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The Founding of Chassidism

The Founding of Chassidism

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Then in 5494 (1734), at the age of thirty-six, the BeShT moved to the city of Mezibush. Here he settled and began to teach the doctrines of Chassidus publicly.

It must be remembered that, at that time, Torah scholarship alone was the path of Judaism and the illiterate and unlearned were regarded as “second rate” Jews.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that Judaism and Torah are the property of all Jews; that every Jew, regardless of station or background or endowments, is perfectly capable of serving G-d; and that ahavas Yisroel must embrace the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the good of another Jew.

He urged that worship is vital in the full life of every Jew; that the religious potential of prayer is incalculable. Prayer, however, is not petitioning G-d to grant a request, though that is one end of prayer, but cleaving-the feeling of oneness with G-d; the state of the soul when man gives up the consciousness of his separate existence and joins himself to the eternal being of G-d. Such a state produces a type of indescribable joy – simcha - which is a necessary ingredient in the true worship of G-d. Simcha shel mitzvah - joy in the performance of a commandment and warmth and affection in dealing with others, became the hallmark of Chassidism.

Many people flocked to Mezibush and became ardent followers of the BeShT. Numbered among the thousands of his disciples were some of the most highly esteemed and erudite Rabbis and Talmudic scholars of the time. One of the greatest, Rabbi Dovber of Meseritch, became the BeShT’s successor and the teacher of the celebrated Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi.

These outstanding scholars and Rabbis helped to spread the teachings of the BeShT in their communities, so that before long the new Chassidic movement spread throughout Poland and the neighboring provinces.

Some Rabbis who were not acquainted with the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov became suspicious lest here was yet another false “messianic” movement1, and began to oppose it. These suspicions could not have been more unfounded, the Baal Shem Tov and his followers were, in fact, among the most active antagonists of such movements.

The first open opposition to the BeShT and his movement came in the year 5515 (1755), some twenty years after the Baal Shem Tov began his public work. But the opposition could not stem the tide of the Chassidic movement, which was gaining more and more adherents, both among the masses and among scholars and Rabbis.

Thus, in the final years of his life, the Baal Shem Tov witnessed the beginning of the struggle which later, for a time, divided the Jewish people into two camps, the Chassidim and the Misnagdim.

But he could also visualize the eventual victory of his teachings and their ultimate acceptance by the Jewish people everywhere. When this came to pass, the BeShT taught, the ground would have been fully prepared for the coming of the Moshiach.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov passed away on the first day of Shovuos (Sivan 6) in the year 5520 (1760), at the age of sixty-two. He left no written works, but his teachings and doctrines were recorded by his disciples and published in their works and in special collections.

As a system of thought and as a philosophy of Jewish life, the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov are contained in the extensive Chabad literature, particularly in the writings of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Lubavitch-Chabad movement.

The far-reaching influence of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov continued with growing momentum even after his death.

Soon, the breach between the Chassidim and Misnagdim began to heal, and the Chassidim were no longer suspected of heretical ideas. Instead, they were recognized as the pious representatives of traditional Judaism. Within fifty years, half the Jewish population of Eastern Europe belonged to the Chassidic movement.

Today, over 200 years after the death of the Baal Shem Tov, the Chassidic movement, in all its colorful ramifications, constitutes one of the most, if not the most, vigorous, dynamic and creative forces of Orthodox Jewry.

FOOTNOTES
1. Between 1660 and 1676, a certain Sabbatai Zvi claimed to be the Messiah, and gathered round him a band of supporters. Sabbatai Zvi converted to Islam in 1666, but even this and his death in 1676 failed to shake the devotion of his followers. As late as the second half of the eighteenth century, Jacob Frank found in Eastern Europe enough smoldering belief in the pseudo-Messiah of a century before to be able to put forward his claims as his reincarnation, and to found a sect which he led over to hybrid Christianity after the disputation of Kameniec (June 20, 1757).
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Manuscripts and pictures courtesy Library of Agudas Chasidei Chabad - Ohel Yosef Yitzchok Lubavitch
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November 26, 2013
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