On Elul 18 in the year 5458 (1698) the founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, known by the abbreviation "BeShT," was born in the small town of Akop in the Carpathian Mountains of Poland.
His birth came exactly fifty years after the Chmielnicki pogroms which had decimated the Jewish communities in the Ukraine, Podolia, Volhynia and Poland.
Whole communities had been wiped out and the remaining Jews plunged into despair. The effects of this great disaster were still apparent when the BeShT was born, and a large part of his life was dedicated to alleviating this sense of despair.
However, it would be wrong to suppose that Chassidism was designed solely as a kind of spiritual medicine, necessary when one was ill, but of no value for the healthy. It was an important teaching of the Baal Shem Tov that Chassidism was vital for the spiritual well-being of every Jew.
This is important for understanding the life and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, because it is often said that Chassidism was meant primarily for the downtrodden, ignorant masses. Although the BeShT and his followers aimed much of their energies at helping poor, illiterate Jews, this was not the main characteristic of Chassidism, for the movement also brought new vision and depth to the world of Torah and mitzvos as practiced by scholars.
The teachings on which Chassidism is based were known previously to a select few, but the time had come for them to be transmitted to the Jews as a whole. The Baal Shem Tov’s mission was to begin this work and to establish the roots of Chassidism from which it would grow and develop to become an intrinsic part of Jewish life.
It was not conceived as a mere luxurious addition to this life, but as a necessary support without which the essential character and essence of Jewish existence could not long survive.
At the age of five the Baal Shem Tov became an orphan. His father, a pious and saintly man, left him this legacy: “My son, be not afraid of anyone but G-d. Love every Jew with all your heart and soul.”
The young orphan became the ward of the community and received the customary education for Jewish boys in those days. He enjoyed spending his free time in the beautiful natural surroundings of his native town, where his sensitive soul could appreciate the majesty of the Creation.