Baal Shem Tov

Baal Shem Tov - Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer.
Born - August 27, 1698, Ukraine.
Died - May 22, 1760, Ukraine.
Considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism.

I asked Moshiach, "When will you come, master?" And he replied, "By this you shall know: it will be a time when your teachings become publicized and revealed to the world; and your well-springs have overflowed to the outside.

Baal Shem Tov stories

The Baal Shem Tov and the Doctor, by Doug Lipman
The Baal Shem Tov and the Werewolf, by Gerald Fierst
The Baal Shem Tov Reveals Himself, by Micha Joseph Bin Gorion
The Blood Brothers, by Doug Lipman
The Forgotten Story, by Doug Lipman
How Do We Know?
The Last Temptation of a Kabbalist, by Eliahu Klein
Prayers That Were Sung in the Fields, by Micha Joseph Bin Gorion
Rabbi Gershon's Dream, by Doug Lipman
A Small Miracle, retold by Kathleen Mavournin
The Son of Rabbi Adam: A Tale of the Baal Shem Tov, by Doug Lipman
The Three Laughs, by Doug Lipman
The Trials of Eliezer, the story of the birth of the Baal Shem Tov
Winedrops on the Eyelashes, by Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi

more stories >>

Baal Shem Tov recommended Books

Tsava'at Harivash: Testament of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov From Kehot Publication Society
Tzava`at Harivash is an anthology of teachings and instructions attributed to the Baal Shem Tov and his successor, R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezhirech. Segments of Tzavaat Harivash have been translated before. This however, is its first complete English rendition. The translation, by a foremost authority on Chassidism and Jewish Mysticism, is enhanced by source-references, brief commentaries, notes on the passages that were perceived to be controversial, and a comprehensive introduction.

Light And Fire of the Baal Shem Tov By Yitzhak Buxbaum
This is a life, in stories, of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), the founder of Hasidism. The Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht, as he is commonly called, led a revival in Judaism that put love and joy at the center of religious life and championed the piety of the common folk against the rabbinic establishment. He has been recognized as one of the greatest teachers in Jewish history, and much of what is alive and vibrant in Judaism today, in all denominations, derives from his inspiration. ebook

  • 'kesser shem tov' ebook - Keser Shem Tov is an anthology of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov that was collected from the works of R. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye and edited by Aaron ben Tzvi HaKohen of Opatov.
  • 'Pillar of prayer' ebook - The PILLAR OF PRAYER found in the BAAL SHEM TOV ON THE TORAH is the most exciting and comprehensive introduction to the thought of this great Tzaddik on prayer. We are sure that his teachings will deepen your appreciation of prayer according to Judaism!
  • 'light of the eyes' ebook - The LIGHT OF THE EYES found in the BAAL SHEM TOV ON THE TORAH is a most exciting compilation to deepen your appreciation and belief in the power of a great Jewish spiritual master.

Baal Shem Tov Teachings

The foundation-stone of Hasidism as laid by Besht is a strongly marked panentheistic conception of God. He declared the whole universe, mind and matter, to be a manifestation of the Divine Being; that this manifestation is not an emanation from God, as is the conception of the Kabbalah by Mitnagdim, for nothing can be separated from God: all things are rather forms in which God reveals Himself. When man speaks, said Besht, he should remember that his speech is an element of life, and that life itself is a manifestation of God. Even evil exists in God. This seeming contradiction is explained on the ground that evil is not bad in itself, but only in its relation to man. It is wrong to look with desire upon a woman; but it is divine to admire her beauty: it is wrong only insofar as man does not regard beauty as a manifestation of God, but misconceives it, and thinks of it in reference to himself.

Nevertheless, sin is nothing positive, but is identical with the imperfections of human deeds and thought. Whoever does not believe that God resides in all things, but separates God and them in his thoughts, has not the right conception of God. It is equally fallacious to think of a creation in time: creation, that is, God's activity, has no end. God is ever active in the changes of nature: in fact, it is in these changes that God's continuous creativeness consists.

This panentheism would have been ignored, had Besht not been a man of the people. He gave his metaphysical conception of God an eminently practical significance.

The first result of his principles was a remarkable optimism. Since God is immanent in all things, all things must possess something good in which God manifests Himself as the source of good. For this reason, the Besht taught, every man must be considered good, and his sins must be explained,not condemned. One of his favorite sayings was that no man has sunk too low to be able to raise himself to God. Naturally, then, it was his chief endeavor to convince sinners that God stood as near to them as to the righteous, and that their misdeeds were chiefly the consequences of their folly.

Another important result of his doctrines, which was of great practical importance, was his denial that asceticism is pleasing to God. "Whoever maintains that this life is worthless is in error: it is worth a great deal; only one must know how to use it properly." From the very beginning Besht fought against that contempt for the world which, through the influence of Isaac Luria's Kabbalah, had almost become a dogma among the Jews.

He considered care of the body as necessary as care of the soul; since matter is also a manifestation of God, and must not be considered as hostile or opposed to Him. In connection with his struggle against asceticism, it is natural that he should have fought also against the strictness and the sanctimoniousness that had gradually developed from the strict Talmudic standpoint. Not that Besht required the abrogation of any religious ceremonies or of a single observance. His target was the great importance which the Talmudic view attaches to the fulfillment of a law, while almost entirely disregarding sentiment or the growth of man's inner life. While the rabbis of his day considered the study of the Talmud as the most important religious activity, Besht laid all the stress on prayer. "All that I have achieved," he once remarked, "I have achieved not through study, but through prayer". Prayer, however, is not merely petitioning God to grant a request, nor even necessarily speaking to God, but rather ("cleaving", dvekut)— he glorious feeling of 'Oneness with God Almighty', the state of the soul wherein a man or woman gives up their consciousness of separate existence, and join their own selves to the Eternal Being of God Supreme. Such a state produces indescribable bliss, which is the foremost fruit of the true worship of God.

Mysticism, he said, is not the Kabbalah, which everyone may learn; but that sense of true oneness, which is usually as strange, unintelligible, and incomprehensible to mankind as dancing is to a dove. However, the man who is capable of this feeling is endowed with a genuine intuition, and it is the perception of such a man which is called prophecy, according to the degree of his insight. From this it results, in the first place, that the ideal man may lay claim to authority equal, in a certain sense, to the authority of the Prophets. This focus on oneness and personal revelation helps earn his mystical interpretation of Judaism the title of pantheism.

A second and more important result of the doctrine is that through his oneness with God, man forms a connecting link between the Creator and creation. Thus, slightly modifying the Bible verse, Hab. ii. 4, Besht said, "The righteous can vivify by his faith." Besht's followers enlarged upon this idea and consistently deduced from it the source of divine mercy, of blessings, of life; and that therefore, if one love him, one may partake of God's mercy.

Though Besht may not be held responsible for the later conceptions, there is no doubt that his self-reliance was an important factor in winning adherents. It may be said of Hasidism that there is no other Jewish sect in which the founder is as important as his doctrines.


Besht did not combat the practice of rabbinical Judaism; it was the spirit of the practice which he opposed. His teachings being the result not of speculation, but of a deep, religious temperament, he laid stress upon a religious spirit, and not upon the forms of religion. Though he considered the Law to be holy and inviolable, he held that one's entire life should be a service of God, and that this would constitute true worship of Him.

Since every act in life is a manifestation of God, and must perforce be divine, it is man's duty so to live that the things called "earthly" may also become noble and pure, that is, divine. Besht tried to realize his ideal in his own career. His life provided the best example for his disciples; and his relationships with the innkeepers (a number of whom he raised to a higher level) furnished a silent but effective protest against the practice of the rabbis, who, in their inexorable sense of strict righteousness, would have no dealings with people fallen morally. The Hasidim tell of a woman whom her relatives sought to kill on account of her shameful life, but who was saved in body and soul by Besht. The story may be a myth, but it is characteristic of Besht's activity in healing those in greatest need of relief. More important to him than prayer was a friendly relationship with sinners; though the former constituted an essential factor in the religious life. The story of Besht's career affords many examples of unselfishness and high-minded benevolence. And while these qualities equally characterize a number of the rabbis of his day, his distinguishing traits were a merciful judgment of others, fearlessness combined with dislike of strife, and a boundless joy in life.

Moreover, Besht's methods of teaching differed essentially from those of his opponents and contributed not a little to his success. There are many satirical remarks directed against his opponents, an especially characteristic one being his designation of the typical Talmudist of his day as "a man who through sheer study of the Law has no time to think about God." Besht illustrated his views of asceticism by the following parable:

A thief once tried to break into a house, the owner of which, crying out, frightened the thief away. The same thief soon afterward broke into the house of a very strong man, who, on seeing him enter, kept quite still. When the thief had come near enough, the man caught him and put him in prison, thus depriving him of all opportunity to do further harm. Not by fleeing from earthly enjoyments through fear is the soul's power assured, but by holding the passions under control. Much of Besht's success was also due to his firm conviction that God had entrusted him with a special mission to spread his doctrines. In his enthusiasm and ecstasy he believed that he often had heavenly visions revealing his mission to him. In fact, for him every intuition was a divine revelation; and divine messages were daily occurrences. Besht is quite naturally one of the most interesting figures in modern Jewish history. As a man of the people and for the people, it is not strange that he should have been honored and glorified in story and in tradition. Of the many narratives that cluster about him, the following are given as the most characteristic:

Baal Shem Tov Essential Teachings

  • CLEAVING TO GOD - Cleaving to God is the master-key that opens all locks.
  • DIVINE PROVIDENCE - Everything is by Divine Providence. If a leaf is turned over by a breeze, it is only because this has been specifically ordained by God to serve a particular function within the purpose of creation.
  • CONTINUAL CREATION - The world is new to us every moment - this is God's gift; and every man should believe he is reborn each day.
  • JOY - Life is joyous, and we can live it joyously in every situation, under all and any circumstances
  • LOVE - The truest way to love God is to love each and every one of His children.
  • PRAYER - When you pray you should be totally separated from the physical and not at all aware of your existence in the world.
  • SIMPLICITY - That our simple faith, our simple commitment to do good, is more precious in God's eyes than all the genius of the scholar and all the spirituality of the mystic.
  • DEVOTION - The Baal Shem Tov would say that it is important to remember to "commit your deeds to Hashem and your thoughts shall be established," (Mishlei 16:3). Whatever happens to a person, he must always remember that it is from Hashem. What a person thinks is for the good may ultimately not serve to benefit him. Therefore, said the Baal Shem Tov, a person should leave everything in the hands of Hashem.
  • PROJECTION - Your fellow is your mirror. If your own face is clean, so will be the image you perceive. But should you look upon your fellow and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering - you are being shown what it is that you must correct within yourself.
  • CONNECTING TO A SPIRITUAL TEACHER - We need teachers to show us what we already know.
  • ACTIONS - That everything we do is meaningful. Our every deed, every word we speak, even a single thought we think, has an effect that reverberates throughout all the worlds and through the whole of history.

Baal Shem Tov Biography

The little biographical information that is known about him is so interwoven with legends of miracles that in many cases it is hard to arrive at the historical facts. From the numerous legends connected with his birth it appears that his parents were poor, upright, and pious. When Israel ben Eliezer 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.

Early life and marriage

Besht's benefactors gave up the hope of him ever becoming a rabbi, and made him a "helper", who took the children to and from school and rehearsed short benedictions and prayers with them. His sentimental nature, to which his later success was in great measure due, now stood him in good stead; for he could win children and attach them to him by explanations suited to their understanding. Later he became shammash (sexton) in the same community, and at about eighteen he married. When his young wife died he left the place, and after serving for a long time as helper in various small communities of Galicia, he settled as a teacher at Tlust near Brody.

Because of 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 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.

Besht's wooing was characteristic. In the shabby clothes of a peasant he presented himself at Brody before Abraham Gershon of Kitov (Kuty), brother of the girl, and a recognized authority in the Kabbalah and the Talmud. Abraham Gershon was about to give him alms, when Besht produced a letter from his pocket, showing that he was the designated bridegroom. Abraham 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 wagonload to the surrounding villages, and from this they derived their entire support. But 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 and Zvi Hersh. Udl was born in 1720. Zvi Hersh was born some fifteen years later.

Development as leader and challenges

The Besht's condition was bettered when he took a position as a ritual butcher in Kshilowice, near Iaslowice. He soon gave up this position in order to conduct a village tavern that his brother-in-law bought for him. During the many years that he lived in the woods and came into contact with the peasants, Israel ben Eliezer had learned how to use plants for healing purposes and to effect wonderful cures. In fact, his first appearance in public was that of an "ordinary" Baal Shem. He wrote amulets and prescribed cures.

After many trips in Podolia and Volhynia as a Baal Shem, Besht, considering his following large enough and his authority established, decided (about 1740) to expound his teachings in the shtetl of Medzhybizh and people, mostly from the spiritual elite, came to listen to him. Medzhybizh became the seat of the movement and of the Medzybizh Hasidic dynasty. His following gradually increased, and with it the dislike, not to say hostility, of the Talmudists. Nevertheless, Besht was supported at the beginning of his career by two prominent Talmudists, the brothers Meïr and Isaac Dov Margalios. Later he won over Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezrich to whose great authority as a Talmudist it was chiefly due that Besht's doctrines though in an essentially altered form were introduced into learned circles.

Some direct historical evidence remains of the Besht during the days he lived in Medzhybizh. Rosman discovered numerous legal documents that shed light on this period from the Polish Czartorysky noble family archives. The Besht's house is mentioned on several tax registers and his house is given tax-free status, thus indicating that he was well-known to the Polish Magnate as an important town resource. Several of the Besht's cohorts in his stories from Shivhei HaBesht also appear in Polish court records, notably, Wolf Kitses and David Purkes. Rosman contends that the Polish documents show the Besht and his followers were not outcasts or pariahs, rather they were part of the mainstream Jewish communal life and were themselves respected in the community. Medzhybizh at the time was not some backwater village as some contended. Instead, it was a thriving, prosperous, and important community in the Czartorysky estate.

Other direct evidence includes the Besht's daily prayer book (siddur) with his handwritten personal notes in the margins that is owned by the Agudas Chabad Library in New York. Finally, his grave can be seen today in the old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh.

The Baal Shem Tov passed away on the second day of Shavuous, in the year 5520 (1760). He left behind a son and daughter and a movement which continues to be significant force in the Jewish world today.

Source: Wikipedia

The Epistle : The Letter From The Baal Shem Tov to Rabbi Gershon Kitover

translation by Rabbi David Sears

To my beloved brother-in-law, my friend who is dear to me as my own heart and soul, the exalted Rabbi and Chasid, renowned for his Torah scholarship and fear of Heaven, our master, Rabbi Avraham Gershon, may his light shine. Peace unto him and his family, his modest wife, Bluma, together with all their children; may they be blessed with life, Amen, Sela.

I received the letter written by your holy hand, which you sent by means of the emissary from Jerusalem, at the fair of Luka in the year 5510 (1750 c.e.). It was written with extreme brevity, explaining that you had already written at length to each of us individually and had sent those letters by means of a certain man en route to Egypt. However, the letters never arrived, and I was sorely grieved that I never saw the work of your holy hand which was written in greater detail. Assuredly this is due to the calamitous state of the many lands in which the plague has spread because of our many transgressions. Not far from our region the pestilence has reached the holy community of Mohilev, as well as Wallachia and Turkey.

 Your letter also states that the Torah teachings and mystical revelations which I sent you through the rabbi and preacher of the holy community of Polonoye did not reach you; this, too, caused me great distress. It certainly would have given you great joy if they had reached you. I have since forgotten many [of those teachings]. However, the few details I still remember I will write to you in brief.

On Rosh Hashanah of the year 5507 (1746 cue.), I made a oath and elevated my soul in the manner known to you. I saw wondrous things in a vision, the like of which I had never witnessed since the day my mind first began to awaken. The things which I saw and learned when I ascended there would be impossible to communicate, even if I could speak to you in person. When I returned to the lower Garden of Eden, I saw many souls, both living and dead, some known to me and others unknown-their number was beyond reckoning. They were hastening to and fro in order to ascend from one world to another through the Column known to those initiated into the Mysteries. Their joy was too great for the mouth to express or the physical ear to hear. Also, many evil-doers were repenting, and their sins were being forgiven, since it was a special time of Divine favor. Even to me, it was amazing how many of them were accepted as penitents, a number of whom you also know. There was great joy among them, too, and they ascended in he same manner.

Together they begged and implored me unceasingly, "Because of the glory of your Torah, God has granted you an additional measure of understanding to grasp and to know these matters. Ascend with us so that you can be our help and support."

Because of the great joy that I beheld among them, I agreed to go up with them... And I besought my master to accompany me, for the ascent to the Supernal Worlds is fraught with danger. From the day of my birth until now, I never experienced such an ascent as this.

I went up from level to level until I entered the Palace of Moshiach, where Moshiach studies with the Tannaim and tzaddikim, as well as the Seven Shepherds. There I found extremely great rejoicing, but I did not know the cause of this delight. At first I thought that it might be due to my having passed away from the physical world, God forbid. Later they told me that I had not yet died, for they have great pleasure on high when I effect mystical unifications in the world below through their holy Torah. However, to this very day, the nature of their joy remains unknown to me.

I asked Moshiach, "When will you come, master?" And he replied, "By this you shall know: it will be a time when your teachings become publicized and revealed to the world; and your well-springs have overflowed to the outside. [It will be when] that which I have taught you - and that which you have perceived of your own efforts - become known, so that others, too, will be able to perform mystical unifications and ascents of the soul like you. Then all the evil klippos will be destroyed, and it will be a time of grace and salvation."

I was amazed at this and greatly troubled, since a long time must pass for this to be possible. But while I was there I learned three segulos and three Holy Names which are easy to learn and explain. My mind was then set at ease, and I thought that with these teachings the people of my own generation might attain the same spiritual level and state as myself. They would be able to elevate their souls and to learn and perceive just as I do. However, I was not granted permission to reveal this during my lifetime. I pleaded for your sake to be allowed to teach you; but I was denied permission altogether and took an oath to that effect.

Yet this I can tell you, and may God assist you, that your way may pleasant to the Lord, and that you do not go astray (particularly in the Holy Land). Whenever you pray or study-and with every utterance your lips-intend to bring about the unification of a Divine Name. For every letter contains worlds and souls and Godliness, and they ascend and combine and unite with one another. Then the letters combine and unite to form a word, and they are actually unified with the Divine essence-and in all these aspects, your soul is bound up with them. All [the worlds become unified as one, and they ascend and bring about great joy and delight without measure. Consider the joy of a bridegroom and bride in this lowly physical world, and you will realize how much greater is the joy on such a lofty spiritual level.

God will surely help you. Wherever you turn, you will succeed and become enlightened. "Give wisdom to the wise, and he will become wise all the more." Please pray for my sake, that I might be privileged to dwell in God's land during my lifetime; and pray for the remnant of our people who still remain in the Diaspora.

These are the words of your brother-in-law who longs to see you face-to-face, who prays that length of days be granted to you and your wife and children, and who wishes you peace "all your days-including the nights, for many good years, Amen, Sela.

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