The Baal Shem Tov

18 Elul (Sep. 9, 20’17) is the birthday of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698 C.E. – 1760 C.E.), founder of the Chassidic movement

The following section is excerpted from http://www.baalshemtov.com/whowashe.htm

Yisrael [Israel] ben Eliezer, later known as The Baal Shem Tov (The Master of the Good Name), was born on the 18th of Elul 5458 (August 27, 1698 C.E.) to Rabbi Eliezer and his wife Sarah. They lived in the small village Okup on the Russian-Polish border. Both Rabbi Eliezer and Sarah were already very old … The last words his father said to him were “Israel my son, you have a very holy soul; don’t fear anything but G-d.” Soon thereafter, his mother Sarah also died.

Young Israel, now an orphan, was adopted by the local community and educated as was common in Jewish communities at that time…  young Israel was different from other children. He would often go into fields and woods and mountains, spending many hours alone, speaking to G-d. Not having parents, it’s not surprising he would go into nature to seek out his Father in Heaven. At an early age he was aware of the presence of G-d in all aspects of life.

When Israel entered his teens, the community’s responsibility for him ended and he had to begin supporting himself. First, he was hired as a school assistant because of his way with children. He was known to sing Psalms and other songs with the children as they walked to school. He would also tell the children stories and teach them how to daven [recite the daily prayer services, with simple faith and love].

Israel’s next position was that of a caretaker at the local synagogue. His main duties were to clean the synagogue and arrange the books. This gave him the time to study and develop. Late at night, when everyone was gone from the study hall of the synagogue, he would study the large volumes of the Talmud, Midrash and Jewish Law. Probably, he also studied Kabala, as was common in those days. He developed a great expertise in these areas… Young Israel was said to sleep during the day when he had nothing to do. The local people thought he was not very smart.

Then the son of Rabbi Adam, the “Baal Shem”, brought him the sacred volume of the Jewish spiritual teachings. After studying for a time with the Rabbi’s son, the latter died and Israel moved to a little town near Brody. There he was employed as a teacher of young children. He became acquainted with Rabbi Ephraim of Brody who became aware of Israel’s spiritual greatness. Right before Rabbi Ephraim’s death, the Rabbi arranged for the engagement of Israel to his daughter Chana…

The bride and groom moved to a [nearby] mountain village called Kutty between Kitov and Kasov in the Carpathian Mountains… Israel spent the next ten years praying and studying with a mentor [who was Achiyah HaShaloni, a Biblical prophet who was sent to him from Heaven].

Chassidic Movement

Achiyah HaShaloni was among those [Israelites] that left Egypt with Moses and was a prophet during the reign of King David [and King Solomon]. Achiyah initiated Israel into the mysteries of the Torah.

For a time, Israel was a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and teacher in Koslovitz. Israel and Chana had two children, Edel and Tzvi Hirsch. Rabbi Israel first revealed himself [in his true spiritual greatness] to the world [in 5494 / 1734 C.E.]. Then Rabbi Israel moved to Talust and became famous as a holy man. Next he moved to Medzibusch in Western Ukraine for the remainder of his life. In Medzibusch, his fame spread and [outstanding] students attached themselves to him. Not only were ordinary people attracted to him, but some of the greatest Rabbinical luminaries also joined with him.

Although very few documents written by Rabbi Israel still exist, many stories and teachings have been passed down to the present time. He became known as the Baal Shem Tov – the Master of the Good Name… Being a living legend, the Baal Shem Tov spent most of his time in worship, serving G-d, teaching his disciples, [traveling miraculously on far-flung spiritual missions] and giving blessings to the thousands that came to see him. The Baal Shem Tov passed away on [the Jewish holy day of] Shavuos, 5520 (May 23, 1760 C.E.), having founded the Chassidic movement that lives on today.

The following section, a letter written by the Baal Shem Tov, is excerpted from http://www.baalshemtov.com/story12.htm

On my sixteenth birthday, the eighteenth of Elul 5474, I was in a small village. The innkeeper was a Jew of quintessential simplicity. He knew his prayers only with difficulty — he had no idea what the words meant. But he had a great awe of heaven and for everything that would occur to him he would comment, “Blessed be He, and may He be blessed for ever and ever.” … The innkeeper’s wife and partner had a different saying: “Blessed be his Holy Name.”

On that day, I went to meditate in solitude in the pasture, as had been taught by the sages before us, that on your birthday you should meditate alone for a period of time. In my meditations I recited Psalms and concentrated on the yichudim of the Divine Names. [“Yichudim” are a form of kabalistic meditation based on different permutations and combinations of the Divine Names and attributes of G-d]. As I was immersed in this, I had lost awareness of my surroundings.

Suddenly, I beheld Elijah the Prophet — and a smile was drawn over his lips. I was very amazed that I should merit a revelation of Elijah the Prophet while alone. When I was with the tzaddik Rabbi Meir, and also with others of the hidden tzaddikim [exceedingly righteous and holy individuals], I had the fortune to see Elijah the Prophet. But to be privileged to this while alone — this was the very first time, and I was very amazed. Understandably, I was unable to interpret the smile on Elijah’s face. And this is what he said to me:

“Behold, you are struggling with great effort to focus your mind upon the Divine Names that extend from the verses of Psalms that David, King of Israel composed. But Aaron Shlomo the innkeeper and Zlota his wife are ignorant of the yichudim of Divine Names that extend from “Blessed be He, and may He be blessed for ever and ever” that the innkeeper recites and “Blessed be his Holy Name” that she recites — yet these yichudim make a storm throughout all the [spiritual] worlds far beyond the yichudim of Divine Names that the great tzaddikim can create.” Then, Elijah the Prophet told me about the pleasure G-d takes, so to speak, from the praise and thanksgiving of the men, women and children that praise the Holy One Blessed be He — especially when the praise and thanks comes from simple people, and most specifically when it is ongoing, continual praise — for then they are continuously bonded with G-d, blessed be He, with pure faith and sincerity of heart.

From that time on I took upon myself a path in the service of G-d to bring men, women and children to say words of praise to G-d. I would always ask them about their health, the health of their children, about their material welfare — and they would answer me with different words of praise for the Holy One, blessed be He — each one in his or her own way. For several years I did this myself, and at one of the gatherings of the hidden tzaddikim they all accepted this path…

The following section is excerpted from http://members.aol.com/LazerA/baalshemtov.html

Rabbi Yisrael’s fame spread rapidly. Many important scholars became his disciples. It was during this period that the movement, which would eventually be known as Chassidus (Piety), began. The Baal Shem Tov’s teachings were largely based upon the Kabalistic teachings of the AriZal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria. 1534-72 C.E.) but his approach made the benefits of these teachings accessible even to the simplest Jew. He emphasized the profound importance and significance of prayer, love of G-d, and love of one’s fellow Jews. He taught that even if one was not blessed with the ability or opportunity to be a Torah scholar, one could still reach great spiritual heights through these channels. It is important to note that while the Baal Shem Tov taught that Torah study was not the only way to draw close to G-d, he did not teach that Torah study was unimportant or unnecessary. On the contrary, he emphasized the importance of having a close relationship with a Rebbe, a great Torah scholar who would be one’s spiritual mentor and leader. Furthermore, it should also be noted that while Chassidus was (and continues to be) of great benefit to the unsophisticated, it is a very sophisticated system of thought. As anyone with any experience in Jewish studies can attest, the many major Chassidic works were written at a very high level of scholarship by men who had reached the pinnacle of Torah knowledge.

There is no way that this essay can really do proper justice to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. Let us simply conclude that while there was no particular element in his teachings that could be viewed as new to Judaism, nevertheless his teachings revolutionized the Jewish world. At the time of his death the Chassidic movement had grown to approximately ten thousand followers, and after his death it grew to include a significant portion of European Jewry.

The Baal Shem Tov passed away on the second day of Shavuos, in the year 5520 (1760 C.E.). He left behind a son and daughter and a movement which continues to be significant force in the Jewish world today. He was succeeded as leader of the Chassidic movement by Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch.

THE BAAL SHEM TOV’S LETTER: HIS PERSONAL ENCOUNTER WITH THE SOUL OF MOSHIACH (THE MESSIAH)

This letter can be found on-line at http://www.baalshemtov.com/story08.htm

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… [Your letter] 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; … the few details I still remember I will write to you in brief.

On Rosh Hashanah of the year 5507 (1746 C.E.), I made a [Kabalistic] 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 the same manner.

Together they begged and implored me unceasingly, “Because of the glory of your Torah, G-d 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 (Achiyah HaShiloni) 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 [Talmudic sages] and tzaddikim, as well as the Seven Shepherds [Adam, Seth, Methuselah, David, Abraham, Jacob and Moses]. 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, G-d 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 [forces of unholiness] 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 G-d assist you, that your way may be 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 G-dliness, 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.

G-d 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 G-d’s [holy] 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.
[signed]
Israel Baal Shem Tov of the Holy Community of Medzhibuzh

This letter can be found in “The Path of the Baal Shem Tov” by David Sears, [pub.] Jason Aronson Inc.

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