The Ba'al Shem Tov – a Biography

The 300th birthday of Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov * (1998)


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By the grace of G-d 
Copyright © 2006, 2014 Nathaniel Segal 

Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov

The Founder of the Hasidic * Movement

". . . remember for the rest of your life that G-d is with you.   
Be not afraid of anyone except G-d Himself."   

Rabbi Israel's title "Ba'al Shem Tov" means that he possessed a good reputation, literally a "good name" in Hebrew.  He was respected and honored for his good works between Man and his / her Fellow, as we find in the Chapters of the Fathers, ". . . the crown of a good name surpasses them all  [the crown of Torah scholarship, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty]" (Mishnah, Tractate Avot 4:13).

The outward nature of his good reputation flowed from his charisma.  However, he hid his personality for the first thirty-six years of his life until he then let himself become a reluctant folk hero.  Since then he has been known in the Jewish world as the Ba'al Shem Tov, as if no other who had lived before him carried such a reputation and appellation.*

In personal letters to his brother-in-law,* Rabbi Israel expressed fear of taking on this role.  As Rabbi Israel's great-grandson, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov * (1772-1810), would say, "The entire world is a very narrow bridge . . ."  Prior to the Ba'al Shem Tov, other charismatics took on messianic proportions with unfortunate results for them and for their Jewish communities.  These earlier messianic figures ceased to be practicing Jews, or they incurred the wrath of civil and Christian cleric authorities, or both.

Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (1698-1760) was born on 18 Elul 5458 am * in a then-remote village of the Polish-Lithunian Commonwealth,* Okopy* (Okop or Okup in Jewish history;  the Polish name was, most likely, Okop Góry Swiȩty Trojcy *).  Okopy was a border outpost in the Polish province of Podolia.  The newly established outpost was intended to repel Ottoman aggression * against the Polish kingdom. *  The word okop itself means 'trench' in Slavic languages, suggesting that the Ba'al Shem Tov's parents lived along the first line of defense of the outpost.  Today, the area is under the jurisdiction of Ukraine.  The fortifications lie several miles south of today's Kamyanets'-Podil's'kyy, Ukraine, a short distance north of Moldova.  At that time south of here, the Ottoman Empire held and continued to hold suzerainty over the emerging states.

The Ba'al Shem Tov was an only child, born to the elderly Eliezer and Sarah at a time of despair for the Jewish people.  Fifty years before, Chmielnicki's brigands had decimated Jewish communities in Ukraine, the districts of Podolia * and Volhynia,* and Poland itself.  Chmielnicki's horde had pillaged entire communities and left behind the corpses of the Jews who they had murdered.  These brigands had destroyed the economy of the region.  The psychological and social effects of the massacres were still apparent when Rabbi Israel was born, and he dedicated a large part of his life to rebuilding communal life.

His first effort was to promote Jewish education.*  Because of the earlier chaos, parents had largely lost opportunities for their own education when they were children.  As a result, parents often failed to grasp the importance of schooling their own children.  At the same time, Rabbi Israel worked at eliminating the illiteracy of parents.*

At the age of five, Israel had lost his parents.  His father, a pious and saintly man, left him this legacy:  "My dear Israel, remember for the rest of your life that G-d is with you.  Never fear anyone or anything in this world.  Only fear G-d Himself."

So Israel grew up as an orphan in the milieu of limited Jewish education for children.  However, an itinerant hidden mystic taught Israel secret lessons for three years, from age seven.  With time, these mystics came to be called tsadikim -- "righteous saints" in Hebrew; singular "tsadik."  Rabbi Adam Ba'al Shem Tov * of Ropshitz (Ropczyce), Galicia, Poland, about 100 miles east of today's L'viv, Ukraine, was their leader.  At eleven years old, Israel was invited to join this elite fraternity of hidden tsadikim, and he began to wander incognito under their tutelage.

Skeptics have been unable to identify Rabbi Adam Ba'al Shem.  Perhaps his name was not 'Adam'.  Some say that 'Adam' may be an abbreviation for A'braham D'avid M'oses.  In such a case, scholars have not been looking at men associated with the city of Ropshitz by his given names.

Soon into his teens, the Ba'al Shem Tov took a job as a bahelfer.  This is a kind of assistant teacher.  His primary responsibility, though, was to walk boys from home to school and back again toward evening. As much as this was a safety measure, Israel's attention to their boys helped parents to appreciate their children's schooling. Whereas the boys were learning to read and write, Israel told them stories from the Bible and the Jewish tradition. By retelling these stories at home, Israel was sending Jewish education to the parents.

Together, the hidden tsadikim visited cities and towns in Volhynia and Podolia

Biographical sources:

A Letter about the Messiah

Excerpts copied from a letter that Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov sent to his brother-in-law in the Holy Land

(in free translation from the original Hebrew)

On Rosh HaShanah * [the Jewish New Year] beginning the year 5507 (1746-7), I made my soul elevation, as you know, and I saw wondrous things clearly, things which I had never seen before in my life.  What I saw and learned while in ascent there is impossible to tell and speak about, even face to face . . .

. . . in my entire life, I had never experienced such high levels of [spiritual] elevation.  I ascended level after level until I entered the realm of the Messiah where he studies the Torah with the great sages of earlier generations.  I saw great rejoicing there.  I [still] do not know the reason for such a celebration . . .

I asked the Messiah himself, "When is the Master coming?"

He answered, "At the time when your teachings are [fully] publicized and revealed in the world.  [When] your wellsprings spread forth to the outside, [the wellsprings containing] what I have taught you and what you have understood. . . ."

Another, fuller translation was available from The Inner Dimension.

Pronunciation and Notes:

Ba'al Shem Tov - bah ahl SHEM tohv (Possessor of a Good Name, literally Master of a Good Name)

Hasidic - khah SID ik

appellation - This title had been used for several generations.  The leader of a study group of mystics was called a ba'al shem.  The plural form is ba'alei shem.  His mastery was to know how to use G-d's Hebrew name (or names) to dispel dysfunction from a community.

Such dysfunction included illnesses, both physical and mental as well as the illnesses of domestic animals, difficult childbirths, infertility, weather disasters which interfere with the water or food supply, political and religious oppression from the neighboring Gentiles or their overlords, danger from rampaging gangs of thieves and murderers, and so on.

Jews in their community and the surrounding communities treated the ba'alei shem as professionals.  Clientele was established by the ba'al shem issuing a slip of paper which the client / patient inserted into an amulet.  Common belief was that the ba'al shem had written some permutation(s) of G-d's name(s) to effect a remedy.  However, these notes belonged to the ba'al shem, to be returned to him when he he wanted.

Rabbis deferred to the judgement of ba'alei shem as far as using G-d's name in ways and situations that a rabbi himself would not do.  Nevertheless, these mystics were secretive about what they actually wrote.

Jews outside the circle of mystics were not supposed to look at the content, the texts, of these slips of paper, and apparently they didn't.  I'm not aware of any surviving notes.  The practice of the mystics has been shrouded in mystery.

brother-in-law - Rabbi Abraham Gershon of Kutów (pronounced 'Kittov' by Jews; today's Kuty, Ukraine), who settled in Jerusalem in his later years.

Kutów - Sometimes I am using the Polish spellings, which are in the Latin alphabet.  Polish was the national language until the late 1700s.  In 1791, Czarina Katherine conquered lands to Russia's west, wresting away from Polish rule the territories of today's Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine.  At the same time, Polish landowners lost their eastern holdings.  The Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth of Poland was reduced to Little Poland, the land where the locals actual spoke Polish.

When the Russian Empire arose in 1791, Russian became the official language.  The Cyrillic alphabet was then used for all official purposes.  Sometimes place names acquired the slight Russian variations from the Polish usage. Since Ukraine became independent, place name now reflect Ukrainian or Belarusan  usage.

Jewish pronunciation of place names tended to come from the local speech community at that time, one that, as often as not, spoke neither Polish nor Russian.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov - Bracław, now today's Bratslav, Ukraine.  'Breslov' is the Jewish pronunciation.

18 Elul 5458 am - Late summer in the Jewish year 5,458 years since creation.  In Latin, anno mundi means "years of the world" and is abbreviated as a.m.  Sometimes, the Jewish year is written in this style, "5458 am," for those who are not familiar with traditional Jewish dating.

Kingdom of Poland - Besides Poland itself, the kingdom encompassed today's Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine (roughly).  In 1791, Czarina Katherine conquered these lands and made them Russian colonies.  Unlike other European Empires which had overseas colonies, Russia's colonies surrounded the motherland to the west, south, and southeast.

The European empires that we tend to be familiar with had overseas colonies, so we tend to disregard Russia as an empire.  The downfall of Soviet Communism unglued the 200-year-old Russian Empire.

Those who study China and its history see how even today's China is an empire of ethnic Chinese who have conquered outlying lands and have (and still do) treat them as colonies.  Many people outside China recognize how Tibet is a Chinese colony.  There is no ethnic affinity between Tibetans and Chinese.  The lands north and northwest of China's historic Great Wall are also colonial enterprises.  These include Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and the Sinkiang regions (home of the Uighur people among others). 

Native Taiwanese speak a language with some roots in the Polynesian language family.  Their language is clearly not Chinese, and they weren't and are not ethnic Chinese.  Mainland China's claim to Taiwan is basically specious, unless we regard China as a colonial power entitled to its colonies.

The Vietnamese people have consistently and persistently resisted Chinese designs to expand their empire into Southeast Asia.  (There are abundant ironies here concerning the U.S.-Vietnamese War of the 1960s and 1970s.)

By comparing and contrasting China and Russia, I insist on referring to a "Russian Empire" as well as a contemporary "Chinese Empire."  Accordingly, none of my ancestors were "Russian Jews."  They were Jews who emigrated to the U.S. from the Russian colony of Belarus.

(Other ancestors came from newly independent Romania -- independent from the Ottoman Empire.  While on this topic, Ottoman Turks also surrounded themselves with their empire, such as the colony of Romania.  The Ottomans, also, did not have overseas colonies as such.)

Okop - This word means 'trench' in Slavic languages.  We believe that the Ba'al Shem Tov's parents lived along trenches of a border outpost of unknown name.  Therefore, Okop was not the official name of the village.  Rather, it represented the condition of that part of Eastern Europe.

Okop Góry . . . - " the Holy Trinity" in the Polish language

Ottoman aggression - The Treaty of Karlowitz ended the Great Turkish War (January 26, 1699) with Poland.  Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov was born in 1698.

Ottoman aggression - Ottoman troops had reached the gates of Vienna and were repulsed.

Podolia - A province to the north of the Dnester River.

Volhynia - This province is northeast of Podolia and north of the province of Galitsia (Galicia).  The province's capital was Lemberg (today's Lvov/Lviv).  Polish nobles ruled over the feudal serfs of these provinces who were actually Ukrainians, Germans, and of course Jews.

promote Jewish education - Sages of the Talmud enacted into Jewish Law (Halacha) that community officials levy education taxes to pay Torah teachers for boys.  School age for boys is until they are thirteen years old, the age of becoming bar mitzvah.  For social and economic considerations, the Sages did not enact universal education for girls.  Mothers and fathers (and grandparents) were expected to educate girls at home.  The luckiest girls had brothers who would teach their sisters what they themselves had been learning in school.

In the 20th century, Jewish communities began to take responsibility for universal Jewish education for girls.

promote Jewish education -The Ba'al Shem Tov began his efforts during the second decade of the 1700s.

the illiteracy of parents - During the predations of Chmielnicki's horde, Jewish institutions fell apart.  Economic recovery was faster than institutional recovery.  The Ba'al Shem Tov's impetus tipped the balance to speed a full recovery from the pogroms of 1648 and 1649.  Note that his efforts began sixty years after the disorders had begun.


Rosh HaShanah - ROHSH hah shah NAH;  ROHSH hah SHAH nah

About Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov

A Letter about the Messiah ~ Pronunciation and Notes

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