In This Article Israel Ba'al Shem Tov

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theology
  • Messianism
  • The Besht, His Circle, and the Hasidic Movement

Jewish Studies Israel Ba'al Shem Tov
by
Uriel Gellman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0003

Introduction

The 18th-century Polish-Jewish mystic, Israel ben Eliezer (b. c. 1700–d. 1760)—known widely as the Ba’al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), or by his acronym the Besht, is definitely one of the key figures in modern Jewish history. His character and his teachings inspired Hasidism—a social-religious movement that developed amongst Jews in Eastern Europe during the last decades of the 18th century, and is still vital within Jewish ultra-orthodoxy. The main scene of his activity was the Carpathians and the southeastern areas of the kingdom of Poland, especially the province of Podolia (now Ukraine). After a period of “concealment,” he began to function publicly (c. 1733) as a ba’al shem (shamanic healer), proficient in the use of “holy names,” and as a mystic possessing magical powers and bearing a new religious message. He finally settled in Międzybóż, an important commercial and communal center in the 1740s, where he was a respected member of the community, held a post as a ba’al shem, enjoyed a degree of prestige, and was admitted into the local circle of mystics. The Besht and a group of his associates formed a small group of pneumatic individuals who followed the distinctive religious lifestyle and customs of similar groups of Jewish mystics in 18th-century Europe. The Besht revealed his spiritual achievement and his mystical experiences to the members of this group, while, as a ba’al shem, he continued wandering and regarded himself a leader of the Jewish people. Fable and fact about the Besht’s life are so interwoven that modern historians have found it difficult to paint a coherent biography of this most influential figure. Many of the earlier assessments of his life and teachings have been challenged recently, and there are yet many more lacunae to be treated in future studies. The Besht’s importance as a historical figure is embedded not only in the Hasidic movement, in which he is seen as its founder or predecessor, but also in the ideological shift that took place within Jewish traditional society alongside Hasidism. Different ideological trends in modern times, like Jewish enlightenment or non-Hasidic rabbinic culture, were self-fashioned against the values and mores introduced by the Hasidic phenomenon.

General Overviews

Since the beginning of the scholarly study of Hasidism in the mid-19th century, the image of the renowned alleged founder of Hasidim has been questioned. Initially, some scholars even doubted his existence as a historical figure altogether, while others claimed the Besht’s image had been fashioned by later generations as their predecessor, regardless of his “real” presence as a historical figure. Simon Dubnow, in his 1931 History of Hasidism (Dubnow 1991), was the first to systematically collect Hasidic sources and reconsider the reputation of the Besht. Scholem later expanded this work and introduced additional Hebrew sources (Scholem 2008). Rosman took this approach a step forward by bringing to light new archival materials and widening the historical context of the Besht’s life (Rosman 1996). Rosman’s biographical portrait questions the relevance and historiographical worth of the variety of sources used by other scholars. Etkes attempted to determine the different aspects of the Besht’s activities and to demonstrate the multifaceted images of his character, as well as emphasize his role as the spiritual and intellectual founder of the religious sentiment underpinning the later Hasidism (Etkes 2012).

  • Dubnow, Simon. “The Beginnings: The Baal Shem Tov (Besht) and the Center in Podlia.” In Essential Papers on Hasidism: Origins to Present. Edited by Gershon David Hundert, 25–57. New York and London: New York University Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Dubnow (b. 1860–d. 1941) was the founder of research on Hasidism. This article was originally a chapter of his Hebrew book Toldot Hahasidut (1931)—the first and only attempt to write a comprehensive history of Hasidism up to 1815. This article includes biographical notes of Besht’s life and leadership. Some of his conclusions were later challenged, but the scope of this study gives it enduring worth.

  • Etkes, Immanuel. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader. Translated by Saadya Sternberg. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 2005, this book examines the legacy of the Besht in three basic areas: magic, mysticism, and leadership. Shows the magical context in which the Besht served as a ba’al shem. Investigates the correlation between the Besht’s religious mystical experience and his theology. The author argues that while in reality the Besht did not establish the Hasidic movement, he set an example for this later development.

  • Rosman, Moshe. Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Offers a comprehensive and innovative biography of the Besht. Examines the verity of sources available, presenting a cautious reading. Calls for a minimalist reading of sources, especially of In Praise of the Ba’al Shem Tov (Shivhei Ha-Besht) (cited under Hagiography). Includes new archival discoveries on the Besht, showing him as a “man of his time,” officially recognized in his community. Places the Besht in the wider context of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and his dwelling town, Międzybóż.

  • Scholem, Gershom. “The Historical Image of Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov.” In The Latest Phase: Essays on Hasidism by Gershom Scholem. Edited by David Assaf and Esther Liebes, 106–145. Tel Aviv: ‘Am ‘Oved, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Scholem (b. 1897–d. 1981) was the founder of the scholarly study of Jewish mysticism. This article, first published in 1960, reexamines the popular image of the Besht. Relying on available Hebrew sources, it deals with some biographical matters and forms a more realistic image, including the magical theurgic activities of the Besht. In Hebrew.

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