Baal Shem Tov

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Baal Shem Tov
Full name ישראל בן אליעזר Yisroel ben Eliezer
Signature Besht Signature.svg
Main work Keter Shem Tov
Tzavaat HaRivash
Born Circa 1700
Okopy Świętej Trójcy, Podolian Voivodeship, Kingdom of Poland
Died 22 May 1760 (6 Sivan 5520)
Międzybóż, Podolian Voivodeship, Kingdom of Poland
Buried Międzybóż, Kingdom of Poland
Successor Dov Ber of Mezritsh (1704–1772)
Father Eliezer
Mother Sara
Wife Chana
Children Tsvi of Pinsk (1729–1779)
Udel (1720–1787)

Rabbi Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer (born circa 1700,[1] died: 6 Sivan 5520, 22 May 1760), (Hebrew: רבי ישראל בן אליעזר‎) often called Baal Shem Tov (/ˌbɑːl ˈʃɛm ˌtʊv/[2] or /ˌtʊf/) or Besht, was a Jewish mystical rabbi. He is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism (see also Mezhbizh Hasidic dynasty).

The 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,” but at least two other translations are possible:[3]

  • "Good Master of the Name," taking "Baal Shem" as a unit, meaning one who "owns the [holy] name" therefore has the power or uses Divine names to cure illnesses and perform miracles. I.e., an effective baal shem.
  • "One who has a good reputation in the community," since in Hebrew idiom, "Baal" can mean "one characterized by" and "Shem" can mean "reputation," thus "one characterized by a good reputation."

The name Besht (בעש"ט) — the acronym from the words comprising that name, bet ayin shin tet—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 "The Baal Shem Tov", 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. The attitude of the Chassidim themselves towards these legends is an unusual blend of suspicion on one hand, and belief on the other. The Rebbe Shlomo of Rodomsk pithily declared, "Whoever believes all the miracle stories about the Baal Shem Tov in Shivhei HaBaal Shem Tov is a fool, but whoever denies that he could have done them is an apikoros [a heretic]." Similarly, the Rebbe Mordechai of Neshkiz explains, "Even if a story about him never actually occurred, and there was no such miracle, it was in the power of the Baal Shem Tov, may his memory be a blessing for the life of the World-to-Come, to perform everything."[4]

Nevertheless, 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.

Early life and marriage

Yisroel (Israel) was born to poor and not very young parents Eliezer and Sarah in a settlement near Okopy Świętej Trójcy, a newly built fortress close to Kameniec in the West Ukraine, where Zbruch connects with Dniester. The fortress was built as the new border post between the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Ottoman Empire. Located in a historic land of Podolia, most of the territory at that time was part of the Ottoman Empire for a short period. Today, Okopy is a village located in the Borschiv Raion (district) of the Ternopil Oblast).

He died in Medzhybizh, (Ukrainian: Меджибіж, Polish: Międzybórz, Międzyborz or Międzybóż, Yiddish: מעזשביזש‎), which was part of Poland and today is situated in the Khmelnytskyi Oblast (Ukraine) (not to be confused with other cities of the same name).[5]

At the age of 3, the Besht's father gave his son his last words before passing on. They were "fear absolutely no one or no thing but God, and love every single Jew no matter who he/she is and no matter what he/she is doing". In 1703, Israel became an orphan, and the Jewish community of Tluste (near Zalischyky) adopted him, providing him with his basic needs. Often, after the conclusion of his studies at the local cheder (Jewish elementary school), he would wander into the fields and forests that surrounded the village to meditate and recognize the wonders of God's creation. In 1710, he finished cheder and became an assistant to a melamed (instructor in cheder). According to Hasidic legend, on his sixteenth birthday, Elijah the Prophet appeared to him and described to him the great effects the prayers of simple folk had in heaven. Sometime in 1712 Israel became a shammash (sexton) of the local synagogue.

He was periodically hired as a teacher's assistant in the cheders of the small villages through which they passed. He would later relate that he took great pleasure in accompanying the children to and from school, using this opportunity to recite prayers with them and tell them Torah stories. The children's innocence and the purity with which they prayed, the Baal Shem Tov explained, caused the Almighty great satisfaction. The Mezritcher Maggid, the Baal Shem Tov's successor, would later say, "If only we kissed a Torah scroll with the same love that my master [the Baal Shem Tov] kissed the children when he took them to cheder as a teacher's assistant!"[6]

According to Hasidic legend, the Baal Shem Tov would have visions in which the prophet Achiya Hashiloni would appear to him.[7] In 1716 the Baal Shem Tov married, but soon his wife died and he went on traveling throughout the Eastern Galicia. After serving for a long time as helper in various small communities of the West Ukraine, he settled as a melamed at Tluste.

The Besht was introduced to the secrets of Kabbalah by Rabbi Adam Baal Shem of Ropczyce (Yiddish: ראָפּשיץ‎) who was a disciple of Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem (I) of Zamość (Yiddish: זאמושטש‎), the successor of Rabbi Eliyahu Baal Shem of Worms (Yiddish: ורמיזא, ורמישא‎).[8]

The Besht became the leader of this movement at the age of 18.[9] Caring for the Jewish poor, the group of Tzadikim encouraged Jews to move to agrarian lifestyles as alternatives to the chronic poverty which was the lot of city Jews. In continuation of this policy they decided that they needed to look after the educational needs of the children living in small farm communities. If a suitable teacher could not be sourced they themselves would do so until an alternative arrangement emerged. As such — and in keeping with Jewish doctrine "the letter bearer should fulfill its contents" — the Baal Shem Tov became a teacher’s assistant — and with unconditional love he tried to instill in these children honor for their parents and a love of God and fellow beings. He later commented "The most joyous time in my life was teaching the small children how to say Modeh Ani, Shema Yisrael and Kametz Alef Ah".[10]

Due to his recognized honesty and his knowledge of human nature, he was chosen[by whom?] 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 The 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 with them.

Variations of this portrait are popularly used to represent Israel Baal Shem Tov. Actually, it depicts Rabbi Falk, the Baal Shem of London.[11]
A well just outside Medzhybizh thought to be hand-dug by the Baal Shem Tov himself. It still produces fresh water.

The courtship was characteristic. In the shabby clothes of a peasant he presented himself at Brody before Avraham 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. Avraham Gershon was about to give him alms, when The Besht produced a letter from his pocket, showing that he was the designated bridegroom. Avraham 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 the wagonload to the surrounding villages, and from this they derived their entire support. 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 (born in 1720) and Zvi Hersh.

Development as leader and challenges

The Baal Shem Tov’s personal Siddur (now in Chabad library archive #1994).

The Besht bettered his condition 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 Dovid Halperin, rabbi of Ostroha; Rabbi Israel of Satinov, author of Tiferet Yisrael; Rabbi Yoseph Heilperin of Slosowitz; and Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezrich (AKA the Maggid of Mezritch) 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 Dovid Azulai (Chida) cites the Baal Shem Tov in his works in great laudatory terms.

Exterior of the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue in Medzhybizh, circa 1915. This shul no longer exists, having been destroyed by the Nazis. However, an exact replica was erected on its original site as a museum.

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 colleagues in his stories from Shivhei HaBesht also appear in Polish court records, notably, Ze'ev Wolf Kitses and Dovid Purkes. Rosman contends that the Polish documents show the Besht and his followers were not outcasts or pariahs, but rather a respected part of the mainstream Jewish communal life. Medzhybizh at the time was not some backwater village, but a thriving, prosperous, and important community in the Czartorysky estate.

Gravestone of the Baal Shem Tov in Medzhybizh (before restoration in 2006–2008) with the inscription רבי ישראל בעל שם טוב
Example from the 1758 Polish tax census of Medzhybizh showing "Baal Shem" as occupying house #95

Other direct evidence includes the Besht's daily prayer-book (siddur, owned by the Agudas Chabad Library in New York) with his handwritten personal notes in the margins. His grave can be seen today in the old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh.

Over the past few years, the "Agudas Ohalei Tzadikim"[12] organization (based in Israel) has restored many graves of Tzadikim (Ohelim) in Ukraine, including Baal Shem Tov's. A new guesthouse and synagogue has been built[when?] next to the Ohel of Baal Shem Tov, and the Baal Shem Tov's synagogue in the village proper has been painstakingly restored. Both synagogues are used by the many visitors from all over the world who come to pray near the Baal Shem Tov's grave.

Disputes with the Frankists and death

While the Besht lived, very little antagonism occurred between different styles of Judaism (Talmudism and Hasidism). In fact, the Besht considered himself and his disciples as mainstream. The Besht took sides with the Talmudists in their disputes against the Frankists (Jacob Frank's cultist movement which regarded Frank as the Messiah, modeled after the apostate Sabbatai Zevi.) After the mass conversion of the Frankists, the Baal Shem Tov allegedly said: "As long as a diseased limb is connected with the body, there is hope that it may be saved; but, once amputated, it is gone, and there is no hope." Baal Shem Tov died shortly after the conversion of many Frankists to Christianity.

His legacy

Israel ben Eliezer left no books; for the Kabbalistic commentary on Ps. cvii., ascribed to him (Zhitomir, 1804), Sefer mi-Rabbi Yisrael Baal 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 Sabbatai Zevi and his latter day spiritual descendants such as Malach and Jacob 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.

Elements of Besht’s doctrines

The foundation-stone of Hasidism as laid by Besht is a strongly marked panentheistic conception of God. He declared the whole universe, mind and matter, to be a manifestation of the Divine Being; that this manifestation is not an emanation from God, as is the conception of the Kabbalah by Mitnagdim, for nothing can be separated from God: all things are rather forms in which God reveals Himself. When man speaks, said Besht, he should remember that his speech is an element of life, and that life itself is a manifestation of God. Even evil exists in God. This seeming contradiction is explained on the ground that evil is not bad in itself, but only in its relation to man. It is wrong to look with desire upon a woman; but it is divine to admire her beauty: it is wrong only insofar as man does not regard beauty as a manifestation of God, but misconceives it, and thinks of it in reference to himself. Nevertheless, sin is nothing positive, but is identical with the imperfections of human deeds and thought. Whoever does not believe that God resides in all things, but separates God and them in his thoughts, has not the right conception of God. It is equally fallacious to think of a creation in time: creation, that is, God’s activity, has no end. God is ever active in the changes of nature: in fact, it is in these changes that God’s continuous creativeness consists.

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.

As Besht fought ascetics, so he fought the rigidity and sanctimony that had accreted to strict Talmudic viewpoints while not abrogating a single religious ceremony or 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.

Influence on Hasidism

The later developments of Hasidism are unintelligible without consideration of Besht’s opinion concerning man’s proper relation with the universe. True worship of God, as above explained, consists in the cleaving to, and the unification with, God. To use his own words,[citation needed] “the ideal of man is to be a revelation himself, clearly to recognize himself as a manifestation of God.” Mysticism, he said, is not the Kabbalah, which everyone may learn; but that sense of true oneness, which is usually as strange, unintelligible, and incomprehensible to mankind as dancing is to a dove. However, the man who is capable of this feeling is endowed with a genuine intuition, and it is the perception of such a man which is called prophecy, according to the degree of his insight. From this it results, in the first place, that the ideal man may lay claim to authority equal, in a certain sense, to the authority of the Prophets. This focus on oneness and personal revelation helps earn his mystical interpretation of Judaism the title of panentheism.

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:

Amalek is still alive today… Every time you experience a worry or doubt about how God is running the world—that’s Amalek launching an attack against your soul. We must wipe Amalek out of our hearts whenever—and wherever—he attacks so that we can serve God with complete joy.

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, Baal-Shem [Besht]...was the incarnation of a theory, and his whole life the revelation of a system.”


Besht did not combat the practice of rabbinical Judaism; it was the spirit of the practice which he opposed. His teachings being the result not of speculation, but of a deep, religious temperament, he laid stress upon a religious spirit, and not upon the forms of religion. Though he considered the Law to be holy and inviolable, and emphasized the importance of Torah-study, he held that one’s entire life should be a service of God, and that this would constitute true worship of Him.

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. He directed many satirical remarks at 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:

A thief once tried to break into a house, the owner of which, crying out, frightened the thief away. The same thief soon afterward broke into the house of a very strong man, who, on seeing him enter, kept quite still. When the thief had come near enough, the man caught him and put him in prison, thus depriving him of all opportunity to do further harm.

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. For him every intuition was a divine revelation; and divine messages were daily occurrences. An example of the power of his spiritual vision is found in the beginning of his grandson's work, Degel, where he writes that his grandfather wrote to Gershon Kitover who lived in Israel, asking him why he was not in Israel that particular Shabbos.

In legend

In Chassidic tradition, there’s a saying, “Someone who believes in all the stories of the Baal Shem Tov and the other mystics and holy men is a fool; someone who looks at any single story and says “That one could not be true” is a heretic.”[13]

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 of the then Wallachia, he married the princess only in name. After being questioned for a long time as to his strange conduct, he confessed to the princess that he was a Jew, 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.

Scholarly Biography

Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba'al Shem Tov by Moshe Rosman. Reprint with new introduction. London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2013. ISBN 978-1-906764-44-9.

The Ba'al Shem Tov is an elusive subject for historians because documentary evidence about his life is scanty and equivocal. Until now, much of what was known about him was based on stories compiled more than a generation after his death, many of which serve more to mythologize him than to describe him. The portrait provided in this book is drawn from life instead of from myth. Based on innovative critical analysis of familiar and previously unexplored archival sources, and concentrating on accounts that can be attributed to the Besht or to contemporary eyewitnesses, the book goes further than any previous work in uncovering the historical Ba'al Shem Tov. Additionally, documents in Polish and Hebrew discovered during research for the book give the first detailed description of the cultural, social, economic, and political context of the Besht's life. Founder of Hasidism supplies the history behind the legend. It presents the best, most convincing description that can be drawn from the existing documentary evidence, changing our understanding of the Besht and, with it, the master-narrative of hasidism. A substantial new Introduction considers what has changed in the study of Hasidism since the influential first edition was published, these changes being in part due to the influence of the book. There are new approaches, new sources, and new interpretations, and these are reviewed and critically assessed. Criticisms of the original edition are answered and key issues are reconsidered, including the authenticity of the various versions of the Holy Epistle, the ways in which Jacob Joseph's books can be utilized as historical sources, and the relationship between the Maggid of Mezhirech and Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye. The first edition of Founder of Hasidism won the 1996 National Jewish Book Award for Jewish History and the 2000 Zalman Shazar Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Jewish Historical Research.[14]


The Baal Shem Tov directly imparted his teachings to his students, some of whom founded their own respective Hasidic dynasties. These students include:

See also


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. Jones, Daniel (2003) [1917], Peter Roach, James Hartmann and Jane Setter (eds.), English Pronouncing Dictionary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 3-12-539683-2CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. p. 409, The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov, by Yitzhak Buxbaum. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.
  4. p. 5, The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov, by Yitzhak Buxbaum. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.
  5. "Medzhybizh". Retrieved 2013-03-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Hayom Yom, Tammuz 16.
  7. Golding, Peretz. "The Baal Shem Tov—A Brief Biography – Jewish History". Retrieved 2013-03-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "לקוטי דבורים – חלק ג – שניאורסון, יוסף יצחק, 1880–1950 (page 39 of 405)". Retrieved 2014-02-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Ba'al Shem Tov". Retrieved October 28, 2014;<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    "The Ba'al Shem Tov". onthemainline. March 15, 2006. Retrieved October 28, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Meaningful Life Center". 2000-07-23. Retrieved 2009-05-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Founder of Hasidism, distributor's description


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "article name needed". Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

The chief source for the Besht’s biography is Ber (Dov) ben Shmuel’s Shivchei ha-Besht, Kopys, 1814, and frequently republished, and traditions recorded in the works of various Hassidic dynasties — especially by the leaders of the Chabad movement.

For the Besht’s teachings, the following works are especially valuable:

  • Jacob Joseph ha-Kohen, Toldot Yaakov Yosef
  • Likutim Yekarim (Likut) — a collection of Hasidic doctrines
  • The works of Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch
  • Tzava’at HaRivash, guidelines, doctrines and instructions for religio-ethical conduct
  • Keter Shem Tov, an anthology of his teachings, compiled mainly from the works of Jacob Joseph of Polonne and Likutim Yekarim.
  • Sefer Baal Shem Tov, a two-volume anthology of his teachings compiled from over 200 Hassidic texts, and constituting the most comprehensive collection.

Tzava’at 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...

Further reading

  • Buxbaum, Yitzhak, Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov, ISBN 978-0826417725, Bloomsbury Academic, NY, 2005 (420 pp).
  • Etkes, Immanuel, The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader (The Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry) Hardcover – December 21, 2004
  • Dubnow, Yevreiskaya Istoria, ii. 426–431
  • idem, in Voskhod, viii. Nos. 5–10
  • Heinrich Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, 2d ed., xi. 94–98, 546–554
  • Jost, Gesch. des Judenthums und Seiner Sekten, iii. 185 et seq.
  • A. Kahana, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem, Jitomir, 1900
  • D. Kohan, in Ha-Sh. ;ar, v. 500–504, 553–554
  • Rodkinson, Toledot Baale Shem-Tov;ob, Königsberg, 1876
  • Schechter, Studies in Judaism, 1896, pp. 1–45
  • Zweifel, Shalom ’al-Yisrael, i.–iii.
  • Zederbaum, Keter Kehunah, pp. 80–103
  • Frumkin, ’Adat ...;..Hasidim, Lemberg, 1860, 1865 (?)
  • Israel Zangwill, Dreamers of the Ghetto, pp. 221–288 (fiction).
  • Chapin, David A. and Weinstock, Ben, The Road from Letichev: The history and culture of a forgotten Jewish community in Eastern Europe, Volume 1. ISBN 0-595-00666-3 iUniverse, Lincoln, NE, 2000.
  • Rabinowicz, Tzvi M. The Encyclopedia of Hasidism: ISBN 1-56821-123-6 Jason Aronson, Inc., 1996.
  • Rosman, Moshe, Founder of Hasidism: ISBN 0-520-20191-4 Univ. of Calif. Press, 1996. (Founder of Hasidism by Moshe Rosman)
  • Rosman, Moshe, “Miedzyboz and Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov”, Zion, Vol. 52, No. 2, 1987, p. 177-89. Reprinted within Essential Papers on Hasidism ed, G.D. Hundert ISBN 0-8147-3470-7, New York, 1991.
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, Liebermann, Toronto 1961
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, Tzava’at Harivash — The Testament of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (annotated English translation with an introduction on the history and impact of this work and the controversy it evoked in the battle between Hasidism and its opponents), Kehot, Brooklyn NY 1998. Full text provided online
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, The Mystical Dimension, 3 volumes, Kehot, Brooklyn NY 1990 (2nd ed. 1995)
  • Sears, David, The Path of the Baal Shem Tov: Early Chasidic Teachings and Customs Jason Aronson, Queens NY 1997 ISBN 1-56821-972-5
  • Singer, Isaac Bashevis, "Reaches of Heaven: A Story of the Baal Shem Tov", Faber, 1982

External links

Baal Shem Tov stories