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© Douglas Hykle
2006-2012
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Ba'al Shem Tov (c. 1698-1760)

Portrait (origin unknown) of Rabbi Shmuel Falk of London, often misidentified as the Ba'al Shem Tov -  Pers. comm. 2006. Professor David Assaf, Chair, Department of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University   Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer is widely considered to be the founder of the Hasidic movement, revealing himself and assuming the name Ba’al Shem Tov (‘Master of the Good Name’) in 1734 while living and teaching in Tluste. It may be assumed that the many years he spent in Tluste were influential in shaping the course of Hasidism, described as the most popular mass-movement in Judaism today.

While details of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s personal life are somewhat obscure and subject to differing interpretation, that he is an enormously important figure in Jewish history is not disputed.

He is arguably among the greatest Jewish figures who ever lived, mentioned in the same breath as Maimonides, a 12th century philosopher and scholar, and Theodor Herzl, credited by many as the founder of modern Zionism in the late 19th century.

The Besht (the commonly used acronym for Ba’al Shem Tov) has been described as follows:

“There are probably more tales and legends told about Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov than about any figure in Jewish history…” (1)

“the Baal Shem Tov's influence on all religions in the 20th century matches his enormous influence on Jewish devotional practice in his own age.” (2)

“his teachings brought about a whole movement which emphasized the idea of bringing God into all aspects of one’s life, particularly through intense prayer and joyous singing.” (3)

He emphasized “the power of each individual soul; the concepts of love of your fellow; serving God with joy; Divine Providence and perpetual creation.” (4)

As the photograph accompanying this article points out, there is no authenticated image of the Ba’al Shem Tov – the one that is commonly presented as being his likeness is actually a portrait of Rabbi Shmuel Falk, the Ba’al Shem of London (5).

The Besht’s connection to Tluste is confirmed by various sources.

First, two of the rare surviving letters that he personally signed indicate Tluste as his home or place of origin (6); second, there are two specific references to Tluste in the tales of his life and deeds, depicted in Shivei Ha-Besht: In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (7); and, third, his mother is buried in the Jewish cemetery of Tluste/Tovste, where her tombstone could be found at least until April 1944. (8)

  Tombstone of the mother of Ba'al Shem Tov, formerly on view in Tovste's Jewish cemetery

A brief biography

Much of the biographical information on the Ba’al Shem Tov is derived from legendary tradition, and there is a vast literature upon which to draw. One of the Besht’s followers complied an anthology of 230 stories or shevahim (praises) concerning his amazing life and works, which was published in 1814 (9). As the Besht himself left behind few if any of this own writings, we are left to discern fact from fiction from what others have written, a task that is fraught with difficulty. As Heppenheimer notes (10), there is a popular saying that runs: “One who believes all the stories told about the Ba'al Shem Tov is a fool; one who does not believe they could have occurred is an apikoros (heretic).”

It appears to be generally accepted that Rav Israel was born around 1698 in the village of Okopy (often written as Okup), in Podilia province of what was then Poland. For ease of reference, Okopy (48°32’ N; 26°24’ E) is situated about 5 km northwest of Chotyn, in present-day Ukraine, roughly two-thirds of the way between Chernivtsi and Kamyanets-Podilskyy. Curiously, despite numerous references to Okup (or Okopy) in accounts of the Besht that I came across on the internet while researching this article, not a single one precisely pinpointed where this village is actually located.  
Where exactly is Okup (Okopy)?

Okup has been variously described as being “near the Dniester River” (11); “on the Russian-Polish border” (12) and “near Brody” (13), which lies about 100km east of L’viv, far from the putative location. The most specific reference observed (in Heppenheimer) states that “Swiety Trojcy, to give Okup its Polish name, had been founded as a military outpost close to the Polish-Turkish border…” (14).    more »

According to tradition, Rav Israel’s parents – Eliezer and Sarah – were poor and elderly, and he was orphaned at about the age of five. He was adopted and educated by the local community, but was said to be a non-conformist, “preferring the solitude of the woods around his hometown, where he could freely commune with God”(17). Several accounts indicate that in his teens, Rav Israel worked first as a school assistant and then as a caretaker at the local synagogue, presumably in Okup. “At the age of 12 Israel became a helper to a schoolmaster, gathering the children from their homes in the morning and taking them back in the evening. On the way he taught them the synagogue hymns…” (18).

Heppenheimer (19) suggests a different course of events, whereby Israel left Okup already before the age of ten, joined a group of holy men with a mission of “rebuilding Jewish communities from the inside”, and wandered with them through much of the Polish kingdom, eventually settling in the town of Tluste where, by then in his teens, he took a job as a behelfer (assistant teacher). Encyclopedia Britannica Online (20) presents a third alternative, positing that the Besht's birthplace was "probably Tluste, Podolia".

Although it is widely written that Rav Israel did settle for a time in Tluste, the chronology offered by other writers is rather different. It is said that Israel spent time in Brody (mentioned above, approximately 75km northwest of Ternopil, and quite far from the Okup that Heppenheimer and others describe).

There he married Chanah (also written Chana or Hannah), the daughter of local Rabbi Efraim and sister of Rabbi Gershon Kittover (21). Some accounts (22). suggest that this was Israel’s second marriage, his first wife having died shortly after they married, when he was 18 or 20. Heppenheimer (23) claims, alternatively, that sometime around 1720 Israel married Leah Rachel, daughter of Avraham (or Ephraim), of Kutow (Kitov).

It is interesting to note the differing interpretations as to why the couple left Brody. Some writers suggest that the brother of Chanah (or Leah) considered Israel to be ignorant, disapproved of the marriage, and was so embarrassed that he encouraged or forced them to move elsewhere (24). Another suggests that Israel deliberately posed as an ignoramus in order to hide his devotions (25).

    1937 Map showing Brody, Tluste, Kuty, and Okup

There seems to be general agreement that the couple moved to the southern Carpathian mountain village of Kutty (Kitov), situated about 60km straight line distance west of present-day Chernivtsi. There, Israel was said to have eked out a living digging clay and lime (26) and his wife was said to have run an inn (27).

While living in this remote mountain area for a period of about 10 years, Israel learned the healing properties of certain grasses and herbs (28), and his expertise in medicinal herbs earned him a reputation as a “ba'al shem”. As he practiced his healing craft he also began to preach his religious teachings. According to Spiro: “During this time he studied with a secret society of Jewish mystics, the Nestarim, and he eventually became a revered rabbi. He travelled from community to community, developing a reputation wherever he went as a spiritual holy man and mystical healer, attracting a huge following.” (29)

According to some interpretations of traditional legend, Israel next moved to Tluste, where he worked as a teacher and, on his 36th birthday (16 September 1734), revealed himself as the Ba’al Shem Tov, marking the official birth of the Hasidic movement (30). For what it's worth, Buxbaum (31) suggests that the Besht spent four years in Tluste, but that his revelation occurred in Kitov, three months after his 36th birthday.

Most scholars and others who buy into the notion that the Besht was orphaned at a very young age tend to gloss over an incontrovertible fact: that the Jewish cemetery in Tluste was the location of his mother's gravestone, bearing 1740 as the year of her death. In other words, the Besht would have been about 40 years old when his mother died and not a child of five, as legend would have it. In support of the former contention, it is probably no coincidence that, in that same year of 1740, the Besht and his wife moved from Tluste to the fortress town of Medzhybizh on the Bug river, some 160 km to the northeast. One can speculate that with the death of his mother, the Besht would no longer have had a binding commitment to stay in Tluste; and he may have decided the time was right to move on.

There are other anecdotes linking the Besht to Tluste (32). A gentile neighbour is said to have provided straw for the Besht to sit on while he prayed on a small frozen pond to the west of the town centre. Shimshon Melzter, a poet from Tluste, wrote a poem about a conversation between the Besht's mother and one of his ancestors. While sipping tea, the former is said to have lamented the fact that the young Israel was not serious about his studies. Perhaps the Encyclopedia Britannica Online’s contention (mentioned above) that the Besht's birthplace was “probably Tluste” is not without merit.

Finally, some have speculated, somewhat tenuously, that the Besht may have lived in a house next to a small stream that meanders through Tluste, bisecting the town's main road. In support of this conjecture, the large modern house presently standing on that location is reported to have been occupied by rabbis who later served in the town.

Modern map showing Medzhybizh, 160 km northeast of Tovste  

In Medzhybizh, the Besht and his wife had a son Tzvi Hersh and a daughter Udel (or Adil). The family lived in Miedzyboz for the last 20 years of the Besht’s life, until his death on 22/23 May 1760.

  Fortress at Miedzyboz - source: Wikipedia
 

The threads of the Besht’s life in Miedzyboz are pulled together by Rosman (33), who examined the town’s tax records in his critically acclaimed dissertation (34).

The Besht's daughter, Udel, married Rabbi Yahiel Ashkenazi and had a daugther of her own – by the name of Feiga – who would later wed Reb Simchah (son of Rebbe Nachman, one of the Ba'al Shem Tov's leading disciples from nearby Horodenka). The couple had three sons and a daughter. The most prominent of these was Rebbe Nachman (1772-1810) who, like his great-grandfather, spent many years in Miedzyboz before eventually moving to Breslov (Bratslav) in the latter part of his life.

Click for a genealogy chart showing these various family relationships.

As the current entry in Wikipedia aptly summarises, the younger Rebbe Nachman was born at a time when the influence of his great-grandfather was waning, and "he breathed new life into the Hasidic movement by combining the esoteric secrets of Judaism (the Kabbalah) with in-depth Torah scholarship. He attracted thousands of followers during his lifetime and, after his death, his followers continued to regard him as their Rebbe and did not appoint any successor. Rebbe Nachman's teachings continue to attract and inspire Jews the world over."

Although Rebbe Nachman and his followers became associated with the town of Breslov, it was in Uman - further to the east - that he spent his last days. He died there at the age of 38, having suffered from tuberculosis for the last three years of his life. In accordance with his wishes, Rebbe Nachman was buried in Uman's Jewish cemetery which soon became the site of an annual pilgrimage for thousands of Hasidim on the occasion of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Severely curtailed during the Communist era, to the point where the devout had to visit the grave candestinely, the annual pilgrimage resumed after the fall of communism in 1989 and has gathered momemtum in recent years.

In September 2006, it was estimated that up to 20,000 followers would travel to Uman from within Ukraine and abroad, requiring El Al to operate 18 special flights and charters to channel the visitors through Kyiv and Odessa. Click here for an online account of the event, which appears to be taxing Uman's capacity to host such a large influx of guests every year.

Ironically, in the quiet town of Tluste / Tovste – some 330 km (200 miles) to the west – where Rebbe Nachman's great-grandfather, the Ba'al Shem Tov, founded the Hasidic movement nearly 275 years ago, there is no such annual pilgramage – not even the slightest recognition that this town on the eastern fringe of Podolia was the spiritual birthplace of Hasidism.

* * *

The information presented above attempts to tease apart different accounts of Ba’al Shem Tov’s life as interpreted through traditional legend. While the detail and chronology may be at odds in places, the major points that emerge seem to be broadly consistent. The Ba’al Shem Tov spent an important period of his life in the town of Tluste, living there for at least six years from about 1734, and solidifying his reputation as a miracle worker and soul master. Given the Besht’s significant – arguably, paramount – role in the emergence of the Hasidic movement in the eighteenth century, it is reasonable to assert that the Ba’al Shem Tov is Tluste’s most famous resident, though this fact remains, for the time being, relatively unknown to the outside world.


Notes:

(1) Heppenheimer, Alexander. 300 Years After His Birth the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Legacy Lives On. The Jewish Homemaker: http://www.homemaker.org/shvouot98/cover.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(2) Robb, Christina. 1997. Book review of Reaches of Heaven, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The Boston Globe Online. http://www.boston.com/globe/search/stories/nobel/1980/1980t.html; last accessed on 3 September 2005.

(3) Spiro, Ken (Rabbi). The Hassidic Movement; last accessed on 3 September 2005.

(4) Anonymous. Meaningful Life Center. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (Besht) – (1698-1760). http://www.meaningfullife.com/spiritual/mystics/The_Besht.php; last accessed on 3 September 2005.

(5) Assaf, D. pers comm. 2006.

(6) Rosman, M.J. Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov. Berkeley, University of California Press,1996. pp. 63, 233.

(7) Ben-Amos, D. and J.R. Mintz (eds). Shivhei ha-Besht: In praise of the Baal Shem Tov. Northvale, N.J., 1993. pp. 36, 211.

(8) International Jewish Cemetery Project: http://www.jewishgen.org/cemetery/e-europe/ukra-t.html; last accessed on 16 August 2005; Lindenberg, G. (ed.). Sefer Tluste. Tel Aviv, 1965. p. 38; and Milch-Avigal, S. (ed.). Can Heaven be Void? Jerusalem, 2003. p. 232.

(9) Isaacs, Mark. Hasidic Judaism and Lutheran Pietism.
http://www.elcm.org/hasidicrelattoPietististicLutheran.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(10) Heppenheimer, Alexander. 300 Years After His Birth the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Legacy Lives On. The Jewish Homemaker: http://www.homemaker.org/shvouot98/cover.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(11) Spiro, Ken (Rabbi). The Hassidic Movement; last accessed on 3 September 2005.

(12) Baal Shem Tov Foundation. The Biographical Rabbi Baal Shem Tov (The Besht) 18 Elul 5458 - 6 Sivan 5520 (1698-1760). http://www.baalshemtov.com/whowashe.htm; last accessed on 3 September 2005.

(13) JewishGen’ ShtetLinks. Pre-19th-Century Brody: Hasidism
http://www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/brody/brody.htm; last accessed on 3 September 2005.

(14) Heppenheimer, Alexander. 300 Years After His Birth the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Legacy Lives On. The Jewish Homemaker: http://www.homemaker.org/shvouot98/cover.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(15) Falling Rain Global Gazetteer Version 2.1
http://www.fallingrain.com/world/UP/0/Okopy.html, last accessed on 15 April 2007.

(16) Zakharii, R. Borshchiv Town and Vicinities.
http://www.personal.ceu.hu/students/97/Roman_Zakharii/borshchiv.htm; last accessed on 3 September 2005.

(17) Heppenheimer, Alexander. 300 Years After His Birth the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Legacy Lives On. The Jewish Homemaker: http://www.homemaker.org/shvouot98/cover.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(18) Isaacs, Mark. Hasidic Judaism and Lutheran Pietism.
http://www.elcm.org/hasidicrelattoPietististicLutheran.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(19) Heppenheimer, Alexander. 300 Years After His Birth the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Legacy Lives On. The Jewish Homemaker: http://www.homemaker.org/shvouot98/cover.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(20) Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Ba'al Shem Tov. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9011579/Baal-Shem-Tov; last accessed on 19 November 2006.

(21) Breslov Research Institute. The Breslov Movement: http://www.breslov.org/bmovement.html; last accessed on 3 September 2005.

(22) For example, Klausner, Y. The Hasidic Rabbinate, Part I. Rabbinic Genealogy Special Interest Group (Rav-SIG: Online Journal), http://www.jewishgen.org/rabbinic/journal/hasidic1.htm
last accessed on 3 September 2005; and Segal, E. Hasidism. http://www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/363_Transp/Orthodoxy/Hasidism.html; last accessed on 3 September 2005.

(23) Heppenheimer, Alexander. 300 Years After His Birth the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Legacy Lives On. The Jewish Homemaker: http://www.homemaker.org/shvouot98/cover.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(24) Klausner, Y. The Hasidic Rabbinate, Part I. Rabbinic Genealogy Special Interest Group (Rav-SIG: Online Journal), http://www.jewishgen.org/Rabbinic/journal/hasidic1.htm, last accessed on 3 September 2005; and Anonymous. Spiritual Stars of the Golden Age. Baal Shem Tov. http://www.saieditor.com/stars/baal.html; last accessed on 9 February 2010.

(25) Breslov Research Institute. The Breslov Movement: http://www.breslov.org/bmovement.html; last accessed on 3 September 2005; and Heppenheimer, Alexander. 300 Years After His Birth the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Legacy Lives On. The Jewish Homemaker: http://www.homemaker.org/shvouot98/cover.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(26) Isaacs, Mark. Hasidic Judaism and Lutheran Pietism.
http://www.elcm.org/hasidicrelattoPietististicLutheran.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(27) Buxbaum, Yitzak. The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov. New York, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. p.82.

(28) Isaacs, Mark. Hasidic Judaism and Lutheran Pietism.
http://www.elcm.org/hasidicrelattoPietististicLutheran.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(29) Spiro, Ken (Rabbi). The Hassidic Movement; last accessed on 3 September 2005.

(30) Heppenheimer, Alexander. 300 Years After His Birth the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Legacy Lives On. The Jewish Homemaker: http://www.homemaker.org/shvouot98/cover.html; last accessed in early 2005 (link not available in September 2005).

(31) Buxbaum, Yitzak. The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov. New York, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. pp. 77-81, 113, 120.

(32) Sommer, U. pers comm. 2008.

(33) Rosman, M.J. Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996.

(34) Lazaroff, Tovah. In Search of the Real Ba’al Shem Tov. The Jerusalem Post – Internet Edition, 14 December 2000. http://www.jpost.com/Editions/2000/12/14/Features/Features.17392.html; last accessed in 2004.