The Ba'al Shem Tov is remembered as the founder of Chassidut.
The man known as the Ba'al Shem Tov was born as Israel Ben Eliezer to his aging parents in a small town in the Ukraine on the18th of Elul 5458 (August 27, 1698). When Israel was still very young, his father passed away, leaving him with one sentence that Israel would carry with him forever, "Israel, my son, you have a very holy soul. Don't fear anything but G-d."
Soon afterwards, his mother passed away and he became the responsibility of the community. He was given a normal education, and even though he was fluently versed in both the Talmud and the Bible by his teenage years, he did not stand out educationally from any of the other students. His only peculiarity was that he opted to spend much of his free time in the surrounding woods. He was seeking G-d in nature, and indeed, he found His Presence in all facets of life.
When he finished his education, the community would no longer provide for him, and he had to support himself. The Rabbis didn't see much hope in him becoming a teacher, so they assigned him lesser tasks. His first job, as a teacher's assistant, was to accompany the children to and from school each day. This he did with a bounce in his step, enchanting them with stories, and teaching them hymns and songs as they walked. He later worked as the care-taker of the local synagogue, cleaning the building and organizing the books. This work provided the time and resources for him to learn, and at night, after everyone had gone home, he pored over the holy texts. No one saw him study, and during the day he often slept when he wasn't working, so many people considered him ignorant. Although, in truth he had amassed quite a treasury of knowledge, it was an impression that he did not try to quell.
Israel Ben Eliezer married at eighteen, and traveled to various cities where he worked, at different points in time, as a teacher for small children, a ritual slaughterer (shochet), or at other menial tasks. All the while, he continued to learn and build a respectable following. People were drawn to his insight of human nature, and his patient and understanding ways.
At the age of 36, Israel Ben Eliezer revealed himself to the world as the Ba'al Shem Tov – Master of Good Name. He soon after moved to Medzeboz in Western Ukraine, where he established himself and lived out his days.
The Ba'al Shem Tov's fame spread rapidly throughout the land, and many distinguished scholars came to learn with him.
The Ba'al Shem Tov teachings were based upon the Kabbalah, a very complex section of Jewish learning, but he approached everything in a way that made it accessible to even the simplest of Jews. This method was not a mere consequence, but rather a principle in which he firmly believed.
- The Ba'al Shem Tov taught that for those who are unable to become Torah scholars, because of either ability or opportunity, there is another way to connect to G-d at the highest of levels: Prayer. In the days when studying of the book, and strict adherence to the law[i] was considered the highest and only available form of connection with G-d, the Ba'al Shem Tov revealed to the world the amazing powers of intense and sincere prayer. He suddenly made G-d "accessible" to every person. This caused many "simple people" to be attracted to him, and thus strengthened the Jewish identities of the communities around him.
- The Ba'al Shem Tov stressed the importance of maintaining a close relationship with a Rabbi, of connecting oneself to the world of Torah, even if one personally cannot involve himself in it. He taught that one should look at his Rabbi as if he were a leader, and to follow him accordingly[ii].
- The Ba'al Shem Tov believed that G-d could be found, so to speak, in every nook and cranny, that He was present in all aspects of life. This outlook on life had important ramifications.
- Evil becomes part of G-d as well. From here we learn that evil is not an absolute concept, but rather, a relative one. Power, for example, does not necessarily corrupt – although it can. Power can be used to accomplish a great many things in this world. Money, as well, can be either good or evil. The same holds true with every "evil" thing in the world – junk food, sexual desire, immoral tendencies etc. We must recognize G-d within the "evil" and act accordingly. In some cases, this means we must learn to use this "evil" appropriately, and in some cases, we must recognize this "evil" as a test of G-d, and overcome it.
- If G-d was to be in every aspect of life, then He must also be found in our speech. In this case, we must be very careful when talking, and take pains to ensure that our mouths remain pure and we only speak of what is appropriate.
- If G-d was to be in every aspect of life, then He must be present within every human being. From this, we learn two important ideas:
- Every person must be treated as an image of G-d. There can be no disrespect, no deceit, and no degradation. Every person must be approached with the respect that is only befitting to a Creation of G-d.
- There is no such thing as a sinner who cannot repent, as a person with absolutely no connection to G-d. G-d is within every single person, including those who sin, and therefore, they too, may return to Him. Those around a sinner must approach him with this attitude, and look upon him, not as a sinner without hope, but as a Creation of G-d who has strayed from the path.
The Ba'al Shem Tov preached, almost above all others, the importance of brotherly love and kindness
- The Ba'al Shem Tov strongly believed that asceticism, the bodily denial of material pleasures, was not the correct way to worship G-d, and in fact, that G-d had absolutely no desire for it. He reasoned that since G-d had created our bodies, they were of equal importance as our souls, and deserved proper care. This, of course, is only an extension of his aforementioned belief that G-d is found in all aspects of life.
There is no singular book that dictates all of his teachings, and no precise doctrine that outlines his beliefs. There is nothing new that the Ba'al Shem Tov brought in to the world of Judaism, yet after him, nothing was ever the same.
The Ba'al Shem Tov passed out of this world on Shavuot 5520, (May 23, 1760), leaving behind two children, and the beginnings of what was to be a revolution in Judiasm.
For more information;
The Jewish Virtual Library
The Ba'al Shem Tov Foundation
[i] Not that the Ba'al Shem Tov disregarded the laws – to the contrary. He recognized the importance of adherence, but put the emphasis on man's inner and spiritual growth, especially through prayer.
[ii] From here begun the concept in Chassidut of the great spiritual leader of the community. For generations to come, entire communities would go to their Rabbi / leader, for advice and blessings, and follow his teachings in every situation. They would look up to him, believing that because of his great merits, they would all find their place in the World to Come.