift that extends somewhat abated until today. The proponents of the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov are known as Chasidim and the antagonists are called the Misnagdim, the opponents. In spite of the great opposition, the Chasidic movement was able capture the imagination of the simple Jew and to introduce joy and singing in the worship. The Baal Shem Tov saw in every simple Jew a tremendous source of good deeds. He saw that the plain saying of Psalms that every simple Jew would recite was accepted in heaven as if he learned pages of the Talmud. The Baal Shem Tov taught that every person is measured according to who he is, his station, his capabilities and his circumstances.
The Baal Shem Tov died in the year 1760 and was buried in the village of Megibez, in the Ukraine. His leadership was taken over by the Magid of Mezrich, Rabbi Dov Ber. He left no writings, but what we know from him was given over by Rabbi Yaakov Yossef of Polonoye, who himself was first a Misnaged, and then was converted to the ranks of Chasidim. It was through a book that Rabbi Yaakov Yossef published by the title of Toldot Yaakov Yossef, which were an explanation of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov that both attracted many new followers and many new antagonists.
One of the more famous stories of the Baal Shem Tov is his assent to heaven. It was related that on one of the Baal Shem Tov famous elations, in which he was carried up to heaven, he saw the Messiah. He noticed that every one in this "holy compartment" were very much enthusiastic and happy. When the Baal Shem Tov asked the Messiah why those souls here are so delighted, the Messiah replied because of your teachings. When the Baal Shem Tov asked the Messiah when he would come to earth and reveal himself, the Messiah answered, "When the wellsprings of your teachings are spread out."
The Baal Shem Tov had no sons. He had one daughter from who the famous Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is the Baal Shem Tov's great grandson.
Of the Baal Shem Tov's teachings, they are many. Some of his most popular statements were:
Whatever happens, realize that it comes from G-d and in his eyes this is proper.
When you pray, divorce yourself from the physical. Have no awareness of the world. When you are separated from the physical you cannot have extraneous thoughts.
A major rule in serving G-d is to separate from depression.
from the August 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine