Who and what was the founder of Chasidus? What was there about him and about his teachings that attracted - and continues to attract - both the greatest Torah scholars and also the least learned of our people?

The Birth of Chassidism

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.

The Hidden Mystics

At the age of fourteen the BeShT joined a group of Nistarim - hidden mystics, the followers of Rabbi Adam Baal Shem of Ropshitz. Their mission was to wander from town to town, speaking with Rabbis, scholars, poor workers and wealthy businessmen, encouraging and giving hope where before there was only pessimism.

Four years later, at the BeShT’s suggestion, the Nistarim assumed responsibility for the religious education of these communities. They organized suitable schools and provided pious, qualified teachers for them, paying special attention to the needs of the poor.

After the death of Rabbi Adam Baal Shem, the Baal Shem Tov was elected to serve as the leader of the Nistarim. Upon his election, the BeShT directed the establishment of religious schools (Chadorim) for the young and advance schools of Talmudic studies (yeshivos) for the older boys in hundreds of Jewish communities.

With the religious educational apparatus thus firmly established, the way was clear for serving G‑d and fulfilling the commandment of the love for your fellow Jew (Ahavas Yisroel). As a second objective, the Nistarim focused their attention on raising the masses from the morass of ignorance to the heights of Torah.

During this period in his life the BeShT came into possession of a number of manuscripts which had belonged to Rabbi Adam Baal Shem. These manuscripts revealed many Kabalistic secrets and instructions which he studied avidly.

For a time, the BeShT settled in Brody, where he married the sister of a renowned scholar, Rabbi Abraham Gershon Kutover. A son, Rabbi Zvi, and a daughter, Adel, were born to the BeShT and his wife.

For the ten years from 5484 (1724) the BeShT led a secluded life dedicating himself to intensive study of the Torah. It is recorded that during this period the Baal Shem Tov received instruction from Achiya of Shilo, the ancient prophet of King David’s time, who appeared regularly to the BeShT and taught him the secrets of the Torah.

The Founding of Chassidism

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.