Ba'al Shem Tov (c. 1700-1760, born in Poland), founder of the Hasidism, the Jewish spiritual movement, was born Israel ben Eliezer. He is commonly known as the Besht, the acronym for Ba'al Shem Tov, or Master of the Good Name. He and his disciples employed the story or anecdote to inspire their followers with the love of God and man. They succeeded in implanting faith and confidence, righteous and hope, joy and gaiety in the hearts of despondent and poverty-stricken Jews throughout Eastern Europe.

In his early years, the Besht retired to the Carpathian Mountain to engage in mystical contemplation, meanwhile eking out his living as a lime digger. During this period he earned a reputation as a healer, or ba'al shem, who worked wonders by means of herbs, talismans, and amulets inscribed with the divine name. He later became an innkeeper and a ritual slaughterer and, about 1736, settled in the village of Medzhibozh, in Podolia. From this time until his death, he devoted himself almost entirely to spiritual pursuits.

Though the Besht gained no special renown as a scholar or preacher during his lifetime, he made a deep impression on his fellow Jews by going to the marketplace to converse with simple people and by dressing like them. Such conduct by a holy man was fiercely condemned by some, but the Besht defended his actions as a necessary "descent for the sake of ascent," a concept that eventually evolved into a socio-theological theory that placed great value on the role of the spiritual mentor.

When the Besht renounced the strict asceticism practiced by his companions, he had in fact taken the first step toward initiating a new religious movement within Judaism. His teachings centered on three main points: communion with God; service in ordinary bodily existence — the notion that every human act done "for the sake of heaven" was equal in value to observing formal commandments; and rescue of the "sparks" of divinity that, according to the kabbalah (mystical teachings), were trapped in the material world. His assurance that redemption could be attained without retreat from the material world found a ready response among his listeners, the common Jewish folk in Poland and Lithuania. The Besht and his followers were fiercely attacked by rabbinical leaders for "dancing, drinking, and making merry all their lives"; they were called licentious, indifferent, and contemptuous of tradition.

Many of the Besht's outstanding pupils preserved their master's teachings in their writings, embellishing his image with numerous tales and legends.


Back to Introductory Biography




Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend