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the founder of Hasidism
Yisrael ben Eliezer was born in the village of Okup, on the Ukraine side of the Ukraine-Poland border, in either 1698 or 1700. His father, a rabbi, and his mother were both fairly old at the time of his birth, and he was orphaned at an early age. He was subsequently raised by the entire community, and presumably received the traditional Jewish education of the day. But from the beginning the townspeople knew he was different, as he spent much of his time wandering the fields and woods by himself, often lost in deep prayer and contemplation.
Once he reached his teens, Yisrael was expected to make his own way in life. The community hired him as a school assistant because he was good with children, frequently singing hymns to them and telling them inspirational stories. He was next hired as a caretaker for the local synagogue, which gave him many opportunities to reach Jewish literature and texts. Although few in the town realized it at the time, Yisrael was becoming one of the most learned and spiritual men of his day.
Yisrael eventually got married and moved to a village in the Carpathian Mountains. According to tradition, he spent ten years praying and studying with an angelic mentor named Achiyah HaShaloni, who had been with Moses during the Exodus. He "returned to the world" in 1734, and subsequently settled in Medzibusch, where he spent the rest of his life.
By the time he moved to Medzibusch, Yisrael had become widely known as a very holy man. It was also at this time that he became known as the Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name").
Baal Shem-Tov taught a type of Jewish mysticism in which God was everywhere and should be served with a joyful heart. He believed that God existed in every human heart, and that each spoken word was an expression of the divine power within the speaker. Since God was in all things, there was goodness in all men, and each man should develop it by acts of mercy and love. The pupose of doing good was to help the doer become one with God; to enjoy a state of bliss beyond description. His teachings became the basis of what is now known as Hasidism, which stresses the spirit rather the letter of the Jewish law.
Baal Shem-Tov died on May 23, 1760.
This page was last updated on February 23, 2017.