From "Feast of Trumpets I" by Aleksander Gierymski (National Museum in Warsaw/Wikimedia)

The Baal Shem Tov

The founder of Hasidism is shrouded in legend and mystery.

Baal Shem Tov, “Master of the Good Name,” was the title given to Israel ben Eliezer (1698‑1760), founder of the Hasidic movement (Hasidism). The title (often abbreviated to Besht, after its initial letters) refers to the use, as in the Kabbalah, of various combinations of divine names (“names of God”) in order to effect miraculous cures. Like other miracle workers of the time, the Besht was first known as a practitioner of white magic, but this aspect of his life is usually played down by the Hasidim, who prefer his role as spiritual master and guide to predominate.

The life of the Besht is so surrounded by legends that some historians doubted his existence. The legendary biography Shivhey HaBesht (Praises of the Besht) was not published until around fifty years after his death, by which time numerous legends had proliferated, and it was thought of as pure fiction. But recently it has been established beyond doubt that there is a strong core of fact in the hagiographical material. As M.J. Rossman has shown, the name Israel ben Eliezer appears in Polish archives with the addition of the words “doctor and Kabbalist.”

We now know that the Besht lived in the town of Miedzyboz in Podolia for many years, where he received a handsome stipend from the Jewish community (thus giving the lie to the notion that Hasidism was anti‑establishment from its inception). In Miedzyboz there gathered around him a group of pneumatics out of which the new movement emerged. It has to be appreciated that at the time in Eastern Europe there were a number of charismatic leaders, of whom the Besht was only one. However, the Besht’s teachings and way of life so influenced like‑minded followers that the other groups eventually vanished from the scene. Hasidism became Beshtian Hasidism.

It is also difficult to distinguish the original ideas of the Besht from those taught in later varieties of Hasidism. The sayings attributed to him in Toledot Yaakov Yosef, by his disciple Jacob Joseph of Polonoyye, and in Degel Mahaney Efrayim, by his grandson, Ephraim of Sudlikov, have an air of authenticity about them but come to us at second or third hand. The Besht stressed the divine immanence, contemplation of which is bound to fill the heart with religious joy and enthusiasm. In Israel Zangwill’s essay “The Master of the Name” (in his Dreamers of the Ghetto) the Besht appears as a jolly coachman full of the love of life who strikes the narrator as a mere simple man of faith until he stands in prayer, lost in profound contemplation. Zangwill’s portrait is not without value but ignores the numinous quality of life as perceived by the master.

The figure of the Besht became the prototype of the Hasidic Zaddik [wise man] and is treated in every variety of Hasidism with the utmost veneration, although, at the same time, he is seen as caring passionately for the well‑being of the Jewish people as the people of God. In later Hasidism, to tell the story of the Besht is itself a means of bringing down the divine grace from on high. The curious early Hasidic legend that the heavenly mentor of the Besht was Ahijah the Shilonite (I Kings 11:29‑39) is undoubtedly based on the need to link the novel ideas of the Besht to the Torah of Moses (according to rabbinic legend, Ahijah was present at the time of the Exodus as a contemporary of Moses and he lived on for hundreds of years).

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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