The Baal Shem Tov is a towering figure in the history of Jewish spirituality. In founding and nurturing the Chassidic movement, he radically transformed Jewish life in Eastern Europe and beyond.
- Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer was called the Baal Shem Tov because of his extraordinary talents and powers. Baal Shem Tov (abbreviated to Besht) means ‘master of the good name’.
- The Besht was born around the year 1700 in the Ukrainian village of Ukop and he died about 60 years later in the village of Medzibosh.
- Numerous legends surround the life of the Besht. These sprang from his constant travels throughout the countryside, his teachings and his interactions with ordinary Jewish people.
- As well as winning over the masses, the Besht attracted a number of learned and devoted disciples, who later carried Chassidism throughout Eastern Europe, founding numerous Chassidic dynasties.
- The Besht succeeded in reviving the ancient mystical tradition, which had fallen into disrepute following the downfall of the false messiah, Shabbtai Tzvi. In the Besht’s hands, Judaism was transformed from an inaccessible theoretical abstraction to a vital, immediate and personal experience.
- The Besht’s Chassidic movement succeeded in making God and spirituality accessible to ordinary men and women at a time when Judaism had become an exclusive and elitist practice that did not seem to address the day-to-day lives and concerns of ordinary Jews.
- The Besht emphasized the importance of joy in worship. He encouraged people to rejoice in God and His works, and not to flagellate their bodies and souls with harsh, ascetic regimes.
- The Besht remained hidden until his 36th year, when he revealed himself as a teacher, healer and leader of the Jewish people.
- ABC Religion & Ethics: The Baal Shem Tov: a Mystic, Healer and Radical Jew
- Jewish Virtual Library: Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov
- The Jewish Encyclopedia: Baal Shem Tob, Israel b. Eliezer (The Jewish Encyclopedia dates to 1906 and so is now over a century old, but is well regarded academically).
- Baal Shem Tov Foundation
- Chabad: The Baal Shem Tov (has links to several web pages about the Baal Shem Tov and his teachings)
- Chabad.org: The Baal Shem Tov – a Brief Biography
- My Jewish Learning: The Baal Shem Tov
- ORT: The Legends of the Baal Shem Tov
The short video above is by Rabbi Berel Wein, founder and director of Jewish History.org
The informative video above is by Dr Henry Abramson, a specialist in Jewish history.