Israel ben Eliezer left no books; for the Kabbalistic commentary on Ps. cvii., ascribed to him (Zhitomir, 1804), Sefer mi-Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem-tov, may not be genuine. In order to get at his teachings, it is therefore necessary to turn to his utterances as given in the works of his disciples Hasidim. Most are found in the works of Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoy. But since Hasidism, immediately after the death of its founder, was divided into various parties, each claiming for itself the authority of Besht, the utmost of caution is necessary in judging as to the authenticity of utterances ascribed to Besht.
Chapin and Weinstock contend that the Besht was essentially the right person, in the right place, at the right time. Eighteenth century Podolia was an ideal place to foster a sea-change in Jewish thinking. It had been depopulated one generation earlier due to the Khmelnitsky Massacres. A Turkish occupation of Podolia occurred within the Besht’s lifetime and along with it the influence within this frontier territory of Shabbetai Zvi and his latter day spiritual descendants such as Malach and Frank. Once the Polish Magnates regained control from the Turks, Podolia essentially went through an economic boom. The Magnates were benevolent to the economic benefits the Jews provided and encouraged Jewish resettlement to help protect the frontier from future invasions. Thus, the Jewish community itself was essentially starting over. Within this context, the Jews of Podolia were open to new ideas. The Besht’s refreshing new approaches to Judaism were welcome, expanding with little resistance in a community hungry for change.
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