BA'AL SHEM-ṬOB, ISRAEL B. ELIEZER (commonly known by the initial letters of his name, , BEShT):

Founder of the sect of Ḥasidim; born about 1700; died at Miedzyboz (Medzhibozh), May 22, 1760. The little biographical information concerning him that exists is so interwoven with legends and miracles that in many cases it is hard to arrive at the historical facts. He is said to have been born at Akuf (), a border-city between Poland and Wallachia; but no such place is known. From the numerous legends connected with his birth it appears that his parents were poor, upright, and pious, and that when left an orphan he was taken care of by the community in which he lived. At the "ḥeder" he distinguished himself only by his frequent disappearances, being always found in the lonely woods surrounding the place, rapturously enjoying the beauties of nature.

Early Life.

His benefactors gave up the hope of his 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 tender, 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" 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 Flust near Brody.

On account 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 owing to the fact that the Jews had their own civil courts in Poland. In this avocation Besht succeeded in making so deep an impression upon the rich and learned Ephraim of Kuty that the latter promised Besht his daughter Anna in marriage. The man died, however, without telling his daughter of her betrothal; but when she heard of his wish, 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 Gerson Kutower, brother of the girl, and a recognized authority in the Cabala and the Talmud. Kutower was about to give him alms, when Besht produced a letter from his pocket, showing that he was the designated bridegroom. Kutower tried in vain to dissuade his sister Anna from shaming the family by marrying this "'am haareẓ"; but she regarded her father's will alone as authoritative.

After his marriage Besht did not long remain with this aristocratic 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 Kuty and Kassowa. His worldly property consisted of a horse given him by his brother-in-law. Every week his wife took a wagonload of lime 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. Besht's condition was bettered when he took a position as shoḥet in Kshilowice, near Iaslowice. This position he soon gave up in order to conduct a village tavern which his brother-in-law bought for him. During the many years that he lived in the woods and came intocontact with the peasants, Besht 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 Ba'al Shem. He wrote amulets and prescribed cures. To his credit be it said that he was far from practising the quackery of his fellows in the craft. In treating, for instance, those who suffered from melancholy, or the insane, he sought to influence their minds.

Appearance as Ẓaddiḳ.

After many trips in Podolia and Volhynia as a Ba'al Shem, Besht, considering his following large enough and his authority established, decided (about 1740) to expound his teachings. He chose for the place of his activity the little city of Miedzyboz; and the people, mostly from the lower classes, came to listen to him. 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 Dob Margaliot. Later he won to his side Baer of Meseritz, 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. The antagonism between Talmudism and Ḥasidism was apparent to the representatives of each at Besht's first appearance; but the open breach did not come about until later. In fact, Besht took sides with the Talmudists in the Frankist disputes, and was even one of the three delegates of the Talmudists to a disputation between the two parties held at Lemberg in 1759. It was only in keeping with Besht's character that he felt keenly upon the acceptance of baptism by the Frankists, for it is related that he said: "As long as a diseased limb is connected with the body, there is hope that it may be saved; but, once amputated, it is gone, and there is no hope." The excitement consequent upon the Frankist movement undermined his health, and he died shortly after the conversion of many Frankists to Christianity.

Besht left no books; for the cabalistic commentary on Ps. cvii., ascribed to him (Jitomir, 1804), "Sefer mi-Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem-Ṭob," is hardly genuine. In order to get at his teachings, it is therefore necessary to turn to his utterances as given in the works of the old Ḥasidim. But since Ḥasidism, immediately after the death of its founder, was divided into various parties, each claiming for itself the authority of Besht, the utmost of caution is necessary in judging as to the authenticity of utterances ascribed to Besht.

Elements of Besht's Doctrines.

The foundation-stone of Ḥasidism as laid by Besh is a strongly marked pantheistic 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 Cabala, for nothing can be separated from God: all things are rather forms in which He 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 in so far 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 Him 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 pantheism of Besht, of the consequences of which he was not at all conscious, would have shared the fate of many other speculative systems which have passed over the masses without affecting them, had it not been for the fact that Besht was a man of the people, who knew how to give his meta-physical 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, 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 Luria's Cabala, 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 stand point. 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 attached to the fulfilment 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 petitioning God to grant a request, though that is one end of prayer, but ("cleaving")—the feeling of oneness with God, the state of the soul when man gives up the consciousness of his separate existence,and joins himself to the eternal being of God. Such a state produces a species of indescribable joy (), which is a necessary ingredient of the true worship of God.

Opposition to Luria's Cabala.

It is remarkable that Besht, whose starting-point was the same as that of Luria's Cabala, arrived at exactly opposite results. His conception of God was pantheistic; while the school of Luria laid the greatest stress upon the principle of emanation. Besht's fight against asceticism was directed more against the school from which it sprang than against pure Talmudism. His teachings concerning ("joy") were especially opposed to asceticism. The followers of Luria considered weeping an indispensable accompaniment to prayer; while Besht considered weeping and feelings of sorrow to be wholly objectionable. The sinner who repents of his sin should not sorrow over the past, but should rejoice over the Heavenly Voice, over the Divine Power, working within him and enabling him to recognize the true in admitting his sin. The function of joy in prayer is paralleled by glowing enthusiasm and ecstasy ( = "to become inflamed") in every act of worship. Fear of God is only an initiatory step to real worship, which must spring from a love of God and a surrender of self to Him. In his enthusiasm man will not think either of this life () or of the next: the feeling of union with God is in itself a means and an end. Enthusiasm, however, demands progress, not the mere fulfilment of the Law's precepts in a daily routine which becomes deadening: true religion consists in an ever-growing recognition of God.

Idea of the Ẓaddiḳ.

The later developments of Ḥasidism are unintelligible without consideration of Besht's opinion concerning man's proper relation with the universe. True worship of God, as above explained, consists in , the cleaving to, and the unification with, God. To use his own words, "the ideal of man is to be a revelation himself, clearly to recognize himself as a manifestation of God." Mysticism, he said, is not the Cabala, which every one may learn; but that sense of true oneness, which is usually as strange, unintelligible, and incomprehensible to mankind as dancing is to a dove. The man, however, 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, or "bat ḳol," according to the degree of his insight. From this it results, in the first place, that the "ẓaddiḳ," the ideal man, may lay claim to authority equal, in a certain sense, to the authority of the Prophets. A second and more important result of the doctrine is that the ẓaddiḳ, through his oneness with God, 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 that the ẓaddiḳ is 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 conception of the ẓaddiḳ, there is no doubt that his self-reliance was an important factor in winning adherents. It may, in fact, be said of Ḥasidism that, with the exception of Jesus and the Judæo-Christians, there is no other Jewish sect in which the founder is as important as his doctrines. Besht himself is still the real center for the Ḥasidim; his teachings have almost sunk in oblivion. As Schechter ("Studies in Judaism," p. 4) finely observes: "To the Ḥasidim, Ba'al-Shem [Besht] . . . was the incarnation of a theory, and his whole life the revelation of a system."


Besht did not combat the practise of rabbinical Judaism; this seemed harmless to him: it was the spirit of the practise which he opposed. His teaching 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 intercourse with the innkeepers, a class of people who nearly corresponded to the publicans of the time of Jesus (a number of whom he raised to a higher level), furnished a silent but effective protest against the practise of the rabbis, who, in their inexorable sense of strict righteousness, would have no dealings with people fallen morally. The Ḥasidim 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 friendly intercourse 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. He was certainly not a scholar; that is, his knowledge of rabbinical literature, especially of the Talmud and the Midrashim, was only that of an average "lamdan." He was still less gifted as a speaker. But the lack of scholarship and oratory was supplied by fine satire and inventiveness in telling parables. 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, onseeing 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. Accustomed, through the influence of the Cabala, to use mystic language, Besht frequently said with emphasis that his teacher was Ahijah of Shiloh, the prophet who at God's bidding undertook to bring about the breach between Judah and Israel. Besht was fully aware of the opposition between himself and rabbinical Judaism. And just as Ahijah's struggle with Judah ended in the victory of the golden calves, so Besht's endeavors for reform ended in the later Ḥasidism, a degeneration far worse than the Talmudic-rabbinic Judaism against which he had contended.

Besht is quite naturally one of the most interesting figures in modern Jewish legend. 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:

In Legend.

About his parentage, legend tells that his father, Eliezer, whose wife was still living, was seized during an attack (by the Tatars?), carried from his home in Wallachia, and sold as a slave to a prince. On account of his wisdom he found favor with the prince, who gave him to the king to be his minister. During an expedition undertaken by the king, when other counsel failed, and all were disheartened, Eliezer's advice was accepted; and the result was a successful battle of decisive importance. Eliezer was made a general and afterward prime minister, and the king gave him the daughter of the vice-king () in marriage. But, being mindful of his duty as a Jew and as the husband of a Jewess in Wallachia, he married the princess only in name. After being questioned for a long time as to his strange conduct, he confessed his race to the princess, who loaded him with costly presents and aided him to escape to his own country. On the way, the prophet Elijah appeared to Eliezer and said: "On account of thy piety and steadfastness, thou wilt have a son who will lighten the eyes of all Israel; and Israel shall be his name, because in him shall be fulfilled the verse (Isa. xlix. 3): 'Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.'" Eliezer and his wife, however, reached old age childless and had given up all hope of ever having a child. But when they were nearly a hundred years old, the promised son (Besht) was born.

Besht's parents died soon after his birth; bequeathing to him only the death-bed exhortation of Eliezer, "Always believe that God is with thee, and fear nothing." Besht ever remained true to this injunction. Thus, on one occasion, when he was escorting school-children to synagogue, a wolf was seen, to the terror of old and young, so that the children were kept at home. But Besht, faithful to the bequest of his father, knew no fear; and, on the second appearance of the wolf, he assailed it so vigorously as to cause it to turn and flee. Now, says the legend, this wolf was Satan. Satan had been very much perturbed when he saw that the prayers of the children reached God, who took more delight in the childish songs from their pure hearts than in the hymns of the Levites in the Temple; and it was for this reason that Satan tried to put a stop to Besht's training the children in prayers and taking them to synagogue. From this time on, successful struggles with Satan, demons, and all manner of evil spirits were daily occurrences with Besht.

His Miracles.

At this time, too, he learned how to work miracles with the name of God. The following is an instance: In Constantinople, where Besht stopped on his intended journey to Palestine, he was received with unusual hospitality by a worthy couple who were childless. In return for their kindness Besht, when departing, promised them that they should be blessed with a son, and rendered this possible by the utterance of the Sacred Name. Now, to do this was a great sin; and scarcely had the words of the incantation passed Besht's lips when he heard a voice in heaven declaring that he had forfeited thereby his share in the future life. Instead of feeling unhappy over such a fate, Besht called out joyfully: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, for Thy mercy! Now indeed can I serve Thee out of pure love, since I may not expect reward in the future world!" This proof of his true love for God won pardon for his sin, though at the expense of severe punishment.

Besht's miraculous power was so great that he did not fear even the brigands who lived in the mountains, but dwelt care-free in their vicinity. Once, when wandering about, deeply immersed in thought, he climbed a steep mountain and, without noticing where he was going, reached a very dangerous spot. Besht thought that his end had come, for he felt himself slipping toward a deep precipice; but suddenly the opposite cliff approached and closed up the gap. The robbers, who were looking on at a distance, doubted no longer that he was a man endowed with divine power.

  • The chief source for Besht's biography is Baer (Dob) b. Samuel's Shibḥe ha-Besht, Kopys, 1814, and frequently republished.
  • For Besht's methods of teaching, the following works are especially valuable: Jacob Joseph ha-Kohen, Toledot Ya'akob Yosef;
  • Liḳḳutim [Liḳḳute] Yeḳarim, a collection of Ḥasidic doctrines; the works of Baer of Meseritz.
  • Critical works on the subject are: Dubnow, Yevreiskaya Istoria, ii. 426-431;
  • idem, in Voskhod, viii. Nos. 5-10;
  • Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, 2d ed., xi. 94-98, 546-554;
  • Jost, Gesch. des Judenthums und Seiner Sekten, iii. 185 et seq.;
  • A. Kahana, Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem, Jitomir, 1900;
  • D. Kohan, in Ha-Shaḥar, v. 500-504, 553-554;
  • Rodkinson, Toledot Ba'ale Shem-Ṭob, Königsberg, 1876;
  • Schechter, Studies in Judaism, 1896, pp. 1-45;
  • Zweifel, Shalom 'al-Yisrael, i.-iii.;
  • Zederbaum, Keter Kehunah, pp. 80-103;
  • Frumkin, 'Adat Ẓaddiḳim, Lemberg, 1860, 1865 (?);
  • Zangwill, Dreamers of the Ghetto, pp. 221-288 (fiction).
K. L. G.