Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer was born on 25 Aug 1698 in Okopy, Ukraine (at that time Poland). By five years of age, in 1703, he was orphaned. In 1712, he was working as a “gabbai” in the service of the local synagogue. Over time, he became known as the Baal Shem Tov or as the Besht. Today he is regarded as the founder of Hasidic Judaism.
In the News
The significant sites, sacred artifacts, and holy places of the 18th century Jewish revival have been in the news lately since they are located in Ukraine and seemingly have become the target of some military aggression. These sites have historic significance, and are also a present-day destination for thousands of Jewish people making pilgrimage to the holy sites of their faith.
The synagogue (shul) of The Baal Shem Tov (Besht) was recently re-constructed on its original site: “Several Jewish sites are either being restored or were recently renovated as they have become an important Jewish tourist attraction. The old Jewish cemetery is the site of ongoing restoration efforts. The location of its famous graves are now protected by a modern building. The Apter Rav’s shul is currently undergoing renovation. A complete re-creation of the Besht’s shul was recently constructed on its original site.” [Source]
Historic and Present-day Significance
This excerpt from an AL MONITOR report, explains the present-day connection between the Baal Shem Tov of the 1700s and modern-day Judaism:
“The connections between Ukraine and the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community go back to 1740, when Rabbi Israel, who became known as the Baal Shem Tov, was born in the town of Okup in Ukraine. He founded the Hasidic movement from the forests of the Carpathian mountains. Within a short time, it spread to all of eastern Europe and beyond. Rabbi Israel enraptured all of Ukrainian Jewry. His path, based on the teaching that every Jew is beloved by the Almighty, was continued by Hasidic leaders from the cities of Ukraine: his successor Rabbi Dov of Mezeritch, the first grand rabbi of Chabad Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, or Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. Hundreds more great rabbis lived throughout Ukraine, and after their deaths, they were buried in these towns, and their graves became sites of pilgrimage.” [Source: AL Monitor]
Here are some links to additional materials and resources.
- Baal Shem Tov — “The little biographical information about the Besht comes from oral traditions handed down by his students (Jacob Joseph of Polonne and others) and from the legendary tales about his life and behavior collected in Shivḥei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Ba’al Shem Tov; Kapust and Berdychiv, 1814–15).” via Wikipedia [More]
- The Baal Shem Tov — Article by Nissan Mindel, via Chabad and Kehot Publication Society [View]
Below are some informational videos in chronological order.
The Origins of Hasidic Judaism: The Ba’al Shem Tov (1 Dec 2021)
In the aftermath of historical events that impacted Jews of Eastern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, two groups rose up that inspired generations of Jews to revolutionize the way they practice Judaism.
The birth of Hasidic Judaism was inspired by the Baal Shem Tov and his successor, Dov Ber, who spread a more accessible form of Judaism focused on infusing joy into its practice. The movement began to spread across Eastern Europe until it reached the Vilna Gaon in Lithuania. The Vilna Gaon and his followers, the Mitnagdim, or “opponents of Hasidism,” outwardly rejected the movement and denounced it as heresy.
While these groups disagreed with each other’s teachings and continued to clash for decades, in the long run each of their movements was strengthened by the other. Hasidism gave rise to close knit communities that deepened their dedication to Torah study. Meanwhile, the Mitnagdim created the first yeshiva whose purpose was to make Jewish learning accessible; a central feature of Judaism to this day.
Story of The Birth of The Great Baal Shem Tov (24 Sep 2020)
What is Hasidic Judaism? (8 Nov 2018)
What is Hasidic Judaism? Watch our new explainer video to learn the history of the Hasidic movement, from the Ba’al Shem Tov to creating an distinct community of mystical and observant Jews.
The Hasidic movement was formed in the mid 1800s by Jewish mystics in Eastern Europe, most notably the Ba’al Shem Tov, who was a traveled Kabbalistic, providing spiritual advice to those he met. He introduced mystic rituals where everything became spiritual. His students (i.e. Dov Ber) would later create the movement of Hasidism. But many Jews at that time were opposed to this new emerging movement. The Hasids were prayer enthusiasts. When they prayed, they would jump, clap, somersault, and even cry.
Despite opposition, the Hasidim continued to grow, engulfing most of Eastern Europe. They became part of the community, by serving as spiritual advisers, koshering meats, attending to the ill and deceased, and more. They continued to thrive until the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union and World War II either killed them or drove them to seek refuge elsewhere. Some Hasids that escaped, traveled to America and began the rival of the movement which we see today most prominently on the streets of Brooklyn, New York.
A Fire in the Forest (2012)
“A Fire in the Forest: The Life and Legacy of the Ba’al Shem Tov” — Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, is one of the most beloved and celebrated figures in Jewish history, but also one of the most elusive. Today, Jews all over the world, and even many non-Jews, revere him as the founder of the Hasidic movement, and as a model of piety and mystical spirituality. But many also find it difficult to say why he is so important to them, and to characterize his unique contribution to Jewish spirituality. Thus, A Fire in the Forest (running time, 58:21, directed by Chuck Davis and Netanel Miles-Yépez), a new documentary on the life and legacy of the Ba’al Shem Tov, sets itself the task of answering these basic questions, exploring how the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings can be applied to our live s today.
To do this, the filmmakers traveled with Rabbi Marc Soloway, our guide on this journey, around the world, talking to leading rabbis, scholars and teachers of Hasidism , traveling to the graves of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s spiritual heirs, and to his own prayer-house and grave in the town of Mezhibozh in the Ukraine. Through stories and historical information, interviews with today’s most important teachers and on-location footage , A Fire in the Forest shows us how the legacy of the Ba’al Shem Tov is still very much alive in our day and relevant to our daily lives.
Featuring interviews with Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum, Rabbi Naftali Citron, Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, Rabbi Mimi Feigelson, Rabbi Arthur Green, Dr. Susannah Heschel, Yuri Kadustin, Grand Rabbi Yitzhak Aharon Korff, Rabbi Nehemia Polen, Dr. Ada Rapaport-Albert, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
The Villager Who Fainted: A Baal Shem Tov Story (16 Nov 2010)
The elder Chassid Reb Michoel of Nevel, used to give his students a parable:
A simple villager once received a letter from afar. Since he did not know how to read, he took the letter to his son’s tutor. The letter read that the villager’s father had passed away. When the tutor read the letter aloud, the villager fainted…
Asked Reb Michoel to his students: “Who should have fainted? The one who was able to read the letter, not the one who merely heard it! But it was the villager who fainted. Why? Because for the tutor, it was someone else’s letter; for the villager it was his father.”
The lesson: If you study Chassidus and Kabbalah thinking that you’re reading about “someone else’s father,” then you can read and understand the words, but you won’t “faint” or be truly affected. On the other hand, even when you’re teaching someone else, if you know you’re talking about your own father — your “Father in Heaven” — it will penetrate to the core of your soul and move you to action!