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
Baal Shem-Tov died on May 23,
World Book Encyclopedia
Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International,
Jewish Virtual Library www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/baal.html
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