Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov – or as he is more commonly known by the acronym Besht – is undoubtedly the central character in hassidic lore.
The Besht was born at the beginning of the 18th century. He arrived in Medzhybizh – then in Poland, today in Ukraine – in 1740. The final 20 years of his life, until his death on Shavuot 1760, were spent in Medzhybizh, a large town which served as a regional center. It was from here that the Besht’s fame would spread to the world.
Stories about the Besht abound. The most famous ones come from Shivhei Habesht, a volume that was first published 54 years after his death. This work has become central to the formation of the Besht narrative. Alas, the historical record is sorely lacking, and much of what we retell about the Besht is based more on legend than on fact.
His existence, however, cannot be denied, for the local Polish tax records – unearthed only in the late 20th century by Prof. Moshe Rosman – note that he was living in a home that belonged to the Medzhybizh Jewish community and was exempt from paying the czynsz, a sort of land tax.
Despite scant first-hand evidence of the Besht’s life, we are fortunate to be in possession of a few precious letters penned in his own hand.
In one letter to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Gershon of Kitov (ca. 1701-ca. 1761), then residing in the Holy Land, the Besht describes his mystical experiences on Rosh Hashana, when he ascended to the heavens and met the messiah. When he asked the messiah when he would be coming to redeem the Jewish people, he responded by saying: “This is how you know, when your teaching becomes famous and revealed in the world.” Then he quoted a biblical verse: “When your wellsprings sprout forth” (Proverbs 5:16), and added: “That is, what I have taught you and what you have attained and they too will be able to do [kabbalistic] unifications [of God’s name] like you. Then all the evil forces will be eradicated and it will be an auspicious time for salvations.”
We have here the foundation for the democratization of the spiritual experience, so emphasized early in the hassidic movement: The ideal that everyone can be a Besht.
What we can distill from the Besht’s letters with some confidence is an aversion to ascetic practices. In one letter he admonishes his student Rabbi Ya’acov Yosef Hakohen of Polonne (d. ca. 1784): “I saw… that you, sir, claim that you must fast. My innards were angered by what I read, and let me add that by the law of the angels with the Holy One, blessed be He, and His holy presence – you should not place yourself in such danger. This is the way of melancholy and sadness, and our sages have said that the holy presence inspires not through sadness but only through the joy doing mitzvot, as you well know these matters that I have already taught you a number of times.”
The Besht continued recommending the mystical practice of cleaving to the letters while studying to Torah, ending with a warning that his disciple should not ignore his physical needs, heaven forfend, and he should not fast more than he is obligated. The Besht concluded his letter to Rabbi Ya’acov Yosef by saying: “If you heed my voice, then God will be with you.”
It would thus appear that the Besht’s most significant contribution to Jewish practice was the message that the path to the Almighty did not preclude pleasure; one could eat, drink and be merry and still serve God. It was this lesson that would reverberate throughout Eastern Europe and beyond, opening new vistas of spiritual practice and changing the landscape of Jewry for evermore.