Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba`al Shem Tov

© Copyright 1983/2006 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

(The Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1978 oil painting by Dutch artist Shoshannah Brombacher, posted at www.baalshemtov.com; see her website at www.absolutearts.com/portfolios/s/shoshannah/)

The Jewish mystic spiritual tradition as it exists today is based on three main sources: 1) the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, including the Torah, the first five books of the Tanakh, the primary revelation from G-d (pious Jews omit the vowel as a reminder of Divine ineffability); 2) the Kabbalah, literally, the “received tradition” of mystic writings and sayings, of which the Zohar (“Book of Splendor”) is the most important work (said to be inspired by Simon Bar-Yohai in the early centuries after Jesus, it was authored by Moses de Leon in the 13th century); and 3) the living tradition of Hasidut/Chassidus ("Hasidism"), the community of Hasidim (“the devout”) who are spiritually guided by their tzaddikim (“the proven,” “those who stood the test”), the charismatic teachers of the hasidim.

Focusing in this essay on the last element, we note that the word “hasid” derives from the Hebrew words hesed, “grace,” and hasidut, “allegiance” or “piety,” and it is variously defined as “one who keeps faith in the covenant between man and G-d,” or “one who acts out of love and devotion with tenderness.”

In Germany in the 12th-13th centuries there flourished in the Rhineland area an important school called the Hasidei Ashkenaz, “the Holy Ones of Germany,” which had originated in Regensberg and then extended to Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, thence to the rest of Germany. Their major works were the Sefer Hasidim (Book of the Pious), and esoteric mystical works such as Sefer Hayyim (Book of Life). These emphasized the majesty of G-d, the mystery of Divine oneness, and the importance of silent piety, renunciation, and total love of mankind. Adherents were expected to show intense emotional fervor and utter purity of soul. Members of the Hasidei Ashkenaz displayed great courage in the face of heavy persecution by Christians. They had been influenced by Christian Pietism and in turn they influenced mainstream medieval Jewry, including the Jews of Spain, Poland, and Lithuania.

Some 500 years later, in Podolia, the Poland-Ukraine border area, there arose an even more influential and widespread movement of Hasidism, founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (c1700-60), subsequently to become widely known as the Ba`al Shem Tov (“Master of the Divine Name,” acronym: BeSHT), already a legend during his own life. When he expired in 1760, some 26 years after he came to be publicly known, there remained in Central and Eastern Europe not a single Jewish town unaffected by the Hasidic movement that he and his followers spread.

The insightful modern-era kabbalist, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, has written of the BeSHT’s Hasidism: “By the time the movement was fifty years old, it commanded the allegiance of a majority of Eastern European Jewry, and Hasidic rabbis dominated many important communities. Many Kabbalah texts were printed under the aegis of this movement, often for the first time. Important changes took place in community life, and entire countries changed their worship habits so as to conform to the Kabbalistic norm. Where Kabbalah had previously been the province of only the greatest scholars, it had now become part of the popular folklore, and even the simplest individuals had become familiar with its terminology. This was a period when the theoretical Kabbalah had been on the ascendancy [having been systematized in the writings and teachings of the illustrious philosopher Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-70) of Safed, Galilee, with further philosophical developments under his disciple and innovator R. Isaac Luria, R. Joseph Ergas (d.1730) and R. Moses Chaim Luzzatto (d.1747)]…. Many important rabbis of major communities were also well-known Kabbalists. Most, however, dealt only with theory and not with practice…. With the great concentration on the theoretical and philosophical aspects of the Kabbalah, its mystical and meditative aspects had virtually been forgotten. It was this gap that Hasidism had come to rectify, and it did so with remarkable success.”[1]

The Ba`al Shem Tov was a simple man, without notable ancestry, high social status, or formal higher education, yet he was a man of “contagious intensity” who “changed all who approached him…. An encounter with him was the event of a lifetime,” according to Hasidic scholar and noted author Elie Wiesel.[2]

This future dynamo of spirituality was born on August 27, 1698, (18th of Elul 5458), to an older couple, Rabbi Eliezer and his wife Sarah, living in the small village Okup in Podolia, near the Turkish border. This was their first child. Rabbi Eliezer died when little Israel was only 5 years old, not before telling him: “My son, you have a very holy soul; don’t fear anything but G-d.” Israel’s mother Sara passed away soon afterward, and the little orphan boy was raised and educated by the Jewish community's synagogue, one of its schoolteachers especially helping to tutor the boy. He was taught to read Hebrew and translate Torah passages; later he would have been given basic instruction in the vast lore of Biblical commentary, the Talmud. Israel often played truant from school, retiring into the forests, fields or hills to commune with G-d, praying and conversing intimately with his Lord. “Not having parents, it’s not surprising he would go into nature to seek out his Father in Heaven.”[3]

During his teens, now needing to support himself, Israel worked as a school assistant, specifically as a belfer, carrying children to and from their religious instruction. He endeared the little ones to himself by singing psalms, telling them religious stories, and instructing them in the basics of the art of prayer. Subsequently he performed custodial work as a lowly servant at the local synagogue’s House of Study. In the wee hours of the night, after the male faculty and students had left the study hall to sleep, Israel stayed awake, poring over the large tomes of the Talmud and probably various books on Kabbalah as well, sifting through them for their essential insights. The young man caught some sleep by taking naps during the day. Judging from appearances, most local folks thought him unlettered and not very bright. Others, more discerning, held a high regard for the pious boy who seemed to have an unusual awareness of G-d’s presence.

It is said that Rabbi Adam of Ropsitz (1655-1734), a miracle-worker now nearing 60 years, wondered to whom he should pass on some old, very valuable spiritual writings in his possession. In a dream, the heavenly powers instructed Adam to give the writings to young Israel, at that time an unknown teenager living in a remote village. Aryeh Kaplan, on the basis of traditions preserved by Lubavitch Hasidim, states that Rabbi Adam was head of the secret kabbalist society, the Nistarim ("Hidden Ones"), founded in 1621 or 1623 in Podolia by a long-lived thaumaturge, one Rabbi Eliahu of Chelm and later of Prague (1537-1653). Rabbi Eliahu was spiritually descended from the famous 16th/17th century kabbalists at Safed, Galilee—Isaac Luria (the Ari, 1534-72) and his chief disciple, Hayyim Vital (1542-1620). The Nistarim had been constrained to go underground in the oppressive aftermath of the failed messiah-ship of Shabbetai Zevi (1626-76), who in 1666, twelve years after declaring his advent, had committed apostasy, converting to Islam under the threat of death from the Sultan. Anything having to do with kabbalah was now suspect.

So the charismatic Rabbi Adam, who had inherited the mantle of heading the Nistarim from R. Joel of Zamoshtch, sent his son in 1712 to live at Okup, making 14-year-old Israel his apprentice and transmitting his father’s wisdom nightly to the Divinely inspired youth, for Israel was to become the next head of the Nistarim, and bring back its teachings and practices to the wider Jewish community. A legend holds that one night, during the last hours of a long, powerful, dangerous kabbalah-initiation in which both were engaged, Adam’s son fell asleep—and died as a result—whereas Israel was able to maintain vigilance and thus survived.

A few years later, Israel moved to a little town near Brody, Poland, becoming a teacher to young children. Sensing his holiness and wisdom, some people began to come to the young spiritual prodigy for advice and arbitration of their conflicts. One Rabbi Ephriam became aware of Israel’s prodigious spirituality. Before his own passing, the Rabbi arranged for his daughter Hannah to be engaged to Israel. Hannah’s brother Rabbi Gershon, a leading religious figure, tried to prevent the match when Israel finally came to ask for the hand of his sister. He thought Israel, with his stocky build, rough sheepskin garment, and stubby pipe, an uncouth ignoramus and urged his sister Hannah not to marry the simpleton. But after meeting and conversing with Israel, she recognized his sanctity and agreed to the marriage. The bride and groom re-located to a mountain village called Kutty between Kitov and Kasov in the Carpathian Mountains, not far from Brody. Here Israel would spend his week digging clay in a local quarry up in the mountains to support himself, his dear wife and, eventually, their two children, daugher Adel/Edel and son Tzevi Hirsch. He would return home to be with them only on the Sabbath. At one point Israel changed his livelihood, taking a job as a kosher butcher in Koshlovitz while working as a schoolteacher.

He maintained a low profile these ten years in Kutty and Koshlovitz, using every spare moment to pray and study, purportedly benefitting from an inner spiritual guide, Achiyah HaShaloni. This mentoring angel was originally among those who left Egypt on the Exodus with Moses and, in a subsequent reincarnation during King David's reign, served as a prophet. Achiyah HaShaloni initiated Israel into the deepest mysteries of the Torah and revealed to him one day that he was to be the spiritual leader of the Jews. The humble young man began to fast and meditate even more intently in preparation for this immense vocation, often dwelling in a cave near to an inn that had been given to him and his wife by her family to manage.

On May 22, 1734 (Lag BaOmer, 5585), Israel, now age 36, revealed his spiritual identity to a disciple of Rabbi Gershon, by radiating a great light and giving profound esoteric teachings to the man. The latter began to publicize him and soon people became Rabbi Israel’s listeners and then his students. Rabbi Israel moved his family to nearby Talust, where his fame as a holy man grew enormously. He began to be called the Ba`al Shem Tov, Master of the (Divine) Name. The BeSHT (acronym of Ba`al Shem Tov) moved again to Mesbizh (Medzibusch) in Podolia, in the western Ukraine. For the rest of his life, Mesbizh served as his home base as his ministry involved him in much traveling. As Hasidic scholar Bezalel Naor writes, “From then until his death, one pictures Baal Shem Tov constantly in motion. If your agenda is tikkunim [healing broken hearts and a broken world] and yihudim [unifications of the worldly and Divine], there is plenty of work to be done. There are orphans to be married, widows to be comforted, sick to be cured, captives to be ransomed, demons to be exorcised and—if you are the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name)—there are even dead to be resurrected.” [4]

Many disciples joined his circle, not just ordinary folk but some of greatest Rabbinical luminaries of that era. Joseph Dan writes, “The Besht seems to have been in contact with a group of wandering preachers [maggidim], like himself, who in their homiletics preached a new kind of worship and presented a new conception of the role of the elect [the tzaddikim] in Jewish religion. They were qabbalists [kabbalists], following the main mystical symbols of the Lurianic school [of Isaac Luria], but emphasizing the achievements of the individual and his ability [as a tzaddik, a spiritual master] to assist his brethren in religious matters.”[5]

The Ba`al Shem Tov essentially taught the way of communing with G-d in a total cleaving (devekut) to the Divine, and being so fully absorbed in G-d as to be always discovering the spiritual within the material. Scholar Geoffrey Wigoder explains: “This ‘cleaving,’ which must permeate every human activity, is attained through praying with devotion and enthusiasm which raises the worshipper to the realm of the divine. Torah study can also bring man to unite with the divine, but it must be undertaken with devotion and lead man to the fear [or awe] of God; it must not be undertaken merely to sharpen the brain or to produce a feeling of intellectual superiority over the unlearned. All man’s deeds must be an expression of his worship of God. The Ba`al Shem Tov placed the emotional before the rational; simple faith before study; joy before asceticism; love before fear; and devotion before discipline. The major factors in the service of God are: religious sensibility, observance of the commandments through joy, trust in God, love of God, Torah and Israel.”[6]

Elsewhere we learn: “Although very few documents written by Rabbi Israel still exist, many stories and teachings have been passed down to the present time. As Rabbi Israel’s fame spread, so did an opposition begin to grow. [This mitnagdim opposition was the old rabbinical tradition emphasizing study and knowledge as the ideal, and, in the wake of seeing the failed messiah-ship of Shabbetai Tzevi, the mitnagdim were justifiably concerned with the rise of any messianic movements. Note that, as Beshtian Hasidism spread further west to the cities of central Europe, another foe would be the so-called maskilim proponents of the secular, humanistic enlightenment.]

Being a living legend, the Ba`al Shem Tov spent most of his time in worship, serving G-d, teaching his disciples, and giving blessings to the thousands that came to see him.”[7] His spiritual practices had imbued Rabbi Israel with paranormal powers: the BeSHT could ascertain the thoughts and feelings of people, see into the past and future, heal physical and psychological ills, materialize or teleport objects, influence events at a distance, and be an instrument for other such inter-dimensional wonders. But his major “miracle” was his ability to inspire real spirituality in those he met. Unlike some of his successors, the Ba`al Shem Tov was accessible to all. With Mesbizh as his base, he traveled widely in order to encounter people from all walks of life and levels of piety (including incorrigible sinners). He taught and guided them in true hasidut—not so much by learned, didactic discourses or writings, but by simple stories, parables, and short sayings, and especially by his example.

This last point is an important one. Gershom Scholem notes, “The whole development [of 18th century Hasidism] centers around the personality of the Hasidic saint [the tzaddik]. Personality takes the place of doctrine…. The zaddik … has become Torah.”[8] This was certainly true in the case of the Ba`al Shem Tov and many of his disciples and their disciples, whose personalities were exemplary, wonderful role-models for their hasidim followers.

In Kabbalah, G-d or YHWH, “I AM WHO AM,” exists both as the absolutely transcendent principle of pure Infinity, Ein Sof (without boundary or end) and also as the immanent divine principle within the spacetime worlds. The latter principle, the Shekhinah, came to be identified with the neshâmah, the divine, innermost spark of the soul, beyond sin. In the unredeemed, unenlightened person, the person fallen from grace, the Shekhinah is in exile, alienated from its origin in the absolute Divine. A person’s task, therefore, is to re-unite his essential self, the divine neshâmah spark, or Shekhinah, with G-d. Traditionally it was always thought, and is still thought, that the long-awaited Mashiach (Moshiah, Messiah) would help in—or even miraculously accomplish in full—this work of reunion. Alas, over the centuries, the Mashiach apparently never having come, the date of his impending arrival uncertain, and the suffering of the Jewish people not abating to any significant degree but exacerbated by the shocking debacle of Shabbetai Tzevi's apostasy to Islam, the Jews, by and large, had become a melancholy and uninspired group. The Ba`al Shem Tov’s mission was to infuse a new vitality into his people.

When he passed away on May 23, 1760 (Shavuos, 5520), the BeSHT is said to have had 10,000 disciples, and his Hasidut (Hasidic) movement had spread widely, despite attempts by the ultra-orthodox mitnagdim and secularist maskilim opposition to curtail its phenomenal growth. The movement was not flawless, giving more reason for its foes to castigate this new development within Judaism. One can detect in certain later circles of Hasidism down to the present day excessive cultism, rigid institutionalism, narrow sectarianism (“my tzaddik is better than your tzaddik”), and a fascination with the arcane magical aspects of kabbalah (an old tendency in non-contemplative forms of kabbalah), sometimes degenerating into rank superstition. These dysfunctional forms of Hasidism have sullied the good name of the rest of the movement.

On the positive side, Martin Buber, who did so much to introduce the Ba`al Shem Tov and subsequent Hasidic masters to the gentile world—and to many Jews—has beautifully written:

“The [Ba`al Shem’s] Hasidic movement did not weaken the hope in a Messiah, but it kindled both its simple and intellectual followers to joy in the world as it is, in life as it is, in every hour of life in this world, as that hour is…. Hasidism shows men the way to God who dwells in them ‘in the midst of their uncleannesses,’ a way which issues forth from every temptation, even from every sin. Without lessening the strong obligation imposed by the Torah, the movement suffused all the traditional commandments with joy-bringing significance, and even set aside the walls separating the sacred and the profane, by teaching that every profane act can be rendered sacred by the manner in which it is performed. It had nothing to do with pantheism…. Hasidism did, however, make manifest the reflection of the divine, the sparks of God that glimmer in all beings and all things, and taught how to approach them, how to deal with them, how to ‘lift’ and redeem them, and re-connect them with their original root…. If you direct the undiminished power of your fervor to God’s world-destiny, if you do what you must do at this moment—no matter what it may be!—with your whole strength and with kavvanah, with holy intent, you will bring about the union between God and Shekhinah, eternity and time…. The world in which you live, just as it is and not otherwise, affords you that association with God, which will redeem you and whatever divine aspect of the world you have been entrusted with…. But how was man, in particular the ‘simple man’ with whom the Hasidic movement is primarily concerned, to arrive at living his life in fervent joy? How, in the fires of temptation, was he to recast the Evil Urge into an urge for what is good? … How, in his meeting with creatures and things, grow aware of the divine sparks hidden within them? How, through holy kavvanah, illumine everyday life? … How retain unity in the midst of peril and pressure, in the midst of thousands of disappointments and delusions? … Man needs counsel and aid, he must be lifted and redeemed…. A helper is needed, a helper for both body and soul, for both earthly and heavenly matters. This helper is called the zaddik…. It is he who can teach you to conduct your affairs so that your soul remains free [and] … steadfast beneath the blows of destiny. And over and over he takes you by the hand and guides you until you are able to venture on alone…. The zaddik must make communication with God easier for his hasidim, but he cannot take their place. This is the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov and all the great Hasidim followed it…. The zaddik strengthens his hasid in the hours of doubting.… He develops the hasid’s own power for right prayer…. In hours of need, he prays for his disciple and gives all of himself…. Both in the Hasidic teachings and in the tales [of interaction between certain tzaddikim and hasidim], we often hear of zaddikim who take upon themselves the sorrow of others, and even atone for others by sacrificing their own lives…. This act done in place of the other, facilitates the hasid’s own turning to God. The zaddik helps everyone, but he does not relieve anyone of what he must do for himself…. The zaddik has the greatest possible influence not only on the faith and mind of the hasid, but on his active everyday life, and even on his sleep, which he renders deep and pure…. The zaddik was infused with vital strength which poured out from him into all the ‘simple men’ in the world…. The community of hasidim who belong to a zaddik, especially the close-knit circle of those who are constantly with him, or—at least—visit him regularly, is felt as a powerful dynamic unit…. They are the field of force in which his words [and example] make manifest the spirit in expanding circles, like rings widening on the waters…. [There is] particular intensity [in] the relationship of one hasid toward another. Their common attachment to the zaddik and to the holy life he embodies binds them to one another, not only in the festive hours of common prayer, and of the common meal, but in all the hours of everyday living. In moments of elation, they drink to one another, they sing and dance together, and tell one another abstruse and comforting miracle tales. But they help one another too. They are prepared to risk their lives for a comrade, and this readiness comes from the same deep source as their elation. Everything the true hasid does or does not do mirrors his belief that, in spite of the intolerable suffering men must endure, the heartbeat of life is holy joy, and that always and everywhere, one can force a way through to that joy—provided one devotes one’s self entirely to his deed.”[9]

In sum, then, we see that the Ba`al Shem Tov’s Hasidut transmutes one’s here-now experience into joyful celebration of God’s immanence in the world. And this is achieved through the communal and solitary practice of prayer, meditation, eating, singing, dancing, reading Torah and Talmud, telling inspiring stories, engaging in the purification ritual—the “bath of immersion”; and occasionally performing ascetic practices like fasting, maintaining nightly vigils with little or no sleep, and living in remote sites in the woods or mountains in order to purify oneself further of egocentric tendencies and thereby increase one’s capacity for divine joy. But one was not to overdo the ascetic practices, for such might only weaken a person; and one was never to permanently or entirely renounce the world of society, since this is the arena for G-d’s Shekhinah, His Divine Power, to manifest.

Most important for the hasid is the relationship to the tzaddik, who teaches, guides, supports, inspires, encourages, challenges and tests him into becoming a more authentically loving and joyous level of being.

The Ba`al Shem Tov or BeSHT was, of course, the most prominent of the 18th century Eastern European tzaddikim. But there were many others to arise during and after his lifetime to carry on his work. The following section lists most of these persons, down through the third generation after the Ba`al Shem Tov:

Daughter of the BeSHT: Adel/Edel, considered by the Ba`al Shem Tov to be one of the very greatest of his disciples (far more holy and adept than his son); Adel came to have her own following of disciples, but this line was not well respected in a patriarchal society and ended with her passing.

Grandsons of the BeSHT: Moshe Efraim of Sadylkov; Barukh of Mezbizh (d.1811)

Great-grandson of the BeSHT: Nahman of Bratzlav (1772-1810)

Primary disciples of the BeSHT:

1) Dov Baer (1704-72) of Mezritch (Poland), the “Great Maggid (Preacher)” and successor to the BeSHT; Dov Baer's son Abraham “the Angel” (d.1776); Dov Baer’s disciples: Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (d.1788); Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, “the Rav” (d.1813); Shmelke of Nikolsburg (d.1778); Aaron of Karlin (d.1772); Levi Ytizhak of Berditchev (d.1809); Meshullam Zusya of Hanipol (d.1800); Elimelekh of Lizhensk, Zusya’s brother (d.1786); Shelomo of Karlin (d.1792); Israel, the Maggid of Koznitz (d.1814), Yaakov Yitzhak “the Seer” of Lublin (d.1815).

2) Yaakov Yosef [Jacob Joseph] of Polnoye (1703-94) and his dis-ciple Arye Leib of Spola (d.1811). Yaakov was the BeSHT’s faithful disciple in collecting volumes of his master's sermons, the greatest bulk of available teachings we have from the BeSHT.

3) Pinhas of Koretz (d.1791) and his disciple Rafael of Bershad (d.1816).

4) Yehiel Mikhal, “the Maggid of Zlotchov” (d. c1786); his sons Zev Wolf of Zbarazh (d.1800) and Mordecai of Kremnitz; and Yehiel’s disciples Mordecai of Neskhizh (d.1800) and Aaron Leib of Primishlan.

5) Nahum of Tchernobil (d.1798) and his son Mordecai (Motel) of Tchernobil (d.1837).[10]

Stories and Teachings of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba`al Shem Tov (BeSHT):[11]

The hasidim tell: Rabbi Dov Baer, the maggid (preacher) of Mezritch, once begged Heaven to show him a man whose every limb and every fibre was holy. Then they showed him the form of the Ba`al Shem Tov, and it was all of fire. There was no shred of substance in it. It was nothing but flame. (49)

Dov Baer, the maggid of Mezritch, after hearing about the Ba`al Shem Tov many times, finally decided to go visit the famous spiritual leader. At his first two meetings with the BeSHT, the latter had merely related to the maggid some apparently simple, meaningless stories. When the maggid returned to his inn the second night, he ordered his servant to prepare for the homeward journey; they would start as soon as the moon had scattered the clouds. Around midnight it grew light. Then a man came from the Ba`al Shem with the message that Rabbi Baer was to come to him that very hour. He went at once. The Ba`al Shem received him in his special meditation room. “Are you versed in the kabbalah?” he asked. The maggid, a keen scholar of the kabbalah and other works, said that he was. “Then take this book, the Tree of Life. Open it and read.” The maggid read. “Now ponder it!” He pondered it. “Expound!” He expounded on the passage which dealt with the nature of angels. “You have no true knowledge,” said the Ba`al Shem. “Get up!” The maggid rose. The Ba`al Shem stood in front of him and recited the passage. Then, before the eyes of Rabbi Baer, the room went up in flame, and through the blaze he heard the surging of angels until his senses forsook him. When he awoke, the room was as it had been when he entered it. The Ba`al Shem stood opposite him and said, “You expounded correctly, but you have no true knowledge, because there is no soul in what you know.” Rabbi Baer went back to the inn, told his servant to go home, and stayed in Mezbizh, the town of the Ba`al Shem Tov. (99-100)

The Ba`al Shem Tov had been known to quiver slightly while reading his prayers, such was the great deal of power or energy that had been infused into him by God; one day he was violently shaken by this force, trembling uncontrollably. The maggid of Mezritch on another occasion found him to be "not in this world. Now, as he was putting on his robe, it wrinkled at the shoulders and I put my hand on it to smooth out the folds. But hardly had I touched it, when I began to tremble. I held fast to the table, but the table began to tremble too. The Ba`al Shem Tov had already gone into the big hall, but I stood there and begged God to take the trembling from me." (49-50) [For a cross-cultural perspective on this "trembling"/vibration phenomenon, see the various "energetic empowerment" traditions found worldwide, such as the shaktipat traditions of India, the baraka "blessing force" transmissions among the Muslim Sufis, the charismata Holy Spirit phenomena among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians, etc.]

Never did the Ba`al Shem keep money in his house overnight. When he returned from a journey, he paid all the debts which had accumulated in his absence and distributed whatever he had left, among the needy. (51)

The Ba`al Shem Tov told the following story: Once a fiddler played so sweetly that all who heard him began to dance, and whoever came near enough to hear, joined in the dance. Then a deaf man, who knew nothing of music, happened along, and to him all he saw seemed the action of madmen—senseless and in bad taste. (53) [So also with the behavior of the hasidim and other people infused with the divine spirit—they appear mad.]

One of the Ba`al Shem’s disciples once asked him: “How shall I make my living in the world?” “You shall be a cantor.” “But I can’t even sing!” “I shall bind you to the world of [heavenly] music,” said the Zaddik. This man became a singer without peer, and far and wide they called him the cantor of the Ba`al Shem Tov. This cantor once reported how the master never recited a verse until he had seen the angel of this verse and heard his special strain. He told of the hours in which the soul of the master rose to Heaven, while his body remained behind as if dead, and that there his soul spoke with whomever it would, with Moses and with the Messiah, and asked and was answered. He told that the master could speak to each creature on earth in its own language and to every heavenly being in its own language. He told that, the moment the master saw an implement, he at once knew the character of the man who had made it, and what he had thought about, while making it. (61-2)

Once the Ba`al Shem said to his disciples: “Now that I have climbed so many rungs in the service of God, I let go of them and hold to the simple faith of making myself a vessel for God.” (67-8)

The Ba`al Shem said, “I let sinners come close to me, if they are not proud. I keep the scholars and the ‘sinless’ away from me if they are proud. For the sinner who knows that he is a sinner, and therefore considers himself base—God is with him, for He ‘dwelleth with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.’ But concerning him who prides himself on the fact that he is unburdened by sin, God says, as we know from the Gemara [the later section of the Talmud]: ‘There is not enough room in the world for myself and him.’” (71-2)

The Ba`al Shem said to one of his disciples: “The lowest of the low that you can think of is dearer to me than your only son is to you.” (72)

Let atar panui minei,” the Ba`al Shem had proclaimed, God dwells in all things—even in sin, and assuredly in the sinner. (W 74)

God sees, God watches. He is in every life, in every thing. The world hinges on His will. (W 11)

The man who looks only at himself cannot but sink into despair, yet as soon as he opens his eyes to the creation around him, he will know joy. (W 26)

When one sees a beautiful woman or hears a lovely melody, one need not [austerely] say that it is not beautiful or lovely. One should, however, think: but this creature or creation, does it not draw its beauty and loveliness from the Source of all beauty and all joy? Why should I not go to the Source?[12]


[Here follow excerpts from one of the few items written by the Ba`al Shem Tov that was for some reason never sent and which we have today, a letter written to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon, then living in the Holy Land; I mainly use Aryeh Kaplan’s translation:[13]]

To my beloved brother-in-law, my friend who is dear to me as my own heart and soul, the exalted rabbi and Hasid, 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....

On Rosh HaShanah 5507 (September 15, 1746), I made an oath and elevated my soul in the manner known to you. I saw things that I had never before witnessed since the day I was born. The things that I learned and saw there could not be communicated, even if I would be able to speak to you in person. When I returned [i.e., from his tremendously high state of Divine elevation] to the lower Garden of Eden, I saw innumerable souls, both living and dead, some whom I knew and others whom I did not. They were fleeting back and forth, going from one universe to another through the Column that is known to those who delve in mysteries. They were in a state of joy that was so great that the lips cannot express it, and the physical ear is too gross to hear about it. There were also many wicked people who were repenting, and their sins were forgiven since this was a special time of grace…. There was great joy among them, too, and they also ascended in the above-mentioned manner. All of them beseeched and petitioned me unceasingly: “Go higher with the glory of your Torah. May God grant you greater understanding to perceive and know these things. Ascend with us, so that you can be our help and support.”

Because of the great joy that I saw among them, I decided to ascend with them. Due to the great danger involved in ascending to the supernal Universes, I asked my Master [his angel mentor Achiya] to come with me. From the time that I began, I had never before ascended to such a high level. Step by step I ascended until I entered the chamber of the Messiah. There the Messiah studies Torah with all the sages and saints, as well as with the Seven Shepherds [according to the Talmud, notes Kaplan, these are Adam, Seth, Methusalah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David]. I saw great joy there… Later they told me that I had not died, since they have great pleasure on high when I bring about Unifications through the holy Torah down below.… I spoke to the Messiah himself and asked him, “When is your majesty coming?” He replied, “This shall be your sign. It will be at a time when your teachings become widespread in the world and ‘your springs overflow abroad.’ It will be when the things which I have taught you, and which you have yourself perceived, become known, so that others can also bring about Unifications and elevate them-selves like you do. All the husks [shells, kelipot, which block a soul’s sense of the Divine Presence] will then be annihilated, and it will be a time of grace and salvation.”

I was very surprised, and distressed, since it would take a long time for this to be possible. But when I was there, I learned three specific remedies and three holy Names, and they are easy to learn and explain. My mind was then set at ease, and I realized that it would be possible for people in my generation to reach the same level and state as I did. They would then be able to ascend, learn and perceive, just like myself. All during my lifetime [however], I was not granted permission to reveal this. For your sake, I made a request that I might be allowed to teach this to you, but permission was denied. I am still bound by this oath, but this I can tell you, and let God be your help: Let your path be toward God. When you pray and study let [my words] not forsake you. [Paraphrase of Proverbs 4:21] With every word and expression that leaves your lips, have in mind to bring about a Unification [of the divine sparks in all beings and things with God]. Every single letter contains universes, souls, and godliness, and as they ascend, one becomes bound to the other and they become unified…. They are then actually unified with the Divine Essence, and in all these aspects, your soul is included with them. All universes are then unified as one, and immeasurable joy and delight results. Consider the joy of a bridegroom and bride in this lowly physical world, and you will understand how great is this delight. God will certainly help you. Wherever you turn you will suc-ceed and prosper. “Give wisdom to the wise, and he will become still wiser.” (Proverbs 9:9) (K 272-3)


In your mind, you must … constantly meditate (hitboded) on the love and reverence of God. Even when you are studying, it is good to pause occasionally and to meditate in your mind. This is true even though it may take time from your sacred studies. (K 274)

In your mind, constantly meditate on the Divine Presence [Shekhinah]. Have no other thought in your mind other than your love, seeking that [the Divine Presence] should bind itself to you. Constantly repeat in your mind, “When will I be worthy for the Light of the Divine Presence to dwell with me.” (K 274-5)

You can lie in bed and appear to be sleeping, but at that time, you can actually be meditating upon God.” (K 275)

Meditate that you are elevating the subject of your prayer to the highest level of Binah-Understanding. Everything is then transformed into pure love and mercy. (K 277)

There are states of Expanded [gadlut] and Constricted [katnut] Consciousness [mochin] in prayer and all other observance. (K 279)

When a person follows his [selfish] desires and the ways of his heart, then he is in a state of Constricted Consciousness…. Expanded Consciousness is when one involves himself in the great mysteries of the Future World and despises all [attachment to] worldly things. (K 280)

Sometimes you can only worship with Constricted Consciousness. Then you do not enter into the supernal worlds at all. Still, you can realize that God is close and that “the whole earth is filled with His glory.” (Isaiah 6:3) (K 280)

When you pray, you should be totally divorced from the physical, not aware of your existence in the world at all. (K 285)

When you want to pray, it should be with awe. This is the gate through which one enters before God. Say to yourself, “To whom do I wish to bind myself? To the One who created all worlds with His word, who gives them existence and sustains them.” Think about His loftiness and greatness, and you will then be able to enter the supernal worlds. (K 285)

Do not pray for your own needs, for your prayer will then not be accepted…. You should therefore pray for the needs of the Whole. (K 285)

Many people love and fear God, but still, they accomplish nothing on high because they lack absolute faith. (K 297)

Separate your soul from your body…. You will then be able to perceive many universes on high. You have many powers, one required for one universe, and another for the next…. When an extraneous thought comes to you, … you can use that thought itself to bind yourself to God all the more…. When you understand the idea of the thought [that falls into your mind, you can elevate it]. If it involves desire and lust, it has fallen from the Universe of Love; if it is a debilitating phobia, it is from the Universe of Awe; and if it involves pride, it is from the Universe of Beauty. The same is true of all other such thoughts…. When you bind these thoughts to God through love and awe of the Creator, you return them to their Root…. Each thought can be elevated to the Attribute from which it fell…. God has great delight when you do this. (K 286)

God sends you these thoughts in order that you should elevate them. (K 290)

Sometimes I sit among people engaged in idle talk. I attach myself to God properly, and I can bind all their words on high. (K 295)

It is actually very surprising that a mortal human being should be able to attach himself to God. Besides his physical body, many husks separate him from God…. But all the barriers that separate and restrain can be torn down by the word that you utter. Your words should therefore be attached to God. This means that you must intimately feel that you are actually speaking to God. (K 287)

Through prayer you can attach your thoughts on high. From the power of such prayer, you can then reach even higher levels. Then, even when you are not praying, you can be attached to the spiritual. (K 288)

When you want to pray to God for something, think of your soul as part of the Divine Presence, like a raindrop in the sea. Then pray for the needs of the Divine Presence. You can have faith that your prayer will benefit the Divine Presence. Then, if you are properly attached to the Divine Presence, this influence will also be transmitted to you. (K 288)

[The Ba`al Shem Tov] revealed that when a person has pain, whether physical or spiritual, he should meditate that even in this pain, God can be found. He is only concealed in a garment in this pain. When a person realizes this, then he can remove the garment. (K 294)

Think of yourself as a resident of the Supernal Universes … and it will make no difference to you whether people love you or hate you. Their love and hate will be nothing to you. (K 294)

When your thoughts ascend on high to the Supernal Universes, you must strengthen your mind. You will then be able to stroll through these Universes just like a person strolls from one room to the next. (K 296)

Meditate that God is in front of you in the Ten Sefirot [Divine emanations]… and that His greatness is infinite. Wherever you ascend on high, keep in mind that you are bringing yourself closer to God, and binding yourself to Him on a higher level…. At all times during the day, even when you are not praying, you should mentally elevate your thoughts on high. This takes great effort. Strengthen yourself with all your power of concentration, even if at first you do not ascend very high. Do not attempt to ascend too quickly. First attempt the Universe of Asiyah [subtle forms], then Yetzirah [angels], then Beriyah [the Divine Throne], and finally Atzilut [nearness to God through the Divine sefirot emanations]. (K 296-7)

When you are attached to one of the Supernal Universes with no extraneous thoughts, you can then receive a thought very much like prophecy…. You then hear the likeness of a voice speaking, and it can reveal future events. (K 294)

When you reach the Universe of Atzilut, you are devoid of all sensation. All that you experience is the most ethereal feeling, which is nothing other than God’s closeness. (K 295)

When you are properly attached to God, you can engage in any activity that you wish. It appears that you are gazing at the subject of your activity, but actually you are gazing at nothing other than God. (K 296)


[What follows are some passages taken from The Ba`al Shem Tov’s Instruction in Intercourse with God, translated by Martin Buber (English transl. by Maurice Friedman) in Buber's Hasidism and Modern Man:]

In all that is in the world dwell holy sparks, no thing is empty of them. In the actions of men also, indeed even in the sins that a man does, dwell holy sparks of the glory [Shekhinah] of God. And what is it that the sparks await that dwell in the sins? It is the turning [to G-d]. In the hour where you turn on account of sin, you raise to the higher world the sparks that were in it. (B 189)

All that man has, his servant, his animals, his tools, all conceal sparks that belong to the roots of his soul and wish to be raised by him to their origin…. Man eats them, man drinks them, man uses them; these are the sparks that dwell in the things. Therefore, one should have mercy on his tools and all his possessions for the sake of the sparks that are in them; one should have mercy on the holy sparks. (B 188)

Pray continually for God’s Glory [Shekhinah] that it may be redeemed from its exile. (B 199) [This is an old idea from the Zohar text, a foundational work for kabbalah.]

Man should unite all things of the world with all his thinking, speaking, doing, toward God in truth and simplicity. For no thing of the world is set outside the unity of God. But he who does a thing otherwise than toward God separates it from Him. (B 199)

This is the mystery of the oneness of God, that at whatever place I, and tiny bit, lay hold of it, I lay hold of the whole. (B 191)

All, above and below, is one unity. (B 199)

Man should reflect before prayer that he is ready to die in this prayer for the sake of its intention. (B 202)

Even when many alien thoughts ascend in you [e.g., during prayer or meditation], they are garments and covers behind which the Holy One, blessed be He, conceals Himself, and when you know about this, there is no longer any concealment…. In all the thoughts of man the reality of God conceals itself. And each thought is a complete figure. And when in the thinking of man at the time of his prayer an evil or an alien thought arises, it comes to him in order that he may redeem it and let it ascend. But he who does not believe in this does not truly take on himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven [i.e., the work of releasing and raising all the Divine “sparks” contained in one’s thoughts]. (B 204-5)

The indwelling Glory [Shekhinah] prevails from above to below…. That is the mystery of the word, “And you animate them all.” Even when man does a sin, then too the Glory is clothed in it, for without it he would not have the strength to move a limb. And this is the exile of God’s Glory…. Evil too is good, it is the lowest rung of perfect goodness. (B 207)

The indwelling Glory embraces all worlds, all creatures, good and evil. And it is the true unity. How can it then bear in itself the opposites of good and evil? But in truth there is no opposite, for the evil is the throne of the good. (B 208)

If it should happen to you that you see a sin or hear of one, seek your share in this sin and strive to set yourself to rights. Then even that evil man will turn [to God]. You must only embrace him in your turning according to the meaning of the unity, for all are one man. (B 209-10)

Many a man who thinks he has God knows nothing of Him…. If you have already fulfilled all kinds of commandments, know still that you have done nothing. (B 210)

There are two extreme types among men. The one is a wholly evil man…. The other in his delusion considers himself a wholly righteous man…. For the wholly evil man there exists a cure for his defect—when the turning awakens in him and he turns with his whole heart to God and entreats Him to show him the way where the light dwells. But the other, who is incapable of seeing the greatness of the Creator and the real service of Him, because he is righteous in his own eyes—how can he turn? … Pride is more serious than all sin. (B 210-11)

It lies upon you to love your comrade as one like yourself. And who knows as you do your many defects? As you are nonetheless able to love yourself, so love your fellow no matter how many defects you may see in him. (B 244)

The perfect tzaddik, in whom there is no evil, sees no evil in anyone. (B 253)


The Ba`al Shem said, “When I weld my spirit to God, I let my mouth say what it will, for then all my words are bound to their root in Heaven.” (51)

If I love God, what need have I of a coming world! (52)

One evening, when some people left the Ba`al Shem’s room, after having been in conversation with him as was customary every evening after the prayer period, one of them said to the man beside him how much good the words the Ba`al Shem had directed to him, had done him. But the other man told him not to talk such nonsense, that they had entered the room together and from that moment on the master had spoken to no one except himself. A third, who heard this, joined in the conversation with a smile, saying how curious that both were mistaken, for the Rabbi had carried on an intimate conversation with him the entire evening. Then a fourth and a fifth made the same claim, and finally all began to talk at once and tell what they had experienced. But the next instant they all fell silent. (55)

One Sabbath evening, the Ba`al Shem Tov asked his disciple, Rabbi David Leikes, to contribute some money for mead [a beverage]. “I put my hand in my pocket,” the rabbi said, “although I knew I had nothing in it, but I drew out a gulden, and gave it for mead.” (55-6)

Once the Ba`al Shem stopped on the threshold of a House of Prayer [synagogue] and refused to go in. “I cannot go in. It is crowded with teachings and prayers from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling. How could there be room for me?” … He added: “The words from the lips of those whose teaching and praying does not come from the hearts lifted up to heaven, cannot rise, but fill the house from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling.” (73)

The Ba`al Shem said, “Alas! The world is full of enormous lights and mysteries, and man shuts them from himself with one small [obstructing] hand!” (74)

A tzaddik told: “On a winter’s day, I went to the bath with the master [for the ritual immersion]. It was so cold that icicles hung from the roofs. We entered and as soon as he did the Unification, the bath grew warm. He stood in the water for a very long time, until the candle began to drip and gutter. ‘Rabbi,’ I said, ‘the candle is guttering and going out.’... He answered, ‘take an icicle from the roof and light it! He who spoke to the oil and it leaped into flame, will speak to this too, and it will kindle.’ The icicle burned brightly for a good while, until I went home.” (74-5)

At his death, which he had foreseen, the Ba`al Shem said: “I have no worries with regard to myself. For I know quite clearly: I am going out at one door and I shall go in at another.” … He also said: “I shall surely return, but not as I am now.” After saying the prayer, “Let the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us,” he eventually bade his disciples to cover him with a sheet. But they still heard him whisper: “My God, Lord of all the worlds!” And then the verse of the psalm: “Let not the foot of pride come upon me.” Later on, those whom he had bidden attend to his body and his burial, said they had seen the Ba`al Shem’s soul ascend as a blue flame. (84)

Rabbi Tzevi, the Ba`al Shem’s son, once fell into a river in the pitch black darkness of night, and was being carried away by it; a burning light, evidently an appearance of his “deceased” father, illuminated his situation and enabled him to save himself. He also reported that, on another occasion, “I saw him in the shape of a fiery mountain, which burst into countless sparks. I asked him: ‘Why do you appear in a shape such as this?’ He answered: ‘In this shape I served God.’” (84-5)


[1] Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and Kabbalah, York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser paperback ed., 1985, pp. 263, 265.

[2]Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, NY: Random House, 1972, p. 17.

[3] From the biography of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer at the website www.baalshemtov.com/whowashe.htm.

[4] Bezalel Naor, "Introduction," to Reuven Alpert, God's Middlemen: A HaBaD Retrospective, Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1998, p. xv.

[5] Joseph Dan, "Beshtian Hasidism," in Mircea Eliade (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, NY: Macmillan, 1987, p. 205.

[6] Geoffrey Wigoder, “Ba`al Shem Tov,” in John Hinnells (Ed.), Who’s Who in Religion, Macmillan, 1991.

[7] From www.baalshemtov.com/whowashe.htm.

[8] Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, NY: Schocken Books, 1954, p. 344.

[9] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters, Schocken, 1947, pp. 3-10.

[10] On the multi-lineal development of this movement of Hasidism after Rabbi Israel, see Joseph Dan, "Beshtian Hasidism," op. cit., pp. 203-211; and Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters and Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters, Schocken, 1947-8.

[11] Except where otherwise noted, all stories and teachings from the Ba`al Shem Tov given here come from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters, op. cit., with page numbers given in parenthesis. Excerpts from the Ba`al Shem Tov’s Instruction in Intercourse with God are from Buber’s Hasidism and Modern Man (Maurice Friedman, Ed. & Tr.), Humanities ed., 1988, abbreviated as B, with page numbers in parenthesis. Sayings of the BeSHT as compiled by Aryeh Kaplan in Meditation and Kabbalah are abbreviated as K, with page numbers in parenthesis; sayings compiled by Elie Wiesel in Souls on Fire are abbreviated as W, with page numbers in parenthesis. Many more teachings and stories of the Ba`al Shem Tov can be found in the recent work by Yitzhak Buxbaum, The Light And Fire of the Baal Shem Tov, NY: Continuum, 2005. An extensive annotated bibliography on the Ba`al Shem Tov and other tzaddikim can be found online at www.baalshemtov.com/bibliog.htm.

[12] Quoted by S.Z. Setzer in Herbert Weiner, 9½ Mystics: The Kabbala Today, NY: Macmillan Collier ed., 1971, p. 131.

[13] In Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and Kabbalah, op. cit., pp. 272-3; I have added here at the outset the Ba`al Shem's warm words of greeting, which were omitted by Kaplan but preserved in another translation by Rabbi David Sears of this same epistle, from Sears' The Path of the Baal Shem Tov, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997; posted at www.baalshemtov.com/library.php.