Who He Was

Master of the Good Name

BAAL SHEM TOV literally means, “Master of the Good Name.” How appropriate an appellation for Rabbi Yisrael Ben Eliezer, who was to become the founder of the Chassidic movement — the single most important religious movement in Jewish history! We know that he was born on the 18th of Elul in 1698 and left this world on Shavous, the 6th of Sivan 1760, but little other verifiable biographical information has come down to us. Moreover, the Baal Shem Tov’s life is so overlain with legend, it is difficult to determine what is true of the information we do have.

Baal Shem Tov: A Concealed Spiritual Master

According to the stories, Rabbi Yisrael’s parents were poor, righteous, and hospitable. When he was orphaned at a very young age, the Jewish community of Horodenka took him under its wing, fed and clothed him, and enrolled him in the local cheder.[1]

He is described as an unusually sensitive child, and quite early demonstrated a profound attachment to G•d and to nature. He often wandered in the forests and fields surrounding the village, and spent many hours there, alone, close to the natural world, talking to G•d.

At the age of twelve, he began working as the local cheder teacher’s assistant. His job was to bring the students to and from school and to review their lessons with them. Later, he served as a shamash,[2] a shochet,[3] and worked as a laborer.

Unbeknownst to others, he was also devoted to Torah study and became extremely learned as a Talmid Chacham and Kabbalist.  The man who was to become the Baal Shem Tov so successfully concealed his spiritual and scholarly achievements that the great Talmudist, Rabbi Avraham Gershon of Kitov, vehemently opposed R. Yisrael’s marriage to his sister, Chana. Rabbi Avraham Gershon viewed Rabbi Yisrael, who maintained a pretense of humble ignorance, as unworthy of the Kitover family name. They did, however, marry, and after they had wed, Rabbi Yisrael worked as a clay digger, a wagon driver, an inn keeper, and a healer.

In fact, the Baal Shem Tov (also know by the acronym the Besht) was part of a group of hidden holy men and mystics who worked among the “Jewish masses.” Certainly, in that place and time, the majority of Jews were ignorant of Torah. By moving among the common Jewish folk without revealing their status as learned men, these hidden “Saints” were able to relate easily to those they would later lead.

The Baal Shem Tov’s Spiritual Journey

From his twenty-sixth to his thirty-sixth birthday, the Baal Shem Tov studied the deepest secrets of the Torah with Achiyah the Shilonite. Achiyah HaShiloni is described as a Heavenly teacher — one who was a Bibical Prophet and the teacher of both King David and Elijah the Prophet.

During Rabbi Yisrael’s years of travel as a hidden Saint, he had learned a great deal about folk remedies. Eventually, he combined his practical knowledge of herbs and healing with his mastery of Kabbalah, and his first public appearance was as a Baal Shem — the name given to a few, select, Jewish miracle rabbis that used mystical powers engendered by the Kabbalah, to heal the ill, ward off demons, and predict future events. The Baal Shem Tov was distinguished from the other Baal Shems, and called the Baal Shem Tov, because of his remarkable spiritual powers including the ability to see events from afar, predict the future, and look into someone’s previous incarnations to help those seeking relief from ailments of the body and soul.

The Teaching of the Omnipresence of God

The Baal Shem Tov took to visiting the nearby towns and hamlets of Podolia, Volhynia, and Galicia, and began preaching the tenets of Chassidism. The most fundamental teaching of Chassidism Zolpidem Canada, as taught by the Baal Shem Tov, is the omnipresence of G•d. The whole universe is a manifestation of the Divine. This manifestation is not an “Emanation” but a “Portion” of G•d; nothing is separate from G•d. Divine (G•d’s) providence is a mantle over all. Therefore, everything in creation, including man, animals, plants and even inanimate objects are directly supervised by G•d.

It follows, then, that all things possess an inner spark of holiness — even something or someone we perceive as evil. Every person, no matter how far he or she has strayed from the ways of G•d, is capable of return; no sinner is damned. The Baal Shem Tov’s teachings emphasized constant communion with G•d, and the enthusiasm and joy that are essential to an experiential relationship with Him. These ideas were not altogether new to Judaism, but the manner in which they were presented was little short of revolutionary. The Baal Shem Tov spoke directly to the masses of unlearned[4] Jews. Their task, he told them, was not to be something they were not — for example, learned Talmudists. Rather, their task was to infuse their daily lives with spiritual meaning.

God’s Intention of Continuous Creation

The Baal Shem Tov taught that since G•d’s providence extends to all of creation; everything is created and continues to exist because of His intention. As G•d is everywhere and in all things, all actions must be performed with an awareness of His presence, as well as with the love and joy that are integral to such awareness. One’s goal in life should be to construct for the Holy One, Blessed be He, a habitation in this physical world. Through this, we will merit to bring the Moshiach, so that the world will be in accordance with G•d’s plan.

The following was said by the Rebbe Maharash (fourth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch 1832-1882): “The world makes three errors by thinking that telling stories of the Baal Shem Tov on Motzoei Shabbos[5] ensures one’s livelihood. First of all, these stories are not to be limited to the Baal Shem Tov, but should include tales of all our Tzaddikim. Secondly, they should not be told only after Shabbos but at any time. And lastly, telling these stories not only ensures livelihood, but serves as a Segulah[6] to ensure we receive an abundance of blessings relating to our children, health and success in our livelihood.”

Blessings, Health and Success

This teaching of the Rebbe Maharash is believed and acted on by all the various groups of Chassidim. By reading and telling these stories to others, you are promised by a long chain of Chassidic Rebbes that you will receive abundant blessings relating to your children, good health and success in your livelihood.