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August 27: The Baal Shem Tov

August 26, 2010

Baal Shem TovIsrael ben Eliezer, who launched the Hasidic (pietist) movement in the mid-18th century, was born on this date in 1698. Best known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), he became involved in Jewish mystical studies as a teenager and with a social movement that encouraged poor city Jews to create small farming communities, which he served as a teacher, mediator, herbalist and healer. By 1740, in the shtetl of Medzhybizh, Ukraine, he had developed a large following that included prominent rabbis. (His grave is located in Medzhybizh, where his synagogue has been reconstructed as a museum.) The Jewish world of his time and place was in crisis: depopulated by the Khmelnitsky massacres (1648-54), confused by the messianic movements of Shabtai Zvi and Jacob Frank, living in lands first occupied by the Turks and then the Poles, and led by fossilized, scholastic leaders. Into this world, Israel ben Eliezer introduced a “God is everywhere” theology marked by optimism, joy, deep appreciation of the natural world, an elevated sense of human purpose, and a forgiving sense of morality and ethics, all of which entranced the common Jews of his day. By the time of his death in 1760, Hasidism was a major influence throughout the Ukraine, Galicia and Poland. It soon gave rise, however, to various cults of personality and lost most traces of its democratizing spirit.

“The ideal of man is to be a revelation himself . . .” —Israel Baal Shem Tov