Baal Shem Tov

Rabbi Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer (רבי ישראל בן אליעזר — May 22, 1760), often called Baal Shem Tov (/ˌbɑːl ˈʃɛm ˌtʊv/ or /ˌtʊf/) or Besht, was a Jewish mystical rabbi. He is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism (see also Mezhbizh Hasidic dynasty).

The Besht is better known to many religious Jews as “the holy Baal Shem” (der heyliger baal shem in Yiddish), or most commonly, the Baal Shem Tov (בעל שם טוב). The title Baal Shem Tov is usually translated into English as “Master of the Good Name,” but at least two other translations are possible:

  • "Good Master of the Name," taking "Baal Shem" as a unit, meaning one who uses Divine names to cure illnesses and perform miracles. I.e., an effective baal shem.
  • "One who has a good reputation in the community," since in Hebrew idiom, "Baal" can mean "one characterized by" and "Shem" can mean "reputation," thus "one characterized by a good reputation."

The name Besht (בעש"ט) — the acronym from the words comprising that name, bet ayin shin tet—is typically used in print rather than speech. The appellation “Baal Shem” was not unique to Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer; however, it is Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer who is most closely identified as a “Baal Shem”, as he was the founder of the spiritual movement of Hasidic Judaism.

The little biographical information that is known about Besht is so interwoven with legends of miracles that in many cases it is hard to arrive at the historical facts. The attitude of the Chassidim themselves towards these legends is an unusual blend of suspicion on one hand, and childlike, almost naïve belief on the other. The Rebbe Shlomo of Rodomsk pithily declared, "Whoever believes all the miracle stories about the Baal Shem Tov in Shivhei HaBaal Shem Tov is a fool, but whoever denies that he could have done them is an apikoros ." Similarly, the Rebbe Mordechai of Neshkiz explains, "Even if a story about him never actually occurred, and there was no such miracle, it was in the power of the Baal Shem Tov, may his memory be a blessing for the life of the World-to-Come, to perform everything."

Nevertheless, from the numerous legends connected with his birth it appears that his parents were poor, upright, and pious. When he was orphaned, his community cared for him. At school, he distinguished himself only by his frequent disappearances, being always found in the lonely woods surrounding the place, rapturously enjoying the beauties of nature. Many of his disciples believed that he came from the Davidic line tracing its lineage to the royal house of King David, and by extension with the institution of the Jewish Messiah.

Read more about Baal Shem Tov:  Early Life and Marriage, Development As Leader and Challenges, Disputes With The Frankists and Death, His Legacy, Elements of Besht’s Doctrines, Influence On Hasidism, Characteristics, In Legend, Legacy

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