Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Baal Shem Tov

Іsrael Baal Shem Tov is the founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism.

His name means «a good man who knows the secret name of God».

Rabbi Baal Shem Tov developed a sophisticated mystical system based not on an intellectual comprehension of God, as did the Kabbalists, but on passionate religious aspiration, easily accessible to poor people. The aim was dvekut – union with God.

Little is known about him and his life. What biographical information does exist  is interwoven with legends of miracles so it is often hard to determine fact from legend.

Israel Baal Shem Tov was born to a poor family in the small village of Okopy, in the Ternopol region of western Ukraine. The exact year is unknown and often disputed.

He was orphaned at the age of five. The Jewish community adopted him, and provided him with his basic needs.

In 1710 Israel graduated and became assistant to the Melamed, which means instructor, in cheder, which is a Jewish elementary school.

In 1716 he married, but soon became a widower and began to wander through Jewish shtetls in Eastern Galicia. In Yazlovtse (near Buchach) he managed to obtain a position as melamed. In 1727, the Baal Shem Tov married a second time, to the daughter of Rabbi Ephraim of Brody. His relationship with his father in law became acrimonious, and he and his wife relocated to the Carpathian Mountains, to Vizhnitsa in the Chernivtsi region. Much later, Franz Kafka would also live there for several years.

In the mountains, Israel and his wife made their living digging clay and lime. However, the peace and pleasures of country life compensated for any hardship. As well, during this period he devoted much time to meditation and, according to tradition, came to understand the many secrets of the Torah.

Also during this time he met Oleksa Dovbush, the famous eighteenth century Ukrainian folk hero who has been compared to Robin Hood. Baal Shem Tov helped him to hide from the Polish authorities and, according to Hassidic legend, Dovbush gave him his pipe as a token of friendship.

After many trips to Podolia and Volhynia building his following and establishing his authority, Rabbi Baal Shem Tov decided to settle in named Medzhybizh. People, mostly from the spiritual elite, came to listen to him. The shtetl became the seat of the movement and of the Medzybizh Hasidic dynasty.

Baal Shem Tov soon became widely known as a tzadik and healer, credited with the ability to produce talismans and cast out evil spirits.

As his following increased, so did the dislike, not to say hostility, of the Talmudists. Nevertheless, Rabbi Baal Shem Tov was supported at the beginning of his career by two prominent Talmudists, the brothers Meïr and Isaac Dov Margalios. Later he won over great and universally recognized rabbinic authorities who became his disciples and attested to both his scholarship and saintliness.

Baal Shem Tov died in 1760 and was buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh.

A new synagogue was recently built next to the Ohel, or shrine, of Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue in the village proper has been painstakingly restored. Both synagogues are used by visitors from all over the world who come to pray near the Baal Shem Tov’s grave.

Until next time, Shalom!

—Narrated by Renata Hanynets

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