Baal Shem Tov - Early Life and Marriage

Early Life and Marriage

Yisroel (Israel) was born to poor and not very young parents Eliezer and Sara in a settlement near Okopy Świętej Trójcy, a newly built fortress close to Kameniec in the West Ukraine, where Zbruch connects with Dniester. The fortress was built as the new border post between the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Ottoman Empire. Located in a historic land of Podolia, most of the territory at that time was part of the Ottoman Empire for a short period.

Today as a village of Okopy it is located in the Borschiv Raion of the Ternopil Oblast). He died in Medzhybizh, which was part of Poland and today is situated in the Khmelnytskyi Oblast (Ukraine) (not to be confused with other cities of the same name).

At the age of 5, the Besht's father gave his son his last words before passing on. They were "fear absolutely no one or no thing but G-d, and love every single Jew no matter who he/she is and no matter what he/she is doing". In 1703 Israel became an orphan. In 1710 he finished heder (Jewish elementary school) and became an assistant to a melamed (instructor in heder). Sometime in 1712 Israel became a shammash (sexton) of the local synagogue. In 1716 Baal Shem Tov became married, but soon his wife died and he went on traveling throughout the Eastern Galicia. After serving for a long time as helper in various small communities of the West Ukraine, he settled as a melamed at Tluste near Zalischyky.

Inducted into the secret society of mystics called Tzaddikim Nistarim, the Besht became its leader at the age of 18. Caring for the Jewish poor, they encouraged Jews to move to agrarian lifestyles as alternatives to the chronic poverty which was the lot of city Jews. In continuation of this policy they decided that they needed to look after the educational needs of the children living in small farm communities. If a suitable teacher could not be sourced they themselves would do so until an alternative arrangement emerged. As such — and in keeping with Jewish doctrine "the letter bearer should fulfill its contents" — the Baal Shem Tov became a teacher’s assistant — and with unconditional love he tried to install honor for their parents, a love of God, and fellow beings in these children. He later commented "this one of the most joyous times in my life".

Due to his recognized honesty and his knowledge of human nature, he was chosen to act as arbitrator and mediator for people conducting suits against each other; and his services were brought into frequent requisition because the Jews had their own civil courts in Poland. In this avocation he succeeded in making so deep an impression upon the rich and learned Ephraim of Brody that the latter promised The Besht his daughter Chana in marriage. The man died, however, without telling his daughter of her betrothal; but when she heard of her father's wishes, she did not hesitate to comply with them.

The courtship was characteristic. In the shabby clothes of a peasant he presented himself at Brody before Avraham Gershon of Kitov (Kuty), brother of the girl, head of a rabbinical court in Brody, and a recognized authority in the Kabbalah and the Talmud. Avraham Gershon was about to give him alms, when The Besht produced a letter from his pocket, showing that he was the designated bridegroom. Avraham Gershon tried in vain to dissuade his sister Chana from shaming their family by marrying him, but she regarded her father's will alone as authoritative.

After his marriage Israel ben Eliezer did not remain long with his brother-in-law, who was ashamed of him (for he kept up the pretense of being an ignorant fellow); and he went to a village in the Carpathians between Brody and Kassowa. His earthly possessions consisted of a horse given him by his brother-in-law. Israel ben Eliezer worked as a laborer, digging clay and lime, which his wife delivered every week by the wagonload to the surrounding villages, and from this they derived their entire support. The magnificent scenery in this, the finest region of the Carpathians, and the possibility of enjoying it without the interruptions of city life, compensated him for his great privations.

Israel ben Eliezer and Chana had two children: Udl (born in 1720) and Zvi Hersh.

See also: Baal Shem Tov family tree

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