1. His Name Was Yisrael

The Jewish leader known to all as the Baal Shem Tov was actually named Yisrael, the son of Eliezer and Sarah. His name, Yisrael, was a foretaste of what he was to accomplish in his life, bringing vitality and hope to the nation of Israel.

2. He Was a Healer

In years gone by, a baal shem was a folk healer—someone who used a mix of herbs, remedies and incantations to heal the ill. At one point, the Baal Shem Tov functioned as a baal shem, bringing relief, hope, and healing to the masses.

Read: What Does Baal Shem Tov Mean

3. He Founded the Chassidic Movement

The Chassidic movement, which introduced much-needed color and inspiration to Eastern European Jewry and reintroduced the mystical dimension of Judaism for so many, can be traced directly to the teachings and leadership of the Baal Shem Tov.

Read: 17 Facts Every Jew Should Know About Hasidic Jews

4. He Was Orphaned From a Young Age

By the time Yisrael was five years old, he had lost both his parents. Before his death, Eliezer called his son Yisrael to his bedside and told him, “Fear no one but G‑d. Love every Jew with all your heart and soul, no matter who he is.” These two directives would serve as the basis for Yisrael’s mode of divine service and trailblazing teachings.

Left largely to his own devices, he spent much time roaming the forest, admiring G‑d’s pristine creations. On one such excursion, he met a saintly Torah scholar who hid his greatness and allowed him to join his wanderings, but never revealed his name.

5. Elul 18 Was His Special Day

The Baal Shem Tov was born on 18 Elul in the year 5458 (1698).

On his 16th birthday, 18 Elul, 5474, Elijah the Prophet appeared to him and described how much G‑d treasured the artless prayers and uncomplicated faith of the simple folk. This inspired him to reach out to these people, who were largely disregarded by the scholarly elite, and encourage them to praise G‑d and pray to him.

On his 26th birthday, he merited to be visited by Achia Hashiloni, the Biblical prophet, who taught him many secrets of the Torah during the next 10 years.

On his 36th birthday, he was told that the time had come to finally make his identity public and let the world know about his electrifying teachings and new approach to serving G‑d.

© Hendel Lieberman
© Hendel Lieberman

Read: Chai (18) Elul: Birth of a Movement

6. He Was an Assistant School Teacher

At times, the budding young scholar would take the simple job of bahelfer, “teacher’s assistant,” bringing the children to and from their lessons. He used the opportunity to share inspiring stories and lessons with the children. His eventual successor, the Maggid of Mezrich, would later remark: “If only we kissed a Torah scroll with the same love that my mentor kissed the children when he took them to cheder as a teacher’s assistant!”

Read the Story In Its Original Source

7. He Set Up His Court in Mezhibuzh

In time, the Baal Shem Tov and his teachings became well known, and people flocked to his court in the city of Mezhibuzh, which became the center of the Chassidic movement. Even after his passing, the city remained an important center of Chassidism, with many leading rebbes residing there.

Inside the rebuilt synagogue of the Baal Shem Tov, © Mendy Hechtman/Flash90
Inside the rebuilt synagogue of the Baal Shem Tov, © Mendy Hechtman/Flash90

8. He Championed Three Loves

The Baal Shem Tov based his movement on three pillars—love of G‑d, love of Torah, and love of fellow Jews—teaching that each could only be complete when accompanied by the other two.

Read: The Baal Shem Tov on Loving a Fellow Jew

9. He Saw the Divine Hand In Everything

The Baal Shem Tov espoused the notion of Hashgacha Pratit, that G‑d not only recreates and directs the entire universe at every moment but is also intimately involved in every detail of the life of every creature—especially ours. Even the tiniest worm has a part to play in the grand Divine symphony, and each event is a crucial step towards the ultimate fulfillment of this world in Messianic times.

Read: The Synchronous Universe of the Baal Shem Tov

10. Hundreds of Stories Are Told About Him

There are countless stories told about the Baal Shem Tov, accentuating his saintliness, his vast Torah scholarship, and his unrestrained love for everyone. Many also tell of his miraculous ability to see deep within the hearts of others or save communities from harm. Many of these stories tell of mysterious trips he and his students would take after Shabbat ended, often with the wagon driver giving the horses free rein to choose the destination.

Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery
Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery

Read: Baal Shem Tov Stories

11. His Students Ranged from Scholar to Simpleton

The Baal Shem Tov’s movement swept through Eastern Europe, attracting disciples from all strata of Jewish society. Some were simple folk who were uplifted by his empowering message that they were precious in the eyes of G‑d. Others were advanced Torah scholars, attracted to the mystical and emotionally satisfying element he added to their intellectually mature but spiritually stunted Jewish understanding.

Some of his chief students included Rabbi Aryeh Leib (the “Grandfather”) of Shpola, Rabbi Menachem Nochum of Chernobyl, Rabbi Michel of Zlotchev, Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, and Rabbi Zeev Volf Kitzes.

After his passing, the mantle of leadership was taken up by his primary student, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich.

Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery
Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery

Learn More About the Maggid of Mezrich

12. His Wellsprings Are the Key to the Messianic Era

In a letter to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon of Kutov, the Baal Shem Tov recounted a wondrous encounter he had “on high” with Moshiach himself. In response to the Baal Shem Tov’s query as to when the time of the final Redemption would finally come, Moshiach replied: “In the time when your teaching will become public and revealed in the world, and your wellsprings will burst forth to the furthest extremes...”

Indeed, the Divine light spread by the Baal Shem Tov and subsequent Chassidic masters is a foretaste of what we will experience in the Messianic era.

Read: The Sixth Millennium and the Era of Moshiach

13. His Progeny Continued His Ways

The Baal Shem Tov left a son and a daughter. His son, Rabbi Tzvi, was a saintly man who chose not to lead the Chassidim after his father’s passing. His daughter, Odel, was famed as well, and features prominently in the story of the Baal Shem Tov’s attempted visit to the Holy Land.

His grandchildren included Rabbi Boruch of Mezhibuzh and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov. Their sister, Feiga, was the mother of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

14. He Wrote No Book

All the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov that we have today were recorded in the books of his students and grandchildren, starting with the Toldot Yaakov Yosef, by Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, which was the first Chassidic book ever printed.

Many teachings were posthumously collected and published under the name Keter Shem Tov. His teachings are developed, extended and given practical application in the Tanya, which was written by the student of his student, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

Explore the Tanya: the One-Size-Fits-All Manual for Life

15. His Life Continues to Inspire

The Baal Shem Tov passed away on the first day of Shavuot 5520 (1760), surrounded by his most devoted students. More than 250 years later, the Chassidic movement has weathered the test of time, proving that the candle lit by the saintly Baal Shem Tov will continue to give light, paving the way for the day when the light of G‑d will fill the earth, and Divine knowledge will be as plentiful and ubiquitous as water in the ocean.

The resting place of the Baal Shem Tov, © Mendy Hechtman/Flash90
The resting place of the Baal Shem Tov, © Mendy Hechtman/Flash90