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The Baal Shem Tov

The Baal Shem Tov

(5458-5520)

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Israel Baal Shem Tov was born on the 18th day of Elul in the year 5458 in a little town called Okup in the Ukraine. The name 'Baal Shem Tov' meaning 'the master of the Name', was given him later, when he became known as a great and pious leader, with divine powers to perform miracles.

At the age of 5 he lost his father, Eliezer, who was a very pious and modest man, greatly respected in his community. Before his death, Eliezer called his little son to his bedside and told him: 'My last message to you, dear son, is: Fear no one and nothing, but G‑d alone! Love every Jew with all your heart and soul!'

The little orphan was placed in the care of a teacher in 'cheder'. Whenever the little boy had an opportunity, he ran to the nearby woods, spending hours absorbed in thought, watching the great miracles of nature, and seeing the divine hand in every little flower and blade of grass. This nature study in his early youth left a profound impression upon him, and later on, in one of his lectures to his disciples, he said: "When you see a leaf blown from a tree and whirled along the pathway, don't think it's an accident, for it's moved by the will of G‑d!"

At an early age he was appointed assistant to the teacher of the cheder. His duties were to recite the Shema and the blessings and prayers with the youngest children, as well as to conduct them to cheder and back home. He loved the little children with all his heart, and it was his greatest joy to teach the pure little children the prayers and blessings. "Those days were the happiest in my life," he once said many years later, "and nothing is so acceptable to G‑d as the prayers and blessings coming from the lips of those pure kiddies!"

At the age of 14, the Baal Shem Tov joined the legion of 'Tzadikim nistarim' ) (pious and learned Jews who disguised themselves as poor and simple folk, so that they could mix with the poor and unlearned Jews and do their good work among them). The spiritual leader of these 'secret service men' was the great and saintly Baal Shem Rabbi Adam of Ropshitz, the successor of Rabbi Joel Baal Shem of Zamushtz, who in turn was the successor of Rabbi Elijah Baal Shem of Worms-all the three of them were renowned for their piety and scholarship and divine powers.

In the year 5476, when the Baal Shem Tov was eighteen years of age, he introduced a new kind of service for the 'Nistarim' to perform. They were to devote themselves to the education of the Jewish children. There were many Jewish settlements and tiny communities where there were no Jewish teachers and no Torah-schools (chedarim), and the 'Nistarim' had to provide teachers from their own ranks.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov himself set up a cheder of his own in a little town in Galicia, called Tlosty.

In his private life, Israel was a plain and modest young man, but his wisdom and honesty attracted the attention of his fellow Jews, and many brought their disputes to him for arbitration.

One day a prominent Jew, Ephraim of Kutty, came to him with a disputed case, and he was so impressed with R' Israel, that he offered to give his daughter Leah Rachel to him in marriage. The agreement was thereupon recorded, and R' Ephraim returned home. When the time of the wedding drew near, R' Israel went to Brody, to the bride's brother (for her father had died in the meantime) to claim his bride. He was disguised in the garb of a poor peasant, and was too modest to show any scholarship. His would-be brother-in-law, who was a respected and well known scholar, was shocked at the prospect of having such an ignorant relative, but the bride, looking into the soul of her suitor rather than his appearance. accepted him as her husband.

R' Israel and his wife retired to the Carpathian mountains, where they lived in great poverty, but Israel had all the solitude he desired and could devote his time to the study of the Torah and Kabbalah.

The Baal Shem Tov became the spiritual leader of the legion of `Tzadikim Nistarim' and he directed all their activities. When countless chedarim and Yeshivoth had been established in various Jewish communities, the Baal Shem Tov gave them a new task. They were now to devote their services primarily. to the grown ups who also needed a good education and training; they had to raise the plain folk from the swamp of ignorance to a place among the learned. This they had to achieve through creating widespread interest in the Torah, and through showing a good example of devotion to the Torah and precepts.

At the age of thirty-six it was divinely revealed to him that he had a special mission to perform-to spread new light and instill new life into Israel through the teachings of `Hassidism.' He could no longer remain disguised, and could no longer carry on his work in secret. He had to come out into the open and carry out his mission to the fullest extent.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov settled in Miedzyboz. He began to preach his teachings and doctrines in public, and at once began to attract unusual attention and numerous followers. Many young men, as well as venerable scholars, came to Miedzyboz to learn the new way of worshipping G‑d and to attain the highest moral heights. They became ardent disciples of the Baal Shev Tov, and were called 'Hassidim'-meaning pious Jews. Among his many thousands of followers was an outstanding Talmudist, named Rabbi Bear of Meseritz who later became his successor, and the teacher of the celebrated Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of 'Habad Hassidism.'

The teachings of Hassidism stressed the importance of prayer, and the observance of all the precepts and commandments of the Torah with a spirit of cheerfulness, and with all the heart. Simple faith is something that every Jew possesses, and through devout prayer and the reciting of the Psalms, even the unlearned Jew can attain a high spiritual plane. Selfless affection for fellow Jews and selfless devotion to' the Torah was to be steadily cultivated, together with a feeling of humility and absolute modesty. By countless thousands of Jews, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov is regarded as a divinely sent prophet who instilled new life and new hope into the scattered and shattered flocks of Israel in all lands, and fortified them with faith and courage to meet the dreadful days that were to come on the eve of the coming of the righteous Messiah, speedily in our time.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov died in Miedzyboz on the first day of Shovuos in the year 5520, at the age of 62, but his teachings are still studied and followed by the numerous Hassidim in all lands.

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yosef portal monsey, ny March 23, 2011

all gedolim articles I enjoy and teach directly from your website about Chumash, yom tov, songs, many subjects, but about the gedolim, our great, i always wondered why is there no pictures. at least those that are known.
would really appreciate if I can see them either on side , example of rashi or rambam, baal shem tov or on a separate file Reply

s.cohen October 23, 2005

I really enjoyed reading it, I found it realy interesting, keep up the good work. Reply

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