Who was Baal Shem Tov?

Who was Baal Shem Tov?

Everything is by Divine Providence. If a leaf is turned over by a breeze, it is only because this has been specifically ordained by G‑d to serve a particular function within the purpose of creation. – Baal Shem Tov – 

One of the characters who defined the Hasidic world is undoubtedly Israel ben Eliezer, popularly known as “Besht” or “Baal Shem Tov,” (“The Master of the Good Name”). Baal Shem Tov is, first of, the founder of the Hasidism, the orthodox and mystical movement of Judaism (and not a “branch,” as many believe, because Judaism is really only one.) He was an important leader for The European Jews, who appeared at the right time and place. And as a great leader (such as Maimonides or the Rebbe himself), his teachings are still valid and continue to illuminate this path that G-d has told us to go.

What happened at that time? I am talking about the Eastern Europe of the late 17th century. A great wave of anti-Semitism spread throughout that region of the world, affecting thousands and thousands of Jews. Many lost their lives in pogroms, and because of this, many families had to emigrate. They lost their livelihood and their lives were reduced to survival. This meant that the synagogues were becoming more and more empty because very few continued to study the Torah (especially the young men, who each day had more work responsibilities on their shoulders.) Only those who had enough money (and therefore, free time) could buy and study the sacred books of our religion (including those who held the knowledge of Kabbalah, even without believing a word from the Zohar.) Due to this, during that time there was a generation of Jews who, despite being pious and fearful of G-d, were sadly ignorant of many aspects of Judaism.

The saddest part is that this inequality of knowledge divided the Jewish communities of that time. The Talmudists, who had enough resources for studying with dedication, did not admit the “uncultured Jews” in their synagogues and this gave rise to a cultural and social division that went against the most basic precepts of our Hebrew identity.

Read also: The 4 main branches that keep modern Judaism strong and alive, by Yosef Meystel

But just like it always happens in the biblical narrative, the darkest moment of the night is just before dawn. Just then, in a lost town in Poland called Tloste, a couple of simple, hardworking Jews (Eliezer and Sarah) had a single son named Israel (a symbolic name and very appropriate for what he was to become.) Eliezer belonged to a secret group of sages who discreetly studied the scriptures and disseminated the sacred knowledge among the uncultured Jews of that region of Europe. When Israel Ben Eliezer was still a child, he was orphaned by both parents. His father’s last words would mark him for life: “Fear of none other than G-d and love every Jew with all your heart and soul, no matter who he is.” Little Eliezer did not know that the whole Torah was summed up in those wise words, and that, more than a sentence, it was the guideline of a lifestyle that, years later, gave form to Hasidism.

Thanks to the good heart of the Tloste Jews, little Israel always had somewhere to eat and sleep. He even studied at the local cheder and had enough time to wander the fields and the beautiful Polish forests while meditating on the learned knowledge. In the midst of those walks, he met a mysterious man (who never revealed his name) who instructed him as his master. He was an old man who prayed passionately in the middle of the forest. Both sat down to study the Talmud, and young Israel decided to follow him through several villages and small towns, helping the poorest and imparting knowledge from the Torah. That was his first contact with the hidden sages after the death of his father.

It is known that a little while later, young Israel would follow the footsteps of the mysterious old man. He was later received at the house of a leading rabbi, also a member of that secret group of wise benefactors. It was there that Israel was introduced to this important brotherhood and learned the occult knowledge of Kabbalah, directly from the great Rabbi Isaac Luria, a famous master of Jewish mysticism.

Image courtesy of Akiva at Flickr.com
Image courtesy of Akiva at Flickr.com

The name “Baal Shem Tov” came by his permanent teaching of joy and simplicity. He felt that sincere prayers had more resonance in the higher worlds than academic achievement and meaningless mechanical actions. Baal Shem Tov taught that G-d rejoices in our joy and that a simple life is more satisfying than a long existence full of luxuries and dissatisfactions. For these reasons, he had many enemies … and it was to be expected.

There are thousands of stories about Baal Shem Tov, but all serve as inspirations for a life full of good deeds and thoughts towards G-d and our fellows, with whom we have a permanent debt of love and compassion.

Recommended: Thirty-Six Aphorisms of the Baal Shem Tov