The Baal Shem Tov
Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, “the Baal Shem Tov,” or “the Besht,” creator of the Hasidic movement, was born in Podolia in Eastern Europe (modern-day Ukraine) sometime between 1690 and 1700, and died there in 1760. His youth is shrouded in legend, but it is clear that in the mid-17th century, a certain Baal Shem (a term used for Jewish mystical folk healers) had gathered around him in the town of Medzhybizh a small group of enthusiastic Kabbalists who prayed and studied Torah together. Within a few generations, the group’s adherents and their disciples had transformed from a small circle of mystics into a broad popular movement, with many branches and courts. The movement managed to spread across most of Eastern Europe, and according to some scholars, became extremely popular among the Jews of Eastern Europe by the end of the 19th century.
Leaving no written legacy of his own (except for a few letters), the Baal Shem Tov still managed to profoundly influence Jewish daily life, from his time to the present. His teachings, which include sermons, commentaries, stories and short sayings, were passed down orally. Over the years, his disciples compiled them into books (perhaps against his will).
Principles of Hasidism
Hasidism, as an innovative spiritual, yet conservative movement (incorporating messianic elements as well, according to many scholars), did not embrace new values in the traditional worship of God, but did popularize values that had previously belonged only to the Kabbalistic elite. First, the Baal Shem Tov’s Hasidism emphasized the concept of dvekut, devotion—an intense (and sometimes ecstatic) mystical connection between the Hasid and the Divine. The Besht emphasized prayer over Torah study, the most exalted value of traditional Judaism. Prayer, Torah study and the other active commandments were perceived as a way to achieve devotion to God. Hasidism turned the concept of Torah le’shma, of Torah study for its own sake, to study for the sake of attaining devotion to God concealed in the Torah. This is an approach based on emotion, and therefore many of the sayings attributed to the Baal Shem Tov favor emotion in devotion to God in general, with an emphasis on faith, love and joy in particular. Moreover, the Baal Shem Tov also saw God’s presence in all aspects of the corporeal world, something he referred to as niẓoẓot HaBoreh ("sparks of the Creator"). This pantheistic view extended the sacred field beyond halakhah to all areas of life. Thus came about the Hasidic value of avoda begashmiut, worship of God through the material, physical world of eating, drinking, sleeping, earning a living and marriage, although after the first few generations many Hasidic thinkers tried to limit or hide this radical component of Hasidism.
Today, Hasidism is mainly associated with the concept of the “court,” and its leader, the Tsaddik or Rebbe—a charismatic spiritual leader, who usually inherits his role from his father. The institution of the Tsaddik only developed a few generations after the Baal Shem Tov’s death. Despite the many changes the Hasidic (and neo-Hasidic) movement underwent since the death of the Baal Shem Tov in 1760, every Hasidic group and court to this day still sees itself committed to the movement’s founder and his holy path.
The National Library has collected writings describing the thought of the Baal Shem Tov, as well as books and research on the Hasidic movement’s development over time.