I was reading up about Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. It seems there were other rabbis called “Baal Shem.” But he was the only one called “Baal Shem Tov.” What is the distinction, and what does it even mean?


Let’s break down those three words:


Let’s start with the basic term baal shem. It literally means “master of the Name.” It is a title often given to those who have mastered the kabbalistic names of G‑d and His angels. Through intense concentration on these names, they are capable of overriding the patterns of nature to heal the sick and rescue those in need.

Some of the better known baal shems are:

  • Rabbi Eliyahu Baal Shem of Luentz and Worms1 (1555-1636)
  • Rabbi Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm (d. 1583)
  • Rabbi Yitzchak Zekl Leib Baal Shem of Michelstadt (1768–1846)
  • Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem of Zamosc (d. 1720?)
  • Rabbi Adam Baal Shem of Ropshitz (circa 17th-18th century)
  • Rabbi Chayim Shmuel Yacov Falk Baal Shem of London, whose picture was erroneously publicized as being of the Baal Shem Tov (1708-1782)

Since the Baal Shem Tov was also a master of Kabbalah who healed the sick and performed many miracles, it would seem that he was like the other baal shems. Yet, he was the only one to have the added word tov, which means “good.”

And indeed, he certainly cannot be compared to those baal shems. They were principally miracle workers, of which the Jewish people have had plenty. The Baal Shem Tov revealed a path of serving G‑d with love and joy that revolutionized our understanding and practice of Judaism to this day.

Besides, the Baal Shem Tov had no need to manipulate divine names in order to override nature.2 He was a person entirely beyond nature even while living inside it.

The Hidden Tzadikim/Mystics

True, tradition tells us that the Baal Shem Tov was the successor of a string of baal shems.

Orphaned as an infant, he was adopted as a child by a group of hidden tzadikim (righteous men), who taught him Torah, including the mystical tradition.

At the age of 14, he joined Machane Yisrael, a brotherhood of the hidden tzaddikim. The leader of this brotherhood at the time was the scholar Rabbi Adam Baal Shem of Ropshitz, the close disciple and successor of Rabbi Yoel Baal Shem of Zamosc, who in turn was the close disciple and successor of Rabbi Eliyahu Baal Shem of Worms.3

Eventually, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov himself became the group's leader.

This would explain why he was known as Baal Shem, but it does not explain the added appellation of Tov.

A Good Reputation

This notion of shem tov appears in Ethics of the Fathers:

Rabbi Shimon would say, “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty. But the crown of a good name [shem tov] surmounts them all.”4

Thus, a baal shem tov is one who has a good reputation.

That explanation doesn’t seem quite satisfactory, considering that the Baal Shem Tov certainly accomplished more than establishing a good reputation for himself.5

The Essential Name

Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch explained the title of Baal Shem Tov in a deeper sense:

To use various kabbalistic names is not such a big deal. Anyone who knows a bit of the teachings of the Arizal and Shaar Hayichudim [of Rabbi Chaim Vital] can do it. This was certainly not who the Baal Shem Tov was, for this is something that even the Baal Shem of Lyozhna6 could do…7

Rabbi Dovber goes on to explain that when we talk about divine names, there are two levels. This is somewhat similar to the names we give people.

We might call a person “Officer” or “Doctor” or “Sir” or “Professor.” These are all descriptive names. They refer to some particular quality about the individual. Indeed, they may all be titles of the same person.

But then we each have a name that doesn’t describe us at all, but it’s our name. When someone calls you by this name, they’re not referring to you in any particular role or describing you in any way. They’re calling you. The essential you.

So, too, with G‑d. There are many different names that refer to G‑d as He relates to His world in some particular modality. Some refer to Him as kind, others as merciful, others as judging or forgiving.

But then there is a name that does not refer to Him in any particular modality or relationship to anything. It refers only to Him as He is, that which cannot be described, because there is no description.

Some names have multiple meanings, depending on their context. For example, when we refer to G‑d with the spelled י–ה–ו–ה, we might be referring to Him as One who is מהוה—who brings all things into being at every moment, and therefore cares for each one. Or we could mean that He “is, was and will be,” and therefore transcends all of existence.

But this name is also called “the essential name.”8 In that sense, it is not a description of anything at all about G‑d—it just refers to Him as He is, and can never be known.

The other baal shems, says Rabbi Shalom Dovber, dealt with the first sort of names, which are all descriptions of divine illuminations and manifestations. The Baal Shem Tov went straight to the essence of G‑d. He revealed that essence in the world, in the heart of each person whom he met, and in the Torah that he taught.9

When G‑d created the world, the first creation was light. “And He saw the light, that it was good.” What was so good about it? That it was a light that would not diminish, that nothing could conceal. It was the light that is the quintessence of all things, the true goodness found even in the thickest darkness.

Being “master of the good name,” then, means that the Baal Shem Tov was able to perceive that essential good, hidden light within everything. This was his central task, for which his soul came to this world—to teach us how to discover that light, that essential goodness, within each person, each thing and each event, and reveal that to the entire world.

Paving the Way for the Messianic Era

Yet one more explanation of the name “Baal Shem Tov”:

It was after much pressure from his teachers that on 18 Elul 1734 (his 36th birthday) Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov finally started teaching and revealing his greatness publicly.

This ushered in a new era in Jewish life. According to the Chassidic thought, the simple blessing of the unlettered Jew was as holy as advanced Torah study. Purity of intent was valued over dry achievement, joy and humility were to be admired, and even the simplest peasant could serve G‑d through passionate prayer. Jews from far and wide flocked to hear the Baal Shem Tov's holy words and to observe him consumed in prayer.

It was revealed to the Baal Shem Tov that this new path was meant to prepare the world for the messianic era. This, it is explained, is another reason why he went by the name Baal Shem Tov.

The “crown of a good name” (which, as we quoted from the Mishnah earlier, rises above the three crowns of Torah, priesthood and sovereignty) is an allusion to Moshiach, when the essence-light of the first day of creation will shine throughout the world. Thus, Rabbi Yisrael was called the Baal Shem Tov, for his mission was to prepare the world for the messianic era.10 May it be speedily in our days!