The Baal Shem Tov never set his teachings to parchment or paper. His students and their students in turn carried his teachings with them mostly orally, developing them yet further, each along his own particular path.

In the generation after the passing of the fathers of the movement, however, there was a popular demand to have in writing what the Baal Shem Tov himself had actually said. Two of the popular works from this period are Tzava’at Harivash1 and Keter Shem Tov.2 Both are collections, extracting aphorisms from the works of the early teachers, especially from the sermons of Rabbi Yaacov Yosef of Polnoye.

In both these works, enigmas abound. For one, the Baal Shem Tov taught in the warm and folksy tongue of Yiddish, while these aphorisms are provided to us in classical Hebrew. Furthermore, they are presented in tight, concise form, with little elaboration. The anonymous editor of the Tzava’at Harivash himself prefaces, “All that I have written here are principles, greater and more precious than fine gold. Each matter is on its own a major principle.”

Beyond that, they come to us orphaned of any frame of reference. The farmer holds a seed and knows in just what soil it belongs at what season of the year, into what species of plant it will grow and what care he must provide it to help it there; the urban dweller does not know whether it is for gardening, munching or recycling. So too, these seeds of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings baffled and confused even readers of their own times, often leading them to conclusions quite the opposite of their intent. How much more so in our times, so distant from the spirit of that era.

What I’ve done, therefore, is to provide a translation that throws back in much of the original soil, the words between the lines that the original student heard, the background upon which these strokes were painted. Some of this can be discerned by looking back at the original sources from which these aphorisms were extracted. Yet more can be known from the teachings of later expounders of chassidic thought, especially the works of prime expositor of chassidic thought, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and his successors.

Even then, I found it necessary to provide a short introduction to each teaching, again to provide the modern reader a context in which to read the teachings that follows. Every stroke of the keyboard was with great trepidation—am I truly enhancing the reader’s experience, or simply adding a fifth leg, depreciating what is already there by adding that which does not belong? At this point, I leave that to the reader to decide.

Books on happiness abound. In this work, I have attempted more than to provide guidance and wisdom; I have attempted to connect the reader with the very soul and essence of the Baal Shem Tov, to the tree of life itself. The wellspring is in your hands.